Archive for the ‘Country History’ Category

The Originals – Country Edition

March 26th, 2020 5 comments

Here’s a mix of originals of country hits, and the stories behind some of them. For those who expect a lot of hackneyed yee-haw’s and songs about dogs that gone and died, there may be little satisfaction. But many of these songs bear out what was made so clear in Ken Burns’ recent magisterial documentary series on the history of country music: the great songs are about the stories. Listen to country for its sounds or reject it for the same reasons, but if you hear the words, you’ll have great entertainment regardless of how you feel about the odd twang or dobro.

The potted History of Country I wrote some years ago is still available as as e-book as a free download.

And the greatest of all country songs, Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down was treated with its remarkable story in a songswarm. I include the first released recording, by Ray Price, as a bonus track.


A Boy Named Sue
The Johnny Cash signature tune was actually written by the ultimate Renaissance Man, Shel Silverstein (who previously featured in this series as the author of Dr Hook’s/Marianne Faithfull’s The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan, on Any Major Originals – The Classics).

It is unclear what inspired Silverstein to create this fantastic story about the guy with a girl’s name (or why the boy named Sue just didn’t acquire a butch nickname). But there once was a prominent Mr Sue. Sue K Hicks was the original prosecutor in the notorious 1925 Scopes Trial.

Cash (or possibly his wife June Carter; the accounts vary) was introduced to the song at a “guitar pull” party in Nashville, at which musician friends ran their latest compositions by one another. According to Cash, other artists present that night were Bob Dylan (who played Lay Lady Lay), Judy Collins (Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now) and her then lover Stephen Stills (Judy Blue Eyes), and Silverstein.

Just before his televised 1969 concert from St Quentin jail, June suggested that Johnny perform Silverstein’s song. And he did. On the film footage he can be seen referring to the scribbled lyrics of the song taped to the floor. And so his spontaneous performance of the song, apparently the first time he had ever sung it, became one of his biggest hits. Some have claimed that Cash’s lack of familiarity with the song explains his half-spoken delivery. But Silverstein’s 1968 version, from the Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs album, is similarly half-spoken.

Silverstein followed the song up with a composition from the father’s perspective, using the same tune (Find it on the Any Major Fathers Vol. 1 mix). Oh, and Mandark in Dexter’s Laboratory is in fact called Susan.


Rose Garden
Before Lynn Anderson had a hit with it in early 1971, Rose Garden had been recorded by two soul acts — Dobie Gray and The Three Degrees — and before them, in 1968, by its writer, Joe South, who had in 1967 given the song to his old pal Billie Joe Royal. South had written Royal’s two best-known songs, Down in the Boondocks and Hush. Both of those were singles; Rose Garden remained an album track on the unwieldily titled Billy Joe Royal Featuring ‘Hush’. South’s far superior version was also just an album track (he’d have a hit later with Games People Play).

Lynn Anderson almost did not record the song. Execs at her record company, Columbia, didn’t like it much and thought it inappropriate for a woman to sing a song which represents a male perspective (for example in the line “I could promise you things like big diamond rings”). As it happened, there was some spare time during a studio session, and the track was recorded. The label’s micro-managing head, Clive Davis, heard it and decided that it should be Anderson’s next single. It was a big hit in the US and Europe, and Anderson’s version remained the biggest selling recording by any female country artist until 1997.

I think Rose Garden should have been recorded by Elvis in his American Sounds Studio period (which yielded tracks like Suspicious Minds and In The Ghetto); it could have been huge.


Detroit City
It took a name-change from the song’s best-known line to the geographically-specific Detroit City for Bobby Bare to score his first big hit, in 1963. Before Bare changed the title to Detroit City, the song was known as I Wanna Go Home, and had been a country hit for Billy Grammer a few months earlier. The famous guitar figure that kicks off Bare’s hit version also features in Grammer’s version, but in the middle of the song.

Grammer, later a guitar designer, had a way of riffing on life on the road; in 1959 he had a million-seller with Gotta Travel On— which Bare would dutifully cover as well. I Wanna Go Home was written by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis (who also wrote Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town).


Streets Of Baltimore
Tompall Glaser was one of the original country Outlaws — in fact, he owned the studio where the term was coined on account of the artists who recorded there. With his brothers, he supported Johnny Cash on tour in the early 1960s before as Tompall & The Glaser Brothers they signed for MGM Records in 1966.

The same year Tompall co-wrote Streets Of Baltimore, the sad story of a man who selflessly gives up everything, including his farm back in Tennessee, so as to fulfil his woman’s dream of living in Baltimore — with no happy ending, at not least for him.

Tompall’s cousin Dennis, who worked for him, told me in an e-mail in 2009 that the original song had many more verses. “Harlan [Howard; the legendary country hit writer] told me once that Tompall stopped by his office and gave him a copy of what he’s written, which was much longer than the final version. And said: “˜Here, fix it’. It sounds like something Tom would say.’

But the Glasers didn’t recorded the song first; Bobby Bare did, possibly after having been given the song by Harlan Howard. Recorded in April 1966 (produced by Chet Atkins) his version was released as a single in June 1966; the Glasers’ was recorded in September. Bare went on to have hit with it, reaching #7 on the Country charts. The song became more famous in the wonderful version by Gram Parsons, which appeared on his 1973 GP album. Likewise, the 1998 duet by Nanci Griffiths and John Prine is essential.

Dennis Glaser also said that the song has been mentioned in an American literature textbook “as an example of songs that reflect actual life”.


Make The World Go Away
Written by the legendary country songwriter Hank Cochran, Make The World Go Away was first recorded by Ray Price, but was first released by blue-eyed soul diva Timi Yuro, whose version reached #24 on the Billboard Charts in 1963. Price’s version, which was released a month after Yuro’s, became a huge country hit. But two years later, veteran crooner Eddy Arnold made the sing his own and scored a mammoth hit with.


Crazy Arms
Four years before Make The World Go Away, Ray Price had a massive hit with Crazy Arms, a recording which set the tone for country music for the next decade. But before Price got his hands on it, Crazy Arms was an unremarkable country ballad written in 1949 by steel guitar legend Ralph Mooney while he was in Las Vegas (there are claims that an ill-fated songwriter named Paul Gilley sold the lyrics to Mooney). Singer Wynn Stewart cut an acetate demo, but the song went unrecorded for several years.

In 1956 Mooney sold the song to a California baker named Claude Caviness who had set up a record label, Pep, as a vehicle for his moderately talented singing wife Marilyn Kaye. He had the song recorded as a duet, with Kenny Brown and Kaye doing vocal duty, backed by the Arkansas Ramblers.

Their recording was not a hit, but Price discovered it while visiting a radio station in Florida. He changed some of the lyrics, gave it a new arrangement — and had a huge hit with his recording. When Caviness popped up to claim ownership of the song, Price didn’t fight back but formed a music publishing company with him. That’s how you solve a problem the Nashville way.


Here’s a song that could work on different types of Originals theme: a 1960s theme for the cover by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood; or the country take by Johnny Cash & June Carter, both from 1967. Originally it was a folk piece for the Kingston Trio, release in 1963 and written by Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler (who’d later pen the rape tale Coward of the County). Wheeler had no particular Jackson in mind — he liked the sound of the consonants — but Cash decided to place it in Tennessee, where it has remained ever since.


Gonna Get Along Without You
Country went pop in the early 1950s when vocalist Theresa Brewer scored a hit with country singer Roy Hogsed’s I’m Gonna Get Along Without You in 1952, followed by kid duo Patience and Prudence in 1956. It returned to country in 1964 with Skeeter Davis version, considered by country fans as the definitive take. Since then the sing has been recorded, with various tweaks to the title, in different genres, including reggae (The Melodians), funk (The Vibrations), ska (Bad Manners), disco (in Violas Wills’ 1979 hit version from) and alt.rock (The Lemonheads).

Roy Hogsed recorded fairly prolifically between 1947 and 1954, but enjoyed only one minor country hit, Cocaine Blues. He died at 58 in 1978.


You Are My Sunshine
A standard to the point of cliché, You Are My Sunshine was a big hit in 1940 for Jimmie Davis, who’d become governor of Louisana from 1944-48 and 1960-64 (in the latter election campaign, he was a strong segregationist). From Davies’ croonery the song found its place in the canon of the Great American Songbook. But its roots are very much in country.

Its authorship is credited to Davies and his sideman Charles Mitchell, but they had nothing to do with writing. They bought the credit from the Rice Brothers Gang, who were the second outfit to record it. Three weeks before they got around to it, You Are My Sunshine was recorded in August 1939 by The Pine Ridge Boys from Atlanta, an outfit that recorded and performed in various incarnations for decades after.


Tennessee Waltz
On a Friday night in 1946, country singer and accordionist Pee Wee King (who was born by the decidedly un-country name Julius Kuczynski in Milwaukee) was driving with Redd Stewart, fiddler and singer with King’s Golden West Cowboys, to Nashville when the radio played bluegrass legend Bill Monroe’s Kentucky Waltz. Wondering why nobody ever dedicated a waltz to the state of Tennessee — home to country music capital Nashville, after all — they decided to relieve the boredom of the long drive by writing one, setting lyrics, written on a matchbox, to an instrumental they had been playing in concerts, the No Name Waltz.

One might think that Pee Wee King’s version, with Stewart on vocals, would be the first to be recorded. However, he was scooped by Cowboy Copas, who would perish on the plane that killed Patsy Cline (one of the many who later covered Tennessee Waltz). Lloyd Copas had been a singer with Pee Wee King’s band in the early 1940s, succeeding Eddy Arnold. It may be that Pee Wee first gave the song to his old frontman, who made a recording of it in April 1947 for (ironically) King Records in Cincinnatti, and another in June that year. It is most likely the latter recording that was released in March 1948 and became a #3 country hit. Pee Wee King recorded his version in December 1947. Also released in early 1948, it also peaked at #3, but at half a million copies sold more than Copas’ take.

By 1950, Tennessee Waltz had become something of a country classic, and even jazz singer Anita O’Day had covered it, when it became a mammoth crossover hit for Patti Page, whose version remains the best known. It topped the pop, country and R&B charts simultaneously, a unique feat. As so often, the big hit was first a b-side, in this case to the less than immortal Boogie Woogie Santa Claus. For a b-side, much effort went into the production, which used a rudimentary form of vocal overdubbing to go with the backing track by the Jack Rael Orchestra. An acetate was recorded of Page singing the song, and this would be played into one microphone while Page sang into a second microphone. Page’s version of her dad’s favourite song went on to sell 6 million copies.


Wabash Cannonball
The oldest song in this collection is also one of the most influential country songs Wabash Canonball (named after a famous railroad) is best-known in the 1947 version of Ray Acuff, one of the mega stars of country in the ‘40s. But the song itself goes back to at least 1882, with a song titled The Great Rock Island Route credited to J. A. Roff, and to 1904, when an adapted version of it was released under the current title as sheet music by William Kindt.

In 1929 it was first recorded by the Carter Family (and A.P. Carter duly gave himself a writing credit as well), but their version went unreleased for three years. In the interim, 25-year-old banjo picker and radio performer Hugh Cross became the first to release Wabash Cannonball on record, also in 1929, but using the Kindt arrangement.

The song would be recorded several times before 1947, when Acuff had his big hit with it. Funny enough, Acuffs’ had recorded Wabash Cannonball back in 1938, with is band The Tennesseans — but in that session, member Sam “Dynamite” Hatcher did the lead vocals.


Wild Side Of Life / It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
When in 1952 Kitty Wells released her answer song to Hank Thompson’s The Wild Side Of Life, it caused a sensation. Here a woman dared to answer back to the moaning of a chauvinist. With her hit It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, which in terms of success eclipsed Thompson’s lament, became an inspiration to many women. And it turned the singing housewife Wells into a star.

But neither The Wild Side Of Life nor It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels were first recorded by the gender-battle protagonist who had their chart-topping hits with these songs.

The male perspective was first recorded by Jimmy Heap & The Melody Masters (with Perk William on vocals) in 1951; the answer record by the otherwise rather obscure songstress Al Montgomery was released as Did God Make Honky Tonk Angels a few months before Wells recorded hers.

The melody for both was adapted from a group of similar songs: Thrills That I Can’t Forget by Welby Toomey and Edgar Boaz in (1925), The Carter Family’s I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes (1929), and Great Speckled Bird (popularised by Roy Acuff in 1936).


Sweet Dreams
Released after she died in a plane crash, the unusually poppy Sweet Dreams became so associated with Cline that the successful biopic was named after the song. Originally, it was Don Gibson’s song, and his own composition (as was the future Ray Charles hit I Can’t Stop Loving You). Gibson’s version made no inroads, and a cover by Faron Young fared much better. But even though Young’s record did better on the Billboard country charts (#2 against Cline’s #5), it was Cline’s version that became the classic, even crossing over into the pop charts.


The Battle Of New Orleans
Originally a traditional folk song known as The 8th of January, The Battle of New Orleans tells the story of a soldier fighting with the genocidal Andrew Jackson’s army against the British in the 8 January 1815 battle of the title. It was first recorded in 1957 and released the following year by Jimmy Driftwood, a school teacher in Timbo, Arkansas.

Born James Morris, he is said to have been one of the nicest guys in the folk music scene (not surprisingly, he was a collaborator with the great musicologist Alan Lomax). As a history teacher, Driftwood considered song to be an educational device, and so in 1936 (or 1945, depending which sources you believe) he set the fiddle-based folk song to lyrics — there were no definitive words, only snippets of recurring phrases — to benefit his students.

In the 1950s, Driftwood was signed by RCA, and eventually recorded The Battle Of New Orleans, with the label’s session man Chet Atkins on guitar. He later wrote another country classic, Tennessee Stud, which became a hit for Eddy Arnold and Johnny Cash (Tarantino fans will know it from the Jackie Brown soundtrack).

Shortly after Driftwood recorded The Battle Of New Orleans, the doomed country star Johnny Horton did a cover which relied less on manic fiddling and dropped such radio-unfriendly words as “hell” and “damn” — and scored a big hit with it (he even changed the lyrics for the English market, turning the enemy “British” into generic “rebels”).

Horton released several “historical records” (most famous among them, perhaps, Sink The Bismarck), though it would be unfair to reduce his influence on country music to that. A close friend of Johnny Cash’s, Horton died in a car crash in 1960, widowing his wife Billy Jean for the second time — she had been married to Hank Williams when the country legend died. Spookily, both Williams and Horton played their last concerts at the Skyline Club in Austin, Texas.

Two other takes on The Battle Of New Orleans are notable. In 1959, skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan reached the UK #2 with it — but received no airplay on Aunty Beeb until he changed the word “ruddy” to “blooming”.

The song was revived in 1972 by the Les Humphries Singers, a multi-ethnic and multi-national English-language ensemble of hippie demeanour that was very popular in West Germany with its Ed Hawkins Singers-meet-Hair shtick. Humphries, an Englishman, renamed the song Mexico (not a stretch; that country’s name appears in the original lyrics) and scored a massive hit with his outfit’s joyous rendition. The trouble is, Humphries credited the song to himself, a brazen act of plagiarism. I have found no evidence that Humphries, who died in 2007 at 67, was ever sued for his blatant rip-off.


Queen Of Hearts
Here’s one of those songs that some might know better in its original version, and others as the hit cover. Queen Of Hearts was a UK #11 hit for Welsh singer Dave Edmunds in 1979, and two years later a US #2 hit for the unlikely-named Juice Newton, who is most famous for her cover of Angel Of The Morning (the original of which is yet to run in this series). With Newton, the song came home to the world of country: it was written by Hank DeVito, pedal steel guitarist for Emmylou Harris.

Newton earned a Grammy nomination for best country song for her version, and it was her remake that inspired the veteran French singer Sylvie Vartan, who once performed on a bill with the Beatles, to record her French take on the song (retitled Quand tu veux , or When You Want It). A couple of years earlier Newton had tried to have a hit with another British song, but her version of It’s A Heartache lost out in the US to that by Welsh rasper Bonnie Tyler. Later Newton enjoyed a #11 with another cover. Brenda Lee’s Break It To Me Gently.


1. Dave Edmunds – Queen Of Hearts (1979)
The Usurper: Juice Newton (1981)

2. Shel Silverstein – Boy Named Sue (1968)
The Usurper: Johnny Cash (1968)

3. Ed Bruce – Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys (1974)
The Usurper: Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson (1978)

4. Billy Joe Royal – I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1967)
The Usurper: Lynn Anderson (1970)

5. Norro Wilson – Hey Mister (1969)
The Usurper: Charlie Rich (as The Most Beautiful Girl, 1973)

6. Waylon Jennings – Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) (1971)
The Usurpers: Kris Kristofferson, Roger Miller (1971), Tompall & the Glaser Brothers (1981)

7. Bobby Bare – Streets Of Baltimore (1966)
The Usurper: Gram Parsons (1973)

8. Timi Yuro – Make The World Go Away (1963)
The Usurpers: Eddy Arnold (1965), The Osmonds (1975)

9. Billy Brown – He’ll Have To Go (1959)
The Usurper: Jim Reeves (1959)

10. Billy Walker – Funny How Time Slips Away (1959)
The Usurpers: Jimmy Elledge (1961), Willie Nelson (1962), Joe Hinton (1964),

11. Ray Price – Heartaches By The Number (1959)
The Usurper: Guy Mitchell (1959)

12. Merle Travis – Sixteen Tons (1947)
The Usurpers: Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955), Frankie Laine (1956)

13. Kenny Brown & Marilyn Kaye – Crazy Arms (1956)
The Usurper: Ray Price (1959)

14. Don Gibson – Sweet Dreams (1955)
The Usurpers: Faron Young (1956), Patsy Cline (1963)

15. Margie Singleton – Harper Valley PTA (1968)
The Usurper: Jeannie C. Riley (1968)

16. The Kingston Trio – Jackson (1963)
The Usurpers: Johnny Cash & June Carter (1967), Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood (1967)

17. Jimmy Driftwood – Battle Of New Orleans (1958)
The Usurper: Johnny Horton (1959)

18. Billy Grammer – I Wanna Go Home (1963)
The Usurpers: Bobby Bare (as Detroit City, 1963), Tom Jones (1967)

19. Roy Hogsed – I’m Gonna Get Along Without You (1951)
The Usurpers: Patience & Prudence (1956), Skeeter Davis (1964), Viola Wills (1979)

20. Cowboy Copas – Tennessee Waltz (1948)
The Usurpers: Pee Wee King (1948), Patti Page (1950), Les Paul with Mary Ford (1950),

21. Pine Ridge Boys – You Are My Sunshine (1939)
The Usurper: Jimmie Davis (1930), Gene Autry (1941), Bing Crosby (1941),

22. Hugh Cross – Wabash Cannonball (1929)
The Usurper: Roy Acuff (1936)

23. Jimmie Heap – Wild Side Of Life (1951)
The Usurper: Hank Thompson (1952)

24. Al Montgomery – Did God Make Honky Tonk Angels? (1952)
The Usurper: Kitty Wells (1952)

25. Bonnie & Fuzzy Owens – A Dear John Letter (1953)
The Usurper: Ferlin Husky & Jean Shepard (1953)

26. Big Bopper – White Lightning (1958)
The Usurper: George Jones (1959)

27. Paul Davis – Six Days On The Road (1961)
The Usurper: Dave Dudley (1973)

28. Arthur Smith & His Cracker Jacks – Feudin’ Banjos (1955)
The Usurper: Eric Weissberg (as Dueling Banjos, 1972)

Ray Stevens – Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down (1969)
The Usurpers: Johnny Cash (1969), Kris Kristofferson (1970)


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Categories: Country History, The Originals Tags:

Any Major ABC of Country

February 14th, 2019 1 comment

Having been asked a few times, I’ve re-upped the whole History of Country series, which I put together between 2010 and 2012. The eBook of the series is still up as well; the eBook and series are what I hope is a decent and brief primer for country music. My idea was that the series might attract people to dig a bit deeper into country.

So to announce the re-upping of the series, here’s an ABC of Country. In absence of any country acts starting with X, the playlist is a letter short. The artists were chosen more or less at random, though I was conscious of including at least one black country singer (the superb O.B. McLinton), and to have some very old and some newer material. The oldest song here is by Uncle Dave Macon, who was born in 1870, and was already 57 when the present song was recorded in 1927, only a couple of years after the first country track was put down on shellac.

Get your free copy of the A Brief History of Country Music eBook.   (RG link)

As ever, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R, includes home-yodelled covers. PW in comments.

1. Alison Krauss – When You Say Nothing At All (1995)
2. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – Bubbles In My Beer (1947)
3. Carter Family – Broken Hearted Lover (1935)
4. Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner – The Last Thing On My Mind (1967)
5. Emmylou Harris – Boulder To Birmingham (1975)
6. Flying Burrito Brothers – Farther Along (1970)
7. George Jones – From Here To The Door (1966)
8. Hoyt Axton – Never Been To Spain (1971)
9. Irene Kelly – My Sun And Moon (2004)
10. John Prine – Hello In There (1971)
11. Kris Kristofferson – Darby’s Castle (1970)
12. Lefty Frizzell – Shine, Shave, Shower (It’s Saturday) (1950)
13. Merle Haggard and The Strangers – (My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers (1969)
14. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band feat. Merle Travis – Dark As A Dungeon (1972)
15. O.B. McLinton – Obie From Senatobie (1973)
16. Patsy Cline – A Church, A Courtoom, Then Goodbye (1955)
17. Quartette – Lost Between Barren Shores (1994)
18. Rusty Wier – High Road, Low Road (1976)
19. Skeeter Davis – Gonna Get Along Without You Now (1964)
20. Tompall Glaser – When It Goes, It’s Gone Girl (1975)
21. Uncle Dave Macon – Walking In The Sunshine (1927)
22. Vern Gosdin – Chiseled In Stone (1988)
23. Woody Guthrie – This Land Is Your Land (1944)
24. Yonder Mountain String Band – Half Moon Rising (1999)
25. Zac Brown Band – All The Best (2017)




A History of Country series
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Any Major Country History: A mix & a book

January 12th, 2015 10 comments


Any Major Country Mix

It has been a couple of years now since brought my History of Country series under one roof, with a few edits, in an illustrated eBook (well, a booklet, really) in PDF format, titled A Brief History of Country. It seems like a good time to bump that link.

Please feel free to pass it on in good conscience or to link to it on your website: while I assert my copyright for the text, the eBook is completely free. The more people read it and, I hope, gain enough of an understanding of the genre so that they will never call it “Country & Western” again, or say “yee haw, pardner”, the more they will appreciate the wealth of country.

Download A Brief History of Country eBook


And to give you some music to go with that, here’s a compilation of some of my favourite songs from the 22-part series, one from each mix plus one to bring the set up to present times, with no claims to being representative of the development of country music. As always, timed to fit on a standard CD-R, includes covers, and same PW as every time.

1. Jimmie Rodgers – Brakeman’s Blues (Blue Yodel No.2) (1928)
2. Moonshine Kate – My Man’s A Jolly Railroad Man (1930)
3. Carter Family – Can The Circle Be Unbroken (By And By) (1935)
4. Uncle Dave Macon – All In Down And Out Blues (1937)
5. Al Dexter and his Troopers – Pistol Packin’ Mama (1943)
6. Hank Williams – Move It On Over (1947)
7. Eddie Kirk – Sugar Baby (1950)
8. T. Texas Tyler – Bumming Around (1953)
9. Johnny Cash – Hey Porter (1955)
10. Hank Locklin – Send Me The Pillow You Dream On (1958)
11. Skeeter Davis – Don’t Let Me Cross Over (1962)
12. Red Sovine – Phantom 309 (1967)
13. Dolly Parton – Coat Of Many Colors (1971)
14. Faron Young – It’s Four In The Morning (1972)
15. Rusty Wier – Texas Morning (1974)
16. Emmylou Harris – Pancho & Lefty (1977)
17. Earl Thomas Conley – Holding Her And Loving You (1983)
18. Keith Whitley – I’m No Stranger To The Rain (1989)
19. Garth Brooks – Friends In Low Places (1990)
20. Lyle Lovett – Step Inside This House (1998)
21. Alison Krauss & Union Station – Restless (2004)
22. Tift Merritt – I Know What I’m Looking For Now (2008)
23. Kris Kristofferson – Feeling Mortal (2013)


 Click here for the complete History of Country series


Categories: Country History Tags:

Free e-Book of A Brief History of Country

January 17th, 2013 19 comments

I have brought my History of Country series under one roof, with a few edits, in an illustrated eBook (well, a booklet, really) in PDF format, titled A Brief History of Country.

Please feel free to pass it on in good conscience or to link to it on your website: while I assert my copyright for the text, the eBook is completely free. The more people read it and, I hope, gain enough of an understanding of the genre so that they will never call it “Country & Western” again, or say “yee haw, pardner”, the more they will appreciate the wealth of country.


Download A Brief History of Country eBook


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A History of Country series



Categories: Country History Tags:

History of Country Vol. 22 – 2007-12

November 15th, 2012 14 comments


Alternative country (known in the style of the Internet newsgroups that championed the movement as, or Americana, combined the genre with its close cousin folk, just as its patron Emmylou Harris had done two decades earlier. Some artists who started off in country”s mainstream found themselves confined to the Americana ghetto, such as Steve Earle, Townes van Zandt, John Prine, Nanci Griffiths, Lucinda Williams and Jim Lauderdale. The birth of may be pinpointed to the 1990 release of the album No Depression by Uncle Tupelo (featuring Jeff Tweedy, later of Wilco, and Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn, later of Son Volt). The album”s title itself is symbolic, borrowing from a song by the Carter Family, the immensely influential group of the 1920s and “30s which mainstream country had long forgotten.

Back then, the genre in which the Carter Family and their contemporaries recorded was known as folk, before the title country began to stick in the late 1940s. Woody Guthrie, the godfather of folk, was part of that tradition. Half a century later, and Americana drew from both the country and folk traditions, as well as the cowpunk sub-culture of the 1980s, with some acts impossible to define.

Other acts, such as Bright Eyes and Tweedy”s Wilco, move across genres. Other acts still move from other genres into country, sometimes temporarily, such as Ben Kweller, the Texan prodigy who in 2009 released a most exquisite country album after a decade in singer-songwriter pop.

The terms alt-country and Americana have fallen out of favour, even as no alternative names have gained currency. Perhaps it is right to call artists such as Tift Merritt, Shelby Lynn or Allison Moorer just Country; it is singers like them, Krauss, Lambert and Wilson ““ surely not the likes Taylor Swift ““  who help keep the traditions of country music alive.

This concludes the History of Country series.

There is a mix, of course. Download link and PW in the comments section.

1. Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles – Stop & Think It Over
2. Gretchen Wilson – One Of The Boys
3. Brad Paisley – I’m Still A Guy
4. Miranda Lambert – Love Letters
5. Patty Griffin – Long Ride Home
6. Lucinda Williams – Fancy Funeral
7. Wilco – Either Way
8. Tift Merritt – I Know What I’m Looking For Now
9. Jordan Trotter – I Want You
10. Rodney Crowell – Sex And Gasoline
11. Drive-By Truckers – George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues
12. Shelby Lynne – Old #7
13. Justin Townes Earle – Working For The MTA
14. Dylan LeBlanc – 5th Avenue Bar
15. Willie Nelson – I Am A Pilgrim
16. Gillian Welch – Six White Horses
17. Alison Krauss & Union Station – Miles To Go
18. Lori McKenna – The Luxury Of Knowing
19. Ashton Shepherd – Where Country Grows
20. Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World
21. Mary Chapin Carpenter – What To Keep And What To Throw Away

(PW in comments)

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Previously in A History of Country
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A History of Country Vol. 21: 2004-07

September 20th, 2012 10 comments

The History of Country series will conclude with the next mix, probably in October. In the meantime here is a mix which includes some or all or none of the songs listed below, which are not in any way at all a tracklisting. The file which might include some or all or none of the songs listed below is PW-protected (see comments section).

I think the track by The Beauty Shop might be my favourite song of the 00s, and the Bright Eyes track is from what might be my favourite album of the decade. And check out George Jones singing one of my favourite Merle Haggard songs.

Alison Krauss & Union Station – Restless
Phil Vassar – In A Real Love
Montgomery Gentry – If You Ever Stop Loving Me
Brad Paisley – Waitin On A Woman
John Prine – Glory Of True Love
Bright Eyes with Emmylou Harris – We Are Nowhere And It’s Now
The Beauty Shop – A Desperate Cry For Help
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins – Big Guns
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Friends
Trisha Yearwood – Trying To Love You
Dixie Chicks – Bitter End
Lee Roy Parnell – Old Soul
George Jones – Footlights (live)
Kris Kristofferson – This Old Road
Patty Griffin – Heavenly Day
Mindy Smith – Out Loud
Neko Case – Hold On, Hold On
The Wreckers – Tennessee
Rosanne Cash – God is In the Roses
Steve Earle – Tennesssee Blues
Tim McGraw – Kristofferson

(includes front and back covers. PW here)


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A History of Country Vol. 20: 2000-04

August 30th, 2012 7 comments

We are slowly coming to the end of the History of Country series. The history narrative will resume and conclude with the next, 21st volume of compilations; a final mix will then bring the series to an end.

As always, I don’t endorse everything on the mixes, though I have filtered out a lot of material that is representative of the era but not worth hearing, or owning. Having said that, there are only two songs on this collection which I’d not care to hear again, and a lot which I warmly recommend “” especially Mindy Smith, Tift Merritt, Dave Alvin and Patty Griffin, and Dolly’s glorious bluegrass version of the Collective Soul song.

As always, the thing includes covers and is timed to fit on a standard CD-R. If you like the song, please buy the artist’s album.

1. Travis Tritt – It’s A Great Day To Be Alive
2. Soggy Bottom Boys – I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow
3. Dolly Parton – Shine
4. Alison Krauss & Union Station – The Lucky One
5. Brooks and Dunn – The Long Goodbye
6. Alan Jackson – Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)
7. Cyndi Thomson – What I Really Meant To Say
8. George Strait – Living And Living Well
9. Dixie Chicks – Travelin’ Soldier
10. Brad Paisley – Little Moments
11. Buddy Jewell – Sweet Southern Comfort
12. Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around
13. Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Long Way Home
14. Marty Stuart – Sundown In Nashville
15. Dave Alvin – Rio Grande
16. Mindy Smith – Fighting For It All
17. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Walkin’ In The Sunshine
18. Patty Griffin – Cold As It Gets
19. Tift Merritt – Good Hearted Man
20. Tim McGraw – Live Like You Were Dying

(includes front and back covers. PW here)


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A History of Country Vol. 19: 1995-99

August 8th, 2012 8 comments

The invention of country-pop, as spearheaded by the likes of Shania Twain, has proven to be a sustainable commercial, though artistically not harmless, proposition. Bland eye-candy singers, their vocals auto-tuned, guitar strapped on and sold as country. The inarguably talented Taylor Swift reportedly asked to be marketed as a country singer not because her music has its roots embedded firmly in that genre, but because such a claim would deliver an audience. Many teenagers today may describe themselves as country fans, but they don”t mean any of the many Hanks or George Jones, but Swift and Carrie Underwood.

While the wildly successful diluted country with their commercialism, the genres integrity was maintained by several strands. Bluegrass had been kept alive since its 1940s heyday with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs by the likes of Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Del McCoury, Jimmy Martin, Ricky Skaggs and in the 1990s by acts like the angel-voiced Alison Krauss and her band, the Union Station, the Soggy Bottom Boys, and Rhonda Vincent. Bluegrass festivals began to spring up in the 1970s, the International Bluegrass Music Association was founded in 1985, and the Grammys instituted a bluegrass award in 1988. Bluegrass crossed over into the public consciousness with the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers” 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou, which won a Grammy and was led by Stanley, the Union Station and the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Serving as an antidote to the smooth pop puppetry, some female singers made an impression with a “don’t-fuck-with-with-me-mister” attitude. Though Gretchen Wilson had a hit with Redneck Woman, these barroom chicks aren’t going to threaten the autotuned country-pop brigade, but singers like Wilson and Miranda Lambert help ensure that their genre will survive the inevitable collapse of corporate country and help rebuild it “” much as the Outlaws did in the 1970s and Strait and Skragg in the 1980s.

Another antidote to the bland commercialism was administered by Johnny Cash and erstwhile rap svengali Rick Rubin. Cash had sunk into musical irrelevance in the 1970s and did not emerge from it until Rubin approached him to record an album of acoustic country. Backed only by his guitar, Cash recorded a few demo songs in his lounge. It sounded so soulfully raw that Rubin used that approach for a series of critically acclaimed albums, still releasing material after Cash”s death in 2004.

1. David Lee Murphy – Dust On The Bottle
2. Garth Brooks – The Beaches of Cheyenne
3. Jo Dee Messina – Heads Carolina, Tails California
4. George Strait – Blue Clear Sky
5. Wilco – Forget The Flowers
6. Townes Van Zandt – For The Sake Of The Song
7. Alison Krauss & Union Station – So Long, So Wrong
8. Anita Cochran & Steve Wariner – What If I Said
9. Martina McBride – A Broken Wing
10. Kathy Mattea – 455 Rocket
11. Alan Jackson – Gone Crazy
12. Dixie Chicks – Wide Open Spaces
13. Randy Travis – Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man
14. Lyle Lovett – Step Inside This House
15. Ralph Stanley & Patty Loveless – Pretty Polly
16. Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band – I’m Still In Love With You
17. John Prine – So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)
18. Mary Chapin Carpenter – Almost Home
19. Chely Wright – Single White Female
20. Mickey Gilley – Make The World Go Away
21. Tim McGraw – Please Remember Me

(includes front and back covers. PW here)


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A History of Country Vol. 18: 1990-95

May 31st, 2012 13 comments

Country music enjoyed a commercial boom in the 1900s, in particular that strand spearheaded by George Strait and Ricky Skaggs. Superstars such Alan Jackson and Vince Gill would give them credit for their success, as would the biggest star of them all: Garth Brooks. Clean cut and black cowboy-hatted, the Oklahoma native sold 12 million copies of his first three albums and more than 100 million up to his semi-retirement in 2001. He was the first country star to enter the Billboard album charts at #1, with 1991″s Ropin” The Wind. His extravagant concerts filled stadiums. Country had had superstars before, but Brooks arguably was the genre”s first megastar.

Brooks” crossover appeal helped many other invariably stetsoned honky tonk performers “” Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, (Kix) Brooks & (Ronnie) Dunn “” expand their commercial appeal. It wasn”t just the behatted dudes who attained superstar status in the 1990s; women like Trisha Yearwood (later Garth Brooks wife), Faith Hill (later McGraw”s wife), Martina McBride and the Dixie Chicks crossed over, while “80s stalwarts Wynonna Judd and Reba McIntyre continued to enjoy success.

Artists such as these might have traced their influence back to country”s traditions, to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, fiddle and pedal steel, but their commercial lucrativity set mainstream country on a course of selling out. The worst excess of that came early with Billy Ray Cyrus 1991 novelty hit Achy Breaky Heart (a cover of The Marcy Brothers” original), with its choreographed line dance and Miley”s dad chest-hair revealing vest. Country singers rightly feared that Cyrus” hit would undermine country”s integrity and credibility, much as ubiquity and novelty cash-ins had damaged disco.

Few things as bad as Achy Breaky Heart would taint country music”s name (though Toby Keith”s post-9/11 song did so on another level), but the record companies would now push singers who were more pop than country, such as Shania Twain and the teenage LeAnn Rimes. Slowly, country format radio purged all but the commercially successful from their playlists. This reached bizarre proportions when one programme director demanded that Patty Loveless” 1997 song You Don”t Seem To Miss Me be remixed to remove George Jones” harmonies. Loveless refused to allow this, and the single stalled.

As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R; homespun covers are included

1. George Jones & Randy Travis – A Few Ole Country Boys
2. Garth Brooks – Friends In Low Places
3. Randy Travis – Heroes and Friends
4. Patty Loveless – Chains
5. Alan Jackson – Here In The Real World
6. Travis Tritt – Help Me Hold On
7. Dolly Parton & Ricky Van Shelton – Rockin’ Years
8. Tanya Tucker – If Your Heart Ain’t Busy Tonight
9. Collin Raye – Love, Me
10. John Prine – All The Best
11. Emmylou Harris – If I Could Be There
12. Alison Krauss & Union Station – Every Time You Say Goodbye
13. Wynonna Judd – I Saw The Light In Your Window Tonight
14. Marty Stuart – Now That’s Country
15. John Michael Montgomery – I Love The Way You Love
16. Dwight Yoakam – Ain’t That Lonely Yet
17. Reba McEntire – The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
18. Mary Chapin Carpenter – I Take My Chances
19. Lyle Lovett – Just The Morning
20. Son Volt – Mystifies Me
21. Johnny Cash – The Beast In Me
22. The Highwaymen – Songs That Made A Difference


(PW in comments)

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A History of Country Vol. 17: 1984-89

April 19th, 2012 5 comments

The 1980s were the MTV years; as radio once helped spread country beyond its natural habitat, so did TV channels dedicated to broadcasting country music disseminate the new crop of stars. As importantly, for the first time since Jennings and Nelson attracted the attention of rock fans, some country singers, such as Earle and Yoakam, were acknowledged by the rock press. County, or at least some strands of it, was hip again. The rock press also rediscovered legends such as George Jones and Dolly Parton. So Parton”s collaboration with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt was celebrated as a music event well outside country circles.

At the same time, some acts were reviled for what was seen as their insipidity “” most of all country-rockers Alabama, who nonetheless have continued to shift huge amounts of records to the present day, more than three decades since the demise of The Eagles and The Marshall Tucker Band, whose blueprints Alabama predicated their career on. And just as Strait and Skaggs shaped the rise of the cowboy-hatted superstars, and Earle, Lovett and Yoakam inspired, so did Alabama and Restless Heart give rise to a cluster of country-rock bands, such as Atlanta (by then naming a band after a city should have been declared illegal in some form of anti-cliché law), Highway 101 and Shenandoah.

Fans of the Originals will appreciate Whitey Shafer’s incipient version of the George Strait hit All My Ex’s Live In Texas (an earworm if ever there was one). As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R, and homebaked front and back covers are included.

1. Ricky Skaggs – Country Boy
2. The Judds – Girls Night Out
3. The Highwaymen – The Last Cowboy Song
4. Reba McEntire – Somebody Should Leave
5. John Prine – Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness
6. Lyle Lovett – Closing Time
7. Randy Travis – 1982
8. Lionel Richie with Alabama – Deep River Woman
9. Emmylou Harris – Who Will Sing For Me
10. Ricky Van Shelton – Life Turned Her That Way
11. Whitey Shafer – All My Ex’s Live In Texas
12. Hank Williams Jr. – Born To Boogie
13. Dwight Yoakam – I Sang Dixie
14. Steve Earle – Copperhead Road
15. Rodney Crowell – I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried
16. Earl Thomas Conley – What I’d Say
17. Keith Whitley – I’m No Stranger To The Rain
18. Merle Haggard – Wouldn’t That Be Something
19. Shenandoah – The Church On Cumberland Road
20. Patty Loveless – Chains
21. Clint Black – A Better Man
22. Steve Wariner – Where Did I Go Wrong
23. Travis Tritt – Country Club

(includes front and back covers. PW here)



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