TEN ALBUMS I WISH WERE ON CD…

It’s easy to assume that the digital age has preserved everything. Even the black and hillbilly stuff. But there are still more than a few holes in our Paradise’s memory banks. Here’s ten of the hundreds I’d like to see plugged. listed more or less chronologically. No bonus tracks needed. Just put them out. Bear Family. Hip-O. Raven. Ace. Somebody…

1) Louis Armstrong: The Louis Armstrong Story Volume 4: Favorites

A stellar collection of Armstrong’s early thirties’ ballads, which may have been even more influential than his smoking small band sides from the twenties. They were certainly more subversive and, while they’ve been collected numerous times in larger formats and this set has probably been approximated somewhere or other among the voluminous Armstrong re-issues, the precision of this particular collection is sufficiently burned in my memory to make me loath to accept any substitutes. I listen to these songs compiled any other way and they simply feel incomplete. In that respect, you might consider this the first concept LP. Of course “Black and Blue” is the all time killer, but for pure perversity, don’t sleep on “Shine.” which works in this context as a kind of answer record.

2) The Coasters Their Greatest Recordings…The Early Years

Still the best way to hear the Clown Princes of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Fourteen diamond hard classics that represent the cream of 50s’ era vocal group R&B, plus the songwriting and producing pinnacle of Leiber and Stoller’s not exactly one-dimensional career. Best CD Substitute is 50 Coastin’ Classics, which is fabulous and never quits either. But sometimes you just want a shot of Rhythm and Blues…not the whole bottle. Plus, it’s the only place you can find Barret “Dr. Demento” Hansen’s fabulous liner notes. Yet more proof, if any is needed, that record company comps can make their own irreducible statement.

3) The Everly Brothers: Wake Up Again With the Everly Brothers

Okay, so you’ll kind of have to take my word for it that that’s the name of it and it was a real thing. That picture is the best I could find. This collection was released on GRT records–one of those seventies’ era subsidiary labels of dubious virtue–and was the kind of mishmash you might have expected…except it was, by happy accident, also a superb overview of the brothers’ legend-making career on Cadence, where they made most of the records we still remember them by. Unlike pretty much every other comp restricted to that era I’ve seen on vinyl or CD, it’s spiced with a few cuts from their great Songs Our Daddy Taught Us LP. And, cheap knockoff or no, I swear it sounds great, too. If you wanted a CD that caught all the excitement of the early Everlys without having to listen to an entire box set, or all their period LPs at once, this would fill the ticket before anything else. GRT went bankrupt in 1979, so I won’t be holding my breath on this one. But I can dream, can’t I?

4) The Impressions: The Vintage Years

I’ve written at length about this one before. It blends half a dozen career phases seamlessly (Jerry Butler, early and late, the Impressions from doo wop to early sixties r&b to mid-sixties’ soul, capped off by Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly breakout) and tracks black music from the street corner where “Your Precious Love” was conceived to the street corner where Freddie, the small time loser headed for the graveyard in Superfly,  hangs out, without telling you whether it’s the same one or ever letting you forget it might be. No CD era reissue has come close, because none have fused all those careers together, let alone accepted them as being of a piece. If more people recognized this as the greatest concept album ever made, the world would be a better place.

5) Buffalo Springfield 

Not their eponymous first LP, which is readily available. This two-record retrospective was how most of us from the hinterlands, who discovered them in the late seventies when their regular LPs were a bit hard to find at Camelot or Record Bar, first heard them. It’s probably still the best way, outstanding though all the other ways be. But the real reason me and a lot of other folks want this to be on CD is because it still seems to be the only place you can find the long version of “Bluebird.” Except for YouTube, of course…

6) Fairport Convention: Fairport Chronicles

This superbly chosen and programmed two-record set, which can only be approximated now by buying five or six separate CDs by Fairport, Fotheringay. The Bunch  and Sandy Denny, then mixing them on the re-recording device of your choice, hasn’t even come close to being matched  by any CD era release. And this group, which cries out for a definitive box set that focuses on their early career and its various immediate off-shoots, is represented instead by sets that include their “entire career,” meaning due deference is paid to decades of fey folk music the in-name-only pros who kept the name alive made after Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny departed for their respective fates as aging eccentric and most-inevitable-young-corpse-ever. Their three definitive albums (What We Did On Our Holiday, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief) are great beyond words (and easily available on CD). But this is by far the best place to hear Thompson’s “Sloth,” the Bunch’s revelatory covers of Dion and Buddy Holly, and Fotheringay turning Gordon Lightfoot into King Dread on “The Way I Feel,” all essential. This exercise is partly tongue in cheek…but this is one of those things somebody really should fix dammit!

7) Brenda Lee Memphis Portrait

See, I don’t even have this. I should probably just bite the bullet and spring for a cheap used version off Amazon or something. But Jesus, can somebody please release Brenda’s late-sixties and seventies albums in the new format? All of them? Any of them? The Bear Family doesn’t even have these recordings on a box. They and Ace have both done thorough jobs of making her prime hit-making years and before (1956 to 1963 roughly) available. The rest has been left to float in the ether. I’ve heard enough of it to know that shouldn’t be so.

8) Johnny Bush: Bush Country

I don’t have to speculate about this one. it’s been a staple of my collection since John Morthland turned me on to Johnny with his invaluable guide to the greatest country albums (that was released just as the CD era arrived). A couple of his other albums for Stop–where he was never less than inspired–have made it to CD but not this one, which is as hard as hard country gets and doesn’t have a wasted second. If nothing else, this–one of the greatest records ever made–deserves a home on some format more permanent than vinyl. But, really, the whole thing, including killer versions of “It’s All in the Game,” “Statue of a Fool” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” back-to-back-to-back, is up to the same standard. There’s no finer vocal album in any genre.

9) Tanya Tucker: Here’s Some Love

Along about now, you’ll be detecting a theme here–Nashville has not done a good job of taking care of its legacy. Such value as there’s been has mostly been provided by overseas reissue labels (with Bear Family preeminent, though by no means alone). No one, home or abroad, has yet stepped into the breach and released Tanya’s string of child-into-woman albums recorded between her departure from Columbia and her mid-eighties comeback. This is from early on (1976). The deathless title cut (a natural country #1) is readily available on numerous comps, and all these albums were a touch uneven. But they all had great, hidden things on them, too. “Round and Round the Bottle” is up to the standards of her early Gothics, and the two-step from “Gonna Love You Anyway” to “Holding On” used to keep me up nights.

10) The Kendalls: Old Fashioned Love

Yes, the whole list could have been devoted to lost country albums from the seventies. Heck the whole list could have been devoted to the Kendalls. If I wanted to put together a list of the ten most beautiful vocals ever recorded, I wouldn’t consider having Jeannie Kendall occupy less than half of it. That her greatest records (the four albums she and her father made for Ovation, beginning with Heaven’s Just a Sin Away), have never been re-released in any format is the kind of thing I like to point to when I talk about how civilizations decline and fall. That she is remembered, if at all, for even as great a cheating song as “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” is something like a national sin–testimony to how casually we throw talent away after having misunderstood it in the first place. Not that she ever sounded like she expected any better, especially on this, a concept LP about cheating as redemption. And yes, it blew everybody’s minds back when, especially the open marriage crowd at all the hip rock and roll mags, who suddenly decided they were Puritans after all. “PIttsburgh Stealers” wasn’t the half of it. They did plenty of good work before and after (I especially recommend Mercury’s Movin’ Train), but If anybody ever has the sense to release their four Ovation LPs as a box set, it will be one of the essential documents in country music.

Til then, Thank God for Vinyl.

DIAMONDS IN THE SHADE (Johnny Bush Up)

“Daddy Lived In Houston”
Johnny Bush  (1972)
Not released as a single
Recommended source: Bush Country (Vinyl Only)

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Country music is in one of its periodic funks these days. So my ears tell me.

This funk will last. So my common sense tells me.

Traditional music forms need traditional cultures to survive. When there’s nothing to affirm there’s nothing to rebel against either. And vice versa. Take away the limits tradition imposes and pretty soon you are pushing air.

Pretty soon after that you are sucking oxygen in a Brave New World.

In human terms, this might not be entirely lamentable. No one could envy the narrator of Johnny Bush’s “Daddy Lived In Houston,” as he describes, in gimlet-eyed detail, his father’s abandonment of his rural family to chase money (and, doubtless, women as well) in Houston’s war-time shipbuilding yards.

That is, no one could envy his material circumstance. This is a song nearly any good country singer of Bush’s generation, or any generation that preceded it, could have sung with conviction. No singer of the current generation could sing it without taking a leap of the imagination. Even in the previous generation (the one that succeeded Bush’s), it’s hard to identify anyone but Patty Loveless who ever felt anything like the pinch of real poverty, which might be why Loveless’s voice predicted Appalachia’s current epidemic of meth-fueled White Death by a generation even as her New Nashville lyrics espoused conventional aspiration.

Surely that’s a good thing, though. No one wants anyone to starve. No one wants any child to have to clear rabbit traps every morning just so his family can eat.

Of course, you have to be careful what you wish for. A world without pain or want has ended up being mostly a world where people imagine new forms of victimhood. That’s what all the angst you hear on the modern radio–including modern country radio–is about. Look at me. Or, if you like, Listen to me. Isn’t my pain real? Here, if you think it’s not, I’ll take another deep breath and add twenty more rounds of melisma just to prove you’re WRONG!

“Daddy Lived in Houston” is a great record not least because its lyric does not preclude the notion that Bush’s narrator has grown up to be just like his daddy. Call it a blues. Half talking, half opera. Muted pain and guilt, then, and a thousand times more powerful than anything you’ll hear on the radio today, when pain can only be faked and guilt isn’t even a concept.

Bush, a good candidate for the most under-sung great country singer ever, had hits through the late sixties and the seventies, a long if mostly modest run, including a definitive “You Gave Me a Mountain,” and records as monumental as “You Ought to Hear Me Cry” and “Undo the Right.” This, never released as a single and, so far as I can tell, unavailable on CD, was his masterpiece. A sigh of relief that we don’t have to go there anymore….and a reminder that all of nature–including the human part–abhors a vacuum.

TRAIN ROLL ON (John Morthland and George Martin, R.I.P.)

I don’t know enough about John Morthland to do him full justice or enough about George Martin to say anything a hundred others won’t but both meant too much in my world to let either’s passing go by without a word.

Morthland was one of the best rock and country critics in the world for decades. His name on anything–bylines, liner notes, the cover of a book–meant you were going to find opinions that were concise, knowledgeable, well-earned and his own.

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His magnum opus was 1984’s The Best of Country Music. No book had more impact on my listening habits in those early days or any day since. I knew the iconic heroes of country music before, plus a good bit of what had come along in the seventies. But Morthland both turned me on to and deepened my appreciation of a whole other world, one that included the likes of Floyd Tillman, Don Gibson, Jeannie Kendall, Norma Jean, Johnny Bush and Dottie West among many, many others. I found that, on a list of 750 country albums meant to trace the shape of the music’s entire history, nearly every one of his recommendations repaid whatever effort it cost to track it down, often a hundred times over. My only regret is that I never got a chance to tell him so. Hope this will help explain how I feel about missing the chance:

As for Sir George…well, he hired the Beatles. Sure, somebody probably would have done it if he hadn’t. Somebody might have even brought the same musical erudition to their little project. But the number of people in the British music industry with real vision and talent, circa 1962, wasn’t so large that anything was guaranteed. And, as some wag noted last night, when you’re in the old folks home and the guy lying in the bed next to you asks what you did with your time, “Well, I produced Rubber Soul,” is pretty hard to beat.

The lesson, as always, is that there is little in human history that could not be improved by a remake. We should never take any of the exceeding few things that turned out perfectly for granted.

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