Archive for the 'Country and Western' Category

25
May
19

Mickey Newbury “Heaven Help the Child”

This is a particularly intriguing album cover—it’s a rustic, matte surface, suggesting something real, with a larger than life, full face photo of Mickey Newbury on back, which, while artfully partially obscured in shadows, also exposes pores, divots, blemishes, and misplaced hairs—and remember, this is far before the days of hi-def, when many careers were ended voluntarily, while others just had to say, what the hell, here’s my zits. It immediately says that Mickey is going to open his heart for us. The front cover is trickier—it’s a 7 ½ x 5 ½ inch glossy photo of Mickey sitting on an old chair next to an old lamp in a room that could be a study, or could be a bedroom. This is essentially a cropped photograph, though, because as we remove the inner sleeve, we discover that this is actually a 12 x 12 inch photo that has been framed by the smaller, die-cut opening in the external cover. Now we see the larger room —which still could be a study, a bedroom, a living room, or a rec-room—or is it now too big for a bedroom? Now you can see the expanse of the old carpet, a stained glass window behind him, a couple of large photo albums on the floor, and that he’s wearing cowboy boots. When you remove the inner sleeve, which has lyrics on the other side, there is a smaller, more atmospheric, blurred version of the cover photograph behind—printed on the inside of album cover! You don’t see that too often. What does it all mean?

Mickey Newbury was a respected Nashville songwriter and recording artist who put out a couple dozen records. Even though his music is somber and his lyrics are dark, he’s good-looking in a way that probably appeals to in-laws and pets, as well as people his own age, and you feel like you could leave your kids with him, or would be comfortable in a car he’s driving. This record, from 1973, is not his first, and a company like Elektra doesn’t spring for the die-cut nonsense if they don’t think you’ll sell a few. There are only eight songs—two are three and half minutes, but the rest are long, quiet, pretty, and melancholy. I like them all, and pretty much everything I’ve heard by him, but I don’t know how passionate I’m going to get about the songs on this record—there is an overall flavor of the mainstream—even if it’s not what I’d imagine as “popular.” The other weird thing is there is a dedication scrawled on the large space at the bottom of the album cover in a red pen that matches the red frame around the die-cut hole, leading me to believe that this is part of the cover—yet when I look up images of this cover on the internet, it’s not there. It seems to say, “To a friend”—though I’m not entirely sure—and then a name—it could be Joe, or José, or Lori, or Josie, or even “you.” If you were giving this record as a present, that is not where you’d write a greeting—it’s so front and center—which leads me to believe this was written by the artist, himself. Mickey Newbury passed away, far too young, in 2002. You can find his records. I wonder what happened to the “friend” to whom he presented this record—which will likely outlive me, and find its way into another haunted record shop.

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04
May
19

Kris Kristofferson “Jesus Was a Capricorn”

It’s not my favorite Kris Kristofferson record, but it’s got the best title and best cover of any record you’re probably going to see in a thrift-store for a dollar, so there’s really no excuse not to own it. Plus it’s a good record. My favorite songs are, “Nobody Wins” and “It Sure Was (Love)”, but they’re all okay—I especially like the ones that Rita Coolidge is singing on. I guess that’s her on the cover, kind of outdoing KK at the cool look, not any easy thing to do, and I read that they were married not long after this record came out. The back cover is either a clever art department fake of photos pinned to a bulletin-board, or else it’s just a black and white photo of the real thing. The thing is, I didn’t think push-pins were invented yet in 1972—but then, what do I know about history, apparently? There are also some pretty literal liner notes, handwritten and tacked up there, too. It reads as pretty genuine, and one would presume written by KK, but then, the one time I contributed liner notes to a record they claimed to be written by someone else, so who can say what is legit in this slippery show business world? Kids growing up now, who learn how to use Google before they even smoke or cuss, must live in a very different world. For the longest time, when younger, I thought Kris Kristofferson was a fake name or stage name, because—well, he was already larger than life, and it’s kind of a goofy name. But now, he was born Kristoffer Kristofferson. (One wonders if one of his kids is named Kristofferson Kristofferson.) When my parents admitted to considering naming me Russell Russell (Russ) Russell, I thanked them for not saddling me with a Looney Tunes handle. Anyway, it was many years until I took Kris Kristofferson seriously—also, maybe, because there was a time when the only guys with beards were Fidel Castro, Charles Manson, and Santa Claus. Eventually, of course, I realized Kris Kristofferson, who was born the same summer as my mom, was like the coolest dude who walked the Earth, and as of the writing of this, continues to do so. I don’t know if he’s a religious man, but I might consider buying all nine of his records from the Seventies, just because I think it’s interesting that the titles include, besides the name Kristofferson, the words: Devil (twice!), Lord, Jesus, Spooky, Bless, Surreal, and Easter. It may be hard to tell exactly where he’s coming from, but it’s definitely not the vanilla frozen yogurt counter of the Boring, Illinois Safeway.

27
Feb
19

Sammi Smith “Mixed Emotions”

It might be hard to believe, but I had never heard of Sammi Smith (well, I probably had—after all, I used to listen to the radio and watch Hee Haw—but over the years a lot of brain cells have been eradicated, I’m afraid, and Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout had more prominently ghosted my radar, apparently), but I saw this older record of hers at the used bookstore (I haven’t written about it yet) and it had a very personality-rich cover, so I bought it, expecting it to be unlistenable, but it was great. Since then I’ve been on the lookout for Sammi Smith records. She was country and western singer who put out 17 or 18 albums in the Seventies, then moved on to other things. You can easily find a brief history on the internet if you’re interested. But I have a feeling that, just with my brief exposure to her, she was a fascinating person—maybe someone will write a biography about her.

The cover of this album (on Elektra records) is odd in that I would have guessed it was from the Eighties, just by the layout and graphics, the colors, the style. I admit I’m considerably more of a fan of things from the Seventies than the Eighties, in all forms of culture—including record albums and album covers. So I almost didn’t pick it up, but then I noticed it was Sammi Smith, and I looked at the back expecting to see a later date, and was kind of surprised that it was 1977. There is actually a really great photograph on the cover, but for some reason it is kind of weirdly cropped and vertical, with several inches of border on either side— why? A square version of this photo, blown up, would have been a much better cover.

The first song scared me because of its prominent use of a kazoo—never a good sign. Never judge an album by the first song, though. The next song is great—it’s called “Touch Me” and is a classic Nashville sounding song—I tried looking it up, to see who else did it—but do you know how many people have recorded songs called “Touch Me?” When I start writing songs again, the first thing I’m going to do is write a song with that title! Then a really nice, slow, old-fashioned sounding version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the Don Gibson classic that I most associate with Ray Charles. Next is “De Grazia’s Song,” written by Sammi Smith—I don’t know who De Grazia is (a painter), but he/she wrote the brief, but glowing liner notes. The last song, then, is jaunty to the point that she refers to someone as “you little booger”—making this one of those famous, “skip first and last song records”—though that’s just the first side. What will the second side hold in store for us?

“I’ve Seen Better Days” is a good one—it’s written by Red Lane and Danny Morrison—I’m sure I’ve heard it, but I’m not sure where—a lot of big names in country music did it—but I’m going to say, hearing this version, if someone can show me a better version than this one, it might be my favorite all-time song. “Hallelujah for Beer” is a song that you probably get the idea from the title—a song that is probably playing right now on a jukebox in Milwaukee. “Days That End in ‘Y’” is another beautifully heartbreaking country song—but I’m getting tired of looking up who else did these songs. It’s another title I’m going to steal, but change it to: “The Days That End in Why” (if no one else has). “A Woman Left Lonely” is my favorite song on the record—it’s just undeniably a killer song, written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham—the most famous version, of course, being Janis Joplin’s. And I love Janis Joplin and her version of this song, but it’s an interesting comparison, her version and this one, because I’d argue that Sammi Smith’s is better, because it’s more about the song, while Janis Joplin’s is more about Janis. I don’t mean that critically, I love that about her—she could sing “Old MacDonald had a Farm” and break your heart. But I love how this version is also emotional, heartbreaking—but really, you love the song and the singer in equal parts. The last song, then, is the Tom Jans song, “Loving Arms,” and a beautiful, lovely way to end the record.

23
Feb
19

Skeeter Davis “The Closest Thing To Love”

Skeeter Davis probably isn’t really my favorite singer—I mean, who is?—there are so many singers I love, and who can really say their favorite anything, unless they’re making a point of it—it’s a form of hyperbole meant to make people take notice. But her singing voice just really holds some special place for me. I suppose to many people, she has a kind of corny quality, but I see (and hear) behind that. No singer doesn’t have some pain behind their singing, and many exploit that, whether consciously or not. For whatever reason, I feel like she hides the pain—it’s not anywhere near the surface—but that quality of it being so deep, so hidden, maybe that’s one of the things that appeals to me so much about her singing.

This record is a relatively late one for her, 1969, even though she kept making records for another 20 years or so. It’s more or less her 20th LP, since she put out a couple a year in the Sixties. The cover is pretty urban and sophisticated in relation to many of her early ones. She’s wearing a fur collar and hat—you kind of wonder how hot and uncomfortable that photoshoot was. Like all of her LPs, there are six songs per side, ranging from two minutes to 3:15—“Angel of the Morning”— which is the heavy one here—I mean in recognizability—you’ve heard it, no doubt, because it was a hit song for Juice Newton in 1981—though it was written by Chip Taylor in 1966, and recorded by pretty much everyone. The version here is great. The album starts with a nice song called “Keep Baltimore Beautiful” (one of many, many songs with “Baltimore” in the title). Then there is a song called “Little Arrows,” and if you want to know what kind of jauntiness really gets on my nerves, check this one out—it’s not just annoying, it’s kind of insane. I looked it up and it was hit for someone named “Leapy Lee” in 1968. At that point the rabbit-hole warning light came on, so I wisely exited the internet.

My favorite song on the record is probably “They Don’t Make Love Like They Used To,” credited to Red Lane, a Nashville songwriter—just one of those classic sounding country songs I really like. Though all the songs are really pretty good, including the couple that Skeeter Davis wrote. The other real standout is the last song on the record, the title song, “The Closest Thing to Love (I’ve Ever Seen)”—credited to Ronny Light, who also wrote the first song, and was an arranger on this record—no doubt one of those kind of amazing Nashville pros. He also wrote the liner notes on the back of the record, a kind of sweet appreciation for Skeeter Davis, signed “A Skeeter Davis Fan.” Some day maybe I’ll meet another Skeeter Davis fan—we’ll have a lot to talk about.

17
Feb
19

Slim Dusty “The Answer to a Pub with No Beer / Winter Winds”

“The Answer to a Pub with No Beer” is a fairly simple song, minimal acoustic guitar, and this guy’s crystal clear, piercing voice that could cut through an iceberg like a laser knife, or iceberg lettuce like a Ginsu knife, or London fog like a wailing banshee or a fog cutter cocktail (gin, rum, cognac, orgeat, lemon juice, orange juice, amontillado), just verse after verse after verse until the story is over. I’m going to have to listen again and pay attention to the words, much to the pleasure of my neighbors, since his voice cuts through plaster and drywall like a Sawzall. I can’t place his voice, actually; he sounds a little hillbilly and a little Oxford educated. The other side, “Winter Winds,” is a celebration of winter, when, you know, out on the range, and in this one he does a little yodeling, which is not my favorite use of the vocal chords, but it is pretty impressive and otherworldly, sounding like some kind of banshee. I shouldn’t have used the word “banshee” earlier, now I feel like I can’t use it here. Oh well, I guess that’s why they invented editing. Back to the first song, a story song, about the pub with no beer—I’m trying to concentrate on the story, and it sounds like plain English, but I can’t figure out what in the hell he’s talking about. I could listen to it over and over, and try to write out the lyrics, and start the department of Slim Dusty studies, but I’m not going to, and instead will resort to the dreaded internet to see if I can find out anything about this singer.

So it turns out that Slim Dusty is Australian and was a huge star there and this was a number one record, so now I feel like a dumb-ass. I tried reading the lyrics, but still can’t figure it out—or just don’t want to take the time—maybe it’s just sour grapes that I can’t drink beer—though I was known to consume a few of those Australian oil cans of beer, whatever those were called, in my time. I’m reading the lyrics, and they are kind of insane—I mean, there’s a driver, and a drover, and a blitz wagon—really great stuff, actually. I like this song a lot—I was trying to think who it reminded me of, and Red Foley crossed my mind—not that I have a lot of Red Foley records—a couple on cassette, but they’re really good. I guess this particular 45 I have is a New Zealand pressing—it’s a green Columbia label—it looks really ancient, but it’s just 1958—though that is kind of ancient, I guess. My favorite thing of all is the full artist name on the record: Slim Dusty “The Dusty Trail Yodeler” And His Bushlanders. That’s just excellent.

13
Feb
19

Jimmie Rodgers “Because You’re Young / I’m Never Gonna Tell”

Just to get things straight, Mr. Rogers is Fred Rogers, without a “d.” Aaron Rodgers (with a “d”) is the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. The “Father of Country Music” was Jimmie Rodgers, famous for his yodeling. He died in 1933. Born a little later that year, another famous country and popular singer, also named Jimmie Rodgers, is the artist who made this record. As of this research, he is still alive. I don’t know if he was named after the earlier Jimmie Rodgers, but if he was, why not. This record was released in 1958 on the Roulette label—“Because You’re Young” on one side, and “I’m Never Gonna Tell” on the other. The first is a nice, dramatic pop song with an orchestra—only 2:16 in length. After listening to all these hippie records where the songs go over seven minutes, it’s kind of nice to hear a short one, that does everything it’s supposed to do in a couple of minutes. Though I think people must have had a lot more tolerance back then for getting up and changing the records. The second side, though, is much more upbeat, and in fact I’d have to call it “jaunty.” I mean really jaunty. And it’s about half a minute shorter, because with all that jauntiness it doesn’t take long to do what it intends to do. Fans of jauntiness will love it, but for me, it’s just under two minutes too long.

16
Nov
18

John Prine “In Spite of Ourselves”

This is a record I know well, since I made a cassette tape of it late in the last millennium, from the CD source—one of my favorite albums in recent years (last two decades)—but it’s the first thing I put on up here in the cabin, as I noticed there is a sticker on the record that says, “First Time On Vinyl!”—so apparently it was only available on CD before, and it’s reissued by OHBOY Records on 180 gram vinyl. If you thought your record collection was a bitch to move back in the old days, wait until everything is on 180 gram vinyl—your friends are gonna become scarce on moving day. One thing that bugs me sometimes when an album originates on CD and then is put out on vinyl, it retains the track numbers, like in this case, 1 thru 16, rather than side one, 1 thru 8, side two, 1 thru 8, etc. A small thing, but it’s another reminder about another facet about CDs that sucked.

This is a record of all duets, a great tradition of country and western music, where a man and woman can do something together more intimate than sex and no one gets divorced or shot (at least we hope). It’s also a covers record, with an incredible collection of great songs, some fairly familiar and some pretty obscure (at least to me, before this record). It makes sense that a great songwriter like John Prine would come up with an amazing group of songs to cover—and they are all songs that lend themselves to duets. One song by JP, “In Spite of Ourselves,” is maybe the best one on the record. My next favorite here is “Let’s Invite Them Over,” by Onie Wheeler, which is fairly twisted—you’ve just got to listen to it. John Prine’s distinctive singing voice really works well with these strong women singers, among them: Iris Dement, Connie Smith, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Melba Montgomery, Emmylou Harris, Dolores Keane, Patty Loveless, and Fiona Prine. The most and my favorite are with Iris Dement, not surprisingly, since she is my favorite living singer in this whole fragile world. My only complaint here at the cabin is that there’s not more Iris Dement records—I’ve spent more time searching for them than I have looking for hidden marijuana.




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