The River's Badge

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Best Country Albums - Part 2


Since my last post, I've thought about other "Best" albums and wondered if there were any from an era other than the nineteen eighties. I've determined that eras are rather unfair. After all, as I've noted before, country albums were once simply a collection of one or two hit tracks combined with cover songs. I don't know if producers were lazy or they suffered from "we've always done it this way" disease. Most likely it was because country fans bought singles and albums were an afterthought -- a  way to put a pretty cover (in the case of female artists) on the rack and convince shoppers to buy the ninety-eight-cent '45 of "I Don't Wanna Play House". I bought a lot of Greatest Hits albums way back when, because other LP's were disappointing. A few artists pushed back -- mostly artists from Bakersfield. Some Nashville acts, too, transcended the status quo. Not many.

I've thought about how I even knew that certain albums existed at the time, and I realize it was because of WHO radio and Mike Hoyer. Mike was the overnight DJ on WHO in Des Moines, Iowa; and around two a.m. he'd slap an album on his turntable and play it all the way through. Touring acts would also show up in Mike's studio and perform songs live. In the sixties, it was Mike Hoyer and Ralph Emery on WSM who were the keepers of the country flame. And Bill Mack on WBAP in Fort Worth. Those three. That's all. My radio signal rarely caught WSM and I'd lie awake until three a.m. to try to catch WBAP. WHO, though, always came through loud and clear. That's how I knew what was what with real country.

All that said, I've decided to isolate "best" albums by the times in which they were recorded.

The Sixties

Ten years in country music is a long-ass mile. A lot changed in the sixties. Are we talking 1961 and Jimmy Dean or 1969 and Conway and Loretta? The sixties should actually be divided into the almost fifties/early sixties and the Merle Haggard slash Dolly Parton era. Nevertheless, here are some albums that were most likely the "best" of that time.



Here's the only video I could find, but trust me, this album was a cornucopia of superb country (I mean "country") songs:







Burning Memories is definitely a "best". Ray Price's album is one of my very, very favorites. I'm guessing it was released in 1965, smack dab in the middle of the schizophrenic sounds that assaulted our tender ears. Ray's smooth tenor was a soothing balm. And yet it tore at our hearts. I can find no live performances of any of the awesome tracks from this album, but give this a listen:



There was a time when we cheered live albums. Why? Maybe because Nashville sucked the soul out of every song it deemed to record and live albums were real life.

This live album was real:


Merle did impersonations and Bonnie flubbed the lyrics to her song and Merle said, "that's all right".

Merle live:


In the fifties, Patsy Cline and Faron Young and some other country stars performed at Carnegie Hall. That was considered curious. Apparently New Yorkers were too snobbish to listen to country music. Most were and are. That concert was most likely viewed as a novelty; something for the sophisticates to giggle about the next day. I don't know that any live recording exists of that concert. I personally would have loved it -- but I'm from the Midwest, after all.

About ten years later Buck Owens took a chance and showed up at Carnegie Hall with his Buckaroos. It's impossible to understate the importance of Buck Owens to country music in the sixties. There were two competing factions -- the "Nashville Sound", watered down "listen to us -- we're really not country!" and Bakersfield. Bakersfield won. One could argue that if not for Buck Owens, there wouldn't have been a Merle Haggard. It's been posited that Buck stole his songs from unknown songwriters. I don't know the truth. Regardless, Buck Owens' claim to fame is that he created a "sound". Crunchy telecasters, drums not buried; not muffled. Drums keeping the beat as they should, for the two-stepping couples in the honky tonks. Heavy on the steel, thank you. Alcohol and tears go hand in hand, and nothing cries like a steel guitar.

Here is "the sound", from the Carnegie Hall album:


Before I finish out the best of the sixties, here is one album that I would consider a "best".

Lynn Anderson, before she scooted on over to Columbia Records, recorded on a little-known label called Chart. One could argue that the move to Columbia was the best thing that ever happened to Lynn. After all, that's the label on which she recorded Rose Garden. I would postulate that in the move Lynn lost her soul. In the sixties I wished I could sing like Lynn Anderson. She sang like an angel. Her new husband, Glenn Sutton, may have been chart-savvy, but he never brought out the best in Lynn's voice. 

This was her best:



Here is a sampling:




The Seventies

I seriously thought this was a sixties album. Well, it was on the cusp, released in 1970. Country duos began seriously with Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. They set off a whole seventies trend -- Conway and Loretta, Mel Tillis and Sherry Bryce, Hank Williams, Jr. and Lois Johnson. Suddenly duets were hot.

This duet album was the best:



This album had so many good songs, it's difficult to pick just one. YouTube has made it easy for me, however. There are only a couple of videos available. Here is one:


Ronnie Milsap was a product of the seventies, and he was huge. I saw Ronnie in concert with a couple of other artists I don't remember. That's how he dominated. Take a great singer, add some great country songs, stir in some piano and a whole lot of soul, and you have Ronnie Milsap.







Gary Stewart entered the country scene like a tornado. Who was this guy, and where did he come from? Suddenly he was just there. New country artists were rare. Country music was a continuum. George Jones had "The Race Is On" and then he morphed to "A Good Year for the Roses". Faron Young could never do better than "Hello Walls" and then he found a new producer at Mercury Records and soared, with songs like "Wine Me Up". But they'd always been there. I only vaguely remember the first recording by Merle Haggard, but it seemed he'd always been around. In the seventies new artists, brand-spankin' new, just showed up. All I had available to me was my radio. There was no YouTube or Pandora. Country TV was Hee Haw, if we could stand it. No Nashville Now. No CMT. 

And suddenly there was this guy:


Gary Stewart's story is a sad one. I prefer to remember his music:


Things that should not be forgotten are. It took a guy from New Jersey to remind Nashville what country music was all about. I was so parched for good music in the seventies, it was a revelation to find someone good. Really good. Eddie Rabbitt, like Gary Stewart, died young. But damn! We should not forget either of them. And Eddie? Well, if you love a rainy night or you're driving your life away, thank him.



Rocky Mountain Music was far above anything any country artist released in that seventieth decade.


And there you have it -- the sixties and seventies "best", wrapped up in one lonely blog post.  

I liked seeing Eddie and Gary and Porter and Ray again. Old friends. 

I miss them.




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