Showing posts with label goodbyes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label goodbyes. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Joe Bonsall

 


When my best friend Alice and I were barely in our teens, we'd go to every country music show that came to the old World War Memorial building in town. We barely cared who was playing, some old codgers like Ernest Tubb or Kitty Wells or a singer we'd only heard one song from on the radio. There wasn't much to do in our little town. We could either see a movie or go bowling. And most of the movies were awful, generally some hastily spat-out Elvis flick or something like Paint Your Wagon. The only fun we had at those movies was making fun of them. Thus, we attended a lot of what were called package shows, with a headliner and two opening acts.

On one of those shows the opening act was a southern gospel quartet called The Plainsmen. We'd, of course, never heard of them. Living in the Upper Midwest, we hadn't heard any southern gospel. They were great! High energy; a perfect blend of lead, tenor, baritone, and bass, with songs like Have a Little Talk With Jesus and other gospel tunes we might have heard one time in our lives (we were barely churchgoers, much less attendees of any service with this kind of music). 

The Oak Ridge Boys, too, began as a gospel group. And they just might have been "secular gospel" throughout their careers. They tended toward tracks with that same kind of vibe, from Elvira to Love Song. Yes, they had "smoother" hits, too, but it was that gospel arrangement that shot them to fifty years of fame. Was there ever a time when The Oak Ridge Boys didn't exist in our consciousness?

Like most every long-time country fan, I, too, saw The Oaks in person. It was right around the height of their Elvira/Bobbie Sue fame, and I saw them from a seat at a State Fair grandstand, from which they were quite tiny, but the sound was still huge. Seeing them had been on my bucket list for a while, so I grabbed my chance. My kids were little, but they went, too, along with my parents.

I think the first Oaks album I ever bought turned out to be, accidentally, a gospel album. The LP's name, simply "The Oak Ridge Boys", didn't give it away as such. It wasn't that I had anything against gospel, of course, but I'd meant to buy one of their country albums. That album was good! It had country tracks that could be construed as "sort of" gospel, like The Baptism of Jesse Taylor and Why Me, as well as Loves Me Like a Rock. 

Two Oaks hits from 1977 cemented my fandom:


 

Here is a Rodney Crowell song:



In case you don't know, Joe Bonsall was the tenor of the group. He's featured on this one:

 

Love Song demonstrates the call and response I referenced in the group's gospel style. The Oaks excelled at it. 

The thing about The Oak Ridge Boys was that while a few of their tracks did highlight one singer's vocals, that wasn't the norm. They were a group in the purest sense of the word. Yes, I talk about them in past tense, because the group will be no more. The remaining members are in bad health, and with Joe Bonsall's passing, there will be no replacing him (if that was even possible). There was a brief period when William Lee Golden left, that a replacement was found. It turned out to be a sad chapter. And in recent years, fill-ins have stepped in from time to time. It's sad to ponder that those years are gone, but they aren't really. We still have their music and we have the videos. 

I'm glad I made their musical acquaintance. 

RIP, Joe.


 

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Eric Carmen

 

There was a time when having a strong, distinctive voice made a singer a star. It took more than that, of course. Emotion. A powerful singer made you feel the song. That was Eric Carmen.

Obviously, thousands upon thousands of hit songs have been written on guitar, but Eric was a classically-trained pianist, and there's something more melodic about songs composed on piano. Too, Eric taught himself guitar, and the guitar's dominance is evident in his band's, The Raspberries, million-selling 1972 hit:

2004

 
1972

But really, Eric Carmen's legacy rests largely on the decade of the eighties. Self-styling himself solely as a songwriter, sorry, but the following songs would not have impacted us the way they did without Eric's soaring tenor.
 

 

Not iconic, but still a nice top ten hit:
 

Though sung by Ann Wilson and Mike Reno in the movie Footloose, this, too, was written by Carmen:
 

Not a perfect comparison, but Eric Carmen's music was operatic much like Roy Orbison's. There is no disputing his killer songwriting skills, and there is no denying his uniquely superb voice.
 
Rest in peace, Eric Carmen. Thank you for those eighties memories. 


Thursday, February 8, 2024

Toby Keith


There's much to be said for being a good man. By all accounts Toby Keith was a good man. Imagine an entertainer still being married to his first spouse! Imagine doing eleven overseas USO tours.

It seemed like Toby Keith was always around. His 1993 debut single, "Should've Been A Cowboy", shot straight to number one. All told, he scored 20 number ones and several top tens. 

For me, who considers the nineties the best decade in country music, Toby didn't resonate strongly. I thought several of his hits were "fine" and I even purchased his first CD. I preferred his more introspective tracks, like "Wish I Didn't Know Now", and found his bombastic tunes, well....funny. (There's something to be said for funny.) And c'mon, "put a boot in your ass" has gotta evoke a chuckle. I realize "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" was supposed to be serious, but that line...

I SO admire Toby for taking on those bitter wenches previously known as The Dixie Chicks. And he definitely could push their buttons. Androgynous Natalie Maines even wore a "FUTK" t-shirt to an awards show. I bet that really made Toby sob into his pillow. 

And the tall tale about Toby and Kris Kristofferson's little spat has since been debunked. Kristofferson is a master songwriter, but if this incident had actually occurred, sorry, I would be on Keith's side.

He also got knocked for playing at Trump's inaugural, as if that was the mortalist of mortal sins. Good on Toby! I bet he reveled in the criticism.

One thing Toby possessed was an ear for catchphrases. "How Do You Like Me Now", "I Wanna Talk About Me", "Who's Your Daddy?"

“I write about life, and I sing about life, and I don’t over-analyze things,” Keith told The Associated Press in 2001.

While there were many artists I would place above him, the fact remains that he was an original and most importantly, a decent guy.

 


I saw this on X a while back and found it sweet. (His Uber driver had a karaoke machine in his car.):


 Toby is going to be sorely missed. Rest in peace, Toby Keith.




Friday, May 5, 2023

Gordon Lightfoot

 

I was a country fan; I'd barely even heard the name Gordon Lightfoot before 1974. I'd heard some of his songs, but I didn't know they were his. Then in '74 I was working my first office job and our little three-desk closet contained, besides three people, an AM radio. For eight hours that radio yelped out the pop hits of the day. A lot of them were just dumb ~ The Streak, Seasons In The Sun, (You're) Having My Baby (one of the worst singles of all time). But there were a few standouts, none more than Sundown. I fell in love with the voice; I fell in love with the song.

Even many years later, when I wrote a song about that first work experience, I referenced Sundown:

As Lightfoot sings, he offers his dire warning

Tells me that I'd better take care

Sometimes we're drawn to voices that are different; an unfamiliar accent, perhaps, suggesting a far-off land. But often we cling to voices that sound like home. Lightfoot was Canadian and I grew up not far from the border, so the way he pronounced words was familiar. Someone told me once, "I can tell you're from North Dakota, because you sound Canadian." A weird juxtaposition, but regions don't simply break in two at some imaginary line. Thus, Gordon's voice warmed me, like listening to my dad speak.

Growing up with country music, I was familiar with songs like this:

And this:

I had no clue who wrote them and I didn't actually care. Teenagers can be rather cavalier. I only cared whether I liked the song or not. Later, it all made sense. Gordon Lightfoot, aside from being a master lyricist, wrote songs that had a haunting air, a keening loneliness. Lots of rain and whispering winds. Even living in Los Angeles, far away from Orillia, Ontario, he brought the ghosts with him. Melancholy rests in the bones of those borne of the cold prairie. Ian Tyson, also from Canada, shared that disposition. Just listen to Four Strong Winds.

More than a lyricist and a composer, though, Lightfoot was a painter ~ a painter of stories, scenes, settings:

There is a technique that songwriters use, a simple one, to capture a mood. Lightfoot used it a lot ~ minor chords. I like minor chords because they convey sadness, despair. When one is a lyrical genius, a minor chord melody provides the glacĂ©. Notice that Cotton Jenny, one of his few upbeat compositions, was written in the key of G major. 

As much as I treasure Sundown, there is another of Lightfoot's compositions that kicks me in the gut every time I hear it. When my kids were little, we vacationed many summers in Duluth, Minnesota, on the shore of Lake Superior. The town itself is old, rather threadbare, unless one motors up the big hill, far away from the water, to the staid residential neighborhoods with their split levels and four-wheelers parked in driveways. We preferred to keep to Highway 61, with its quaint fish cafes and road pullouts where one could breathe in the roaring waves and watch ominous clouds gather and screeching seagulls glide below them. 

The harbor in Duluth is called Canal Park, where the iron ore ships maneuver through the channel on their mission to take on a new load or drop one off. The ships are magnificent, all rusty red and black and invariably emblazoned with the shipping owner's name. Across the harbor stretches the Aerial Lift Bridge, which must be raised in order for the ships to slip past. At Canal Park, one is immersed in history, heightened by a stroll through the maritime museum plopped down right beside the harbor and stuffed with ancient black and white photos alongside a giant steam engine and replica crew cabins. Every time, every single time I stepped inside the museum, a certain song wedged itself in my brain and didn't let go until we waved goodbye to Duluth in our rear view mirror.


It's an epic poem. Just read the lyrics.

 

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on downOf the big lake they called Gitche GumeeSuperior, they said, never gives up her deadWhen the gales of November come early

 

Some say Lightfoot considered this his masterpiece. It was. 

 

I got to see Gordon Lightfoot in concert in 2001 at an old historic theater in downtown Minneapolis. He was in his sixties then and his performance was legendary. He wasn't the virile young man of Sundown; he was seasoned and not the least bit melancholy. Writers can write mournful songs but that doesn't make them hopelessly depressed. As much as a painter isn't his painting, a songwriter isn't his song.

I think it was all just the prairie winds.

 

Rest in peace, Gordon Lightfoot. Thank you for more than I can ever say.




Friday, November 11, 2022

Jeff Cook


It was once a running joke in my household. "Oh, Alabama is coming to town!" 

My hometown was small, about 40,000 souls, and while we had a brand new civic center, it took a few years for major country acts to catch wind of it. But Alabama found it right away. In fact, the first country concert I attended in that new building was by those four guys. It was around 1980, and they had no opening act that I can recall. I wasn't a big fan or really even a medium fan, but I craved the concert experience. We sat in the upper tier of seats and thus the band was but a speck. 

I heard them play songs like this:




The band wasn't my style. They played a lot of Southern Country Rock, arguably my least favorite sub-genre. But at least they showed up. In fact, if there was ever a harder touring country band than Alabama, I can't name it.
 
And they continued to show up, year after year. Thus the running joke. And I went a few more times, during which their music got better.
 



I never bought an Alabama album, but I bought the two singles above. It seemed they'd drifted further from their Lynyrd Skynyrd selves and toward a more commercial sound. Which to my ears was a definite plus. 
 
And boy, once Alabama took off, it took off. The band won Entertainer Of The Year at the CMA's three years in a row, not to mention the roughly 200 other major awards bestowed upon them. It's difficult to recall a time when Alabama didn't exist. 
 
In all four of the above videos, it's not actually Randy Owen who stands out, but Jeff Cook ~ Cook sawing the fiddle, Cook playing the double neck guitar. Jeff Cook singing harmony.
 

Maybe it was due to the years slipping by (both theirs and mine), but my favorite Alabama tracks are those the band released in the 90's.
 

 

The band, such as they are (sans the ailing Jeff Cook and the long-ago discarded Mark Herndon) appeared recently at an outdoor venue this summer not far from where I live. Did I go? No. Did I consider going? No. "Alabama is coming to town!" belongs to a time that no longer exists.

Nevertheless, everybody knows there would be no forty-year Alabama legacy if there hadn't been a Jeff Cook.

Rest in peace.






 
 

 




Monday, October 31, 2022

The Killer


I was a little young to appreciate Jerry Lee Lewis in his rock 'n roll heyday. All I knew about music was that I loved it, that it filled me with inexplicable joy, and that I never knew what song would explode from my mom's kitchen radio next. I knew the names of the artists on my sister's 45's (yes, I was a precocious reader), but they didn't seem to own any records by Jerry Lee Lewis. I don't know why, but I don't think they purchased many new records, instead assembling their odd collection from neighborhood rummage sales. Our family wasn't exactly flush with cash.

In my pre-kindergarten years the artists I heard most on Mom's radio were The Everly Brothers, Johnny Preston, Bobby Rydell, and Connie Francis. Oh, and Elvis. Not exactly cutting edge. But while my sisters' tastes in music were relatively staid, their one-year-younger brother was much more eager to listen to something wild. It must have been my brother who introduced me to The Killer. He owned the album, "The Golden Hits Of Jerry Lee Lewis that included such fiery tracks as Whole Lotta Shakin', Great Balls Of Fire, Breathless, and High School Confidential. All I'd known to date about piano music was Floyd Cramer. This wasn't that. This was something completely new and exciting.


Eventually I caught Jerry Lee on a few TV shows, like Shindig and Lloyd Thaxton. I'd never in my nine years of life seen anything like him. In 1964 my preference was the British Invasion ~ The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, Manfred Mann; but I loved seeing American artists, too ~ Roy Orbison, The Righteous Brothers...and Jerry Lee Lewis.

(Not the best video, but better than the lip-synced one)

 




(my favorite)

I'm a big proponent of "joy" in music. Listeners find musical joy in various ways ~ maybe a symphony makes them cry, maybe ambient music puts them in a Zen state. Perhaps a dramatic film score makes their muscles pulse. For me "joy" comes down to a thumping rhythm. I don't care if it's a country rhythm or a rock rhythm, but a feel-good song, for me, requires one. Who was the king of rhythm? I say it was the guy who knew how to pound it out on a keyboard.
 
But it wasn't simply that. Artists (especially now) are timid. Granted, some may just be naturally laid back, a la Alan Jackson, but too many play it safe. Jerry Lee wasn't Elvis shaking his hips or his leg in some rehearsed pseudo-choreography. JL was natural. He drank in the audience's excitement and responded with pure abandon. Yes, he kicked over his piano stool and one time allegedly set his piano on fire ~ all the better for the show. Shoot, if you paid your hard-earned money to see an artist, even if it was a dollar in 1957, you wanted to see a show. You didn't want to mumble to your date, "Okay, here comes the part where he..." You wanted to be surprised, knocked over. You wanted joy.
 
It seemed like just as soon as I got to know Jerry Lee Lewis, he was gone. I was a kid. I read gossip magazines like all good pre-teens do, but I don't remember reading anything about what happened to him. So I moved on, like a mercenary. I'd never purchased any Jerry Lee Lewis singles anyway ~ I saved up my weekly allowance to buy the latest Beatles 45.
 
Then around 1967 I became willingly indoctrinated into country music. Here I was, busily playing catch-up, figuring out which country artists were worth my time and which were corny relics. I tuned in to every country TV show available, which pitifully consisted of Hee Haw and a few syndicated programs like That Good Ole Nashville Music, and the Bill Anderson and Porter Wagoner shows. I think it was on Hee Haw where I first caught this:
 

 

"Oh, there he is! Jerry Lee Lewis!" I might have said inside my head. "He looks different, but wow! Listen!"

Let me say this about Another Place, Another Time ~ Yes, it is a superb country song. However, in different hands, it would most likely score a top ten single, but would eventually be lost to time. Performed by Jerry Lee, however? With that combustible combination of regret and bravado? Just the flick of his hand on the piano keys tells you he might be down, but he sure as hell isn't out. 

Some will argue that Jerry Lee was always a country artist at heart. I don't dispute that, but it sure took him long enough to fully embrace it. And yes, country was his way of coming back from scandal, but one thing country fans do is embrace the music. Hell, ninety per cent of country songs are about imperfection; you know, the actual human condition. And yea, you bet your life we embraced him.

He followed that hit up with this:


 

Note that he doesn't cast out the Jerry Lee of old, simply modifies it. He still has that rebellious spark in his eye.

 "If I'm going to Hell, I'm going there playing the piano."

 

In 1970 he released this, kind of a nod to his past style with his head planted firmly in the present:



Once I (and I alone) got Bobby Bare inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame, my new passion became seeing Jerry Lee finally (finally!) get his due. Not to praise the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but at least they had the good sense to induct him way back in 1986, along with Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. My fear was that the gatekeepers at the Country Hall Of Fame would deny him his due until it was too late, just as they had with Faron Young. But at last, this year, at Jerry's ripe young age of 87, the powers-that-be finally relented. Those anonymous birds at the HOF are enigmatic figures, but perhaps peer pressure at long last shamed them. And Jerry Lee got to witness the announcement while he was still on Earth.

There are few, very few, artists who can legitimately be called "original". In country, I might bestow that moniker on two, maybe three. In rock, I can count them on one hand. 

Jerry Lee Lewis was one of a kind. There never will, never could be, anyone like him. 

Rest in peace, Killer. 

And damn! 


 

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Jody Miller


"Who's Jody Miller?"

Seriously? And you call yourself a country fan.

If all was right with the world, and had her Capitol producer chose better songs for her, Jody Miller would be enthroned in the annals of country music. 

Here's something -- she could sing like nobody's business.

I've always admired women who could really belt it out -- Connie Smith comes to mind; Patsy Cline definitely, and of course our dearly departed Loretta. Jody Miller could also really belt it out.

Jody first became known for her "answer song" to Roger Miller's King Of The Road, although I don't exactly get how this track answers anything Roger put forward in his hit. The character in Roger's song is a hobo, so unless he's left Jody behind at the bungalow to forge his new lifestyle, describing her life as a housewife isn't exactly the antithesis of a down-and-out vagrant. Nevertheless, the song shot Jody to (short-lived) fame.

(What kind of house was this??)

Jody's next release (that same year, 1965) made the top thirty. This was during my kid rock era (no, not that Kid Rock) and Shindig was my Wednesday night show, but still the dancers doing The Jerk to this seems oddly out of place.


Jody subsequently recorded a string of cover songs, which is unfortunate, because she had so much more to offer.


Although I like her version of this:


When she moved to Epic Records in 1970 Producer Billy Sherrill at last broke the mold (after a couple more covers), and this is my favorite Jody Miller track:


To understand Jody, what could be better than her own words? She had a young life not unlike mine, minus the fame part. 🙄 She became a born-again Christian in 1993, long after a wildly successful string of TV appearances with the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Righteous Brothers, and long after touring with The Beach Boys. Long after her foray into country with Billy Sherrill helming the Epic ship.

In 1972 Jody recorded a duet with Johnny Paycheck of Let's All Go Down To The River. Unfortunately, no live performance video can be found, if there ever was one, but I do chuckle at the pairing. That said, this is another one I like:

Jody left the world on October 6, in Blanchard, Oklahoma; a mom and a grandmom, which is no doubt how she'd want to be remembered.

I will remember her as one helluva singer.

Jody's website



Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Loretta

 

 

 "If you're citing The Pill as an iconic Loretta Lynn song, you're not an actual fan."

---- me 

 

Newspaper obituary writers tend to mold a legendary figure into the imaginary image they wish them to be. Face it, journalists situated in New York and Washington, DC are not country music fans. They're probably twenty-somethings dreaming of journalistic fame and instead they're stuck on the obituary beat. One can't be twenty-three and understand Loretta Lynn.

So I'll describe her as I saw her.

Loretta was more or less of my mother's generation, and no, those women were not "liberated", whatever that means. They were plain-spoken and they worried about everyday life -- their kids, their no-good carousing husbands, how they were going to pay this month's bills. They cooked, mopped, canned vegetables, hung clothes on the line, pulled weeds from the garden. Liberation was something that happened at the end of World War II. These women were pragmatic.

If you've ever seen Coal Miner's Daughter, you know it sure wasn't Loretta's idea to get into show business. If Doolittle hadn't pushed her to do it, she would have carried on as she always had.

Girl singers, as they were called then, weren't exactly setting the country music world on fire. Before Loretta, there was truly only one female country star, Patsy Cline, and Patsy's recordings were defined by silky-smooth production --- Country Lite. Don't get me wrong; her singles were great. They just weren't hard-core country. Sure, there were other female artists who had hits here and there. Kitty Wells was big for her time, but only in country music circles. Jeannie Seely, Dottie West, and Jean Shepard each had at least one number one single, but even I didn't know their names when I first heard Loretta.

I think the first time I heard that voice was on my Uncle Howard's jukebox, when I was temporarily living one door away from his bar with two of my cousins and my own mom and my cousins' mom, who took turns managing my uncle's restaurant. 

During weekend morning hours before the bar opened, we lolled about on swiveling bar stools and breathed in the remnants of stale cigarettes and the pungent aroma of empty beer cans littering his overflowing trash cans. 

Uncle Howard tapped his cash register and handed us "red quarters", quarters with a red stripe painted across them that he used to feed the jukebox. My cousin Karen and I were into rock 'n roll, but the jukebox's selections in that field were limited, so we just pushed buttons and ended up with tracks from Bobby Bare and Roger Miller and mostly Buck Owens -- lots and lots of Buck Owens. I think there was only one female country artist contained within, so I heard this:


And this:


I can't say that nine-year-old me was all that impressed. It wasn't "my deal". I liked Roy Orbison's Pretty Woman and Manfred Mann's Doo Wah Diddy. I will say that her voice really jumped out of the jukebox, though.

But this Loretta kept showing up in my young life, whether I wanted her to or not. That September my sister got married in Fort Worth, Texas, and as part of the week-long celebration my new brother-in-law escorted us to Panther Hall, where guess who was the featured band? Yep, between bites of icky steak and lettuce salad sans dressing (I was a very picky eater) our party was entertained by the likes of Loretta Lynn and her band, which featured her albino-like brother, Jay Lee Webb. Somehow someone (not me!) secured Loretta's autograph and we passed it around at the table. I commented that it appeared to read, "Buffalo Lynn". I think I called her that for a long time afterward.

And that was before she even scored her biggest hits.

I will admit I liked this one:

 

My parents didn't buy records. They owned exactly two LP's and neither of them were by Loretta Lynn. But our local radio station, not country, not rock 'n roll; just a "radio station", sure wore out the grooves of those two singles. In my innocence, I didn't exactly know the subject matter of them, but I secretly kind of did. I certainly understood the "drinkin'" one.



1967 was the year I fully committed to country, solely because I wanted to fit in with my new best friend. Left to my own devices, I would have blithely carried on with The Hollies and The Turtles, but nevertheless, once I committed I never looked back. Granted, I had a lot of catching up to do, but one can never say I didn't know who Loretta Lynn was. I bought her albums, but then, I bought a lot of albums. I remember these two in particular:



These are my favorites from those LP's:



Loretta also recorded a couple of songs that made me cringe a bit, one being Your Squaw Is On The Warpath; and Fist City seemed a bit unladylike, though I would listen to the second one before I'd ever hit "play" on the first.

My mom and I went to see Coal Miner's Daughter together, and I might have henceforth confused cinema with reality. Tommy Lee Jones was a redheaded hunk, whereas Doolittle Lynn was a puny little guy, but Loretta loved him. And Sissy Spacek wasn't a powerful singer like Loretta, but no other actor of that time could have come close to capturing the real woman. As for the title track, I was never in love with it. I found it repetitive, and it was hard to move past the hayseed pronunciations (no offense to hayseeds).

Well, I was borned a coal miner's daughter

Mommy scrubbed our clothes on a warshboard every day 

At night we'd sleep cuz we were tarred

Had it not been for the key change halfway through, the song would have died a merciful death. 

And let's finally address "The Pill". It was pedantic and cringey. Every thought doesn't need to be expressed. But kudos, I guess. Contrary to the dearest wishes of obituary writers everywhere, it will be but a blip in history.

Around 1971 I was sitting in my mom's kitchen when a new duet exploded out of her portable radio. I cocked my ear, confused at first, my trained country ear flummoxed. Soon enough, though, I realized who the singers were. And I knew this was an instant classic.


So here's the deal about Loretta -- she wrote almost every damn song she recorded. She was who she was; and she didn't give a crap whether you approved or didn't. 

She had a voice that bullied its way out of a jukebox or a car radio, and terrorized your phonograph needle.

You will never forget her.

 

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Dallas Frazier

 
 
The first time I saw Dallas Frazier's name was in the liner notes of Connie Smith's "The Best Of Connie Smith" album in 1967.

Thereafter, his name kept popping up, like on this one:

Before long his name was everywhere. As one who was coming to country music as a neophyte, I paid attention to "important" names. It seemed this Dallas Frazier guy was important.



 

So, I met Dallas Frazier via Connie Smith.

Frazier started out as a prodigy vocalist, at age fourteen, then went on to write novelty songs like Alley Oop, recorded by the Hollywood Argyles in 1957. It wasn't until he moved to Nashville that his songwriting career took off -- and boy, did it. Different songwriters dominated the country scene depending upon the era. In the late fifties/early sixties it was Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. By the mid-sixties/early seventies Dallas Frazier assumed the mantle.

A few examples:


 

(rendered by the songwriter himself)
 

 
 
Naturally, this is the song that is Dallas Frazier's claim to fame:
 
(Oh, you like it; admit it.)

I readily admit I don't know every single song Dallas Frazier ever wrote. But this one is probably my favorite:

(sorry, no decent live performance to be found)

In 1976 Dallas Frazier retired from the music business and became an ordained minister, which is sublimely cool. As poetic as his written words were, I bet he gave a helluva sermon.

Dallas Frazier passed away on January 14, 2022, and the country angels cried. I'm sure he saved some souls along the way, whether through his preaching or via my preferred way ~ a crisp, succinct musical message.

RIP, Dallas Frazier.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Ralph Emery


When I was a young teen and a newly-minted country music fanatic, there were three late-night disc jockeys who mattered. These guys broadcast over clear channel 50,000-watt radio stations and thus, once midnight hit, if one was lucky and the sky was starry she could tune into two and sometimes all three channels. On summer nights, I would first try 1040, WHO with Mike Hoyer at the helm. This station was my safest bet. It was closest geographically to me and Mike never failed me. His catchphrase was "from coat to coast and border to border and then some." Mike's trademark was playing entire new albums starting around two o'clock in the morning, which is how I first became familiar with the latest releases by Tammy Wynette and Charley Pride, among others. Mike was a straightforward country music lover. He didn't chit chat; he simply introduced the music and offer a few tidbits about the track or the artist.

820 on the dial, WBAP was a bit scratchier, but Bill Mack's voice eventually became clearer as the night went on. There was no doubt where Bill's heart lay. He championed Texas artists, who became my favorites as well -- Johnny Bush, Cal Smith, and of course Ray Price. Bill's style was looser than Hoyer's. One could picture him leaned back in his chair, chawing with the truckers who obviously worshipped him. Bill's voice was like what I imagine smooth whiskey would taste.

WSM was the air castle of the south, and Ralph Emery was the king of the manor. At 650 on the dial and located in Nashville (with many many radio frequencies between my home and Tennessee jamming the airwaves) Ralph's show was a rare capture. Ralph was a jocular easy-going host, which was why so many country stars felt free to stop in and spend the night jawboning in his studio. I heard Marty Robbins one night banging on the piano, performing a de facto concert.

It was via Ralph's show that I first fell in love with some country singles that I am in love with to this day.  

In the eighties when TNN (The Nashville Network) came along, who but Ralph Emery could emcee the network's signature show, Nashville Now? I watched it every night, and I wasn't all that into country at the time. Everyone appeared on Ralph's show -- everyone -- from a tipsy Faron Young to the latest unsigned act (which, by the way, included some guy named Randy Travis who was working as a short-order cook). I was giddy when my favorite local bar band appeared one night. They'd recently signed a major label contract, and though their career ended up going nowhere, I was euphoric that a band I actually knew performed on Ralph Emery's show.


 


Before Nashville Now, Ralph had a syndicated half-hour show called Pop! Goes The Country! That was the first time I caught Lynn Anderson singing an obscure Stonewall Jackson song and fell in love with it (I already loved Lynn Anderson).

Ralph Emery was a country music facilitator; a shaman, a guru. There are very few country stars alive today who don't thank their lucky stars for Ralph Emery.  

Ralph Emery was with me most of my life. How many legends have most of us spent our lives with? He is country music to me. Mike Hoyer's passing in 1999 didn't merit a word in country music journals. When Bill Mack died in 2020 most writers focused on his authorship of LeAnn Rime's "Blue".

Ralph Emery passed away on January 15, 2022 and was thankfully given his due (although I will note that WSM's website has no mention of him -- shame and disgrace on you, WSM).

For the uninitiated, it's impossible to describe the impact he had on country music. I guess you had to be there.

Rest in peace, Ralph Emery. Those who are in the know love you.


Friday, December 10, 2021

Mike Nesmith


My first teenage crush was the Monkees. But it was an odd crush ~ I claimed the group as my "friends".  At eleven my world was upended when my parents up and moved us to a new town in a new state. I was at that awkward age, and being painfully shy didn't help matters. Barely anyone in my new class talked to me, and I sure wasn't about to initiate a conversation. Thus, the highlight of my life was alighting the bus on a Monday afternoon, tromping up to our cramped apartment, and waiting 'til seven o'clock, when The Monkees TV show came on.

I had a study hall period in the middle of each day, a cavernous hollow room on the second floor of my turn of the century school. It held approximately one hundred desks, with the study hall teacher perched at his own desk high up on a stage in the front. I don't know what any of the other kids did (I suspect "studying" wasn't one of those things), but as for me, I whipped out a spiral notebook and my multi-color pens and wrote letters to each individual Monkee. I think Mickey got the green pen, Davy the red, Peter was assigned the blue, and Mike the purple. Of course I didn't actually mail any of the "letters" (duh); in hindsight I think they were a way for me to spill my guts and my loneliness. I took them very seriously.

I didn't even particularly like the TV show, except for the songs. But these guys were my friends, so I sat through a half hour of silliness in solidarity.

Most girls favored Davy Jones, but Mickey Dolenz was my favorite. Peter Tork was just a goofy guy who sometimes plinked the piano. Mike was a puzzle. He never got to sing lead on any of the hits. He just stood there strumming his guitar, wearing his green knit hat, but he seemed happy enough to be doing what he was doing. 

I read later that Mike didn't like being part of The Monkees, that the formulaic tunes picked for the group cramped his style. This turned out to be a myth.

“Quite the contrary,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “It was a nice part of the rĂ©sumĂ©. It was a fun for me, and a great time of my life..." (source)

Nesmith's roots were apparently in country rock, but to be honest, after the group broke up I didn't follow his career. I do know that Linda Ronstadt grabbed this Mike-penned song after the Monkees' producers nixed it for the group:

The last performance of the two remaining Monkees:


Mike Nesmith passed away December 10. Davy is gone, Peter is gone; now only Mickey remains.

Rest in peace, old friend.



Sunday, December 5, 2021

Stonewall Jackson

 

Nineteen fifties country music was even before my time, but thanks to country radio (the way it used to be) I still managed to become familiar with many of the fifties and early sixties hits. To say country music was different in the fifties is like saying that what passes for country music now bears any resemblance to actual country. While admittedly there were some great singers making the charts like Ray Price and Faron Young, fans mostly gravitated toward what we might call "stylists", artists who were barely competent singers, but whose voices were instantly recognizable when they exploded out of the local tavern's juke box. For one, Hank Williams was still charting in the fifties, and his voice was nothing to write home about. Add in Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, and yes, Stonewall Jackson. That's not a knock. It was, in truth, mostly about the songs.

And Stonewall chose and even co-wrote some good ones. According to Wikipedia (if you can trust that) Jackson's two number ones were both songs I didn't particularly like - Waterloo and BJ The DJ. However, he had much better ones, like this:

Why I'm Walkin'

And this one is my favorite, although the performance could use some improvement:

A Wound Time Can't Erase


Others:
 
I Washed My Hands In Muddy Water
 
Help Stamp Out Loneliness
 
In hindsight, I guess Waterloo wasn't that bad. Not good, per se, but not awful:
 

Not many of the fifties giants remain. Marty Robbins is gone, Faron is gone, Ray Price is gone. And on and on. It was a time unique in musical history and I'm glad it's been preserved.
 
Stonewall Jackson passed away on December 4 at the age of eighty-nine. Thanks, Stonewall, for contributing to the advent of country music. 
 
***********************************
My fifties country playlist:
 
 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Jay Black ~ Jay And The Americans

 

I was eight years old in 1963, too young and poor to buy my own records, but I had a nine years older brother who managed to buy every album and single that was hot. Plus my brother seized the kitchen radio and tuned the dial to the local rock (okay, pop) channel. Without him, left to the devices of my mother, I guess my earliest musical memories would have consisted of Perry Como and Eydie Gorme.

I was thus fascinated by Jay and the Americans, because this Jay did not have a rock 'n roll voice -- at all. To my young mind, he sounded exactly like what an opera singer would sound like. And in fact, he did. I was at the age when everything is fascinating or supremely important; when a kid needs to suss out what the heck is going on. And this guy just didn't fit in with the likes of the Beach Boys or the Four Seasons. This "Jay American" really belted it out!

 

"Jay's" actual name was David Blatt, and he took over for the original Jay (whose real name was Jay) in 1962, and that's when the group took off.

It wasn't all about seismic vocals, however. In 1964, the same year that Come A Little Bit Closer was a hit, Jay and the Americans also released this:

 

As rock (or pop) came into its own with guys who most certainly didn't sing like New Jay, the group continued to chart well into at least 1968, but they frankly sounded out of touch.

The group's last real hit came that year with a cover of the Drifters' song:

(Sorry, only performance video I could find)

They say that "Jay" maintained those powerful vocals well into advanced age, and yes, he did:

 
From starting out as a curiosity that eight-year-old me was compelled to ponder to a phenomenal vocal talent that little kids fail to recognize, David Blatt's was a rare, powerful voice.
 
David (Jay Black) Blatt passed away on October 22, 2021 at the age of 82.
 
Rest in peace, Jay.
 
 


Sunday, August 22, 2021

Tom T. Hall

 The first time I became cognizant of Tom T. Hall was via a hit record that I quickly grew to hate:

 

It was one of those tracks that intrigues you the first time you hear it, but over-exposure bakes in its more annoying features, like the dobro riff that completely devalues a wonderful instrument like the dobro.

Nevertheless, I don't even know how I knew that Tom T. Hall wrote the song, nor did I have a clue who Tom T. Hall was. Radio in 1968 didn't exactly tout the writer of a hit song. Maybe his name stuck in my head because he, like Jeannie C. Riley, incorporated his middle initial into his name.

As I became more cognizant of him as a pre-eminent country songwriter, I noticed something odd -- his songs rarely included choruses. They were a series of verses, prose; a narrative story. They didn't fit the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure that everyone in music understood was the norm. Yet somehow they worked. Often the listener didn't notice there was no chorus. The most one could claim about Hall's songs was that they included a "refrain".

I suspect Tom T. was a frustrated novelist. Yet he had the magic spark that spun his songs into gold. 

I've written before about the first country song I actually swooned over the first time I heard it late one night on a scratchy signal from Ralph Emery's WSM:


It may have been simply because it was Faron or perhaps it was the arrangement, or both; but I can't deny that this track clutched my heart. And Tom T. Hall wrote it.

Then I found out that Hall also wrote this:


 And this:

(This one actually does have a chorus)

And this:

 
I bought a Tom T. Hall album. Not sure why, but I bought a lot of albums, basically whatever was available in J.C. Penneys' basement in 1968 - 1971. I think it might have been because I liked this track:
 

I confess I never understood Hall's songwriting method, but no one can deny that it worked. Somehow. Few can go against the grain and yet produce something timeless. 
 
And I'll always be in his debt for giving me my first country music swoon.
 
RIP, Tom T. Hall, who passed away on August 20, 2021.
 
"Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes
God bless little children while they're still too young to hate"
When he moved away I found my pen and copied down that line
'Bout old dogs and children and watermelon wine