David Cantwell has a piece in Rolling Stonecelebrating the fortieth anniversary of a landmark year in country music. Most of the albums he recommends challenge or overturn that era’s conventional marketing categories…all while yielding big hits–most becoming staples. Based on the half I have in my collection and what I’ve heard of the others, I (as usual) heartily endorse his choices.
My only nit to pick is his preference for Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel From Montgomery” over Tanya Tucker’s….them’s fightin’ words!
Against that, and what really matters, a thousand times yes on Jeannie Kendall…
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.
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.
I don’t do a whole lot of lists, but I’m not immune to them. If I ever got really full of myself (or something stronger) and did one that was titled something like “The Ten Most Beautiful Records Ever Made,” Jeannie Kendall, who most of the world has never hear of, and is remembered by most of those who have for “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” and nothing else, would probably be singing on about seven of them.
One of those would be her recorded version of “Making Believe,” which would also top any list entitled “The Greatest Versions of ‘Making Believe.'”
And “Making Believe” is one of the few songs that actually has enough great versions to warrant a list. It’s one of those songs nearly every country giant (and not a few from other fields) has not only taken a crack at but done justice by. The great country women, either soloing or duetting (as Jeannie did with her father) have been especially drawn to it: Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton, Wanda Jackson, Anita Carter, Emmylou Harris, Loretta and Conway, Patty and Vince. That’s in addition to Merle Haggard, Connie Francis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.
You know, like that.
Just at the high end. Just for starters.
But on record, nobody made it cut like the Kendalls.
My improbable discovery of the past week was that they made it cut even deeper on Austin City Limits, way back when:
And my other not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that it still doesn’t cut as deep as “Just Like Real People” or “Put it Off Until Tomorrow” or “I’m Coming Down Lonely,” which is so obscure that it’s not even on YouTube.
So my final not-so-improbable discovery of the week is that we’re not living in a perfect world just yet.
My internet speed issues have finally become sufficiently annoying/debilitating that I’m actually having to go into the office this week. (Go ahead, tell me civilization is still standing. I’ll believe you. I promise.)
One result is more radio than usual and last night on the way home I caught what I take to be Miranda Lambert’s latest, which on the radio, was, like a lot of her stuff, darn catchy and kinda’ edgy and definitely unique. I mean, I could tell it was her, which, these days is enough to make a singer practically a genius all by itself.
Even as I was smiling at rhymes like Tony Lloma and Oklahoma, though, I knew (like I always know when I’m listening to even the best modern country music) that something was missing.
What and why? These are questions I’m constantly asking myself when I’m listening to modern radio…and not just about country.
But country’s got a unique tradition. Unlike rock and roll or jazz it’s never been broadly amorphous. Unlike blues or gospel it’s always been a truly popular (as opposed to populist) music, it’s definitive practitioners able to reach far larger audiences than Muddy Waters or Marion Williams or the Blackwood Brothers. And, unlike Tin Pan Alley or hip-hop, it’s never been truly hidebound (much as the suits would have preferred it, one time and another).
All that being said, some time in the last ten years or so, a switch has been flipped at country radio. Yes, the generations changed. The great women of the eighties and nineties turned forty. The great men turned fifty…then sixty. Country’s sell-by date for charting hits comes a little later, but it comes.
And, in the past, stretching back to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, somebody always stepped in. Styles changed, expanded. New visions were incorporated.
The core remained. A music that could accommodate Hank Williams and Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, George Strait and Patty Loveless, remained nonetheless grounded in some certain something.
To be honest, until last night, I always knew it when I heard it, but I never even thought about whether it might have a name. All that really happened at first was that Miranda’s song put me in a country mood (or, at least, more of a country mood, since my re-acquisition of Rhino’s old Buck Owens’ box–lost in the great CD sell-off of 2002–had me leaning that direction anyway). So I went to Moe Bandy and Tanya Tucker and Mel Tillis and I had pulled Charlie Rich and Don Gibson, when Mel’s “Your Body Is An Outlaw” got me to wondering, yet again, whether his daughter Pam was singing the backup part because it came out in 1980 or ’81 and she didn’t get famous herself for another decade but, once she did, I started thinking it sure sounded like her, and yeah, it’s kind of weird to be singing a duet with your daughter on a song like that, but then again Jeannie and Royce Kendall were making a career out of it around the same time so it certainly wasn’t unheard of.
So I went to the good old internet, Wikipedia and the like, and came up dry.
Then I went to YouTube, good old YouTube, and some authoritative sounding gentleman was in the comment section of at least two different clips claiming that, yes, Pam had sung back up on this…
And, having that for unofficial confirmation, what I could then safely say was that it sounded even more like her than ever…and I was sure in the mood for some Pam Tillis.
So I went to pull her epochal Put Yourself In My Place, one of the greatest albums ever made and the one that made her a star (and which I wrote about here). While I was at it, I saw Rhinestoned, a CD Tillis released on her own label back in 2007 and which I bought a discarded dee-jay copy of at the late, lamented Vinyl Fever before it would have been played on the radio.
You know, if it had been played on the radio.
Which is wasn’t. Because Pam was fifty by then. If you’re fifty and you’re a woman and you’re not Dolly Parton, you don’t get played on the radio.
You want to make a CD, you better go ahead and start your own label.
The thing is, I’ve had Rhinestoned for seven-eight years now and I had listened to it once and thought it was okay, nothing special, like what you might expect from a favorite who had veered a little pop when she was trying to hang on in the mid-to-late nineties and now was down to releasing stuff on her own label.
Still, I thought seven-eight years was long enough. I should probably give it another try.
And, lo and behold, there was another great Pam Tillis album that had been sitting on my self all those years, waiting for me to get my head right so I could finally hear it. (Did I mention that 2007-8 were rugged years? Dad died, eyes deteriorating with a good chance the deterioration wouldn’t stop, savings gone, writer’s block like I never had before or since. Like that.)
And while I was listening to this particular record (and the particular cut linked below) I realized what has gone missing from the core of country music that gets played on the radio…and most of that which doesn’t.
Because, I realized that, in order to be a really great country singer, you have to contain within yourself the essence of the word Ralph Stanley used to describe Patty Loveless when she was at the height of her fame and which has gone entirely missing from modern country radio. The quality that even Miranda Lambert (Loveless’ own favorite modern) doesn’t quite possess.