Every year I have a tradition. I’ll be honest and say I do love Christmas music but there is one album, in particular, I can’t go a year without listening to. That album is Christmas Time with The Judds.
I’m a big fan of The Judds — and I always have been. I listen to them throughout the year, every year. In December, though, I dedicate my ears to this classic country Christmas album…
I have been a Reba McEntire fan for nearly my entire life. You can read more about that musical journey here. When I began to collect records I knew I had to have every album she had released on vinyl, but there was one little hiccup.
For the life of me, I could not find her 1977 Mercury self-titled debut. I searched everywhere from garage sales, record stores, and eBay. There is not a significant hit on this album nor did it even chart on Billboards Country Albums. I guess that means there are not many floating around.
Well, I finally found one in Oklahoma, the perfect place for one to be! We love our McEntires in the red dirt and have supported Reba since the beginning. I have now listened to it many times over and I don’t find it insignificant, but a foretelling of what was to come. This album is her humble beginnings.
Reba’s debut album takes a more traditional route compared to her later recordings. It might sound odd to some fans, but it firmly shows where her roots are planted. The album begins with the sweet, mid-tempo “Glad I waited Just For You.” I would say this is “bubblegum country” at it’s finest. One is then quickly taken into the first ballad of the album, “One to One.” This track is a highlight.
“One to One” echoes 70’s soft rock and shows Reba’s versatile vocals. Ballads are among some of my favorite Reba songs and nobody portrays pure love and pure heartbreak like she does. Although this song is not a “break-up” song, this album does give Reba much room to sing some heart-wrenching tunes.
Reba begins to show her emotional chops with songs like “I Was glad To Give My Everything to You,” “Take Your Love Away,” and a cover of Hot’s 1977 hit, “Angel in Your Arms.” One can clearly see where “For My Broken Heart,” “She Thinks His Name Was John,” and “Till You Love Me” come into play later in her career.
Sadly, this album only charted two songs, “I Don’t Want To Be A One Night Stand,” which came in at 88 on Billboards Country Singles chart, and “(There’s Nothing Like The Love) Between A Woman and A Man,” coming in at 86. Each of these songs is memorable, but not chart toppers for late 70’s country.
Lastly, two of the biggest gems are “Why Can’t He Be You” and “Invitation To The Blues.” The first was written by Hank Cochran and previously recorded by Patsy Cline. The later was written by Reba’s Oklahoma contemporary, Roger Miller. Reba’s version of “Why Can’t He Be You” is almost the exact same arrangement as Cline’s and although it still falls short of Cline’s greatness, it is remarkable. Reba’s version proves she had the performing chops in 1977 and it has shown a light to her later career. She was going to be a show stopper.
This album shows an Okie girl making it in the big music world. It’s merely her humble beginnings, just like her ones in the fields of Oklahoma. Although not considered a commercial hit, this album sets a precedent and lays a foundation for Reba’s career.
I have let Sturgill Simpson fall through the cracks these last few years. I’m not sure if I need to get out more, or if I get out too much. Do I have too much music or not enough?
When they announced the Grammy nominations for Album of The Year I was taken aback by his nomination, mostly for the pure fact that I did not know much about him. I have listened to Adele’s 25 and Beyoncé’s Lemonade and know each of these albums like the back of my hand. These records are some of the most innovative pieces of popular music we have today. So for Simpson to be ranked amongst these solid albums, I knew something had to be up. Little did I know he was the answer I had been looking for.
Over the past few years, I have grown increasingly aggravated and perturbed with modern country music. I am not a country music purist, but today’s country is anything but innovative or even remotely country in style. This new wave of “Bro Country” with the likes of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line sickens me to my stomach. It’s not that I think these artists aren’t talented. I just believe they are leading country into oblivion and undermining its significance and meaning to our culture. Since having these revelations, I have naturally stopped buying many records that are deemed “Country.”
That could be a large reason why I overlooked Simpson, yet he is the exact opposite. I have always said that country is the “white man’s” soul. This isn’t a racist comment, I am simply speaking of the song stylings that have come out of each race. Both genres have themes that traverse the strands of race. Although, soul has taken leaps and bounds and continues to do so into new territory. Country has largely remained stagnant in recent years.
Simpson has taken country and pushed it forward with his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The album flows like one continuous song while each composition retains its own identity. It’s a concept album, something we don’t see often in country music, and most importantly, its innovative.
One must understand the concept to understand the album. This is a letter to Simpson’s son that he wrote while on the road from the viewpoint of a sailor never knowing if he was going to come home.
This album opens with “Welcome to The Earth (Pollywog).” Simpson directly speaks to his son during a piano melody reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As the song progresses the classical piano stylings begin to intertwine themselves with a string section, and one of my favorite instruments, a steel guitar. The song then goes into a “breakdown” if you will. The song’s tempo speeds up while a soul and big band horn section begin to reconfigure this piece.
Wait, that was just track 1?
This style glides into the easy tones of “Breakers Roar”, before entering into “Keep It Between the Lines.” “Lines” takes on a new identity by turning country into retro-funk with the same kick ass horn section and steel guitar. This song is a father telling his son what mistakes not to make. “It don’t have to be like father like son,” Simpson sings.
Then we come to “Sea Stories.” These are the great stories our fathers and grandfathers tell us that we take for granted. This song has elements of modern rockabilly mixed into the mix of what I’ve already listed. In many ways, this song reminded me of my Grandpa and watching his old slides from when he was in Korea.
Oddly, Simpson then covers Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” I was reading where he said this song made an impact on him during his younger teenage years and how he admired the message of how society’s preconceived notions of being a man aren’t always (if ever) correct. He takes this song and turns it on its head. Nirvana’s style is still distinct, but the song has a new outfit.
Side two opens with “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).” This was the lead single off the album. It is the album’s most commercial song, but it is in no way conventional. Next, the album turns to “All Around You.” The message this song sends is a message that transcends time. It reminds me of a prom from the 1950’s. It has a doo-wap style mixed with honky-tonk piano. Beyond the music though there is a simple fact. Underneath the pains of this world, there is a “universal heart” that beats in all of us. It is “All Around You.” This ode reminds me of the injustices that are still struck upon races, religions, and other’s ways of life. It made me think of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Although we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.
The album closes with “Call to Arms.” This song is one of the most relevant songs I have heard when it comes to our generation. It is a snapshot of our world in 2017. It talks about wars, bombs, egos, the survival of identity, and the countless distractions we experience every day, but don’t notice. This song defines us and serves as a wake-up call. As a society of immensely different people, with a universal heart built inside each of us, we cannot let the “bullshit” the big guys are shoving down our throats stand. This is 2017’s “Mississippi Goddamn.”
Throughout all the musical stylings though there is one thing that remains constant and it is the driving factor of why this album remains country. Simpson’s vocals are a conglomerate of some of the greatest country musicians including Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Dwight Yoakam. He is a less raspy Chris Stapleton and creates a distinct path through his vocal stylings. They’re real and heartfelt. They speak truth. They are country.
This album is quickly making its impact on my life and is becoming one of my favorites. It’s an album that has frozen a moment of my life I will be able to revisit every time I hear the shores roar. Sturgill Simpson is exactly what country music needs, but in larger respect, his innovative musical stylings is what a lot of modern-day music is lacking. Art must keep forming and changing. Art has a responsibility to reflect its time and often the time’s injustices. It’s our responsibility to teach the next generation where to go and what not to attempt.
Although this album is directed straight to Simpson’s son, its messages capture society. He shows through the album’s stylings that not only do humans have a universal heart, but music does as well. This is essential to remember for music defines generations.
As any music aficionado, I live by the adage, “So much music, so little time.” That is exactly where I am coming to you with this post.
I am a big fan of classic country music. I love the likes of George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline. These artists have made some of my favorite albums, but I have neglected one founding country queen, Tammy Wynette.
The loss has been completely mine. When I listen to Tammy, I hear the sweetness of Parton, the brashness of Lynn, and the stylings of Cline, yet I think that is an understatement to her career for these leading ladies are not her predecessors, they are her contemporaries.
Saturday evening I decided to finally spin her album from 1968, D-I-V-O-R-C-E. I picked this album up years ago, but I can’t recall where. The title immediately caught my attention, but I wasn’t 100% into classic country at the time. We all make mistakes in our early age.
Starting off D-I-V-O-R-C-E is the Glen Campbell classic “Gentle on My Mind.” Hearing a woman’s heartache over these lyrics opens up a new aspect to this true country tune. Then comes “Honey (I Miss You).” This song completely broke my heart. As I was listening I thought they just couldn’t be together for unforseen circumstances, not for the reason this song revealed.
Later on side A, we come to a cover of the Patsy Cline favorite, “Sweet Dreams.” Wynette brings her own timing and reason to this song. I had the feeling that she may have sweet dreams of you now, but you better act quick, this country girl don’t wait. Closing out side A, we have a cover of the Beatles “Yesterday.” A classic country twist of a Beatles classic done by one of its leading ladies? Yes please.
Side B continues with Wynette’s number one hit “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” This song immediately breaks my heart. I know the content too well. Wynette sings this song with a whole heart for she had lived and would continue to live its lyrics. Later on side B, we come to “Kiss Away,” a Billy Sherrill penned tune originally recorded by Ronnie Dove. The album then closes with a cover of Kitty Wells’ “Lonely Street.” This song is a perfect coupling with the title track.
After listening to this early, yet classic Wynette album, I can’t help but think, “Where have I been?” I know exactly where I have been. I’ve been flipping through Dolly and Loretta vinyl. Now I am going to have to add Wynette to my ever-growing list. I sure hope New York, my new resting place, has as many classic country bins as Oklahoma.
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?
With 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.
Side 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.
But, 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.”
First let me start by asking forgiveness from all my fellow country music enthusiasts. I have a terrible debt that I must confess.
I’ve barely ever listened to George Strait.
I truly apologize. He has charted 44 number one singles on the Billboard charts and has 60 number ones when counting other charts. He has also sold nearly 100 million records worldwide. To say the least, I’m late to the game.
What better day to educate myself about the King of Country then the eve of his birthday? I have around 4 of his albums in my collection due to my mom buying them for me. She always buys albums for me when she finds them. We are both constant garage-salers and thrift store hoppers.
In one of the piles that my Mom bought me was George Strait’s Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind. Honestly, I didn’t think much of the record. I already had other country favorites and I was really tired of hearing how amazing Strait was, then there is my mom’s endless talk about his butt.
Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind was released in 1984 and quickly shot its way to the top of the Billboard country chart. This album generally comes a little late in country music for my tastes. I don’t listen to much 1980’s country unless it’s The Judds, Reba McEntire, or Dwight Yoakam. I’m more of a 1960’s and 1970’s classic country fan, but yet again, I have been proven wrong.
This album opens with the title track “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind.” To my surprise Strait’s vocals didn’t remain on a stagnant line like I always thought, yet they came full of tear drops and intricate country stylings. This broken heart ballad comes with all the fixens’: pleadin’, reminiscin’, and drinkin.’ It’s the sequel to “By The Time I Get to Phoenix.”
Next is one of my favorites, “Any Old Time.” It comes with a heavy country swing rhythm and some rather fancy fiddlin’. Strait was clearly no longer thinking of Fort Worth.
“Honk Tonk Saturday Night” finishes out side A. This song is another ballad of sorts that echoes Loretta Lynn’s “Honky Tonk Girl.” Strait’s vocals convey the same contentment and loneliness Lynn’s did years before.
Side B starts with “I Should Have Watched That First Step” and “Love Comes From The Other Side of Town.” Both of these songs have classic country themes with a little extra boot scootin’ mixed in. The true highlights of side B though are the last two singles from this album “The Cowboy Rides Away” and “The Fireman.”
“The Cowboy Rides Away” is 80’s country at it’s best, sprinkled with the heritage of the legends before. It’s the confidence in Strait’s voice that catches my attention. Although the song comes from a vulnerable state (a breakup), he finds his confidence in riding away, knowing there will be something else along the path. That mixed with the instrumentation of this song makes this an undeniable hit.
Lastly, we have “The Fireman,” the last single from this album. It’s a close relative to “Any Old Time.” I can imagine a group of couples two steppin’ to this song easily. Strait’s consistent vocals give this song sustainability while showing Strait’s versatile vocal ability.
So as I sit here on the eve of George Strait’s 64th birthday, I find myself musically improvished. I hate the fact that I have not given Strait the time he deserves until now. What I find the most exquisite about Strait is how his voice is always stable. It never seems to give out or lose pitch, but it always conveys a direct fluid emotion.
With the discovery of George Strait, I have realized I am just another honky-tonk boy. You see, honky tonkin’ is a style of living. It’s about hitting the high of highs and the low of lows while maintaining a sound character. That’s what Strait’s voice, the longevity of his career, and his character portrays. When was the last time you saw George Strait in the tabloids?
I now realize I have always been a honky-tonk boy. Now I have a Strait road to travel.
Recently I had a conversation with my mom about how if I married a girl from CA and had a baby there, the baby would still be half Okie. Well mama tried to explain to me that being an Okie isn’t quite a “race,” but that it is a term to designate where you’re from.
I agree to disagree.
As I sit and contemplate the loss of Merle Haggard this concept has never rung more true. Haggard was well-known for his hit “Okie From Muskogee,” but his relationship with the red dirt did not begin or end there. His parents were from Oklahoma, mostly between the Checotah and Muskogee areas. They moved to California to avoid the dust bowl.
Not too long after they moved Merle was born. They lived in a box car that they had transformed into a home. It was a humble beginning, yet it was laying the foundation for one of the greatest first hand songwriters music will ever witness.
He may have been born in California, but both his parents were Okies. He was raised Okie. That’s all his parents knew. Wouldn’t that make him full Okie?
Throughout Haggard’s life he proved to have the core values of being an Oklahoman. These values include dedication to family, hard-work, respect, being thankful, nobility, and sometimes a little beer. Oklahoma values run deep and they don’t live within borders.
My concept that being Okie runs deeper than where you were born and raised is evident in one of Haggard’s most heralded albums, Okie From Muskogee.
Haggard opens up this live recording from Muskogee’s Civic Center with “Mama Tried,” his musical apology to his Mama for all his mishaps. This number one hit has more than just success behind its name. The deeper layer of this song is the power and meaning of family.
Then he goes into a rousing rendition of Jimmie Rodger’s “No Hard Times.” This song is for all the working men and woman who do all they can to make ends meet. It is the perfect companion song to the “Workin’ Man Blues” found later in the album. Labor created Oklahoma and labor sustains it. If one questions this notion just go visit my friends down in Indiahoma during harvest. You’ll quickly hush up.
A concert from Haggard is never complete without “Silver Wings,” one of my personal favorites from his catalog. He sings this song nearly effortlessly with barely any harmony. The grit is real in this song. For me this song is reminiscing on the past and never forgetting those who laid the foundation for where you live and who you are today.
Haggard then touches on something most Oklahomans have in common, a good drink. He introduces a melody of songs saying they are for the drunks. Haggard properly encompasses this idea in his medley of “Swinging Doors,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” and “Sing me Back Home.” We’re not drunks in Oklahoma, but a nice drink every now and then is essential for the majority of us. And then there are those nights….
Side B has many highlights, but two songs in particular make this side profoundly Okie. First comes “Billy Overcame His Size.” This song tells the story of a young man of small stature named Billy. The song goes on to explain how although Billy’s brother received an athletic scholarship, something Billy could not achieve due to his size, Billy did something even bigger. He died for his country.
In Oklahoma your neighbor’s problems are your problems. We never shy from giving a helping hand from holding the door open to towing a car out of ditch. This is personified in the Oklahoma standard that has been seen through the Oklahoma City Bombing and various tornado out breaks. We never abandon our own. We always overcome our size.
Lastly Haggard serenades the crowd with “Okie From Muskogee.” The song everybody in the audience was waiting for. Although, this song is much more than a catchy ode about the lifestyles of Oklahomans.
This song is about respecting your elders, supporting your country, and staying true to your roots. This song posses the elements of pride, a noble character, and the God-fearing qualities that the majority of Oklahoman’s possess. It is about being proud of where you came from and thankful to those who got you here.
We don’t balk at what has been given to us nor the authority we rightly belong under. We give credit where it’s due and if that means supporting our country then give us a flag and a shotgun. We love our country, our family, and our way of life. That is something to die for. Haggard understood this.
This is just the tip of Haggard’s profound career and what he created. I join the country in mourning one of music greatest songwriters, performers, and musical talents. His legacy cannot be explained by words alone. I do not claim to be a Haggard expert, but I am truly proud of the example he set for his listeners. He wasn’t perfect and he never pretended to be, but he always had values.
American values. Oklahoma values.
If there was only a little more Okie spreading around, a little more Haggard, this country may just be a better place.