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I’m not certain that the impact of Johnny Cash getting dropped from the CBS/Columbia record label that had been his home for nearly 30 years has ever been fully appreciated. It truly was the end of an era, or the beginning of one depending on how you want to look at it. It stimulated a young Marty Stuart (an understudy of Cash) to get int the face of Columbia executive, resulting in him eventually being ejected from the label. It made Merle Haggard tell Rick Blackburn, the man responsible for Cash’s firing, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.” And it also meant that an entire, cohesive album from one of the most well-respected artists in the history of American music went unheard for 30 years after its original recording. This is the type of peril American music is put through at the hands of suits, that such a ridiculous, unintuitive aberration could transpire in the custody of one person’s art, especially the art of Johnny Cash.
Out Among The Stars is a difficult album to critique. Since it was originally crafted to be heard by the public some 30 years ago, with stylings and sensibilities more steeped in the country modes of that time, it’s hard to know how to calibrate your ear to this music. Compounding this problem is the information that some, or all of the tracks have been “fortified” by a team that included Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and others to be more akin to what a modern ear might expect. Then you pile on top of all of that the fact that some of these songs like “She Used To Love Me A Lot” and “Out Among The Stars” have already wormed themselves into our brains with versions from other artists. It would not be fair to call Cash’s versions “cover” songs because of the way the timeline sits. They are simply Cash’s takes of contemporary tunes that were never heard because of the nature of this project. Nonetheless you can’t help but compare these “new” versions to the ones you’re more familiar with.
While you’re listening to Out Among The Stars, you almost feel like Marty McFly contemplating the strange space-time continuum this project puts you in, asking yourself, “Would the 1984 me like this? And do I like it now?” The mid 80′s was its own strange time in country music as well. Just listen to the introduction to Willie Nelson’s version of “Pancho & Lefty”. Johnny Cash amidst his recovery from drug addiction wasn’t the only one trying to find his compass; the entire genre of country was. The original Out Among The Stars sessions were produced by Billy Sherrill of all people—a producer known as one of the masterminds of the countrypolitan or Nashville Sound. As strange as it was for him to be working with Johnny Cash, at the same time he was working with wildman David Allan Coe, trying to revitalize Coe’s career as well. Billy Sherrill—one of the principles the Outlaws had risen up against—was now one of their brothers in arms. A strange time in country indeed.
Then you take the emotional quotient of simply being able to hear the legendary voice of Johnny Cash again in completely unheard, studio-quality content, and it’s hard to hold onto any and all objectivity. Even if Out Among The Stars was a verbatim recitation of the Nashville Metropolitan phone book circa 1984, this album is a gift from beyond that any sane country music fan would dare not stare too long in the mouth.
The reason that Out Among The Stars became “lost,” and Johnny Cash got dropped from Columbia is because nobody knew what to do with him, including Johnny himself. In some respects, the song material on this album is somewhat indicative of this searching for direction. It is sort of the take of two Johnnys—one introspective, dark, and even disturbed at times, and the other the more “aw-shucks” Arkansas boy. Musically, whether the fault of Sherill or the super-team assembled to deal with the recordings in the present day, is where Out Among The Stars shows cohesion and confidence. Though some of the songs might be more fit for the 80′s country listener, the music throughout is timeless.
The somewhat cornpone and timecasted song “If I Told You Who It Was” is where the album most shows off it’s 80′s stripes, but Cash’s versions of “Out Among The Stars” and “She Used To Love Me A Lot”, the melancholic “Call Your Mother,” to the downright sadistic “I Drove Her Out Of My Mind” are right in the mode of classic Johnny Cash whose willing to delve deep into the darker side of life. These are balanced by the sweet and simple approach of songs like “Tennessee” that expires in an uplifting chorus signature to Billy Sherrill’s touch, and the sweet duets with June Carter “Don’t You Think It’s Come” and “Baby Ride Easy”. The organ/piano combination, combined with the fairly sappy lyrics of “After All” might make it the album’s most forgettable track, while “Rock & Roll Shoes” and the cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” with Waylon Jennings check in as the album’s most fun tunes.
Johnny Cash left music, and left the world behind at the top of his game, having been revitalized and resurrected in the public consciousness as the result of his American Recordings era, leaving the crowd wanting more as all great entertainers do. Though Out Among The Stars may not reach the high critical acclaim Cash set for himself in the last era of his career, it is a more than worthy offering allowing the Man in Black to once again live among us in our hearts and imaginations, leaving the listener ruminating on the historic accomplishments of a man whose musical accomplishments will never be equaled.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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…that includes Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, and Thompson Square? Ugh…
Not since the second installment of the Waylon – The Music Inside series was released with the names of Colt Ford and Justin Moore making their way on the track list have we had such a quizzical collection of artists for a tribute album. As cool as it is to see any attention paid to Merle these days from the mainstream establishment, and to see Merle’s much-deserving song Ben Haggard make the cut of contributors, hearing Luke Bryan covering “Pancho & Lefty” (and is that really a Merle song anyway?) or Dustin Lynch taking time from singing about tractor sex to offer his take on “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is not what’s going to get your average Merle fan’s motor running.
The Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard compilation out April 1st (no fooling) is being put together by Broken Bow Records, and of course, just like many of these tributes recently, it’s mostly a showcase of label talent with a “tribute” as the backdrop. Jason Aldean, Kristy Lee Cook, Dustin Lynch, Joe Nichols, Randy Houser, Parmalee, and Thompson Square all reside on Broken Bow and bow in on the track list, most with two contributions.
And if you were hoping that maybe they would approach this thing with the Merle spirit, just listen to what Luke Bryan has to say about his very ”Mumford & Sons” take on “Pancho & Lefty”: “The original had a Spanish-Mexican flair. We took a real different approach with it …. something with some edge that moves along pretty good. It’s an interesting take.”
Something else interesting: They begged Garth Brooks to allow them to use his cover of “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” from his recent blockbuster Blame It All On My Roots box set. But just like the box set, you can only get the song if you buy the tribute from Wal-Mart.
Complicating the love-hate relationship a true Merle fan might have with this compilation, the ACM Awards being held April 6th are planning to bestow Merle Haggard with a Crystal Milestone Award as part of the ACM festivities, with this tribute as the centerpiece. Once again, it’s great to see the ACM’s or anyone in the mainstream acknowledge Merle (even if it’s half a decade after Taylor Swift was given the same Crystal Milestone Award), but you wonder how much of this is just a platform for Broken Bow to display their own talent.
Luckily if you’re looking for Merle Haggard tributes with not as many question marks swirling around them, there’s been a few of great ones released recently. Suzy Bogguss released Lucky last month: a 12-song tribute to The Hag. And Vince Gill with Paul Franklin paid tribute to Merle & Buck Owens last year with Bakersfield.
Track list for Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard:
- Misery and Gin, Randy Houser
- Footlights, Joe Nichols
- Going Where the Lonely Go, Jason Aldean
- Today I Started Loving You Again, Kristy Lee Cook
- Carolyn, Toby Keith
- Pancho and Lefty, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley
- Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down, Garth Brooks (Walmart edition only)
- You Take Me for Granted, Thompson Square
- Mama Tried, Ben Haggard
- That’s the Way Love Goes, Dustin Lynch
- Make Up and Faded Blue Jeans, Jake Owen
- I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, James Wesley
- Workin’ Man Blues, Parmalee
- Are the Good Times Really Over, Jason Aldean
- Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room, Thompson Square
- I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, Dustin Lynch
- The Fightin’ Side of Me, James Wesley
- My Favorite Memory, Joe Nichols
- Ramblin’ Fever, Randy Houser
- Sing Me Back Home, Ben Haggard
We hear it all the time. It pursues us throughout our daily lives. It seems to be one of the eternal lessons of life. Yet no matter how much we all believe in the message and take it into our hearts, it is amazing how easily we stray from taking time, slowing down, and appreciating the important things in life and living in the moment. Because no matter how much you tell yourself how paramount this is, there’s an endless world of priorities and distractions awaiting you on your phone, on your computer, and on your television. You can preach the virtues of slowing down all you want, but the best way to drive the message home is by example, and this is what the wise-minded, and golden-throated guru of classic country music Don Williams does on his new album Reflections.
The message wouldn’t have so much meaning behind it if it wasn’t so obvious Don Williams practices what he preaches. He had his day of moving and shaking in the music business (5 CMA Male Vocalist Trophies & seventeen #1′s to be exact), and when it was obvious that the industry had put him out to pasture, he didn’t shake his fists in anger or reconfigure his image to appeal to the younger generation. He was appreciative of the time he spent in the spotlight, and stepped back to rest on his laurels and re-evaluate his priorities. Even now that he’s re-ignited his career of sorts by releasing two albums in the last three years, it seems like he’s doing it only as a dabbler; to get the devil out of him so to speak, so that music doesn’t pursue him in his mind as he tries to relax and revel in his golden years.
This is the attitude and approach that Reflections is recorded with—slow and easy—like Don told his wife, “I’ll be back for supper,” and then went out for an afternoon to cut an album of songs that he believes in and lives by every day. Then as producers, engineers, and label people labored to get this record ready for release, it was the farthest thing from Don’s mind as he takes a late breakfast and heads out fishing.
Where Reflections outdoes his 2012 album And So It Goes is in the song selection. Don Williams can sing anything and make it gold, and one of his greatest assets is being able to sing a song that performed by any other artist would come across as sappy, and make it somewhat cool and more universally appealing. But there’s a little bit of swagger, a little bit of grit in some the songs of Reflections, not necessarily in the words, but just in the attitude. Selecting a song from Townes Van Zandt in “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”, and from Merle Haggard in “Sing Me Back Home” which refers to Merle’s stint in prison, gives this album some gravel, despite the otherwise smooth and subdued approach of the music. Yet these two famous covers still sit well within the theme of the album of appreciating the small things in life.
Reflections is much more than just the easy listening country it may appear to be on the surface. It’s an album with a message, and leads by example. Instead of whining about the state of country music, it does something about it.
The laid back, gentle-of-mind ease drips from this album like the sweetness of sun-drenched dew. Sometimes it’s simply implied, and other times it’s directly spoken, like in the appreciative and well-written “Working Man’s Son” or the song that ties the entire theme of Reflections together, “Back To The Simple Things.” Enough can’t be said either about the Townes cover “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”. Like when Willie and Merle took “Pancho & Lefty” to another level, Don Williams’ touch on this song immortalized it, and in a different time it would have been a super hit.
Reflections is the album we needed right here, right now. Not just from the perspective of saving country music, but the perspective of saving ourselves from the overwhelming onslaught of ensnaring technologies that rob the preciousness from life.
Two guns up.
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When it comes to the preservation of the history and sound of country music, you can make the case there is nobody who does it better and with more passion and dedication than Marty Stuart. Tireless and true to his convictions, from his music, to his archive of memorabilia, to his presence on television and the Grand Ole Opry stage, and to some of the thankless things he does well out of the public eye, Marty Stuart embodies everything behind the idea of Saving Country Music, and is a badass of the genre if there ever was one.
- 10 Badass Willie Nelson Moments
- 10 Badass Waylon Jennings Moments
- 10 Badass Johnny Cash Moments
- 10 Badass Merle Haggard Moments
1. Paying His Dues with Johnny Cash & Lester Flatt
Unlike many of the country music prima donnas who’ve set up shop in country music recently, Marty Stuart comes from the school that believes you have to pay your dues in country music before it’s your turn in the spotlight. Marty Stuart started playing professionally as a sideman in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band in the early 70′s at the tender age of 14 under the tutelage of legendary mandolin player Roland White. Marty stayed with the band until 1978 when it split up because of Lester’s failing health.
After spending a couple of years working with Vassar Clements and Doc Watson, Marty joined Johnny Cash’s band in 1980, and stayed there for half a decade as both a sideman and a studio musician. Stuart also married Cash’s daughter Cindy in 1983. The two divorced five years later after Marty left Cash’s band to pursue a solo career.
2. Keeping One of the Biggest Archives of Country Music Memorabilia
Marty’s vast collection of country music memorabilia is one of the biggest in country music. It has been featured at the Tennessee State Museum, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and pieces are regularly loaned to the Country Music Hall of Fame for exhibits.
“I went to the first Hard Rock and I saw The Beatles, The Stones, Otis Redding, The Who, all their stuff on the wall. And in my mind I went, ‘Well that’s just as important if it’s Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, George Jones, and who on.’ And so when I came back to America, I made it a mission. I mean it became my whole focus at that time. Get a record deal, start a band, make them look cool, and get all of the country music artifacts you possibly can and preserve them, lock them down, because they’re getting away fast.
“Everything was changing in country music. The look of it, the sound of it, and this stuff was just a throwaway…The ultimate mission is not just to preserve this stuff, protect it, promote it, save it, but to get the music into the hands and hearts of young people that are coming through and [saying), “Well I want to do that, but they tell me I have to be like so and so.” But we’ve already got one of those. Be who you are, at any cost.” (read full story)
3. Inviting Cool Artists Onto The Grand Ole Opry
Playing the Grand Ole Opry stage is one of the biggest thrills and highest honors any artist within the country music realm can be bestowed, but it is not an easy one achieve. One way to grace the stage is to be invited up by a standing member to play during their set, and that is how young, up-and-coming stars like Sturgill Simpson, to one of the oldest living country stars still around, the 90-year-old Don Juan Maddox of The Maddox Brothers & Rose both made their first appearances on the hallowed stage of the storied institution. Marty was also the man who officially invited Old Crow Medicine Show recently to become The Opry’s newest members; the first traditional -leaning band to be invited in the last half decade.
4. Hummingbyrd & The Clarence White Guitar
As explained above, Marty Stuart has many pieces of country music memorabilia, but none of them may be as prized as his guitar affectionately called Hummingbyrd. The 1965 Fender Telecaster was originally owned by famous guitarist Clarence White—a studio musician, member of The Kentucky Colonels, and most-famously, the guitarist for The Byrds (hence the “Y” in the name).
Hummingbyrd is no ordinary guitar. It was the original prototype for what is know as a “B-Bender” guitar—a custom job invented by Clarence White and Byrd drummer Gene Parsons, who happened to also be a machinist. The point of the custom job is to be able to mimic the moaning sounds of a steel guitar by bending the B-string up a whole tone through a series of levers activated by pushing on the guitar’s neck, body, or bridge. When Clarence White passed away, his wife sold the legendary guitar to Marty Stuart, who uses it as his primary instrument.
Included on Marty’s 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions is a instrumental called “Hummingbyrd” where Marty Stuart puts on a clinic on how to use this unique instrument. The song went onto win the Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. Hummingbyrd shows both Marty Stuart’s passion for the preservation of country music’s history, and his prowess as a guitar player matched by few in the genre.
5. Standing Up To CBS / Columbia For Dropping Johnny Cash
A running theme in these 10 Badass Moments has been the firing of Johnny Cash from CBS Records in 1985. Merle Haggard mouthed off to CBS Executive Rick Blackburn about the firing, saying, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.”
When Marty Stuart left Johnny Cash’s band, he signed to Columbia (previously CBS), and in 1988 recorded his second album for the label called Let There Be Country. However Columbia refused to release it. Though some have surmised it was because Marty’s first self-titled Columbia album didn’t sell well, in James L. Dickerson’s 2005 book Mojo Triangle, he explains Columbia didn’t release the album because Marty Stuart had a heated exchange with a Columbia record executive about the Johnny Cash firing. Columbia shelved the album in retribution, and Marty eventually left the label without recording another album for them. Marty then signed to MCA where he had his greatest commercial success, and amidst this success, Columbia decided to finally release Let There Be Country in August of 1992.
6. Hosting The Marty Stuart Show
Patterning itself around the classic country music variety shows of the past like The Porter Wagoner Show, Flatt & Scruggs, and Hee Haw, The Marty Stuart Show is one of the last bastions for true, classic country music on television. Carried by RFD-TV, this weekly show features Marty and his Fabulous Superlatives, his wife Connie Smith, and just about the coolest variety of country music artists you can see on TV—artists from the new generation like Justin Townes Earle, Brandy Clark, Sturgill Simpson, Hank3, and The Quebe Sisters, to older artists like Don Maddox, Del McCoury, and Stonewall Jackson, and to artists in between like Jim Lauderdale, and Corb Lund. If they’re good, they appear on The Marty Stuart Show, and after five seasons, it has become its own country music institution, and an important distinction for the artists invited to play the show.
7. Playing with Lester Flatt on the Porter Wagoner Show at 14
Are you kidding me? That’s Marty Stuart folks, playing mandolin and singing!
8. Releasing Badlands: Ballads of the Lakota
Similar to his mentor and hero Johnny Cash who released what was arguably the first country music concept album with his tribute to the American Indian called Bitter Tears in 1964, Marty Stuart released a concept album also in tribute to the American Indian called Badlands: Ballads of the Laokota in 2005. Recorded with his backing band The Fabulous Superlatives, it focused on the struggle of Native Americans, and was entirely written by Stuart except for one song, “Big Foot,” written by Johnny Cash. It was also recorded at the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, TN, with John Carter Cash as co-producer.
But this album wasn’t just Marty patterning himself after Johnny Cash. Stuart has spent much time in the Dakotas learning about the Lakota Sioux, including studying at the Oglala Lakota College. For Marty, the poor treatment of Native Americans is a very real issue.
9. Marrying Connie Smith
Why would a handsome young Marty Stuart marry a woman 16 years his senior? Well first off, have you seen Connie Smith? Aside from how good time and country music has been to her, she is bona-fide country music royalty and one of the most familiar faces of the Grand Ole Opry. But this isn’t some celebrity sham marriage, the matrimony speaks to Marty’s undying appeal for all things country music and the love between the two country stars is deep. Together, they’re a classic country dynamic duo that is hard to stop (and I have my suspicion at night they dress up as superheroes and do battle with Music Row’s most evil villains).
10. This Quote:
“Today the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee, is play country music.” –Marty Stuart
Merle. The Hag. Of all the country music greats, Merle’s story might be the most symbolic of the American experience: from growing up in California as the son of Okie parents during The Depression, to spending time in prison, to becoming a rags to riches story. His legacy is sometimes overshadowed by his peers like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, whose influence has spread much farther than country’s borders. But when it comes to influencing country music itself, few this side of Hank Williams can say they’ve left a bigger footprint.
Here’s 10 moments that make Merle Haggard one of country music’s most preeminent badasses.
1. Being Born In A Boxcar
Now if that ain’t country….
James Francis and Flossie Mae Haggard moved from Oklahoma during The Depression after their barn burned down in 1934, and settled in an apartment in Bakersfield with Merle’s two older siblings Lowell and Lillian. Merle’s father got a job working for the Santa Fe Railroad as a carpenter, and soon went to work converting a boxcar parked on a piece of land in Oildale, CA, just outside of Bakersfield that eventually became the family’s homestead. Merle Haggard was born in that boxcar on April 6, 1937. The Haggard’s eventually purchased the land around the boxcar, and expanded it to include two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a breakfast nook.
2. Telling Off A CBS Records Executive for Firing Johnny Cash
In 1985 Merle released the song “Kern River” and it reached #10 on the country charts. But if it was up to CBS Records executive Rick Blackburn, the song would have never been recorded at all. Blackburn hated the song, and apparently went out of his way to tell Merle as much at every opportunity he had. Then at some point, Merle had enough. Blackburn mouthed off to Merle about it, and Merle lost it.
“That’s about the third time you’ve told me that.” Haggard said, “It’s more like five times. Well, I’m about five times short of telling you to go to hell.”
Then Haggard continued:
“Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.”
3. Watching Johnny Cash Play at San Quentin Prison
Johnny Cash’s most famous prison appearances were in 1968 and 1969 at the Folsom State Prison and San Quentin Prison, but these concerts weren’t the first time Johnny Cash played at a correctional institution. His first ever was New Years Day 1958 at San Quentin in California, and a 20-year-old Merle Haggard was in the audience. After a few other run-ins with the law, being arrested for the first time at age 11, and after having participated in multiple of jailbreaks (see below), Merle Haggard got sentenced to 15 years for burglary in 1957 to the notorious California lockup. He was just 18.
Merle ended up only serving two years of his sentence though, in part because the Johnny Cash concert changed his life. At the time, Haggard was conspiring with his cell mate “Rabbit” on an escape plan, but Merle’s fellow cell mates convinced him he had a brighter future in country music. Rabbit eventually did escape, killed a cop, and ending back at San Quentin on Death Row.
“He had the right attitude,” Merle recalls of Johnny Cash;s appearance. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards—he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”
4. Escaping From Jail 17 Times
That’s right. As impossible as that sounds, this is what Merle Haggard claims. His criminal record over the years has been a source of much debate about just how hardened the young Merle was. More than likely most of his crimes were quite petty hooliganism stuff, and were bred out of growing up and not having a father to keep him in line, and not having any money and resorting to stealing for his daily bread. But apparently he became pretty adept at giving the local jailers the slip, and that’s why he eventually ended up at San Quentin.
“I was scared to death,” Merle recalls. “I was just 19 at the time, and I’d already been in a lot of jails. San Quentin is the last place you go. I wasn’t really that bad a guy. They just couldn’t hold me anywhere else. I escaped 17 different times, so they sent me there because I was an escape risk. When I walked out on the grounds of San Quentin, I was scared. I was there two years and nine months.”
5. Recording Tribute Albums to Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills
It’s one thing to record a tribute album to one of the greats of country music’s past. It’s another to do it at the height of your professional career when your talent and attention could be more financially lucrative elsewhere.
After landing his first #1 hits “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and “Branded Man,” and before releasing his big 1969 hits “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard released the 1969 LP Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers — a massive, two-record tome of 25 Jimmie Rodgers songs recorded to critical acclaim. The project took a total of 6 months to complete and is given credit for a revitalization of interest in the Singing Brakeman’s career.
Same could be said for Bob Wills, when Merle made time to record and release A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World the very next year. Even more cool, Merle rustled up the last 6 remaining members of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys—Johnny Gimble, Alex Brashear, Johnnie Lee Wills, Eldon Shamblin, Tiny Moore, and Joe Holley—to participate in the record along with Haggard’s backing band The Strangers.
6. Kicking Cancer’s Ass
Merle Haggard was diagnosed with lung Cancer in May of 2008. Not wanting to make a big deal or publicity stunt out of the matter, he kept it hush hush. On November 3rd, 2008, Haggard had surgery to remove part of the upper lobe of his right lung that had a lemon-sized tumor growing on it. Five days later, he finally spilled the beans to the public about his diagnosis and treatment. Merle had been a smoker early in his life, and had quit cigarettes in 1991, and marijuana in 1995. But doctors said smoking had nothing to do with Merle’s condition.
How did Haggard pull through? Less than two months later he was playing shows at The Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. “I feel like I’ve extended my life,” Merle said at the time. “I’m in better shape than when I went in.”
7. The “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn” Protest Song
Merle Haggard has written and recorded many politically-charged songs over his career spanning both sides of the isle. From his conservative-leaning anthems like “Fighting Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” (though he’s said this song was written to be a somewhat humorous portrait), to the more recent anti-war song “America First.” But “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn” might be his crowning, politically-charged moment.
Incensed by the Supreme Court’s decision to allow flag burning under the First Amendment, Merle penned this controversial tune in 1989 and tried to release it, but his label CBS Records refused. So Merle, determined to have the song see the light of day, bought himself out of the stipulations of his CBS contract simply so he could release the song. And just so nobody was confused of where Merle’s heart was in the matter, he gave all the proceeds from the song to the Disabled Veterans of America.
8. Recording Pancho & Lefty with Willie Nelson
Merle Haggard isn’t known especially for being a legendary duet partner, but when he paired up with Willie Nelson in 1983 to record Pancho & Lefty whose title track is the famous Townes Van Zandt song, a strange magic ensued. The song “Pancho & Lefty” went straight to #1, and so did the album. It also launched another Top 10 hit, “Reasons to Quit,” written by Haggard. Willie & Merle went on to be named the Vocal Duo of the Year by the CMA in 1983.
9. Helping to Define The Bakersfield Sound
As the bean counters on Music Row out in Nashville decided that for country music to survive, strings and choirs needed to be added, and that they needed to “refine” the sound of this rural art form to appeal to older audiences, the country music rebels out in California said “screw that” and we’re slinging their telecasters around, playing way too loud, and pushing boundaries. Right beside Buck Owens at the forefront of this movement was Merle Haggard with his hard-driving, hard-edged sound, embellished by Ralph Mooney’s blaring steel guitar.
Not only did The Bakersfield Sound keep Nashville’s “Countrypolitan” in check, it also showed many of Bakersfield’s rock and roll neighbors in places like LA and San Francisco that country music could be cool, and next thing you know you have bands like The Byrds and The Grateful Dead cutting country records.
10. Recording 38 #1 Hits… 38 OF THEM!!!
- “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” (1966)
- “Branded Man” (1967)
- “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)
- “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” (1968)
- “Mama Tried” (1968)
- “Hungry Eyes” (1969)
- “Workin’ Man Blues” (1969)
- “Okie from Muskogee” (1969)
- “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970)
- “Daddy Frank” (1971)
- “Carolyn” (1971)
- “Grandma Harp” (1972)
- “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” (1972)
- “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me” (1972)
- “Everybody’s Had the Blues” (1973)
- “If We Make It Through December” (1973)
- “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore” (1974)
- “Old Man from the Mountain” (1974)
- “Kentucky Gambler” (1974)
- “Always Wanting You” (1975)
- “Movin’ On” (1975)
- “It’s All in the Movies” (1975)
- “The Roots of My Raising” (1975)
- “Cherokee Maiden” (1976)
- “Bar Room Buddies” (with Clint Eastwood) (1980)
- “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (1980)
- “My Favorite Memory” (1981)
- “Big City” (1981)
- “Yesterday’s Wine” (with George Jones) (1982)
- “Going Where the Lonely Go” (1982)
- “You Take Me for Granted” (1982)
- “Pancho and Lefty” (with Willie Nelson) (1983)
- “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1983)
- “Someday When Things Are Good” (1984)
- “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room” (1984)
- “A Place to Fall Apart” (with Janie Frickie) (1984)
- “Natural High” (1985)
- “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987)
“Artist to watch” is an often-used term that may or may not be a good fit for certain performers, especially young ones that still have so many decisions to make about their lives and careers, and have so many determinations to be made about their talent, drive, influences, and style. But when it comes to the 18-year-old singer-songwriter Mary Sarah, “artist-to-watch” might not be a strong enough designation to speak to the potential of this artist.
Born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, and set on a path from a very young age to become a performer, Mary Sarah spent her adolescence traveling around in showcases for young, potential music stars, and signed to Los Angeles-based talent agencies. From the beginning, Mary Sarah has been groomed for the big time, and you can tell there is money and muscle behind this girl; in fact maybe a little too much money and muscle, where you wonder where the carefully-crafted image and marketing end, and the singing-songwriting 18-year-old girl begin.
Mary Sarah seems to be following the Taylor Swift career path in some respects. If you poke around YouTube and such, you can find a young Mary Sarah singing cover songs from Taylor Swift and other country pop and pop stars. At 14, she released her first album Crazy Good that resides very much in the young singer-songwriter country pop realm. She’s recently been spending a lot of time touring radio stations, which is also a sign of an artist wanting to take the direct, industry route to a country music career.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story of young Mary Sarah. She professes a deep love for traditional country music, and began performing on the local Opry circuit around Houston as she grew older, meeting the Oak Ridge Boys who saw a YouTube video of her singing and invited her on stage at the Galveston’s Grand Opera House in January of 2012. This led to Mary Sarah and her mother eventually moving from Texas to Nashville to work on a very interesting recording project from which a duet with the recently-passed Ray Price was released in tribute to the Country Music Hall of Famer.
Recorded at The Sound Kitchen in Franklin, TN with producer Kent Wells, the unreleased Mary Sarah legends album called Bridges matches up the young singer with an unbelievable roster of legacy country talent recording classic country songs, and not just the obvious names like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson that appear on the album, but even artists like Lynn Anderson and Freddy Powers, not to mention Merle Haggard, The Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Vince Gill, Ronnie Milsap, Big Kenny, John Rich, and of course, Ray Price. Even more astounding is that Mary Sarah’s executive producer and mentor is Freddy Powers—the songwriting / guitar-playing powerhouse who has penned so many hits for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson just to name a few. Mary Sarah is not just some industry ingénue, she has some of the best living representatives of traditional country music behind her.
One of the remarkable things about Ray Price is that right up to his passing, his voice was as boisterous and warm as ever, and when you cue up this “Heartaches By The Number” duet with Mary Sarah, you hear Ray Price come alive again with such clarity, with such body to his legendary, vibrato tone, it’s enough to raise hairs and overwhelm. But not to be outdone, Mary Sarah delivers a flawless performance herself that that rises to the level of complimenting Ray Price on this remarkable remake. The production and arrangement breathes new life into the track, while honoring the song’s classic lineage.
Mary Sarah could break either way at this point. She could become like an Amber Digby type and be a traditional country singer from Texas who has a solid, dedicated, sustainable, but smallish following, or she could become the next Taylor Swift. Or, even better, she could potentially bridge these two worlds with her Bridges album, and take traditional country music to a popularity level it hasn’t enjoyed in recent memory.
The reason teenagers and young adults love young pop country stars like Taylor Swift is because they can relate to them. Mary Sarah is an awfully beautiful young woman with all the stage presence, charm, and media savvy a young star needs to reach the very top of the music industry. In fact in some respects it’s all almost so perfect you tend to want to throw some dirt on it, and some may be untrusting of what they’re seeing and hearing because it’s so refined and flawless.
But as for the “Heartaches By The Number” duet, you can’t get much better, and that is coming from one that doesn’t like many remakes or cover songs. And to know there’s an entire album of similar material out there just makes you hungry for more. Mary Sarah’s Bridges album was initially slated for release in the Spring of 2013, and then the summer of 2013, but has yet to surface. It may be the fault of some Music Row bean counters sitting on their hands, or it could be Mary’s team is waiting for the exact right time and opportunity. Some chatter now has the album coming in the spring of 2014. But if Mary Sarah’s duet with Ray Price is any indication, this will be a release well worth the wait, and so will be the arrival of Mary Sarah on the national stage.
Two guns up.
At the 56th Annual Grammy Awards Sunday night, country legends Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard performed a medley of songs together along with Blake Shelton, with the occasion being Kris Kristofferson receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award and having his first self-titled album inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. But this grouping wasn’t accidental, or an augmented version of the supergroup The Highwaymen that Willie and Kris were once a part of with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
A long-planned, and even longer-rumored album and grouping of Willie, Merle, and Kris called “The Musketeers” has been in the works for years. Saving Country Music first reported on the potential supergroup in January of 2011 when the three men were assembled as part of Merle Haggard’s recognition by the Kennedy Center Honors. Haggard told Rolling Stone at the time:
We got to eat a little something together. We didn’t know what the hell this food was, but we thought it was funny. We (Merle and Willie) talked about doing that together, but with the presence of Kris, we talked about the three of us doing it. I’m sure if we’re healthy and live to do it, we’ll do it. We thought about the title: the Musketeers. You know, because there’s the three of us. We’ll come up with some little way of describing ourselves I guess and put it together into a show.
“The Musketeers” might just be a placeholder for the eventual name, but apparently the three Country Music Hall of Famers are still serious about the idea, and are working on music. When asked by Billboard before The Grammy Awards if a collaboration between the three men could be in the offing, Willie Nelson responded, “We’re working on one now.” When asked when fans could expect something, and if it could be this year, Willie responded, “As soon as we get it together. Could be.”
Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson have toured together in an acoustic show numerous times since 2009, and Willie Nelson worked with Merle Haggard in 2007 on the album Last of The Breed. Willie and Merle also collaborated on the Townes Van Zandt classic “Pancho & Lefty.”
Finally stimulating The Musketeers to go from talk to actual tracks might be the recent revelation from Kris Kristofferson that he’s beginning to experience memory issues.
THE 56th ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS
• When: 7 PM Central, 8 PM Eastern, 5 PM Pacific on CBS.
• Where: The Stapes Center, Los Angeles, CA.
• Host: LL Cool J
THINGS TO WATCH FOR
More Traditional Country Than One Might Expect
• Though the Grammy Awards are all-encompassing, there will be quite a bit of country, including classic country on the night with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson scheduled to perform. Just like we saw with the CMA Awards in November, there is a renewed push to at least include something for classic country’s often-overlooked fans. There will also be a tribute to the recently-passed Phil Everly. See a complete list of the country performances below.
Kacey Musgraves To Push Boundaries…again.
• Similar to the CMA Awards, Kacey Musgraves will be performing her song “Follow Your Arrow.” At the CMA’s, the line “roll up a joint” was censored by ABC. We’ll see if CBS follows suit. She is also up for Best Country Album, Best Country Song for “Merry Go ‘Round,” and the all-genre Best New Artist. With her status as a critic’s favorite, and the propensity for the Grammy Awards to traditionally be more about artistic appeal than commercial success, Kacey should at least be considered a strong nominee, at least for the country awards. The 56th Grammy Awards could be where the Kacey Musgraves experiment sticks if she walks away with the top prizes.
THE COUNTRY PERFORMANCES
• Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Blake Shelton will all perform a medley of songs together (which one of these things is not like the others?). The performance will begin with Willie and Kris singing the Jimmy Webb-penned song “The Highwayman.” Then all the men will sing a version of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” and end with Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.”
• Miranda Lambert & Billie Joe Armstrong will perform a Everly Brothers tribute. Phil Everly recently passed away, and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day recently released a tribute album to the brother duo with Norah Jones. No word why Miranda is the duet partner and not Norah.
• Kacey Musgraves will reportedly be performing her current single “Follow Your Arrow” that had the “roll up a joint” line censored by ABC during the CMA Awards in November.
• Hunter Hayes will be performing a brand new anti-bullying single called “Invisible.”
• Taylor Swift is rumored to be performing “All Too Well.”
• Keith Urban will be performing with John Legend in a salute to the Beatles.
• Hunter Hayes, Zac Brown, and Martina McBride will be award presenters.
• See the list of the non-country performances below.
These awards have already been given out as part of The Grammy Award’s per-televised events.
• Kris Kristofferson was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
• Kris Kristofferson‘s first, self-titled album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
• Dolly Parton‘s song “Jolene” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
COUNTRY AWARD NOMINEES & PREDICTIONS
The most shocking story of this Grammy Awards season was the snub of Jason Isbell from even being nominated for the Americana Album of the Year. This is a perfect example that the Grammy community is very much on the outside looking in when it comes to country music, especially the sub-genres like Americana and bluegrass.
At the same time, The Grammy Awards have a better history of picking artists based on their artistic merit as opposed to their commercial success. Remember it was the Grammy Awards that recognized Johnny Cash’s comeback during his American Recordings years when the country music industry was still ignoring him. Similarly the Grammy Awards tend to vote more down political lines, like when they recognized The Dixie Chicks after their blackballing from country music. This all sets up well for an artist like Kacey Musgraves.
The Grammy Awards are notoriously hard to predict, but I’ll do my best.
Best Country Album
I see this as a two horse race. Though the women of country are such underdogs these days, Kacey Musgraves as the critical favorite, and Taylor Swift as the commercial favorite, have to be considered the likely winners. There’s an outside chance for Blake Shelton because of his high profile from The Voice, but he would be an upset. Aldean & McGraw have no chance. In the end I think Swift will take it, but don’t rule out Kacey.
- Jason Aldean, Night Train
- Tim McGraw, Two Lanes of Freedom
- Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park – Other Potential Winner
- Blake Shelton, Based on a True Story…
- Taylor Swift, Red – Winner
Best Country Solo Performance
Probably a race between ‘I Drive Your Truck” that won the CMA, or Darius Rucker’s version of ‘Wagon Wheel.’ Outside chance again for Blake Shelton because he’s so well-known, and there will be pressure to give him something. Understand this award is mainly for the performance, not the song. But if ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ wins, it would be a noteworthy win for songwriters Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, and if ‘Wagon Wheel’ wins, for Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bob Dylan. Remember when Darius Rucker said he better be nominated or “Country Music’s Screwed“?
- Lee Brice, ‘I Drive Your Truck’ – Winner
- Hunter Hayes, ‘I Want Crazy’
- Miranda Lambert, ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’
- Darius Rucker, ‘Wagon Wheel’ – Other potential Winner
- Blake Shelton, ‘Mine Would Be You’
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
The Civil Wars have been Grammy darlings in the past, and may still win despite the band dissolving last year. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton would be the sentimental vote, but they should be considered a long shot. We may see Scott Borchetta assert his power here and have ‘Highway Don’t Care’ walk away with the hardware. It is cool to see a lot of good country names in this category, including Vince Gill. This is a very hard one to pick.
- The Civil Wars, ‘From This Valley’ – Other potential Winner
- Kelly Clarkson feat. Vince Gill, ‘Don’t Rush’
- Little Big Town, ‘Your Side of the Bed’
- Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift & Keith Urban, ‘Highway Don’t Care’ – Winner
- Kenny Rogers with Dolly Parton, ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends’ – Other potential Winner
Best Country Song
Another wide open field. Lee Brice once again has to be thought of as a front runner, but this very well may be Kacey Musgraves’ moment. This win would arguably mean more to her than any other nominee. And remember, Kacey and Brandy Clark also win if Mama’s Broken Heart’ is ultimately selected. I don’t really see Taylor Swift or Blake Shelton having a chance with this one.
- Taylor Swift, ‘Begin Again’
- Lee Brice, ‘I Drive Your Truck’ – Other potential Winner
- Miranda Lambert, ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’
- Kacey Musgraves, ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ – Winner
- Blake Shelton, ‘Mine Would Be You’
All Genre Awards
- Taylor Swift’s Red is the sole country album up for Album of the Year, and it is my pick for the winner. The other strong contender would be Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
- Kacey Musgraves is up for Best New Artist, but it is hard to see her outlasting Macklemore + Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, or Ed Sheeran.
AMERICANA & BLUEGRASS NOMINEES
Once again the Americana genre is saddled by its very narrow perspective in nominees. And except for Sarah Jarosz, they are all older artists this year. Compare this with last year when John Fullbright, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and The Lumineers were all nominees. The Americana nominees really show how much the Mumford backlash took root, and how that was very much last year’s trend. Jason Isbell got completely screwed, and so did many other deserving artists.
Not going to make any predictions for these awards because they are all wide open fields. Anybody could win here. These awards will be given away before the televised portion of the awards, so check the Saving Country Music LIVE blog for winners.
***UPDATE – In the pre-televised Grammy presentation….
- The Grammy for Best American Roots Song went to Edie Brickell and Steve Martin for “Love Has Come For You“.
- The Grammy for Best Americana Album went to Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell for “Old Yellow Moon“.
- The Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album went to Streets of Baltimore from the Del McCoury Band.
- And the Grammy for Best Folk Album went to My Favorite Picture of You by Guy Clark.
Best Americana Album
- Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell — Old Yellow Moon
- Steve Martin & Edie Brickell — Love Has Come For You
- Buddy Miller And Jim Lauderdale — Buddy And Jim
- Mavis Staples — One True Vine
- Allen Toussaint — Songbook
Best Bluegrass Album
- The Boxcars — It’s Just A Road
- Dailey & Vincent — Brothers Of The Highway
- Della Mae — This World Oft Can Be
- James King — Three Chords And The Truth
- Del McCoury Band — The Streets Of Baltimore
Best Folk Album
- Guy Clark — My Favorite Picture Of You
- The Greencards — Sweetheart Of The Sun
- Sarah Jarosz — Build Me Up From Bones
- The Milk Carton Kids — The Ash & Clay
- Various Artists; Chris Strachwitz, producer — They All Played For Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration
Best American Roots Song
- “Build Me Up From Bones”
- Sarah Jarosz, songwriter (Sarah Jarosz)
- Steve Earle, songwriter (Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses))
- “Keep Your Dirty Lights On”
- Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott, songwriters (Tim O’Brien And Darrell Scott)
- “Love Has Come For You”
- Edie Brickell & Steve Martin, songwriters (Steve Martin & Edie Brickell)
- “Shrimp Po-Boy, Dressed”
- Allen Toussaint, songwriter (Allen Toussaint)
OTHER GRAMMY PERFORMERS
- Beyonce and Jay Z will open the show with “Drunk In Love.”
- Gary Clark, Jr.
- Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue
- Sara Bareilles featuring Carole King
- Daft Punk featuring Nile Rodgers, Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams
- Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons
- Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
- Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr
- Metallica featuring Lang Lang
- Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham
- Katy Perry featuring Juicy J
- Pink featuring Nate Ruess
- Robin Thicke featuring Chicago
The grandson of Hank Williams and the son of Hank Jr. is having to deal with yet another post-contract release from Curb records, this time called Rambin’ Man, slated for release on April 1st. Insert your April Fool’s jokes here. The album will include 8 tracks of outtakes, unreleased material, and cover songs Hank3 contributed to tribute albums and other projects during his Curb years. Most of the music is stuff Hank3 fans have already heard, repackaged to look like a new album.
Hank3 entered into a 6 album contract with Curb in the late 90′s after a child custody suit and a judge forced him to get a “real job”. Curb was able to stretch Hank3′s album count to 7 by releasing Hillbilly Joker in 2011; a “hellbilly” album Curb initially rejected, but released after Hank3 had fulfilled his contract at the end of 2010. Then Curb released an outtakes album in 2012 called Lone Gone Daddy that brought the total of Curb releases on Hank3′s 6-album contract to 8. Ramblin’ Man would make it 9.
With the news of the release of Long Gone Daddy, Hank3 fans knew Curb still had unreleased material from the 3rd generation star, because a cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m The Only Hell (My Momma Ever Raised)” that was rejected on his Damn Right, Rebel Proud album had yet to surface. Though Curb decided at the time that the cover song was not fit for public consumption, similar to how they rejected Hank3′s Hillbilly Joker album altogether, they see perfectly fit to release the song now on this new record.
Hypothetically, Ramblin’ Man would be the last of Hank3′s material from the Curb era, though the inevitable “Greatest Hits” card has yet to be played by the label.
Some other interesting notes from the track list: “On My Own” was a song from Hank3′s previous Curb record Risin’ Outlaw. “Ramblin’ Man” is a song by Hank Williams that Hank3 once recorded a cover of with The Melvins, as was Merle Haggards “Okie From Muskogee”. “Fearless Boogie” is a ZZ Top song Hank3 once covered on the tribute Sharp Dressed Men. “Marijuana Blues” originally appeared on Rare Breed: The Songs of Peter LaFarge.
Hank3 has previously encouraged fans to burn these albums and share them instead of buy them. He’s also indicated intention to release new material in 2014.
Ramblin’ Man Track List:
- Ramblin’ Man
- Fearless Boogie
- Okie From Muskogee
- The Only Hell (My Momma Ever Raised)
- On My Own [Full Length Version]
- Marijuana Blues
- Hang On
- Runnin’ & Gunnin’
Aaron Lewis may know a little something about what country isn’t. He spent the first 16 years of his music career as the emotionally-distraught and misanthropic frontman of the alternative rock band Staind before deciding in 2010 to record a “country” EP. The project was released in 2011, and included the single “Country Boy” that despite the participation of George Jones and Charlie Daniels, still felt like what Aaron Lewis had been doing with his acoustic shows for over a decade, except for trying to brow beat the listener into buying into how country he was.
2012 saw the release of Aaron’s second single, “Endless Summer,” which along with other misdeeds, name dropped Jason Aldean of all people. It was looking like Lewis was falling right in line with the procession of other country music outsiders fleeing to the country genre in the twilight of their careers to find commercial strength. But when his full-length album The Road was released in late 2012, it was actually a pleasant surprise to hear just how country and non-commercial it was.
While talking to The Marion Star in Ohio ahead of an upcoming show, Aaron decided to let his disdain for the direction of country music be known.
“I think there’s enough beer on the beach, partying on the tailgate, driving around in a pickup truck, moonshine songs,” Lewis said. “I think that everything has been pretty well beaten to death. And I’ll opt for my usual … making sure the song has emotion and feeling and means something… I don’t know what it is that country radio is playing these days. I’m really not quite sure. There’s a song out right now that’s a big single for a big act, and at the very end of the song you can hear a banjo come up in the mix for four measures. And you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s the country aspect of it. Now I get it.’ But that is not country music, I’m sorry.”
Lewis also says he doesn’t like to be lumped in with Kenny Chesney when he mentions he plays country.
“It’s funny because people hear Aaron Lewis and country they often think Kenny Chesney when they should have thoughts of Jamey Johnson and David Allen Coe. It’s country like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Johnny Cash … I almost even like the fact that I’m having all of this success without the machine really embracing me. And I’m not sure that it would have been as valuable to me as an artist to have the very first song I ever delivered to country go straight to the top of the charts and never have to work for it, so I never had to start out in the honky-tonks and where it should start. And man, I’ve sold out every honky-tonk place in the last few years and it’s where it should start. I believe in building a foundation and then building your house on top of that.”
Maybe Aaron is bitter because the country industry didn’t embrace him, or maybe he’s come around to the side of dissent for other reasons. But despite where Aaron Lewis and country music began or where it eventually may be going, at the moment he seems to be making the effort to understand that making country music means embracing more than just the name.
“I love my fans and have devoted my life to reaching out to them. I appreciate their support all these years and I hope I haven’t let them down. I am at peace. I love Jesus. I’m going to be just fine. Don’t worry about me. I’ll see you again one day.” — Ray Price
Country music legend Ray Price has passed away at his ranch in Mount Pleasant, TX after a prolonged battle with pancreatic Cancer and side effects from Cancer treatment. Ray was 87-years-old, and the above message was the final words he left to his fans.
Earlier reports by Ray’s son and local news station KETK that Ray Price had passed away yesterday apparently were presumptive, but the reports today come directly from family friend Bill Mack.
Ray returned to his ranch in Mount Pleasant on December 12th to receive hospice care after an extended stay at the East Texas Medical Center in Tyler, TX. Janie Price says Ray chose to spend his final days on his “beloved ranch surrounded by the comfort of his home, family and friends.”
Ray Price was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November of 2012 and began receiving radiation treatment. By February of 2013, the cancer was in remission and Ray was back performing, but the Cancer came back, and complications from the treatment had kept Ray in and out of the hospital for the majority of the year. Earlier this year, Ray was given the choice to have surgery that would place him permanently in a nursing home, and elected to forgo the procedure.
In May, Ray was admitted to the hospital for Post Radiation Syndrome, giving the country music singer extreme diarrhea and resulting in the loss of too many fluids. Ray was later discharged, but was then re-admitted to the hospital for a severe bacterial infection in his blood line, known as sepsis, in October.
Ray’s widow posted on December 12th,
With God’s blessing he has not had extreme pain. But it’s with great sadness that I announce to you today that my beloved husband has entered the final stages of his cancer that he has battled for 25 months. Anyone who knows Ray is aware that he has strong convictions and great faith in God. It’s his decision to leave the hospital and return home to spend his final days on his beloved ranch surrounded by the comfort of his home, family and friends.
Ray Price was born in Perryville, TX and served in the United States Marine Corps for 3 years before joining the “Big D Jamboree” show in Dallas in 1949. He then went on to manage Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboy band after the untimely death of Hank in 1952. In 1953, Ray Price formed his own band, the Cherokee Cowboys, which had many notable members over the years, including Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck , Johnny Bush, and steel guitar player Buddy Emmons amongst others.
Ray scored his first #1 hit in 1956 with the song “Crazy Arms” written by steel guitar player Ralph Mooney, and later became seminal to the 1960′s “Nashville Sound,” scoring a total of eight #1′s, including “My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You,” “City Lights,” “The Same Old Me,” “For The Good Times” in 1970 written by Kris Kristofferson, and “I Won’t Mention It Again” in 1971. One of his most well-known songs is “Heartaches By The Number” released in 1959.
He released over 50 albums over his career and became a legend of country music, being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. Ray won two Grammys, two ACM Awards, and a CMA Award for Album of the Year from 1971. Ray continued to perform all the way up to this year, and released his last album Last of the Breed with good friends Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 2007.
Oh the irony that the man whose name is on the tip of many people’s tongues as the one who brought country music to its knees and made it more about money than music, could also be the man in the best position to ultimately help save it.
Yes ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about Garth Brooks.
Over the past few weeks and months, Garth has been dropping hints to fans that the future will hold some big announcements, and big events. Last week he released the cryptic message, “The sevens have aligned. It has begun… Thank you for believing… love, g.” He also announced recently that he will be ending his Las Vegas residence, and that his last show on November 29th will be televised on CBS. Rumors and conjecture are swirling, but so far there has been little information that is either concrete or confirmed about Garth’s future.
In truth there’s a lot less mystery here than some would like you to believe. What’s going to happen is that here very soon, either on his November 29th TV special or shortly before or after, Garth will announce a new album, and plans for a subsequent arena/stadium tour in support, and it will all transpire in 2014. As much as Garth may want to get everybody buzzing with speculation and anticipation, this is exactly what he said he was going to do when he quote “retired” from country music in 2000. He said then that he wanted to take more time to be with his family, and that once his kiddos were done with school, he’d ponder a return. And lo and behold, his youngest daughter Allie is now 17, and scheduled to graduate High School this year. So yes, 7′s are aligning, or whatever.
This is 2013, and everything surrounding the name “Garth Brooks” has changed. If you’re taking to some social network channel to beam, “Hey you know what? With the crap that’s out there today in country music, Garth Brooks doesn’t even sound half that bad,” then you are already a couple of years behind the relevant opinion curve. Whatever Waylon Jennings said or didn’t say about Garth, pantyhose, and a certain element of foreplay that Garth was the equivalent to, it’s all virtually irrelevant at this point. The simple fact is Garth Brooks, despite a nearly 15-year absence from the full-time music hustle, is as poised as any to make major waves in the country music world, and to do so his way.
In many ways the 7′s have aligned for Garth, and not just because of the particulars of his personal life. Last year George Strait announced he would end full-time touring, and he’s making his final rounds on the arena/stadium circuit as we speak. Both Alan Jackson and Vince Gill have recently accepted their fate that they’re no longer top tier concert draws, and have gone in a more rootsy direction and taken their places as country music legacy acts. Even Kenny Chesney said recently he’s going to take a break from touring. All of this leaves a massive void in the country music touring realm for a big-drawing, well-established artist.
But just what shape will Garth’s triumphant return take? That is really the only question left to answer. We really don’t have much intel or insight into this subject this early in his phase of returning, but what I do feel confident in going on the record as saying is that I don’t see Garth getting involved in either the country rap or laundry list lyric craze, or any other current pop country trend. As much as Garth’s detractors hate to admit it, one of the reasons he retired, and one of the reasons his regrettable Chris Gains era reared its ugly head is because Garth was bored, and didn’t want to chase trends. Garth wanted to make his own trends, and his own music. Whatever Garth does, it will be true to Garth.
And Garth also won’t do anything unless he knows it’s going to be successful, both with its reception and its financial reward. He’s already voiced concerns about how the digital age will effect his ability to release music. If/when he does release music and go on tour, he will have all bets hedged, and it will be huge.
And even if Garth gets out on stage and acts like a jukebox of his Greatest Hits with some new material mixed in, this will offer such a stark contrast to country music’s current flavors, it will immediately constitute a positive counter-balance, swinging the scales in whatever degree back to the true sound of country music. Look at what Garth has been doing at his Vegas shows. He’s been stripping them back, just him and his acoustic guitar, playing songs from Merle Haggard and George Jones. I don’t expect to see this specifically from his reboot, but I do expect it to be traditional and substantive in nature compared to the current country mainstream. Garth isn’t going to be able to fool anyone. He can’t fit in Luke Bryan’s skinny jeans. He’s going to get out there and be Garth, and by the sheer draw of a man who’s bested only by Elvis in album sales in music history will create a dramatic amount of interest, and assert a tremendous amount of influence.
The inaugural inductees to the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame set to open in the Spring of 2014 in Lynchburg, TN have been unveiled. In an event carried live during a 3-day concert in Altamont, TN, the 17 initial inductees were announced in two different categories: Pioneers/Innovators (Pre-1970), and Highwaymen (1970-1990).
Along with the official inductees, the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame also announced Guardian Award winners. The Guardian Award is not a Hall of Fame induction, but a one-year award meant to honor an artist’s hard work and unwavering commitment to their music and their fans and best exemplify the tradition of those who came before them. The Hall of Fame also announced that fans will be able to vote on Guardian Award winners in the upcoming years.
OUTLAW HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES
- Hank Williams Sr.
- Loretta Lynn
- The Carter Family
- Bobby Bare
- Chris Gantry
- Willie Nelson
- Waylon Jennings
- David Allan Coe
- Kris Kristofferson
- Merle Haggard
- Johnny Cash
- Johnny Paycheck
- Sammi Smith
- Steve Young
- Jessi Colter
- Hank Williams Jr.
- Billy Joe Shaver
- Dallas Moore
- Wayne Mills
- Hank Williams III
- Jamey Johnson
- Whitey Morgan
The Hall of Fame is dedicated to those artists, both musicians and songwriters, whose work best exemplifies the qualities of the Outlaw movement that first began in the 1970′s and has gained renewed momentum as an alternative to the current Nashville pop country scene. In doing so it will place the spotlight on music firmly attached to the roots of country. Moreover, the Hall of Fame will educate the public about Outlaw country, memorialize founders of the genre—such as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jessi Colter—recognize current Outlaw artists, and provide a platform for them and for the independent record labels who currently have little if any voice in the industry.
The facility, due to open in spring of 2014, will encompass more than 5,000 square feet and feature a state-of-the-art layout, including interactive displays. There will also be a studio to allow for live broadcasts to be streamed over the Internet. Located on the town square in Lynchburg, the Outlaw Music Hall of Fame will sponsor a concert series each April to November to showcase independent roots country artists.
As much as we may love the older music performers we grew up with, or cherish the performers from a past beyond our own, there might be nothing worse to behold as a music fan than watching an aging artist who refuses to come to grips with reality, and won’t let go of the spotlight. Of course it is a shame that the music business is so callous towards its aging talent and seems so quick to cast its older entertainers off. But all artists eventually age and experience the passing of mass interest, and must face a new set of realities.
As much as Ronnie Dunn started out showing promise as a substantive artist and one willing to speak his mind about the state of the country music business after the Brooks & Dunn breakup, he’s now out there now kinking his hair and cutting country rap songs. Hank Williams Jr. might be the poster boy for the country artist who’s unwilling to face their fate; carousing with Kid Rock and taking great care not to show any gray in his mane. Remember when Alabama collaborated with ‘N Sync? Or the catastrophe of Kenny Rogers’ facelift? Even our beloved Willie Nelson had a moment when he thought the best thing for his career was to cut a Dave Matthews song produced by Kenny Chesney. We can’t blame our country heroes for not wanting to call it quits from the mainstream spotlight until they’re absolutely sure it’s time, but sometimes you wonder why they just can’t rest on their laurels, appreciate their years of success and the financial windfall it afforded them, and simply refocus on the music as their first priority.
That is exactly what we are seeing from two of country music’s most prestigious previous heavyweights: Alan Jackson and Vince Gill. With 34 CMA Awards, over 20 Grammys, and and some 80 million records sold between the two, they both have seen their share of overwhelming commercial success, public notoriety, and peer recognition. But over the last few years the writing has been on the wall that their time has come, and their days of widespread radio play and big awards are over.
And so what did these two men do? Did they shake their fists at the system and criticize it for being unfair? Did they try to mix it up with some young artist outside of the genre to hopefully rekindle interest? Did they debut a new look to try to hide their age? No, they both did something out-of-the-ordinary—they embraced their roles as legacy artists, and put out albums that paid homage to the roots of the music that brought them both so much fortune over the years.
Vince Gill teemed up with legendary steel guitar player Paul Franklin and put out an impressive and energetic tribute to the West Coast influence on country called Bakersfield, swapping songs from California country titans Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. For all the chatter about country having to evolve to stay commercially viable, Bakersfield debuted at #4 on the charts and sold an impressive 12,000 copies its first week—virtually unheard of for a tribute album, especially one from an older artist.
Right on the heels of Bakersfiled‘s success, Alan Jackson has just released an album of bluegrass music simply called The Bluegrass Album. It includes 8 Jackson originals all done in authentic bluegrass style, and covers artists like Bill Monroe and The Dillards. The record is a critic’s favorite and has been creating tremendous buzz.
As much as country music, especially in the current era, may feel like a business of the here and now, one thing that still separates country from other genres is the role of the legacy artist. Rock once had this as well, but there is a reason a 51-year-old Sheryl Crow decided to bring her act to country in 2013. As much as it may pain purists when pop and rock artists cross over to country, it also speaks to how despite the conventional thinking of modern country as a kid’s game, country still deliver strength to older artists. Sure, artists like Vince Gill and Alan Jackson may no longer be able to sell out arenas, but they’re also not considered “has-been’s” simply because the big hits have stopped coming. You may not be treated as a superstar in the twilighting of your country career, but you’re still doted on as a legend by core fans who will never forget your contributions. That was one of the unfortunate things about the early passing of Waylon Jennings. He never got that opportunity to take a victory lap and stand as a country music elder statesman.
Like Emmylou Harris allowing her raven hair to turn a shimmering silver, watching an artist age in country music can be a splendid thing to behold when the artist performs the transition with grace, class, and wisdom, and the industry allows this process to unfold naturally instead of shutting them out. By setting new parameters of success that don’t have to do with sales and flashy awards, an artist can craft the finishing touches on their legacy while the genre shows their respects for their contributions.
But moreover, what Vince Gill and Alan Jackson have proven is they still have plenty of tread on the tires, and aging artists can still have a sizable impact and contribution to the country music canon.
From author David Cantwell and the American Music Series of the University of Texas Press comes a brand new book about the iconic country music Hall of Famer and Kennedy Center Honoree Merle Haggard. Covering his entire career, but focusing mostly on his most prolific decades, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind delves into this complex, often contradictory icon of country music, exploring the creation of many of Merle Haggard’s greatest hits and the life and times that inspired them.
This 294-page book focuses on the music, and the man. From humble beginnings in California, to becoming one of the most well-recognized names in country music, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind explores the fascinating contradictions—most of all, the desire for freedom in the face of limits set by the world or self-imposed—that define not only Haggard’s music and public persona but the very heart of American culture.
Merle Haggard: The Running Kind is available from the University of Texas Press, Amazon, and all major online book retailers.
Saving Country Music is also giving a copy away to anyone who wishes to leave a comment below, naming either their favorite Merle Haggard album or song. And if you can’t pick just one, list as many as you want. Just make sure to include your real email address so we can contact you if you are the winner.
***UPDATE: Congratulations to David Smith who won the free copy! Thanks everyone else for contributing!
Kudos to Vince Gill, who yesterday (9-8-13) emerged from the Muriel Kauffman Theatre in Kansas City to accost a slew of Westboro Baptist Church protesters outside, apparently protesting his appearance because he is married to Christian music artist Amy Grant. Both Vince and Amy Grant are divorced after previous marriages.
“Vince Gill, what in the world are you doing out here? More importantly, what are you doing with another man’s wife?” says one female protester as Vince walks amongst them, with an anti-Westboro bystander taping the incident with a smartphone. “I came out to see what hatred really looked like in the face,” Vince responds.
“Don’t you know that divorce plus remarriage equals adultery?” the female protester continues.
“Don’t you know that (you) are lucky that you don’t have the sign that says something about my wife?” Vince snaps back, and then says, “(Jesus) said a lot of stuff about forgiveness, about grace. You guys don’t have any of it.” Then Vice moves on, telling another protester that he’s seen him on TV before, and then calls him a “dipshit.” Before the video cuts off, Vince asks, “Are any of you Phelps’s, or are you guys like the ‘C’ team?
Gill is currently promoting his new album with steel guitar player Paul Franklin called Bakersfield. The duo switches off covering songs from Merle Haggard and Buck Owens from the heyday of the Bakersfield Sound.
Vince Gill was previously married to singer Janis Oliver from the country duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo. They married in 1980 and had one daughter, eventually divorcing in 1998. Amy Grant was previously married to Christian singer Gary Chapman. The couple married in 1982 and had 3 children, divorcing in 1999. Vince Gill and Amy Grant married in 2000, and have a daughter.
A big battle ground in country music right now is the presence of so many songs about trucks. Everywhere you turn, there is a song being released by a big country music personality that drones on and on about tailgates, Chevy’s, lift kits, mud flaps, etc. etc. Though this recent popularity trend seems especially sinister in its simplistic, incessant nature, it is not necessarily unprecedented in country. From the early 60′s into the mid 70′s, songs about semi-trucks and truck drivers were all the rage, with big names like Merle Haggard, Del Reeves, and Buck Owens getting in on the action, and professional country songwriters writing songs to specifically to capitalize off the trend similar to what is happening in country music today.
The difference of course was many of these classic trucker songs were considered very well-written, with many of them delving into deep issues like death, loneliness, loss of family, etc. Country music’s new crop of truck songs and their respective songwriters and performers could learn a thing or two about storytelling and soul from these traditional country truck driving songwriters and performers.
Maybe the best known of the country trucking crooners, with the most-recognized, most-covered trucking song in “Six Days On The Road,” Dave Dudley is an overlord of the country music truck driving music subset. Holding an honorary solid gold membership card to the Teamsters Union, he broke out with “Six Days On The Road” in 1963 and never looked back. Other great country trucker classics like “Truck Drivin’ Son-Of-A-Gun,” “Trucker’s Prayer,” and “Keep On Truckin’” are also attributed to Dudley, but like many of the old truck singers, he had his standard country hits too. Dave Dudley was actually the first to cut Kris Kristofferson’s song “Viet Nam Blues” that first put Kristofferson on the songwriting map, and Dudley’s only #1 song was the Tom T. Hall-written number “The Pool Shark.” Dudley had hits for over a decade, with his last big single “Me and Ole C.B” peaking at #12 on the charts in 1975.
Red Sovine was known for his trucking songs, but his particular twist was how he would talk in prose instead of singing his songs in rhyming verses. Sovine’s speaking style would have significant influence on the rest of country outside the trucking sub genre, while his trucking songs set the bar for emotional impact and storytelling. Sovine’s #1 “Teddy Bear” is right up there with Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Road” as one of the most well-recognized country trucking songs, and Sovine also charted another #1 with “Giddyup Go.” His song “Phantom 309″ wasn’t a huge hit, but it found a new audience when Tom Waits included a live version of it on his album Nighthawks At The Diner. Sovine also had a non-trucking #1 hit in a duet with Webb Pierce in 1955 with the song “Why Baby Why.”
With a patch over his right eye, Dick Curless was considered a throwback even in his own time. He was one of the pioneers of country trucking music, with his first big hit “A Tombstone Every Mile” making an appearance as a top five country hit in 1965. Songs like “Traveling Man,” “Highway Man,” and “Big Wheel Cannonball” established Dick’s persona as a man constantly on the move, and won him a spot on the nationwide Buck Owens All American tour. Like many of country’s trucker song stars, Curless spent a lot of time in California and was signed to Capitol Records, though he was known to frequently go back to his home in Maine to recover from a grueling schedule of touring and performances.
While Red Simpson may have not had the huge hits of his trucker song counterparts, he was also the one most dedicated to the specialized version of country. With only a few exceptions, virtually all of Red Simpson’s songs are about trucking or the highway patrol. He was the trucker songwriter other trucker songwriters listened to, and wrote many trucker hits for other artists. Based out of Bakersfield, he co-wrote songs with Buck Owens, and became a hot commodity when trucker songs became popular. The trucking song “Sam’s Place” that went on to become a #1 for Buck Owens was written by Red, and in 1975, Red landed his own big hit with “I’m A Truck.” At 79, Red is the last of the original country trucker song stars still around. In 1995, he recorded two duets with Junior Brown, “Semi Crazy” and “Nitro Express.” He is still recording, recently doing a duet with underground country artist Bob Wayne, and rumored to have an album called The Bard of Bakersfield in the works.
C.W. McCall got a late start in the trucking genre, joining the second wave of the movement in the mid-70′s. But his contribution was significant, especially with his #1 hit, the trucking song standard and generally epic “Convoy.” The song inspired a movie of the same name that starred Kris Kristofferson in 1978, and McCall was regarded in some circles as the “Outlaw” of the country trucker song performers. “Convoy” became so big, some consider McCall a one hit wonder, but he had numerous successful songs, inside and outside the trucking realm. His first charting single was “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep On-a-Truckin’ Cafe,” and he also had a #2 single with “Roses For Mama.” C.W. McCall’s popular career was pretty short, ranging from roughly 1974-1978, but his impact, especially with “Convoy” cannot be understated.
Though Del Reeves is known for contributing much more to the country music genre than just trucking songs, his two significant cuts, the #1 hit “Girl On The Billboard” from 1965, and the top 5 hit “Looking at the World Through a Windshield” from 1968 make Del Reeves and honorary trucking song god if there ever was one, and an important performer in the development of the sub genre. Reeves also put out an album called Trucker’s Paradise in 1973.
…and to an extent their sister band Asleep At The Wheel deserve honorary mention for being inspired and a part of the 70′s-era trucker song revolution, though it is widely considered they were somewhat on the outside looking in. Nonethess, Commander Cody’s second album that consisted mostly of covers called Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites from 1972 might be one of the most prized albums of the sub genre.
Not really known exclusively as singer of truck driver songs, but his albums The Truckin’ Sessions (1998) and The Truckin’ Session, Vol. 2 certainly deserve mention, with the first one considered by many to be the album that launched Dale’s career. Dale has also been known to drive trucks and his own bus upon occasion.
Another artist not primarily known for trucker songs, but Junior Brown has them scattered throughout his discography, including the title track off of his 1996 album, Semi Crazy. Junior’s signature song “Highway Patrol” rekindles the symbiotic relationship between trucker songs and highway patrol songs first started by Red Simpson, who he recorded two duets with in 1995.
Aaron Tippin may be best known for his more patriotic songs, but he’s peppered trucker songs here and there throughout his career. In 2009, Tippin released an album called In Overdrive that included many truck driving cover songs and closed out with two originals. His truck driving cred is helped by the fact that he was a real-life truck driver before launching his career in country music.
A lesser-known underground country artist, but one who includes trucker songs (usually of a pretty seedy nature) on every one of his albums, including his 2nd album 13 Truckin’ Songs. Bob Wayne recently performed and recorded a duet with Red Simpson after re-discovering him in a Bakersfield trailer park.
Merle Haggard & Buck Owens as part of the Bakersfield Sound both had quite a few big trucker anthems. One of Jerry Reed’s signature songs is “East Bound & Down” from the Smokey & The Bandit movies where he played a trucker. Tom T. Hall wrote and recorded a few trucking songs. And there’s many other artists who’ve recorded more than one trucker song. Who are some of your favorites?
James L. Payne, aka Jody Payne, electric guitarist for Willie Nelson for 35 years, has passed away. He died this morning (8-10) in Stapleton, AL due to cardiac arrest according to his wife Vicki. Payne had been suffering from heart problems for years prior.
Payne was part of Willie Nelson’s legendary “Family Band” for over 3 decades until he decided to retire from the road and began teaching guitar. He was born in in Garrard County, Kentucky where he began singing at six years old. Jody first played professionally with Charlie Monroe in 1951, and then was drafted into the army in 1958. After two years of service, he settled in Detroit where he initially met Willie Nelson in 1962, but did not start playing with him until years later. Throughout the 60′s Payne played bass for Ray Price, and also played with Merle Haggard among others before eventually joining Willie in 1973.
Payne was married to country singer Sammi Smith. The couple eventually divorced. They had a son Waylon Payne who is also a musician, performer, and actor. He is also survived by another son Austin Payne, and his wife Vicki who he married in 1980.
Willie Nelson’s Facebook page has posted, “Our friend will be missed.”
Here’s Jody Payne singing Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother” on the pilot episode of Austin City Limits.
Just in time to coincide with the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Bakersfield Sound exhibit, country music maestro Vince Gill, along with legend of the steel guitar Paul Franklin have released Bakersfield, a tribute to the Bakersfield Sound and it’s two biggest icons, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. This ten song album swaps between Buck and Merle tunes and features some of their most notable songs like “Foolin’ Around,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and “The Fightin’ Side Of Me.” And you can win yourself a copy, including one copy singed by Vince and Paul right here on Saving Country Music (see below).
“Vince and Paul offer a great new touch to a great old sound,” says Merle Haggard who wrote the liner notes for the album. “It was great, certainly to hear my music done with the great touch of Vince and Paul. I feel highly complimented. But it was especially great to hear what they did with Buck’s stuff. Some may not notice, but I for one knew how great Buck really was, first as a musician, then as an artist.”
Vince Gill concurs, saying “This is just as much a guitar record for me as it is a singing record.” Gill plays all the acoustic and electric guitar fills and solos on the album, while Paul Franklin, who like Vince is a member of the prestigious studio supergroup The Time Jumpers and a 13-time winner of the ACM’s “Steel Guitar Player of the Year,” takes the rest of the fills. Together they breathe new life into songs originally released between 1961 and 1974.
To enter to win a copy of Bakersfield, simply leave a comment below telling us your favorite Buck Owens and/or Merle Haggard song. And if you have more than one favorite, leave as many favorite songs as you want. Just make sure to use your real email address when signing in to leave a comment so we can contact you to receive the goods if you’re chosen. Two people will be chosen to receive the CD, and one an autographed CD.
Track List:1. Foolin’ Around – Buck Owens (Written by Harlan Howard and Buck Owens) 2. Branded Man – Merle Haggard (Written by Merle Haggard) 3. Together Again – Buck Owens (Written by Buck Owens) 4. The Bottle Let Me Down – Merle Haggard (Written by Merle Haggard) 5. He Don’t Deserve You Anymore – Buck Owens (Written by Arty Lange and Buck Owens) 6. I Can’t Be Myself – Merle Haggard (Written by Merle Haggard) 7. Nobody’s Fool But Yours – Buck Owens (Written by Buck Owens) 8. Holding Things Together – Merle Haggard (Written by Bob Trotten and Merle Haggard) 9. But I Do – Buck Owens (Written by Tommy Collins) 10. The Fightin’ Side Of Me – Merle Haggard (Written by Merle Haggard)
(8-6-13) Congratulations to commenter “Casey” who won the autographed copy, and “Keith L.” (who complained about folks not following the rules, so maybe its appropriate), and “Troy Turner.”
After a six year wait to release an album of original material at the mercy of Curb Records’ career-shattering and sometimes illegal talent retention program, prolonging the release process for artists on their final album with the label nearly indefinitely, the embattled and bruised LeAnn Rimes has finally released Spitfire—a diverse country pop record with a few interesting moments, a few moments that are not so interesting, but an intriguing mix of content and influences that is worth a deeper sniff than your average Music Row fare.
These days with so many of country music’s women setting the bar higher and higher in regards to quality and progressiveness of content, you almost can’t discount any country female project without a closer investigation. As the men try to outpace each other in their headlong dash to see who can reach the newest low in country on a daily basis, the women are doing everything they can to keep country out of the dirt road ditch. And after all, you have to be a pretty hard critic to not hear some of those very first LeAnn Rimes hits like “Blue” and not feel a stirring in your country heart and keep hope that LeAnn will at some point in her career re-discover her original, unblemished magic.
But LeAnn Rimes has been her own worst enemy over the past few years. A big glossy magazine cover story cheating scandal erupted for her a few years ago, and more recently a strange story about her tipping off photographers to where to snap her wearing a bikini in hopes to draw positive pub. When you’re a bona-fide superstar at 14-year-old, it can do strange things to the psyche, and that is what we’ve seen with LeAnn over the years. One minute she wants the cameras to respect her privacy, and another she wants their focus.
The chatter around Spitfire has been polarizing to darn near bellicose, with the main focus being the album’s lack of commercial appeal. While in the mainstream world this accusation might be poison, to independent country fans this is a flag that maybe this album is one of those rare Music Row gems, similar to Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof from 2012. But what you get with Spitfire is an album that is neither here nor there, resting in sort of the demilitarized zone of country music where neither the mainstream nor independent world really want to claim it or sing its praises.
But when stripped down to just the songs, there is still some material on Spitfire worthy of both mainstream and independent ears. The second song on the album “What Have I Done” is surprisingly mellow, subtle, and artistic, without being sappy or mawkish like many mainstream ballads can veer towards. It’s a sincere little song right off the bat that let’s you know that Spitfire is not going to be some cookie cutter album. It also sets the tone in the album of LeAnn directly addressing her now well-chronicled infidelity, giving Spitfire a personal feel. And then how does LeAnn follow this up? With another song that delves into these very same subjects, and with a similar understated and artistic approach in “Borrowed” that is brushed with mournful steel guitar.
But in between these songs is the busy and overdone “Gasoline and Matches.” Just like the title track of the album, it tries too hard to evoke this overused theme in modern pop country of badass women oversinging songs that always involve fire in some way and that completely sap any soul out of a composition. As complimentary as one can be about female country in 2013, this audio equivalent to three snaps in a ‘Z’ formation is as unsavory as it gets to the active music listener, and so is the oversinging that usually accompanies it. This formula rears its ugly head again in the very rhythmic, almost rapping “You Ain’t Right.” Though you can hear how the lyrics would be a fun listen for some women, these songs illustrate that in female pop country in 2013, it’s not what you sing, but how you sing it, squeezing in silly, acrobatic vocal runs that ruin the story of the song, ignore the sweet spot of the singer’s range, and stretch the song’s pocket until it just comes across as saccharine diva-ish show-offidness. It’s the singing competition show influence on popular music.
Another song from Spitfire that has some people talking is “I Do Now.” The track mentions Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and delves into how you may love classic country artists and their songs when you’re young, but never really understand the subject matter until you’ve lived through the themes yourself. Though the story of the song works very well, once again LeAnn’s vocal approach centers your attention around her singing, and will keep traditional country fans that the song would otherwise appeal to at arm’s length.
And that is pretty much how Spitfire goes. It may be too heady for a wide mainstream audience, but there’s a little too much fluff to enact a resurgence of LeAnn’s traditionalist roots. Or, if you want to see the glass half full, there’s a little something for everyone. Maybe this album was destined to be misunderstood, and seeing how it has fallen pretty precipitously in the charts, this would seem to be a proper diagnosis (though it may be just as much a commentary on Mike Curb’s eroding powerbase). But instead of letting one song or LeAnn’s personal missteps outside of music turn you off of this album, if you’re subject to liking some of the music coming from the mainstream when it’s not positively awful, you may want to give Spitfire a fair glance and decide for yourself.
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