CONCERT: Clear Country, The Leona Williams Experience

I love real country and western music. The material that is released today is something, but it is not founded in what was once country. Give me music with endless fiddles and steel guitars, and I’ll have it made.

This weekend I did just that. I found the perfect pure country show. It was in a little theater in Collinsville, OK. This show was held in the Herron’s Crown Opry Theater on main street. I had gathered word from a few websites and friends that Leona Williams, along with her son Ron Williams, would be gracing the stage at this renovated movie theater.

Ron Williams
Ron Williams

I am used to traveling many hours and miles to see my favorite singers and performers, but this time it was different. Instead of traveling hours to go to an arena to see a huge over produced show, I found myself speeding down the turnpike to find small town Oklahoma. I have spent $100’s on tickets before to these concerts, yet the ones for this show were just a mere $10. There was one big difference between the tickets I have spent $100’s on and this $10 show.

I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed

The show began with a local act, Will Clark and The Back When Country was Country band. They played a great set showing that country purist do not stand alone. Next, Ron Williams took the stage. It’s always a pleasure to hear him sing. He is country to his core and easily echoes many of the greats like Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, and George Jones.

Then it was time for the main event, country pioneer Leona Williams. Some remember Leona from her work and marriage to Merle Haggard, which was littered with musical gems, but Leona’s solo music she made before Haggard and now after is simply country gold.

Leona WilliamsIt wasn’t long after Williams took the stage that she went into one of my favorite songs, “Yes Ma’am (He Found Me in a Honky Tonk).” This single was released in 1970 to rave reviews and garnered Williams some serious air play. It sounds just as good today as it did in 1970, except when she sings it now, I think she is reminiscing. I don’t think Williams frequents honky tonks.

Williams’ show covered so much ground of both the history of her career and the history of country music. She is a gifted storyteller and had many stories to tell over her relationship with Merle Haggard and her close friendship with George Jones. These first hand anecdotes are priceless.

Around the middle of the show, Williams sang “You Take Me For Granted” and “Someday When Things are Good,” which were both number one hits for Merle Haggard. She also sang Connie Smith’s smash hit “Dallas,” which she also wrote. Although these songs by their “original” artists are classics, there is something different hearing them from the songwriter. There’s more honesty and sincerity. You can hear the connection to the heart. Leona is at her best singing songs she wrote.

Williams covered some of her more recent recordings which include “Melted Down Memories” and “New Patches.” Her new material is great and is just as good as anything she has released. She is still on the top of her game. She doesn’t know how to give less than 100%.

Leona WilliamsShe closed out the show with some good fashioned country gospel. What I love about country gospel is its sincerity. You can sense the faith in the music. First she sang with Will Clark and her son Ron Williams, “Sing Me Back Home.” She then went into “I Saw The Light” and “I’ll Fly Away” with her son Ron. This was one of the biggest highlights of the show. There was an aura between Leona and Ron that only a mother and son could create. Their warmth was felt throughout the whole theater and their genuineness struck home with every patron.

This was my second time I have seen Leona in concert, and this time I realized just why I am a fan. Leona not only sings pure country music, she sings clear country music.

Leona’s music is completely untainted by any modern trends. She keeps country music alive with each note. Her singing is sterling silver and music unadulterated. She proves that real, unfiltered, clear country music doesn’t need anything new.

Simply put, when the old garment is country music, there is not any need for new patches.

Check out my review of Leona Williams’ and Merle Haggard’s album, Heart to Heart, here.

MUSIC PLAYLIST: Wrapped in Garland

I love Judy Garland.

There is just something about her voice that completely entrances me every time I hear one of her recordings. She is one of the greatest vocalists and entertainers our world will ever see and in my opinion, she is the best.

Most people know Garland from her career defining role in The Wizard of Oz. She filmed this movie for MGM studios when she was a mere 16. This role catapulted her into super stardom and her signature song “Over The Rainbow,” sung by a kid willing to dream, was cemented in the hearts of every American. She would go on to make countless classics for MGM including Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, and Easter Parade.

Some of my Garland records.
Some of my Garland records.

Although that is not where my fascination with this vocal legend started. I am a fan of her later years in show business, mainly from 1951-1969, the year she died. Throughout these years she was less known for the movies she made, but for her live performances. She did make some amazing films during this period like A Star is Born, but they were few and far between compared to her days at MGM.

When I was in elementary school I watched the Judy Garland Christmas Special on TV, but it wasn’t until my middle school years that my mom bought me the CD Judy At The Palace. I was immediately hooked from her rousing renditions of “Rock a Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” and “Get Happy.” Then there was her encore encore of “Over The Rainbow.” Hook. Line. Sinker. I have collected every Garland vinyl since then.

So I have decided to compile some of my favorite Garland performances and bring them to you here. Some are cliché of most Garland fans, but some are rarities that I hope you will surprisingly enjoy.

“Down With Love”

This is a recent favorite of mine. Her catalog is so large and her recordings seem endless. She did this on her ill-fated variety show. It’s a good “screw you” to all the men that had mistreated her throughout her life, not to mention CBS’ treatment of her during filming.

“When You’re Smiling”

Garland opened her legendary concert at Carnegie Hall with this number in 1961. This live album, Judy At Carnegie Hall, is her most legendary album, which is an ode to the brilliance of her performances. Since there isn’t a video recording of this concert I leave you with this version. She often opened shows with the this joyous number and it shows off her comedic chops.

“By Myself”

Garland’s version of “By Myself” is superb compared to everyone elses’. She feels each note with consistent emotion and the ambition to move forward with life. This is another song she sang from personal experience. Her performance is pure perfection. It is sad that CBS cut this number from one of her shows because they thought it was too dark.

“What Now My Love”

Garland’s vocals nearly blew me out of the window when I first heard her rendition of this classic. She first approaches it with a veil of vulnerability, but ends with a shroud of confidence. The closing note of the song gives me chills.

“As Long as He Needs Me”

This song has been a long time favorite of mine. I have heard it sung by many different ladies and I haven’t found a version I didn’t like yet. There is something different about Garland’s approach though. Her rendition shows a different side of Garland. We’ve seen the bitter and empowered Garland through her song choices. Her raw emotion in this song portrays her desire to be loved and  to not be seen as a commodity. She didn’t want to need someone. She wanted to be needed.

Every time I unearth a new Garland recording, or hell, every time I listen to Garland I am always amazed. There are no words that describe my admiration for this amazing lady and how her vocals penetrate directly to my soul. We all have that one artist and for me it will always be Judy Garland.

These performances are just barely a peek into her extraordinary career. I am so thankful that we have all these performances from her variety show. These performances are some of the last glimpses we have of this legend and sadly they are her last great recorded works.

As I come to a close I would like to remember Judy Garland in this form. I have read books and watched documentaries on Garland’s life and they always focus on her troubles. I think this is unfair. Garland lived a magnificent life doing what she loved to do: entertain. Through her gift she continues to touch thousands of lives and through this gift she paved the way for modern entertainment.

I’m simply wrapped in Garland.

Check out My Other Articles on Garland:

Oscar Got Away

Pristine Till Death

ALBUM REVIEW: Merle Haggard and Leona Williams, Heart to Heart

Last Friday I had the pleasure of seeing Leona Williams in concert. I was excited to see this country legend and she didn’t disappoint. After the show she even talked to my friends and I for around an hour over her career. It was a music fan’s heaven.

Williams has a really interesting history in country music. Besides having her own chart successes and performing at the Grand Ol’Opry, she worked in Loretta Lynn’s first touring band, has written numerous number one hits, and worked with the best in the business. She was also married to that one guy Merle Haggard. Have you heard of him?

Merle HaggardWith all my new facts in mind I decided I needed to visit some of her albums in my collection. I decided to start with her 1983 duet album with Haggard, Heart to Heart. Although none of these songs were as chart successful as their previous duet “The Bull and The Beaver,” this album still holds many diamonds that often go unnoticed.

For the most part Heart to Heart is a pretty mellow album. Side A has the only two songs that Williams and Haggard penned together.  First there is “Let’s Pretend We’re Not Married Tonight.” This song speaks about forgetting about all the idiosyncrasies that come with marriage and just enjoying each other once more. This song has a twist and fits right into any classic country catalog.

Then there is “We’re Strangers Again.” This closes out side A with heartbreak only country music could capture. This amiable tune talks of a relationship that has fallen apart. Set to gentle guitar rifts and a steady two stepping beat, this track could easily find its way on to a dance floor today. They also did Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas” in between there.

Merle HaggardSide B creates a more uptempo feel, but the music stays relaxed. My favorites from this side are the more upbeat tracks, “Don’t Ever Let Your Lover Sleep Alone” and Rose Maddox’s “Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down.”

“Don’t Ever Let Your Lover Sleep Alone” was written by Haggard. It’s a fun duet between the two, basically saying never to leave your lover to their own vices. Although there is a weird effect placed on William’s voice in this song that threw me off. It doesn’t sound bad, it just sounds different. Then there is the enjoyable and conventional classic country hoedown tune with “Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down.” This song sounds like it was just plain fun to record.

This album charted at number 44 and came off the heals of two other duet albums Haggard had made. These records were with Willie Nelson and George Jones. This was quite a switch up for the “outlaw” showing a more vulnerable and “sappy” side to Haggard.

Merle HaggardBut, the real gem of this album is the talent of Williams. I am not discrediting Haggard, but everybody was familiar with his talent. Williams has one of the best country voices the industry has ever heard and she gives this album some of its best moments. Williams provides harmonies that are not easily compared. She is her own artist while completely blending with another.

In the end this album didn’t do much for their marriage and it was actually released after they were separated. Nonetheless, Haggard and Williams were together for nearly ten years and she wrote and contributed to some of Haggard’s biggest hits. With this album and their writing they made musical gold.

Of course I think you could tell me to spin anything of the bull’s or the beaver’s and I’d have to say “10-4.”

Don’t forget to read my tribute to Merle Haggard, An Okie From California.