Dennis K. Duff & Guests “Songs From Lyon County”
**** Wilson Holler/Hey Mr. TVA/Road To Dover/Night Riders/TC & Pearl/Castle On the Cumberland/Iron Hill/’37 Flood/When I Leave Kentucky
Producers: Dennis Duff & Cody Kilby
Gracey Holler Music – 26:13
Let me introduce you to Dennis Duff, who shoulders some risk in picking up the tab for his concept CD, “Songs From Lyon County (Ky.),” but it was purely personal. Since the singer-songwriter’s somewhat obscure himself, and despite their obvious skills, his guest artists are not exactly household names, meaning this doesn’t bode well sales-wise.
Yet from the opening track – “Wilson Holler” – of this nine-song selection, one senses the sheer passion driving Duff and company on their unique musical journey.
Duff, whom we first heard of, winning the 17th annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest’s country division with his ballad “Man of Few Words,” conducted during MerleFest 2009. Then Dennis went on to pen compositions recorded by more recognizable Bluegrass names like Donna Ulisse and Mo Pitney. Duff’s emotional creation “God’s Front Porch” was a 2011 finalist for IBMA Gospel Song of the Year.
A Kentucky native, Duff’s crafted some truly touching tunes herein reflecting his homeland history, and even offers a fitting tribute to his parents “T.C. & Pearl” on the new album, released Sept. 7, 2018. Guest artists include Bradley Walker, Holly Pitney, Paul Brewster, Josh Shilling and Brooke & Darin Aldridge (Sweethearts of Bluegrass). It’s on the Gracey Holler Music indie label, and Duff co-produced the disc with multi-instrumentalist Cody Kilby, who also engineered. Assisting Kilby instrumentally are Alan Bartram, bass (and backing vocals); Jason Carter and Andy Leftwich, fiddles.
“Lyon County, Ky., has a rich history and some of that history is mine,” recalls Duff, emphasizing, “My roots go back to the mid-1800s, when my ancestors moved from Tennessee to an area located between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers called ‘Tween the Rivers.’ The Civil War, tobacco wars, floods, moonshine, TVA, the iron industry and a steady faith in God have all had a huge impact on Lyon County, its landscape and its people.”
Storyteller Duff points out his songs were inspired by reactions of the folk who populated that region to those events that occurred there: “Some may make you smile, some may make you cry, but I hope they all connect you to the past and take you on a musical journey that you enjoy.”
“Wilson Holler,” a medium tempo tune, concerns moonshiners supplying “Scarface” Al Capone’s Chicago crowd during the turbulent heyday of Prohibition (1920-’33). Paul Brewster not only sings lead on this track, but backs himself harmoniously as well, deftly aided by Cody’s dexterous deliveries on guitar, banjo, dobro and mandolin. Bartram’s acoustic bass pickin’ and Carter’s keening fiddle enhance the cut. Duff’s concise lyrics vividly set the scene: “Up in Wilson Holler/There’s a sweet stream of water flowing/From a rock in the side of a hill . . . Add sugar and the corn/Cook it up a storm/And the moon starts shining/Right outta the Still.”
“Hey, Mr. TVA” has Mr. Duff singing lead, revealing a pleasant enough voice that manages to convey the hurt and humiliation his lyrics express. The song dwells on government’s coarse damming up of the rivers, creating lakes to supply hydroelectric power throughout the Tennessee Valley. Duff laments the battle of wills between the newly-designated agency and generations-old landowners, most too poor to deter the bullying tactics, taking their land: “Sweat and blood of generations, fell to eminent domain/Now the rows of silent tombstones, are all that remain . . . Some say that it was worth it, more was gained than was lost/But only those whose lives were shattered, know how much it really cost.”
Duff also sings the slow-winding “Road To Dover,” and about cell warriors’ “Castle On the Cumberland,” the latter enhanced by Leftwich’s fiddle. (The “Castle,” in case you’re confused, is the Kentucky State Pen in Eddyville.) That’s Brewster rhapsodizing on the upbeat “Iron Hill,” also to fine effect. (He’s fresh from Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder.)
Now “Night Riders,” about a secret organization initially turned this reviewer off, assuming it was glorifying the KKK; however, Duff set us straight, noting it wasn’t the Klan, but impoverished tobacco farmers banding together to revolt against the mighty Duke Trust tobacco empire, trying to starve them out of business. (This was documented by Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, in his non-fiction book “On Bended Knees,” about the Black Patch Wars.) Singer Josh Shilling takes lead here, beautifully backed by the string squad, Kilby, Bartram and Leftwich, that is, as he warns: “When you hear them hoof beat pounding/You know it’s time to change your ways . . . Brother better head for cover, from the Silent Brigade.”
“TC & Pearl,” Dennis’ parental paean proves a tender intro to a hard scrabble couple, who despite the odds stacked against them, stood their ground, “And the winds of fate began to twist and twirl, for TC and Pearl . . .” Brooke Aldridge’s sweet soprano gives credence to this song of praise, and attests to her 2017 IBMA best female vocalist win. No doubt her comfort zone improved immensely by background harmony hubby Darin Aldridge delivered.
The mid-tempo “’37 Flood,” focusing on the flood devastation of January 1937, finds Duff back on mic, adroitly detailing its impact on the Ohio River-area population. Besides bass, Bartram also renders harmony backing. Dennis does have a way with words, “From the Appalachian hills, through the streets of Louisville/To Paducah, they all paid the price . . . The muddy waters flowed from the Ohio, and swallowed everything in sight . . .”
The last track – “When I Leave Kentucky” – is the first single off “ . . . Lyon County,” kicked off by fiddle and mandolin. Duff’s simply portraying musically a love of one’s home turf, vowing never to depart, until it’s time to fly away: “When I leave Kentucky/They’ll lay me in the ground/When I leave Kentucky/You’ll know I’m Heaven bound . . .” Newcomer Holly Pitney’s soft and vibrant vocals match the warm baritone of former IBMA vocalist of the year Bradley Walker, which could make this a potential Bluegrass chart contender. Alabama native Walker, who suffers Muscular Dystrophy, and Moe Pitney’s sister Holly each provide close harmonies, as well, to this ballad, released June 20.
Some may say this sort of historically-oriented concept is eminently predictable and geared more to domestic fans; however, these events are rarely even covered in today’s classrooms. Moreover, these seasoned ears recognize something more challenging than mere history, marking it as aesthetically and culturally significant. Anyway, it’s obviously an album made not necessarily for sales, but simply for pure pleasure. So seek it and enjoy.
Traditional country sound still being hailed in Music City USA!
NASHVILLE — Questions abound about what’s happened to the classic country sound today? Well, it’s alive and well as we rediscovered during the Reunion Of Professional Entertainers’ annual ROPE Fan Fare Luncheon, June 6, right inside the historic Nashville Palace.
In attendance were Country Music Hall of Famers’ Bill Anderson, Charlie McCoy, Charley Pride and Mac Wiseman, mixing it up with fellow traditionalists Razzy Bailey, Tommy Cash, Dallas Frazier, Dickey Lee, Bobby G. Rice, Casey Anderson, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Jr., Margie Singleton, Rex Allen, Jr., Tim Atwood, Roni Stoneman, Little David Wilkins, and Ron and Leona Williams, to the delight of a full house.
ROPE’s Leslie Elliott cracked the whip, making sure the on-stage stalwarts delivered all the stylistic beats rarely heard on today’s country radio, and right on schedule. Aiding and abetting all this were WSM’s Marcia Campbell and RFD-TV’s Keith Bilbrey, co-hosts for a bash that unofficially kicks off the CMA Music Fest, formerly Fan Fair.
First up came Dickey Lee, whose first gift to the genre was writing “She Thinks I Still Care,” a #1 first for George Jones, but later covered by everybody from Elvis to Faron Young, Conway Twitty, Anne Murray, Marty Robbins, Connie Francis, Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell. Nothing like hearing it by the guy who wrote it, who despite his 81 years, still exhibits strong chops.
The Memphis native’s opener, however, was his 1971 country Top 10 cover “Never Ending Song of Love” by Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, whose best showing was an Easy Listening Top 10 that same year. Lee introduced his reprise of Johnnie & Jack’s upbeat “Ashes of Love” as his second country success in 1972. Yet another Lee co-write was also performed – “The Door Is Always Open” – which became a #1 for Dave & Sugar (1976) and later covered by such singers as Waylon Jennings and Lois Johnson. And where was Dickey’s own chart-toppin’ “Rocky,” which seemingly should be a must in any Lee set?
Wrapping up his too-short segment, Lee dedicated his Top Five, “9,999,999 Tears (To Go),” to “somebody special” in the audience, pointing out it was penned by Razzy Bailey. This was Dickey’s only recording to chart both country and pop; however, in the early 1960s he became a pop teen idol, thanks to sad songs such as “Patches,” “I Saw Linda Yesterday” and “Laurie (Strange Things Happen).” Lee’s greatest accolade, however, was being inducted in 1995 into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Next up, laid-back, long-limbed second-generation singer Ron Williams strutted his stuff, indicative of a new traditionalist. He even added praise for the late George Jones, performing “Just Playing Possum.” Then slowing it down, came a hurtin’ song “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” oh yeah,“If you’re trying to break my heart/You don’t have very far to go.” Recalled the last time we covered a Ron gig, loving his energetic set, but decried a vocal similarity to former step-dad Merle Haggard. Happy to report, he’s now back to being an original.
As Leona Williams sauntered on stage, Ron quickly lowered the mic to accommodate his petite mom, who may be short on stature, but still a tall talent. She and Ron delivered a duet “Somewhere Between (Your Heart and Mine),” a haunting ballad penned by Haggard.
The lady has paid her dues, including early on singing harmony and playing standup bass behind Loretta Lynn, along with then drummer-husband Ron Williams, Sr. After that, she joined Merle Haggard’s Strangers’ troupe, touring and eventually marrying the bossman, for whom she supplied sterling songs and delicious harmony, including #1’s “You Take Me For Granted,” “Someday When Things Are Good,” both of which she dusted off here, but today not their Top 10 duet co-write, “The Bull & The Beaver.”
Leona launched her set with a solo success, “Yes Ma’am, He Found Me In a Honky Tonk,” always a crowd pleaser. After reprising the #1 ballads, Leona delivered a lively take on the lesser known “Guitar Pickin’ Song,” enticing some excellent lead guitar riffs from bandsman Charlie Vaughan. Others comprising ROPE’s seasoned backing band were Ron Elliott, steel guitar; Larry Barnes, bass; Willie Rainsford, keyboards; and drummer Dina and David Johnson, fiddle.
Probably one of country’s more underrated singer-songwriters, Leona’s a favorite of hardcore country fans, whom she found especially fervent in Ireland and the UK. Notably, Leona and son garnered the only standing ovation from the Palace crowd, following their heartfelt “Somewhere Between.”
Some viewers may not be familiar with the name Dallas Frazier, but no doubt are quite aware of his tuneful contributions to music, among them #1’s “Alley Oop,” “There Goes My Everything,” “Beneath Still Waters” and “So Afraid of Losing You Again.” For ROPE patrons, the casually-garbed gent opened with a song he wrote – Gene Watson’s only #1 “Fourteen Carat Mind” (1982) – revealing Dallas’s own strong vocals. Amazingly, Frazier’s also furnished first-time number ones for Gary Paxton & The Hollywood Argyles (“Alley Oop”), Jack Greene (“There Goes My Everything”), Charley Pride (“All I Have To Offer You Is Me”) and Tanya Tucker (“What’s Your Mama’s Name”).
Frazier himself first recorded some of his greatest songs, including “Alley Oop,” 1957; “Elvira,” 1966; and “Big Mable Murphy,” 1971, which later became successes for Paxton, Oak Ridge Boys and Sue Thompson. He tallied eight Billboard chartings as a vocalist, the best being “Everybody Oughta Sing,” a 1967 Top 20.
More than one of his creations charted pop, including the Oaks’ #1 crossover smash “Elvira,” a pop Top Five, previously covered by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition; then there’s O. C. Smith’s version of “Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp,” a Top 40 U.S. entry that hit #2 in the UK, and prompted country covers by Johnny Darrell, #22, 1968, and Johnny Russell, #32, 1976.
Dallas told the audience “There Goes My Everything’s” his biggest copyright, and in addition to Jack Greene’s monster disc, it’s been covered by numerous artists, pop and country, including Engelbert Humperdinck, Elvis Presley, Don Cherry and Ferlin Husky, for whom Frazier originally wrote the number.
“I moved to Nashville in late 1963, after having worked in Bakersfield for Ferlin as a kid. I got this inspiration from a divorce that Ferlin was going through. I wrote ‘There Goes My Everything’ when I was 24. It took about an hour to write,” recalled Frazier, whose publisher mistakenly gave it to unknown Greene, who was drumming and singing with Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours. Like wildfire it took off, and subsequently Greene made two more Frazier tunes hit, “Until My Dreams Come True” #1, and “Back In the Arms Of Love,” Top Five.
Not to be out-done, Charley Pride scored #1 with four Frazier songs: “All I Have To Offer You Is Me,” “So Afraid Of Losing You Again,” “I Can’t Believe That You’ve Stopped Loving Me” and “Then Who Am I?” Connie Smith was another artist who had high numbers with his songs, five at Top 10 or better, including “Ain’t Had No Lovin’,” #2; “Just For What I Am,” #5; and “If It Ain’t Love,” #7.
Now 78, Frazier finished his portion with a number inspired by a street sign in east Nashville, noting, “It’s not the most poetic song, but ‘Elvira’s’ one of my favorites,” rendering it in as stylish a manner as one can muster, with a “oom pa-pa, mow-mow” chorus. Ultimately, Dallas’ numerous chart entries earned him induction into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, class of 1976.
“Boy, I have to follow the likes of Dickey Lee, Leona Williams and Dallas Frazier,” bemoaned harmonica whiz Charlie McCoy, the afternoon’s fitting finale. First off he covered his favorite Kris Kristofferson song, “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” Many recall Charlie McCoy performing regularly on the popular Hee Haw TV show, also acting as the series music director. (That’s Charlie, left, posing with Dickey Lee.)
McCoy’s proud of being a member of Nashville’s fabled A Team of session players, performing his magic on records for a variety of artists, like Ann-Margret, Roy Orbison, Stonewall Jackson, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Perry Como and Ringo Starr. His own 1972 instrumental single, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” a spin-off from his Grammy-winning “Real McCoy” album, was a near million seller. The following year, his “Good Time Charlie” LP hit #1, yet another enviable feat.
Charlie even sang at the ROPE show, warning “If the wife and I are fussin’, brother that’s our right/’Cause me and that sweet woman’s got a license to fight . . . If you mind your own business/Then you won’t be minding mine.”
Indeed the Grammy award-winning instrumentalist covered a pair of Hank Williams’ standards, “Mind Your Own Business” and “Cold Cold Heart,” noting his legendary singer-songwriter hero died near McCoy’s home town, Oak Hill, W. Va., in 1953.
Of course, Charlie never met Hank, Sr., as he was only 11 when he passed. But in 2011, produced a Hank Williams tribute album honoring him, “Lonesome Whistle,” even inviting Hank’s daughter Jett aboard to perform on “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
ROPE’s presentation proved a day of good beer-drinking music, though the strongest concoction available was unsweetened iced tea. But at least we learned there’s still some sounds around that truly fill the bill for traditional fans. Wish y’all could’ve been there! – Review & Photos by Walt Trott
Don McLean . . . folk rock, country or Americana? . . .
NASHVILLE — Don McLean is one of those transcendent music makers who made his mark with “American Pie,” and its memorable line “the day the music died.” He became a folk-rock favorite of 1970s’ fans; however, in 1981 chose country, hitting Top 10 with his first of five chartings, “Crying,” a Roy Orbison-Joe Melson creation, that ironically topped the British chart for him. Today, he’d fit smoothly into the Americana fold.
Now McLean’s newest album, “Botanical Gardens,” released March 23, 2018 by BMG, brought him back to Music City, where he’s confided to being more comfortable. This collection, boasting a baker’s dozen tunes, has him co-producing with Nashville pickers Pat and Mike Severs, and reportedly has been in the works in part since 2014. It is his first in eight years (and its release precedes a 14-date UK tour, starting April 29 at the Southend Cliffs Pavilion, and continuing into Ireland thru June).
Issued in February, the title track’s digital version is an ode to historic gardens (initially wrought for scientific study of plants), with McLean supplying a more romantic tone to the beauteous surroundings. It was inspired by one he visited in Sydney, Australia:“I take a walk in botanical gardens/And look for the faces of pretty young girls/Just like the flowers that bloom all around me/I fall in love in this colorful world . . .”
Of course that and 11 other cuts were composed by McLean, not known for simple country themes dealing with death, divorce, drinking, dogs, trains or honky-tonks, his being more complex, poetically presented, sometimes as paradoxical prisms that only come into focus upon conclusion. “A Total Eclipse Of the Sun” is a story song of a July encounter with a woman who had rocked his world a decade earlier, and had left him lost and lonely: “She was the infliction/Of my own crucifixion . . . In the total eclipse of the sun.”
Don, a gifted vocalist, doesn’t take a backseat to others, though legends have covered his creations, notably Garth Brooks (“American Pie”), George Michael (“The Grave”), Fred Astaire (“Wonderful Baby”), Madonna (“American Pie”), and Perry Como, Bobby Goldsboro and Elvis Presley (all did “And I Love You So”).
The sole song he didn’t pen here is his last track “Last Night When We Were Young,” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg – featured in the 1949 MGM film “In the Good Ole Summertime” as sung by Judy Garland – but was deleted from the final product. McLean gives it a poignant performance, as well.
Another standout is the mournful “Waving Man,” whose subject is a war hero, confined to a wheelchair, after waving goodbye to his buddies on the front, his wife in later life, and finally the children they raised: “He’s a waving man/He’s a waving man/And he doesn’t know anybody’s name . . .”
Probably the most country-sounding song is “Grief and Hope,” which boasts three chords and the truth, as its author warns, “Grief and hope, they walk together/They’re side by side, but they’re not friends . . . And when we see better days/They go separate ways.” Expressing everything but the twang, his “King Of Fools” May to December love affair, fades fast when mi’lady favors fickle fun with another. McLean performs with powerful, emotional immediacy in his interpretations. Similarly, there’s “I’ve Cried All the Tears That I Have,” trying to pick up the pieces of a broken heart.
More uptempo tunes are “Rock ’n’ Roll Your Baby” and “Ain’t She a Honey,” bookends to erotic feelings conveyed by the singer-songwriter. Then there are a few songs, similar to those he once described in concert as “sorta slow, hand-holders . . . smooching music,” the ballads “Lucky Guy,” “When July Comes,” “You’re All I Ever Had” and “You’ve Got Such Beautiful Eyes.”
Recorded at Jim Dineen’s Watershed Studio in Nashville, under the watchful eye of executive producer Paul Charles, McLean also contributes acoustic guitar licks, with exceptional backup from such as Mike Severs on electric guitar, ukulele and drums; Patrick Severs on electric, acoustic and slide guitars; Tony Migliore, keyboards; Jerry Kroon, percussion; David Smith, Brad Albin, Mark Prentice, basses; and Vip Vipperman, electric and slide guitars.
Despite early success, Don McLean was well aware that stardom wasn’t something to take for granted. He’s been a man completely immersed in his music, and considerate of fans, including when time permits taking time to sign autographs. He knows success in any field is the result of talent, hard work, determination and dependent on the level of support received.
This type of attitude has served him well throughout a lengthy career, spanning nearly six decades, and now at 72, McLean can look back proudly on “American Pie,” a tribute to the late Buddy Holly, and seemingly a surrender of American rock ’n’ roll dominance to the British rock invasion led by The Beatles and Rolling Stones. “They were singing/Bye, bye Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry/Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye/Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die . . .”
It’s now in the Grammy Hall of Fame and in March 2017, was designated an “aural treasure” by the U.S. Library of Congress, and thus preserved in the National Recording Registry.
No one-hit wonder, Don’s celebrated for additional creations, notably “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” “Dreidel,” “Wonderful Baby,” “Since I Don’t Have You,” “Castles In the Air.” In recognition of his writing prowess, McLean was inducted into the National Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, with presenter Garth Brooks doing the honor.
“American Pie’s” original manuscript garnered Don a $1.2 million auction bid, but did you know there was a deleted verse by McLean, provocateur par excellence? Here it is: “And there I stood alone and afraid/I dropped to my knees and there I prayed/And I promised him everything I could give/If only he would make the music live/And he promised it would live once more/But this time one would equal four/And in five years four had come to mourn . . . and the music was reborn.” – Walt Trott
Conway Twitty: “Timeless” marks 25th anniversary of his passing
NASHVILLE — My memories of legendary Conway Twitty aren’t always happy ones, as I felt family and the industry muddied up the Mississippi native’s true legacy. What brings him to mind now is “Timeless,” a 14-song Twitty retrospective released by the indie Country Rewind (CR) label that recently came across my desk. When you know the back story to this work, you’ll understand why I was hesitant about reviewing this previously-unreleased performance by Conway. Remember, upon his death 25 years ago, he held the modern record on #1 Billboard singles – 41 – more than Eddy Arnold, Merle Haggard, Aretha Franklin, and yes, The Beatles and Elvis.
According to the new album liner notes, these were produced in May 1972 by the late Scotty Moore at his Music City Recorders Studio here. Conway played guitar, backed by touring bandsmen Joe E. Lewis, bass; John Hughey, steel; Tommy (Pork Chop) Markham, drums, and Moore’s pianist-buddy Hargus (Pig) Robbins. Their original target audience consisted of some 2,000 radio stations across the nation, which back in the day chalked up the country champ’s record number of chart-toppers, before conglomerates bought ’em up, issued strict playlists and pre-taped DJs (exhibiting make-or-break broadcast power, capable of zapping political non-conformists, a la the Dixie Chicks!).
I’m amazed to think this was recorded only a month after my first interview with Twitty, during London’s then annual Wembley Country Music Festival in April ’72, for the daily military newspaper Stars & Stripes. Earlier, as a Marine Corps recruiter, I welcomed artists volunteering their talents for such transcriptions, aired with an objective of helping the military attract enlistees; however, those hastily-produced tapes were generally not studio-caliber. Aware of all this, I listened with trepidation to “Timeless.”
Much to my pleasure, the near-33 minutes of music heard proved Scotty (Elvis’ guitarist) also an incredible engineer and mixer, who thankfully kept this treasure, passing it on to CR’s Thomas Gramuglia. In liaison with CR, Conway’s daughter Joni (remember “Don’t Cry, Joni”) and musician-hubby John Wesley Ryles (“Kay”), served as co-producers, with adept engineering aid from Mark Capps.
According to Preshias Harris’s CD liner notes, John Jungklaus also flawlessly transferred the original tapes, while Joni and John added acoustic guitarist Kevin Williams, pianist Ron Oates to the mix, and for two tracks, “Fifteen Years Ago” and “Crazy Arms,” the playing of guitarist Tony Durante (hubby to Kathy, Joni’s sister).
Joni said that John himself “stepped up to the mic and just as I knew he could, he added the perfect harmony to each song. Lord, it put a lump in my throat to hear him, Dad and Big Joe (Lewis) singing together. It was like magic!” Hard to believe it was 50 years ago – at age 17 – that Ryles recorded his own unforgettable Top 10, Hank Mills’ ballad “Kay,” the first of 27 singles J.W.R. charted before devoting himself primarily to behind-the-scenes studio sessions.
In selecting songs for Scotty’s session, Conway chose six chart-toppers, notably “Our Last Date,” for which he created the lyrics to Floyd Cramer’s instrumental “Last Date,” and now it’s this CD’s lead track. There’s also his first country #1 “Next In Line,” which during our London chat, Twitty noted, “It’s been a long, hard climb, making my career in country music, and took 10 years, almost to the day, from my first (pop) #1 ‘It’s Only Make Believe,’ in November 1958, until my first #1 in country, ‘Next In Line’ (November 1968). There were those who said don’t change direction, but that was my decision to make and you know, it feels just right.”
Who from that era can forget Conway’s self-penned “It’s Only Make Believe,” delivered in full two-octave range, along with his sexy little growl, quickly turning it into a classic. Have always admired his artistry immensely, but when he decided his heart was in country, there was an element wanting to deny him that dream, deriding him as “countrypolitan.”
Conservatives felt he was merely slumming in country, because his hits dried up in the pop genre, but they failed to recognize this Southern boy’s heart was always in country, the music he performed in his youth and during his Army stint overseas. Then when his songs became more sensuous, old schoolers resented success of seductive titles like “Lead Me On,” “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” “I See the Want To In Your Eyes” and “I’d Just Love To Lay You Down,” blinded to the fact music was maturing to keep abreast of the times, and Conway was ahead of the curve.
Oddly enough, despite 76 Top 10s and all those #1 songs – 12 of which he wrote or co-wrote – Twitty never won a solo CMA award, like best male vocal or entertainer of the year, though he shared best duo honors with Loretta Lynn four times (1972-’75). There were also nine #1 country albums, but none cited as best by CMA.
Make no mistake about it, “Timeless” is country all the way, with perhaps one exception: “Proud Mary.” That upbeat, hard-driving John Fogerty song, initially a #2 smash for his Creedence Clearwater Revival group in ’69, reminds us Conway could rock. Attesting to that, too, are his early MGM pop cuts “Mona Lisa,” “Lonely Blue Boy,” “C’est Si Bon” and some 116 million records sold, thanks too, to a trio of Twitty singles that charted R&B, prior to his conversion to country.
Even as a country crooner, Conway paid homage to such across-the-board faves as the Bee Gees, Bob Seger, The Eagles, Lionel Richie, Sam Moore and Pointer Sisters, via covers. On this collection, he’s singing “Crazy Arms,” Ray Price’s all-time top tune which charted an astounding 45 weeks for the Cherokee Cowboy. Better believe Twitty couldn’t forget Price, who gave him credibility back in ’63 by cutting Conway’s “Walk Me To The Door,” making it a strong Top 10 country disc, and a strong argument for a country-oriented Conway.
Yet another hardcore country cut Twitty tackles is the Rose and Joe Maphis co-write (with Max Fidler) “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music),” giving it all the grit and passion needed for that honky-tonk standard. It appeared first as a B side to Twitty’s Top Five breakthrough tune “Image Of Me,” from the pen of Wayne Kemp.
Third track is the stylistic “Hello Darlin’,” his signature song, which he actually wrote a decade before hitting #1 with it in 1970, while the LP of that title gave Twitty his first #1 album on Billboard. The single, which became the most played that year, was later voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Henry Compton’s slick weeper “How Much More Can She Stand” gets savvy treatment, reminding us it reached #1 status one year before this track. It served as another album title, as well. In real life, he had just reconciled with wife Mickey, mother of his three younger children, though they would divorce for good in 1984, after 28 years’ togetherness.
Conway’s superb, singing “Working Girl,” a Wes Buchanan composition he recorded first in 1967 for “Conway Twitty Country” (Decca LP). Hmm, initially wondered if it was about a procurer (a.k.a. pimp) and his mistress as he sings,“Working girl/You’ve got money all of the time/Working girl . . . Pay my debt and treat me fine/Ah, I don’t know if I could take it/If she should up and go . . . I love you so . . . working girl.” But gave up that notion when heard on his and Loretta’s duet album “We Only Make Believe” (1971).
Lyrically strong, as well, is the melodic “I Can’t See Me Without You,” which Twitty penned and recorded in 1971, an easy Top Fiver. Thanks to his powerful vocals, brought up-close in the new production, Conway’s awesome performance seemingly outshines the original studio rendition, tagged with a cumbersome choral accompaniment.
The romantic #1 ballad “I Love You More Today,” track seven, was written by a favorite writer of his, L.E. White, the first of several hit contributions he made to Conway’s discography. Another 1970 #1, Raymond Smith’s “Fifteen Years Ago,” a personal favorite of this writer, doesn’t disappoint either, nearly fifty years later.
Yet another “Timeless” cover is the 1956 Johnny Horton hit “Honky-Tonk Man,” a twangy, two-stepper Twitty tackles with equal fervor. Every bit as infectious as applauded covers by the likes of Buck, Dwight or Bob Luman.
Conway’s creation (though credited to wife Mickey Jaco) “If You Were Mine To Lose,” played second fiddle to its uptempo flipside “Look Into My Teardrops,” a fine Harlan Howard-Don Bowman collaboration, that nonetheless failed to launch Conway’s country career switch in ’66. A true heart-tugger, “If You Were Mine To Lose,” offered ample opportunity for soulful, heartfelt vocals radio surely could’ve picked up on way back when. Indeed a spellbinder.
Conway’s final marriage in 1987 to ex-secretary Dee Henry, closer in age to his son Michael, caused friction both in the family and among co-workers, including boyhood pal John Hughey, his veteran steel guitarist, who up and quit The Twitty Birds.
Following a Branson gig, Twitty suffered a stomach aneurysm aboard his tour bus, and was rushed to a hospital in Springfield, Mo., where following surgery, he died June 5, 1993, at age 59.
Subsequently, there ensued a lengthy series of court cases pitting widow Dee against his daughters Kathy and Joni, regarding a will that was either missing or unsigned, dependent on your source. Nor was there any trace of a prenuptial document some believe she signed. Dee opted to follow Tennessee law that decrees a third of the husband’s estate – in the absence of a will – is reserved for his widow. A public auction determined the value of remaining property and artifacts, after Dee rejected an appraised value.
Following years in probate, Twitty’s children – Michael, Joni, Kathy, Jimmy – were assigned rights to the artist’s music, name and image, though another lawsuit between the estate and Sony/ATV Music emerged over Twitty royalties and copyrights, which the company reportedly purchased earlier from Conway. No doubt this would not have been how the artist would want his name to be remembered.
Thanks to more than 50 music performance awards from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, however, Conway Twitty was posthumously enshrined in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1993; and finally inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999. Still no recognition from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though he has been rightly honored posthumously by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, Tenn.
“Timeless” is a fitting title for this previously thought lost performance by a country king. Thanks to masterful crisp and clear re-recordings, it doesn’t sound dated, and deserves to be heard by new generations, and is an essential collector’s item for all the Twitty fans still out there. – Walt Trott
That’s Kathy and Joni, Twitty’s daughters, in this Patricia Presley photo.
NASHVILLE – It was a night to remember for legendary Bobby Bare, who on his 83rd birthday, April 7, was sharing the Grand Ole Opry stage with Jeannie Seely, Garth Brooks, son Bobby Bare, Jr., Mary Gauthier, and Garth invited him to rejoin the historic show. Back in the 1970s, due to additional career demands, Bare let his original membership lapse, but you couldn’t find a happier singer-songwriter that night, as Brooks made WSM’s renewal offer.
As Garth announced, “The Grand Ole Opry is family. Family is forever. So Mr. Bare, young man – as my dad would say – it is my honor, it is the Grand OleOpry’s honor, to officially welcome you back, the great Bobby Bare, to the Grand Ole Opry!”
He and Mary had performed “I Drink” from his new album “Things Change,” prior to him and Jr. reprising dad’s 1970s’ smash “Come Sundown.” So Seely, the show’s emcee, gave a warm birthday greeting – and Garth. Visibly touched by his invitation, Bobby confided, “I’ve gotta tell you that this is quite a surprise. I was a member of the Opry for 10 years, but then I just drifted away . . . ,” adding, “Thank you to everybody on the Grand Ole Opry!” That left time enough to sing his #1 tale, “Marie Laveau.”
According to Sally Williams, the Opry’s general manager, “Bobby Bare enjoys an incredible relationship with all of the Opry artists, as well as the Opry staff. He has supported the Opry with visits often over the past few years, and he’s always a crowd favorite. We are so excited to officially welcome him back to Opry membership.” (Photo of Bare and Brooks by Chris Hollo)
NASHVILLE — Country singer Daryle Singletary’s sudden death at age 46, Monday, Feb. 12, from an apparent blood clot, had the music scene in shock. Reportedly, he played his final show in Dadeville, Ala., on Friday at the Rodeo Club, three days earlier, showing no sign of fatigue or illness, says management.
A Georgia boy, Singletary prided himself on singing songs similar to traditional country sounds he thrived on in his youth, making his major breakthrough in 1995, via a self-titled album, spinning off two Top Five singles: “I Let Her Lie” (#2) and the upbeat “Too Much Fun” (#4).
That introductory collection was co-produced by Randy Travis, James Stroud and David Malloy, a trio sharing his love of country’s roots. “There are still people out there who want to hear traditional country music,” quotes Daryle, on his website, “I’ve been fortunate to be able to always keep it real and not have to compromise.”
According to Travis, “I love Daryle Singletary’s heart and soul — for life, for others, and for true country music. Co-producing his first LP was a highlight in my career. He is one of the best and made me a better artist . . . Thanks for the memories, brother.”
Yet another near chart-topper for Daryle, “Amen Kind of Love,” was released in the fall of ’96. It was the lead single off his sophomore album “All Because of You.” A third Giant album, “Ain’t It The Truth,” produced another Singletary success “The Note,” though stalling at Top 20 on country’s singles chart, succeeded in garnering pop play, making Billboard’s Hot 100 pop chart. The Top 20 album soared to #7 on Billboard’s Heat seeker list in 1998. Nonetheless, the burly balladeer and Giant parted ways in ’99.
Daryle next signed onto Audium Records’ roster, where his first chartings proved less successful, “I Knew I Loved You” and his co-write “I’ve Thought Of Everything,” heard on his “Now And Again” (2000) album. Audium’s second Singletary set – “That’s Why I Sing This Way” – produced two near-Top 40 tracks, its title tune (sort of in homage to George Jones), supplied by Max T. Barnes; and Fred MacRae’s “I’d Love To Lay You Down,” remembering Conway Twitty’s #1 version two decades earlier.
In the Barnes’ ballad, Daryle sings “Well, things I never did/When I was just a little kid/Made me what I am today . . . See Momma used to whoop me/With a George Jones album/That’s why I sing this way . . .”
Upon learning of Singletary’s passing, a wistful Barnes proclaimed, “Daryle was everybody’s favorite singer. It’s not OK with me for there to be a world without him! There’s a Daryle-sized hole in country music, now and forever.”
Yes to many of us, Daryle was the real deal, a roots-fond artist who thrived on twang. Born March 10, 1971 in Cairo, Ga., to postal worker Roger and his beautician-wife Anita, he grew up in a music-loving family. His grandmother played fiddle and his parents were part of a weekend gospel group. Daryle and his brother joined their cousins singing in a band, while he also took voice lessons in high school. Forming his own band in the ninth grade, proved beneficial in attracting attention of the girls in his classes, he grinned.
During our interview, Daryle also confided, “I cut my teeth trying to sing like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Keith Whitley and Randy Travis. Even when I moved to Nashville (1990), I saw no reason not to try and sing like these heroes, because they’re so good. It’s inevitable that Keith and Randy stole licks from Jones and Haggard. I stole licks from Randy and Keith. When (Johnny) Paycheck was Donnie Young on Jones’ records, singing harmony and playing guitar, I’m sure ol’ George even borrowed some of Paycheck’s style.”
Singletary felt by combining different licks learned from his heroes, he soon developed his own style: “It’s something that happens all the time. I don’t even think about it, but I’m very thankful for that.”
It’s interesting to learn how Randy Travis first became aware of the unknown Singletary, who was putting food on his table by singing in local clubs, doing what session work he could muster, and making the occasional demo. A chap named Johnny Morris, who co-wrote “An Old Pair of Shoes,” owned the short-lived indie Evergreen label. He invited Daryle to sing the “Shoes” demo that got into the hands of Travis, who liked it, but also wondered who was singing. As Randy cut it for Warner’s, he pretty much stuck with the original arrangement, scoring himself another Top 20 charting in 1993, while inadvertently paying homage to Daryle in doing so.
Indeed, Travis became a champion of the newcomer. His then manager-wife Lib Hatcher took deep-voiced, dark-haired Daryle under her wing, putting him on the road with Randy, giving him a chance to perform and help in merchandise sales. Earlier, Daryle had worked as a “roadie” for Tanya Tucker. Fellow musician Greg Cole, who was a Jolly Greene Giant bandsmen, also became an early pal. As Singletary pointed out, “Greg and I started working together when we were (practicing) in a basement in Antioch (a Nashville neighborhood). He was playing for Jack Greene and I was still singing in a club, an unknown and he played for me on weekends or weekdays, when he wasn’t out with Jack.”
Eventually Greg would co-produce Daryle’s CDs “That’s Why I Sing This Way” and “Straight From the Heart” (2007). Cole added, “The first day I met him, I played on a session with him and I thought, ‘This boy can sing.’ So I had invited him out to this club where I played, The Broken Spoke. I talked the manager into letting us play there on the off nights. We were playing 1970s’ and early 1980s’ stuff that we wanted to play, and we just had a big time. Then they added Tuesday nights (packing the place) . . . I guess we did that for something like two years.”
In 2005, Cole co-produced Singletary’s “Rockin’ In the Country” for Shanachie Records. That effort remained unreleased, however, as Shanachie folded, but thankfully in 2009 finally became Singletary’s sixth album, when E-1 Music, a branch of Koch Entertainment, distributed it. Both Greg and Daryle were pleased by that CD, and in particular recalled a track titled “She Sure Looks Good In Black,” they thought should’ve been a hit. There’s also a rousing performance on the CD by guest artist Charlie Daniels.
“I’m passionate about what I do,” said Singletary. “I’m not just going out making a living or just to get a check. I’m doing what I like – and I’m having fun. Since 1995, I’ve consistently played an average 60-to-80 dates a year. If you ask me, that says a lot about the state of our industry. I’ve been very fortunate and I’m thankful. I’ve seen some of my friends come into this business, have a hit and now they’re not out there anymore. I’m still here and I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”
A no-nonsense sort, Daryle also joined sportsman Wayne Burns as co-host for Outdoor All-Stars, a 2008-’09 hunting show on cable beamed by DirecTV. More recently Daryle released the 2016 single “We’re Not Going To Hell (For Having a Hell Of a Time),” and joined good friend Rhonda Vincent on her 2017 Top 40 country CD “American Grandstand.” That duets album recreates covers of such successes as George Jones & Melba Montgomery’s “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds,” and Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty’s “After the Fire Is Gone.”
It wasn’t his first duet collaboration with Rhonda. The couple sang the George & Tammy classic “We’re Gonna Hold On” for his “Straight From the Heart” CD. As Daryle shared with us, “There’s not many girl singers that just blows my skirt up per se, but I’m a huge fan of Rhonda’s. She’s definitely one of those singers who’s so unique, a real stylist. Rhonda sang with me on my first records, like the old Keith Whitley song I remade on my first Giant record ‘Would These Arms Be In Your Way.’ She sang harmony and we’ve kinda kept in touch since. I think she and her brother Darrin have done harmony on all the projects Greg and I have done together.”
No doubt the feeling is mutual, a saddened Rhonda just stated, “Daryle Singletary, one of the single greatest singers who ever sang a song. I loved singing with him. We shared a kindred spirit on and off the stage. I will miss him dearly. Rest in Peace my friend.” (Daryle and pal Greg Cole chat with Walt Trott at Union, right.)
Another singer-songwriter admirer, Paul Bogart, added his condolences, “Daryle Singletary was THE quintessential country music singer – country music the way it should be. He will be sorely missed, but his music will live on forever.”
Survivors include Daryle’s wife Holly and their four children: Jonah, Mercer, Nora and Charlotte Singletary. Following his passing, Platinum Records released a “posthumous single,” titled “She’s Been Cheatin’ On Us,” noting the disc’s proceeds would benefit Daryle’s family, the singer’s representative proclaimed no such fund was put in place, plus the recording was merely a demo that the singer didn’t mean to release. – By Walt Trott
NASHVILLE — Legendary singer-songwriter Mel Tillis, 85, died Nov. 19 at the Munroe Medical Center in Ocala, Fla. Following major surgery last year, the Country Music Hall of Famer never quite regained his full strength. Even before suffering colon cancer, Mel had experienced open-heart bypass surgery in 2014.
The man behind writing such songs as “Detroit City,” “I Ain’t Never,” “Heart Over Mind,” “Burning Memories,” “Honky Tonk Song,” “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town)” and “Honey, Open That Door,” also charted 77 Billboard singles himself, 36 at Top 10, six peaked #1, including “Good Woman Blues,” “I Believe In You” and “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” He recorded over 60 albums, though only two charted Billboard’s Top 10, “Sawmill” (#3, 1973), “Heart Healer” (#6, 1977), and one of his last being Atlantic’s colorful 1998 collaboration “Old Dogs” in which longtime pals Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Reed shared the mic.
Even though his creations “The Violet And A Rose” or “All Right, I’ll Sign the Papers,” tug at the heartstrings, he also tickled the funny-bone with humorous anecdotes or self-effacing stuttering pronouncements. This writer first encountered Mel Tillis and his Statesiders band in Germany, entertaining lonesome GIs, whom he brought a sense of home via his composition “Detroit City,” with its haunting refrain “I wanna go home, I wanna go home . . .” in 1969.
During our last interview, this time at his lakeside home near Ashland City, Tenn., Mel mentioned being named Comedian of the Year from 1973-’78 by Music City News, a fan-voted award: “And would you believe, I’ve never done a comedy album? Go figure. Well, over the years I’ve recorded most of my shows and I’ve got enough material for a hundred albums. Most of the stuff is clean except for the one the cat peed on the matches . . . I did that in Vegas.”
Such showmanship earned him the Country Music Association’s prestigious Entertainer of the Year award in 1976, and national recognition in 2011, when President Barack Obama presented him the National Medal of Arts in the White House. Tillis, humbled by that honor, proclaimed, “I’ve truly been blessed in my career and still can’t believe I was chosen to receive this from my country. I was surprised to say the least.” He was indeed in high cotton, sharing the night with such fellow recipients as pianist Andre Watts, poet Rita Dove and actor Al Pacino.
Tillis has also made some acting attempts in movies, most of which Pacino’d probably pass on: “Cottonpickin’ Chicken Pickers” (1967), “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings” (1975), “The Villain” (1979), “Smokey & The Bandit II” (1980), “Cannonball Run” (1981), “Uphill All The Way” (1986) and “Beer For My Horses” (2008). Tillis tunes have graced numerous film soundtracks, as well, most notably Clint Eastwood’s “Every Which Way But Loose” (1979), boasting a pair of Mel hits, “Send Me Down To Tucson” and “Coca-Cola Cowboy.” Other soundtrack films have included “Hamburger Hill” (1987), “The Help” (2011) and “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013).
In consideration of his 80-plus writer awards, Mel’s been hailed twice as BMI Songwriter of the Decade. Actually, Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association International’s Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1976, and belatedly accorded WSM’s Grand Ole Opry cast membership status in 2007, in which daughter Pam was already a member.
Not bad for poor boy Lonnie Melvin Tillis, born to Lonnie Lee and Burma Tillis at 2602 Morgan Street in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 8, 1932: “Yeah, I was born smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression. My daddy was a baker, and we lived in and around Hillsborough County for about 10 years.” Lonnie senior also played guitar and harmonica, an early inspiration to Mel and brother Richard. At age 3, toddler Lonnie suffered a bout of malaria that left him stuttering. A testament to Tillis’ character and stamina was his ability to turn that handicap into an asset on life’s stage.
Mel’s biography, published in 1984 bears the title “Stuttering Boy,” co-written with journalist Walter Wager, whom Mel identifies thusly, “a Brooklyn boy – and he wrote like he was from Brooklyn.” During our 2005 chat, Tillis confided he was intent on producing a more thorough bio: “I’ve got about a hundred pages on a new one done already. I’m writing it myself, the way it was, and the way I talk, with all the colloquialisms intact, not the stutter. That is, if I ever get off the lake.”
Harking back to childhood, Mel pointed out, “Just about when World War II started, Daddy moved his family down to a little town called Pahokee on the banks of Lake Okeechobee. You know, it’s a wonder I ever did learn how to talk with all them names.”
Before graduating from Plant City High, Mel played football: “I was a running back, though I wanted to be a quarterback. But they said you had to be able to talk to do that. I said, ‘Just give me the ball and tell me which way to run.’ I was pretty fast, I guess, as they called me ‘Crazylegs’ (like fast football runner Elroy Hirsch, who earned that nickname).” Despite college offers to play football, Tillis passed them up, attending the University of Florida for about four months, but with the Korean War underway, would soon find himself in uniform.
Admittedly Tillis was bitten earlier by the music bug. “When I started school I didn’t know I stuttered, but found out in a hurry. When the teacher found I could sing without stuttering, she encouraged me to sing. She told everyone, ‘This little fella can’t talk, but he sings real good.’ I went around to different classes to sing for them . . . and from that time on I found I could mingle socially with other kids.”
Although in school he started playing drums, Mel recalled he had his eye on guitar as an instrument: “Then my brother (Richard) bought a guitar and he wouldn’t let me touch it. He messed around with it about a month, finally I said to him, ‘You wanna sell it?’ . . . So I mowed lawns, baby-sat, dug earthworms for fishermen and sold them, anything to earn the $25 he wanted for the guitar.”
From then on it was practice, practice, until finally learning some chords, but he credits guitar pickers Albert Snyder, Thomas Elliott and a preacher, who all got him to the point where he could play songs on it. He aimed to enter Pahokee’s Prince Theater music talent competition, which he first did at age 15: “I think I won that thing three years in a row. Anyway, they were happy to see me move on.”
After a stint at working in his father’s bakery with business booming in the postwar years, and going to college, Mel enlisted in the Air Force anxious to get away from the world of baking, and requested flight school but got turned down. Ironically, he was assigned to baker’s school in San Antonio, Texas, but eventually was reassigned overseas to Okinawa.
“But first, I had 30 days home leave and then went off to Camp Stoneman up in Pittsburgh, Calif. I was 19 and had a night off, so I went to this l’il old honky tonk that had a country band, I believe its name was the Brass Rail, but the bartender said ‘you can’t come in here, you’re not old enough’ . . . so I checked into a hotel above it and that damned band played all night long, playin’ and shakin’ them walls. I covered up my head with the pillows, trying to get some sleep, and years later, I wrote a song about it, ‘Honky Tonk Song,’ which Webb Pierce made a number one record!”
In Okinawa, Mel found himself baking for 150 Filipino construction workers engaged by the military: “I learned how to cook rice because that’s about all they’d eat.” Mel listened to the Far Eastern American Forces Radio Network (AFN) in Okinawa, which at one time told listeners they had a country band, The Westerners, then playing the NCO Club, but their lead singer was heading home. When Mel attempted to talk to the bandleader regarding the singer’s job vacancy, he stuttered, prompting the leader to retort, “Sing? Hell he can’t talk!” But when Tillis broke into song, he was hired. “I remember I did ‘Alabama Jubilee,’ which was a hit by Red Foley, one of my favorites; you know, he inspired me a lot. Well, when I got to singin’, they all got out there dancin’ and I ended up doing about 10 songs, and they hired me.”
The pay was $5 a night and all he could drink. That lasted about two years, mainly playing the Rocker NCO Club and the nearby Army enlisted Stateside Club, which later inspired Mel to write a song “Stateside.” It became a Top 20 single in ’66 and subsequently his touring band’s name, The Statesiders.
Following his discharge, Mel worked the Tampa area as an entertainer nights and weekends, while working as a fireman on the Atlantic Coastal Railroad Line: “I wrote some songs about that later. Charley Pride’s first record was ‘Atlantic Coastal Line’ and the flipside was ‘Snakes Crawl At Night,’ which I also wrote (and received ample airplay).”
That 1965 RCA cut by Charley failed to chart, but showed his promise as an artist to reckon with. Later, Tillis’ “No Love Have I” became unknown Gail Davies’ first chart song in 1978, while even earlier he had given Bobby Bare his first Top 10 country charter “Detroit City,” and taken Bill Phillips in hand, helping him place a Top 10 cut with then-superstar Webb Pierce – “Falling Back To You” – heard on the flipside of Tillis’ Webb Pierce smash “Tupelo County Jail.” At Columbia Records in 1959, Mel and Bill joined voices to cut back-to-back Tillis tunes “Sawmill” and “Georgia Town Blues,” helping to launch both their careers as recording artists.
During hungry days in Florida, Mel met A. R. (Buck) Peddy, a promoter whom he thought had good Nashville connections, so he signed a management pact with Peddy: “I wrote. He didn’t write, but I had to give him half my songs plus another 35%. I used my railroad pass to come from Tampa to Jacksonville and from there I’d get on the L&N Railway and could go to Nashville.”
Buck took him to Acuff-Rose Music where he met publisher Wesley Rose. “The first one to sit me down and who actually listened to my songs was Wes Rose. Afterwards, he said, ‘You sing real good, but we need songs, we need copyrights’ . . . I appreciated his honesty.”
Thanks to fiddler-friend Benny Martin, Mel met up with major star Ray Price, who listened to some of his demos and particularly liked “I’m Tired,” and unbeknownst to Tillis, his manager Peddy promised Price a third of the song. Although Ray had intentions of recording the ballad, he sang it on the Opry and Webb Pierce overhearing it, pleaded with Price to let him cut it at his next session. While Ray said, “I don’t know,” Webb memorized a verse and took it to Cedarwood, and got writer Wayne Walker to create two new verses and then did record it.
Back in Florida, Tillis was tuned into Smilin’ Eddie Hill’s 1957 late-night WSM trucker show, and heard the newly-recorded “I’m Tired.” According to Mel, “So Eddie started playing ‘I’m Tired’ and I thought hey, that’s my song! Then he got to the second verse and I said, ‘Well, that’s almost my song.’ And when the third verse played, I said, ‘Hell, that ain’t my song. They stole it!” Buck Peddy assured him it was still his song, however, he had to share co-writer credit with not only him but Ray Price. Then I told my mama, ‘I’m headin’ for Nashville. We’re gonna be rich!’ (though royalties had to be split between artist, writers and the B side by Wayne Walker).”
Aside from Pierce, Tillis scored a Top 20 cut in 1958 when Kitty Wells recorded his heartbreaker “He’s Lost His Love For Me,” and on the pop scene that year Mel’s “Five Feet Of Lovin’,” cut by Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps, became a rockabilly click.
Just before this, Mel married young girlfriend Doris Duckworth, who was soon expecting their first child Pamela, born July 24, 1957 in Plant City. On the heels of this blessed event, Mel and Doris made their move to his dream city in a 1949 Mercury with a busted windshield: “There were only three major publishing companies in town. Acuff-Rose was the biggest and Tree only had about five songs (but signed him on a $75 weekly draw). We had it all to ourselves. When I first came up here, there were a handful of writers – Vic McAlpin, Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, Jim Anglin, Danny Dill and Wayne Walker – that was just about it. Guys like Harlan (Howard) and Bill (Anderson) weren’t here yet.”
Another early cut for Mel was Faron Young’s “I’m a Poor, Poor Boy” which didn’t chart; however, Pierce’s take on “Honky Tonk Song” soared straight to the top on May 20, 1957, though Mel had to split royalties again with Peddy, the non-writer.
Cedarwood’s co-publishers were Jim Denny and Pierce, who no doubt helped get their writer Tillis signed to major label Columbia, where he first charted as a singer, under the direction of A&R chief Don Law. “I was there five or six years. I guess my biggest (and first) on Columbia was ‘The Violet And The Rose’ (#24, 1958).” Four years later, Jimmy Dickens made that composition a Top 10, and Wanda Jackson took it to Top 40 in 1964.
Webb Pierce, who recorded some 35 Tillis tunes, followed up his “Honky Tonk Song” with a near chart-topper “Holiday For Love” (#3, 1957): “That’s a song I didn’t get none of, and I wrote the whole thing. (Seems) I had to give it up in a lawsuit in court . . . I never did get any royalties (off that).” Though queried, Tillis couldn’t remember details of that particular case, and according to BMI, Webb and Wayne Walker were also cited as co-writers of “Holiday For Love.” Other Tillis songs that scored Top 10 or better for Pierce include “Tupelo County Jail,” “A Thousand Miles Ago,” “No Love Have I,” “Crazy Wild Desire,” “Take Time” and “Finally,” which Webb sang as a duet with Kitty Wells.
“For awhile, he wouldn’t cut anything unless he put his name on it (as co-writer),” explained Tillis. “Finally, I told him, ‘I ain’t giving you no more Webb.’ He said ‘Lad, it’s not the money. I’ve got to keep my name out there.’ I said, ‘Well, when the money comes in, will you give it to me?’ He said, ‘We’ll see.’ But then he told me, ‘The only reason your songs are hits is because I record them.’ I said, ‘Is that right?’ So I walked outa their office and went on and wrote about 15 hits. I mean songs like ‘Detroit City,’ and ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.’ Later, Webb said, ‘Well, I can’t record ’em all.’ He was a real character, buddy, but I still loved him. When he died up in that hospital, in his mind he was still number one.”
While at Cedarwood, Mel got to know Wayne Walker and they became co-writers: “He was a good writer and taught me a lot about songwriting, especially about the tenses.” Wayne was a favorite of Kitty Wells, who in ’58 cut “He’s Lost His Love For Me,” “All The Time” and “I Can’t Help Wondering,” which Mel wrote solo, and that remained a favorite for her to perform on the road up into her 80’s. “Wayne and I became good friends. Owen Bradley (Decca honcho) used to call us Bones (Tillis) and Fluffo (Walker).”
Tillis liked an idea of Ramsey Kearney’s and they came up with “Emotions,” which Mel got to Carl Smith: “I got to listening to that song and called Ramsey to say, ‘Let me make some changes to that song and we may get us a Brenda Lee cut (in the more lucrative pop market).’ He said, ‘Help yourself.’ So I did and she recorded it (#7, 1961) and it didn’t even sound like the Carl Smith version. It was an altogether different song by then.” (Incidentally, Carl’s rendition became the B side to his 1957 #2 single “Why, Why,” so it too was a moneymaker.)
Columbia’s Don Law urged Tillis to tour, saying that’s where the money was for him as a performer: “Mainly, I had thought about just being a writer, but the Duke of Paducah (Whitey Ford) needed a singer. His vocalist, George Morgan (who would record Tillis’ memorable ‘Little Dutch Girl’ and ‘Alright, I’ll Sign the Papers’ ), had a bad eye and was goin’ into the hospital to get it straightened. Jim Denny said he had a singer. The Duke said he’d pick me up at the apartment Doris and I rented out there on Woodbine and Peach Tree streets. I went home and told Doris I had a gig for 10 days.”
Tillis smiled saying when he left the house he hoped to become nationally successful, but on his first tour out of Nashville, he primarily toured Florida, where he first started out: “Well, they picked me up and I left Doris home alone, 16 years old and pregnant. But a Mrs. Hightower was there and assured me she’d take care of her. When Duke picked me up, he was driving and they had a big bass fiddle in there, and up front was him and (bassist) Ken Marvin.
“Don Davis was on steel, Johnny Tona on fiddle, and that was the band, no drums or nothing. Danny Dill and Annie Lou (The Country Sweethearts) were also on the bill. Now I ain’t said nothin’ all the way to Chattanooga and then the Duke started asking me stuff and I couldn’t get nothin’ out. So when we stopped over in Ringgold, Ga., he called Jim Denny and asked, ‘What have you done to me? This guy can’t talk.’ Jim said, ‘You didn’t tell me you wanted a talker, you said you wanted a singer.’ But I did OK for them and made some good friends.”
Another comic he toured with in those early days was Minnie Pearl, along with fellow singer-songwriter Roger Miller: “I was in her band four months.” He credits Minnie with prompting him to talk more on stage to the crowd, noting, ‘Melvin (that’s what she called him), you’re gonna have to announce your songs, and also thank them for the applause.’ Man, I was just so scared of that large an audience, thinkin’ they’d laugh me off stage.” She pointed out that if indeed they did laugh, it wouldn’t be at him, but with him. Once he got some chuckles, he said, “that encouraged me to keep a’talkin’ and a’stutterin’ which really made them laugh. And that was fine by me.”
Aside from Bill Phillips, who sang with Mel on “Sawmill” and “Georgia Town Blues,” he helped musician Charlie McCoy step up the ladder of success: “I told Charlie to come up from Miami. He was 17 years old and played saxophone, bass, all kinds of instruments. Jim Denny told him, ‘We need a harmonica player. Everybody’s tired of Jimmy Riddle’s style.’ When that kid came back, he had a whole bagful of harmonicas you could play in every key. He’s been here ever since. (Now like Mel he’s also a Country Music Hall of Famer.)”
Tillis says McCoy’s guitar lick stands out on Bobby Bare’s classic cut of Mel and Danny Dill’s ‘Detroit City’ (#6, 1963). “What many people do not realize is that Bare’s record first charted pop (Top 20), June 29, 1963, before it started climbing the country list, July 6.”
Upon completion of writing that song, Mel tried to interest Webb to listen to it; however, Pierce was partying at a hotel with cronies and sent Tillis on his way. So he and Dill got Billy Grammer to cut the demo and “when he was startin’ to do it, he was tuning his guitar, and I said, ‘Let’s go and we’ll leave that tunin’ in there (mimicking the lick sound for us, which became a prominent part of the arrangement).’ Grammer liked it, too, and got Decca to let him record it.”
Billy used the chorus line as its title – “I Wanna Go Home” – and hearing it on the Opry, Mel heard him say he wrote it, but later told him, “You’re not getting any royalty on that.” By him calling it by its wrong name, Mel informed him, “That’s where you made your mistake!”
Meanwhile, RCA’s Chet Atkins was looking for a follow-up to Bare’s breakthrough disc “Shame On Me,” and as everyone knows, adds Mel, “That’s when ‘Detroit City’ took off!” (Using pretty much the same arrangement as Billy’s rendition.)
In 1963, Tillis left Columbia and signed with Bradley’s Decca label, cutting a novelty number with Webb, which he and Wayne Walker amusingly titled “How Come Your Dog Don’t Bite Nobody But Me?” (#25, 1963). That was short-lived, as Decca blamed Mel for allegedly having encouraged label-mate Red Foley to imbibe too heavily, thus Red missed an early morning recording session, so Tillis was canned, not Foley.
At the indie Kapp label, Mel scored his first Top 10 as an artist, “Who’s Julie,” in 1968. Hot on the heels of that success, he chalked up a trio of Top 10s: “These Lonely Hands Of Mine,” “She’ll Be Hangin’ Around Somewhere” and his own creation “Heart Over Mind.”
At Kapp, Tillis also did an album with legendary Bob Wills, “King Of Western Swing” (1967).
Next up, Jim Viennue signed Mel to MGM, once home to Hank Williams. Mel garnered 14 Top 10 tunes there, including the remake of “I Ain’t Never” (actually #1, 1972) and others like “Brand New Mister Me,” “Neon Rose,” “Sawmill” (his #2 solo version, 1972), “Midnight, Me & The Blues,” “Stomp Them Grapes” and “Memory Maker.”
Regarding “Ruby,” Mel said after it was written he had in mind pitching it to Roger Miller, but while on tour, his publisher gave it to The Omegas and it bombed. Johnny Darrell heard and liked it, and his cut hit (#9, 1967) for United Artists. Jimmy Bowen took a liking to it, and during a session with Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, they finished early, so he suggested Kenny cut it and the rest is history. In 2001, Mel learned the song had earned its third BMI MillionAire citation, indicating it had logged more than three million broadcast performances.
While recording for MGM, Tillis met Sherry Bryce, an unknown singer, giving her an opportunity to duet with him, which resulted in two 1971 Top 10s: “Take My Hand” and “Living and Learning.” In 1981, Mel ventured into another duet session, this time with pop singer Nancy Sinatra, “Mel & Nancy,” on Elektra, spawning a Top 20 single “Texas Cowboy Night.” Later, he did a duet with Glen Campbell – “Slow Nights” – prophetically stalling slightly above Top 40 (1984). Mel was also a fan of comedian Jonathan Winters: “Man he goes on all the time; he never goes off!”
When and where did Tillis develop his knack for comedy? “When I was in school, I learned to ad lib and found it made people laugh. I didn’t stutter when I ad-libbed . . . All the way through school, I made ’em laugh.”
He was a frequent guest artist on national TV shows such as Johnny Carson’s Tonight, Dean Martin, Merv Griffin, Jimmy Dean, and ABC-TV even signed him and actress-singer Susan Anton for a summertime variety show in 1978, Mel & Susan Together. It was not a ratings success and folded after a short run.
“Time was goin’ by so fast and I was on the damn road all the time. I was flyin’ out to L.A. a lot, and so I bought my King Air airplane,” noted Tillis, who soon dropped the name of The Statesiders from the credits, but always remained proud of the loyalty and longevity he enjoyed with his bandsmen: “They’re like family . . . I still do about 100 shows a year.”
Through the years, the award-winning Statesiders had boasted some illustrious musicians, among them Buddy Cannon, Jerry Reed, Rob Hajacos, Kevin Grannt and Paul Franklin. Cannon later ran Tillis’ Sawgrass publishing house and even supplied the boss with a #1 Cannon composition “I Believe In You” in 1978.
“Later when I sold my company to PolyGram with my songs still in there (for some $6 million), part of the deal meant that PolyGram had to take him. I think he stayed there a year where, man, he had to wear ties and stuff, acting like an executive. Next thing I knew he started producing and suddenly was a millionaire (ha! ha!). But seriously, I’m proud of that and I’m proud of him.”
After 20 years together, the strain of Tillis’ business had its effects on his home-life. Doris, a talented painter, divorced Mel. Their youngest, Carrie, was barely of school age. Both remained close to their five children and then their grandchildren. In 1979, Mel married the former Judy Edwards, who joined him in his publishing empire and in handling his fan club, prior to their split. Their daughter Hannah wasn’t quite 2 when they nearly lost their lives in a log-home blaze on his estate: “I had been to L.A. and caught the red-eye plane home after doing Carson’s Tonight Show, and the Oak Ridge Boys were on that flight with us and we had a few Bloody Marys. So I was gettin’ pooped. Well, I got home that morning and my wife said, ‘I’ll have you a good meal about 3 o’clock. You go get some sleep. You can take the baby in with you, she’s tired.’
“I picked Hannah up and took her in the bedroom with me. Later, Judy put on some pork chops as she was gonna have ’em with turnip greens, potato salad and cornbread. Well, to begin with, she didn’t know how to cook. She had a Dutch oven that she filled almost to the top with grease and turned it on high. In the kitchen we had baskets with decorations around the top, and the logs were varnished and had sealer on them. She came and looked in on us and saw we were asleep, then on the way back through the living room, the phone rang and it was Larry Lee, who at that time was my manager.
“So they got to talkin’ and they talked and talked. Then Judy said she heard something pop, so she hung up and ran into the kitchen. The bottom of that cast iron oven had split. When it exploded, the hot grease hit all those baskets and decorations above, and they were afire! She ran into the bedroom and woke me. Still half asleep, I grabbed up the baby and ran to the kitchen to look. After seeing all that fire, I said, ‘We gotta get outa here and that ain’t no lie! . . . That fire was spreading so fast over them logs, it’s a wonder it hadn’t got us!”
The house burned down in less than an hour, taking with it all his personal mementos and awards.
“I lost a fiddle I had bought that was Tommy Jackson’s,” mused Mel, adding that most of the awards were replaced by the various organizations; however, “I lost a picture that ol’ Colonel Tom Parker had signed and sent me. He was my daddy’s cousin by marriage. He married cousin Marie from Tampa. I also lost all my guns – I had a big gun collection.”
Mel’s credits also include playing Branson, where he built and opened his own Mel Tillis Ozark Theater, and played every season before departing after the 13th year: “It got overbuilt. They got 40 theaters over there and more than a hundred other shows. Then all these ticket agencies moved in and cut deals. My payment on the theater was $158,000 a month and that didn’t include the 111 people I had workin’ for me, plus the lawsuits. Lord, I was beginning to have to go into my sock-drawer, so I said I’m gonna get outa here before it’s too late.”
Daughter Connie Lynn stayed in Branson, working as a realtor. Of course, son Mel, Jr. (Sonny) and daughter Pam reside in the Nashville area, close to work. Pam, who won fame as a country singer, thanks to “Don’t Tell Me What To Do,” “Maybe It Was Memphis” and her own self-penned #1 “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life),” also tried her hand in professional theater, co-starring in the Broadway show “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” Sonny co-wrote Jamie O’Neal’s #1 single “When I Think About Angels.” Another daughter Carrie carried on as an opera singer and got involved in theatrical productions for a time. “I had her on my show in Branson, and she just destroyed the people. They loved her voice, ” beamed Dad.
Back in the day, traditionalists frowned on some of the titles Tillis cut, such as “Commercial Affection,” “Let’s Go All the Way Tonight” and “I Got The Hoss,” as being sexually suggestive.
“I think the first one I sang was a Harlan Howard song ‘I Wish I Felt This Way At Home.’ I recorded that with Bob Wills and it was a pretty good record for us. Back when I was in Lincoln, Nebr. in the Air Force, I went into Omaha and met this girl in a bar. I thought she loved me, you know, but I found out it was only ‘commercial affection.’ Then there’s this writer Jerry House from Gordon, Ala., and he wrote a lot of songs for me, including ‘I Got The Hoss,’ and it’s still one of my most-requested songs. Oh yeah, we heard some complaints from the little old ladies. Later, I heard Dolly sang ‘What Did I Promise Her Last Night.’”
Reportedly some 600 of Tillis’ compositions have been recorded. “New Patches” by Tommy Collins is Mel’s last Top 10: “That’s a great song. I loved it. You know, with the money Tommy made off ‘New Patches,’ he bought that house he had over in Ashland City. I’ve still got a lot of his stuff, the funny ones.” (Collins died in 2000.) That same year, 1984, Ricky Skaggs’ version of Tillis’ “Honey (Open That Door)” hit #1.
In 1992, George Strait’s “Pure Country” cinematic soundtrack CD sold over six million units, and the film also boasted Tillis’ “Thoughts Of a Fool,” originally cut by Strait’s fellow Texan Ernest Tubb (#16, 1961).
Atlantic Records released the Tillis-Bobby Bare-Waylon Jennings-Jerry Reed collaboration “Old Dogs,” produced by Shel Silverstein, which earned a 1999 CMA nomination for best vocal event.
“I’ve lost another fishing buddy and a talented, talented brother,” Bare said upon hearing of Tillis’ death. “Without Mel and ‘Detroit City,’ I probably would not have had a career.”
In 2001, Pam and dad did a duet, “Waiting On The Wind,” for her “Thunder & Roses” album, as a bonus track. The following year, she released a tribute CD to dad, “It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis,” performing his songs.
Yet another old friend of Mel’s was Conway Twitty, whom he recalls attending his Branson show, before embarking on that fatal trip back to Nashville, during which the 59-year-old artist suffered a stomach aneurysm that claimed his life, while hospitalized in Springfield, Mo.
“Conway came backstage, where we talked a couple hours. We even got some pictures of him taken out in the audience, and they’re probably the last ever of Conway Twitty,” Mel said.
Taking into account all of the legal skirmishes resulting among Conway’s family, following his untimely passing in June 1993, Tillis took steps to put his own affairs in order: “Oh yeah, that’s all been taken care of. They’ll be a long time gettin’ mine though, I’m in too good a shape.”
Survivors include his longtime life-partner, Kathy DeMonaco; children: Pam, Connie, Cindy Shorey, Mel Tillis, Jr., Carrie April Tillis, and Hannah Puryear; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson; sister Linda Crosby; and brother Richard Tillis. The initial service scheduled for Tillis occurred at Ocklahwah Bridge Baptist Church, Silver Springs, Fla., Nov. 25; followed by a visitation at Sykes Funeral Home in Clarksville, Tenn., and public service at Mt. Hermon Baptist Church, preceding private burial, Nov. 27.
Dale Ann Bradley dons another hat, performing with Sister Sadie . . .
NASHVILLE — Dale Ann Bradley breezed into town to prompt media to plug her new album, a follow-up to her first-production effort, the Grammy-nominated “Pocket Full of Keys.” Thanks to publicist Vernell Hackett, we exchanged pleasantries and proceeded to play 20 Questions – all about Dale Ann – at Edley’s, a popular pizza parlor in East Nashville.
“When you make a record, you put your whole heart and soul on the line,” says Bradley, in her most charming Sweet Tea twang. “Everybody does, especially when you produce your own album. Fortunately, somebody liked that first one alright, and believe me, this ol’ girl was relieved and happy.”
Earlier Bradley collections were produced by such bluegrass enthusiasts as Sonny Osborne, Alison Brown, Tim Austin and Dan Tyminski, collaborations that helped ensure five International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) wins for her as that genre’s best female vocalist.
This year and last year, she and her all-girl band Sister Sadie were IBMA nominees, as was her 2016 premiere production CD, “Pocket Full of Keys,” in her first year as a solo artist for Pinecastle Records. Incidentally, Sister Sadie again nabbed a 2017 nominee as best emerging act (consisting of Tina Adair, Gena Britt, Beth Lawrence and Deanie Richardson), which we mistakenly thought was a one-year only category.
Not so coincidentally, the Dale Ann Bradley backup band’s heard on the new CD, which we concluded was a comfort factor for the artist-producer, who agrees, “Well that and because of the connection and love we have for one another in this configuration (Mike Sumner, banjo; Tim Dishman, bass; Scotty Powers, mandolin; Matt Leadbetter, guitar). So many musicians come into your band through the years, and I loved ’em all, but this particular group seems to really enjoy being part of the program and truly love what we’re doing creatively. And hey, they treat me like a queen!”
Aware the lady has umpteen albums to her credit, we wondered aloud why this specific CD was self-titled, something usually affixed to an artist’s first-time project? “I’ve added it all up and with all the bands I’ve been a part of, this was the 14th album, but this time I just wanted to say, ‘This is me – Dale Ann Bradley – and I hope you like it!’ I wrote a couple songs on it, I sing and play, and produced it,” so sink or swim, it’s D.A.B. all the way.
Seems self-penned “Southern Memories” or “Now and Then (Dreams Do Come True)” might have served the purpose equally well, particularly the latter title, which she co-wrote with Jon Weisberger. Nonetheless, Jon’s pleased by the news, “Dale Ann Bradley’s got a new album coming out, and she’s recorded a song that she and I wrote for my album, ‘I’ve Been Mostly Awake’ (2015, featuring her vocals). Excited to hear what she and her band have done with it!”
There’s also a much-touted duet on there – “I Just Think I’ll Go Away” – with superstar Vince Gill (now touring with an iconic, though reconstituted, vocal band The Eagles). So how did that old Carter Stanley song fit into the “D.A.B.” mix?
“Vince loves bluegrass and unashamedly says so and means it,” Bradley responds. “We first met at the Opry, and he likes to help anyone, he’s just that way. I opened a show for him in Chattanooga, and he said we ought to record together sometime. Well, ‘Pocket Full of Keys’ was underway and I invited him to sing on it, but the timing wasn’t right and it didn’t work out. Yet he said, ‘Remember me . . . call me.’ In fact, he ended up writing the liner notes for that album.”
Apparently Gill remembered, too, and added a guest vocal with Dale Ann for this album, and like her, loves to poke around in the attic for old treasures, coming up with their duet title, originally performed by the Stanley Brothers (and later Keith Whitley).
“We both love the Stanleys’ music. You may remember, Vince even performed, along with Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, at Ralph’s funeral. Anyway, ‘I Just Think I’ll Go Away’ was a song we both loved, and was on my bucket list, so we were anxious to sink our teeth into it. I think it came out OK, don’t you?”
Indeed to these old ears, it’s one of the finest heart-felt vocal collaborations we’ve heard in too long a time. Both are at their best, sharing lead and harmonies, augmented by super pickin’ on such stanzas as the wistfully penned, “Somehow you wouldn’t let me love you/The plans we’ve made have gone astray/Instead of being blue and lonely . . . I just think I’ll go away.”
Bradley’s admiration for the Stanley Brothers comes across further on her disc, specifically via the tunes “Goin’ Back To Kentucky” and “Our Last Goodbye,” of which she proclaims: “That’s my favorite Stanley Brothers’ song.”
Dale Ann also invited others to assist in the studio for this CD, among them Sister Sadie’s Tina Adair, as well as Kim Fox, Steve and Debbie Gulley and Vic Graves. She also poked around the attic finding more golden oldies to dust off, including the Vince Matthews’ composition “This Is My Year For Mexico” (Crystal Gayle, 1975), Ben E. King’s a cappella “Stand By Me” (1961), Conway Twitty’s “If You Were Mine To Lose” and James Cleveland’s mid-1950s’ inspirational “One More River (To Cross),” giving each her unique bluegrass interpretation. Dale Ann was born in Pineville, Ky., to Pearlie Ann and Roger Price, a primitive Baptist preacher who toiled, too, in the coal mines. Their home had no electricity until Dale Ann was a high school senior, and the church they attended never allowed instrumental music, so how did she develop such extraordinary pickin’ and singin’ skills?
“Growing up, I played whatever instrument I could get my hands on because instruments weren’t accessible to me,” explains Bradley. “Well, I had this great uncle who went to Detroit after World War II, to work for the Ford Motor Company, and was a big Porter and Dolly fan. He bought me an eight-track player that could run on batteries, and albums by them and Loretta Lynn (‘Hymns’). He would also get these music samplers, so people could listen to the car stereos, and gave me these, and that’s how I came to listen to a variety of artists like Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. My uncle, of course, also enjoyed the likes of Charley Pride and Flatt & Scruggs.
“What amazed me about The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac is they had Americana or acoustic sounds all through their songs, the writing, the stories, the harmonies, all similar attributes that are in bluegrass music,” muses Bradley.
As a result of her covers, Dale Ann has attracted attention outside the bluegrass genre with her interpretations of rockin’ hits such as Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head.”
“I love Lindsey Buckingham and the way he would set up harmonies for Fleetwood Mac, and his whole approach (in producing),” adds Bradley. “I learned different things from all of my producers. Sonny (Osborne) taught me so much about keeping emotion in an album, which takes precedence over technical correctness. From Tim Austin, I learned about timing and putting the drive into the music. Dan, he’s the teddy bear of bluegrass music, and one of the most rhythmic of people on strings. Yes, he’s the whole package.
“Alison Brown also had all the elements, and she produced the three I did for Compass Records. We thought a lot alike. From her, I learned of little things you can add to an arrangement, which you’d think wouldn’t matter much, but truly does.”
That 2001 production collaboration with Tim and Dan on “Cumberland River Dreams,” also featured Tyminski chiming in on track, as he and Dale Ann blossomed into something of a mutual admiration society, with his compliment: “She is such a sweet person and I am a big fan of her singing. I think she is a natural singer, and she does not have to work at it. She can just naturally sing.”
Witnessing all of this behind-the-scenes polish and precision, Dale Ann thought it time to try her wings producing “Pocket Full of Keys,” which once she donned the hat, felt frightening. “Yes, I was scared to death that first time and it wasn’t any easier this time around,” though she should’ve been encouraged by the Grammy and IBMA recognition for that first endeavor. “That was great, but I never take the nominations for granted. I can’t even remember when I got my first IBMA nomination, but like I tell everybody, I’m just happy to be in there competing.” We do recall her first win in 2007, for IBMA’s best vocalist trophy, and the next two years took home a second and third, along with ’09’s best recorded event, “Proud To Be a Daughter of Bluegrass,” shared with a star-studded cast. She also was voted best vocalist in ’11 and ’12.
There was a special fellow in Dale Ann’s youth, John Fitzgerald Bradley: “He and I kinda grew up together. I guess you could say we became childhood sweethearts.” While still a teen, she and John were wed. The next thing she knew, she followed her newly-enlisted sailor-hubby to Mayport Naval Station near Jacksonville, Fla., “I had my son during that time . . . and his father went out to sea duty.” That wasn’t unexpected, as they say “Join the Navy and see the world!”
Meanwhile, Dale Ann was missing her music, a love of which he didn’t share, and so she hadn’t performed for three years, before returning home. Actually, her father brought her back, and despite dad’s earlier reluctance against a music career, helped her make it all happen, she says.
“Once he saw how serious I was, he was supportive. He looked after my son from day one, and in retrospect, I couldn’t have done it without him.” She stressed that earlier her parents were apprehensive, both from a religious and social perspective, “then when my mother saw I was going to do it, I found out it was her long-ago dream, too. My dad always wanted to know where I was going, who I was seeing and was very protective of me. I’m glad about that today. Indeed my mother had a beautiful voice . . . but she died in 1999 at 53, my age now.”
A childhood friend of her mother’s was assigned to Dale Ann’s high school in her junior year as band director. It happened Mearl Risner and his wife Alpha sang that summer at Pine Mountain State Park in Pineville, and invited Pearlie Ann’s daughter to join them. As Dale Ann recalls, “He was so talented and I just wanted to learn everything.” It was from that experience that she formed her first backing band.
Dale Ann fondly remembers the band, Back Porch Grass, which after playing locally, she entered in a 1988 Marlboro Talent Roundup Contest in Lexington, where they made it into the finals but lost out, as did the New Coon Creek Girls. But it wasn’t a total loss, as Bradley was invited to play on John Lair’s legendary Renfro Valley Barn Dance program, and his all-girl bandleader Vicki Simmons remembered Dale Ann’s down home pure country vocals.
“Yes, I kept in contact with them, and Vicki wrote me when they were looking to replace Pam Perry (who formed a new band Wild Rose) . . . but mainly they wanted someone who played fiddle and mandolin. I could play mandolin, but not that good, and I didn’t play fiddle. Vicki said ‘If ever there comes a time we can support a vocalist, we’ll let you know.’ She did.”
So Bradley joined the New Coon Creek Girls in late 1991, along with banjoist Ramona Church. This collaboration resulted in such acclaimed albums as “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “Our Point of View.” When they disbanded in 1997, she headed up Bradley & her Coon Creek Band, releasing her first solo CD “East Kentucky Morning.” Dale Ann doubles down in her appreciation of her tenure as a New Coon Creek Girl and especially being with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance show: “I had a five-year contract with Renfro, where I learned so much. It proved invaluable and I couldn’t have been better educated professionally, if I went to a university. I learned stage presence and connecting with an audience, to really know music, band situations and even recording. You know, I was a solo artist there for a couple years as well, and being at Renfro helped me support my son, John Fitzgerald Bradley, Jr. He was 7 when I divorced, and I raised him there mostly in Central Kentucky.”
She still calls him “Gerald,” a variation on his middle name, though he prefers being called John. “When he was attending Berea College, he asked me to not call him Gerald, saying it seemed too childish. You know he earned The Red Foley Award there in his senior year, and did the Opry with me (playing bass). Gerald obtained a master’s degree in Education, and never gave me a moment’s worry. But now he’s into a nursing program and selling cars,” adding with a grin, “I hope he lands pretty soon.”
When it comes to composing, Bradley confides that “nine times out of 10, the melody will motivate me first. You see the melody has always put me in the mood for the lyrics and story of a song.”
A rare exception was her co-write with country diva Pam Tillis, who contacted Dale Ann by e-mail inviting her to get together for a writing session: “I flew down to do so. Bluegrassers love Pam – and her dad Mel, as well – and particularly the way she sings. I mean she can sing anything. She was a sweetheart to write with. We did ‘Somewhere South of Crazy,’ which became the title tune to one of my Compass Records albums (2011), and Pam sang on that, too.”
Their co-op effort earned IBMA nods for both best song and best album that year.
The opening track on Bradley’s latest CD “Southern Memories” was co-written years ago when she was 14 (with Ronnie Miracle), shortly after buying her first guitar: “He was an old friend and probably about 16 or 17 at the time. It was our story together, about growing up geographically and religiously, there in Kentucky. It’s about a longing of the heart and remembering where your roots are. He passed away last year (Feb. 16 at age 54).”
In recognition of her faith, she often features inspirational songs on her albums, such as the current offerings “One More River” and “Stand By Me” (revived by Mickey Gilley as a #1 country cut in 1980). She says, “I like to include gospel songs that are uplifting and don’t want to do those that are preachy and judgmental, preferring ones that offer listeners hope instead.”
In 2003 Dale Ann was confronted with a new challenge, when diagnosed with Diabetes, that atop a severe sinus infection at the time. But despite the affliction, she pushes herself and with the help of her booking agent, Donna Sullivan, manages shows as both a solo act and with Sister Sadie.
“I get tired once in awhile, but it never stays,” she points out, adding that with her medicine and regular checkups, maintains a steady schedule, including attending the 2017 annual IBMA Raleigh convention in late September, which determines whether she’ll add more trophies to her mantel. (Editor’s note: Unfortunately, she didn’t enter the winner’s circle this year.)
Besides all the IBMA awards, Bradley learned she’s being honored by her home state with induction into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2018, next May 11 in Somerset, Ky. Sharing the honor with her will be Billy Ray Cyrus, Jackie DeShannon, Jason Crabb, Bobby Lewis and the late David (Stringbean) Akeman, all Bluegrass State performers deemed to have made significant contributions to the industry. Dale Ann has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, having already taken her bluegrass music to Canada and such far away places as Japan and Ireland.
“This award is so special,” smiles Bradley. “Kentucky has contributed to all styles and genres of music, and the artists from there, it seems like we’ve all come up hard scrabble, meaning being successful wasn’t easy. But by doing so, I think, you appreciate it even more when you do succeed.”
(Editor’s note: Dale Ann photos by Patricia Presley.)
NASHVILLE — “I’m not a country singer per se, I’m a country boy who sings,” claimed superstar Glen Campbell, who on Aug. 8, at 81, succumbed to Alzheimer’s, following a lengthy fight with that disease. Famed for crossover successes such as “Wichita Lineman,” “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights,” Campbell was also hailed as a first-rate guitarist, backing such legendary stars as Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra. He even toured as a Beach Boy when member Brian Wilson bowed out.
We first met during his early 1970s European tour, backstage at the Jahrhunderthalle concert venue in Frankfurt, Germany, where newcomer Anne Murray was sharing the bill. I was in his dressing room prior to our interview (with my wife), when he emerged from the shower wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. (He soon slipped into a robe and my Mrs. hastily departed.) He was a character, but a good interview, always upfront and obviously pleased by his success.
Following his Grammy award-winning 1967 breakthrough hit “Gentle On My Mind,” he hosted the Emmy-nominated Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (CBS-TV, 1969-1972), and appeared opposite John Wayne in the ’69 Oscar-winning film “True Grit,” which earned Glen a Golden Globe nomination, and he starred in “Norwood,” both adapted from Charles Portis’ novels. Glen recorded over 70 albums, nine at #1, including Platinum-selling “Gentle On My Mind,” “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” His last #1 was “Southern Nights” (1977), though he went on to score Top 10s or better including “Any Which Way You Can” (heard in the Clint Eastwood movie of that title), “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” (with Steve Wariner) and his final hit, “She’s Gone, Gone Gone” (#6, 1989).
Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936 in Delight, Ark. (near the family farm in Billstown). He was the seventh son in a family of eight boys and four girls, who all sang and played guitar. Glen began pickin’ the strings at age 4, and a year later was gifted with his very own guitar. Among his inspirations growing up were the artists on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, and recordings by Barney Kessel and Django Reinhardt. A natural evolvement was Glen’s singing in the Church of Christ choir.
As a teenager, he drifted off to Houston, Texas, landing a stint in a three-piece band, before gravitating to his uncle Dick Bills’ country band in Albuquerque, which toured the Southwest honky tonk circuit (1954-’58). He was only 17 when he married first wife Diane Kirk, 15, who gave birth to their first baby, who died. Before divorcing, they had a daughter, Debby.
At 24, Glen moved to Los Angeles, soon writing commercials and recording demos, while also occasionally touring with The Champs, a pop troupe famed for their single “Tequila.” His “in” with L.A.’s Wrecking Crew session players, made him a much in-demand guitarist, as well as backup vocalist, for the distinguished likes of Ricky Nelson, Merle Haggard and The Mamas & Papas.
Glen’s indie recording of Jerry Capehart’s “Turn Around, Look At Me” garnered attention enough to convince Capitol Records to sign the promising talent. The song was later covered by such acts as The Lettermen, The BeeGees, The Vogues and Esther Phillips. First, Glen was “featured” on an album “Big Bluegrass Special,” headlining the Green River Boys (1962), which boasted a Top 20 single “Kentucky Means Paradise” (written by Merle Travis, another of his pickin’ heroes).
Finally five years later, Glen scored a Top 20 solo with his revival of Jack Scott’s classic “Burning Bridges,” which gave full advantage to his dynamic vocals. Months later, he hit the jackpot with John Hartford’s effusive ballad “Gentle On My Mind,” earning both Glen and the song Grammy awards. Amazingly enough, the single peaked out at only Top 40 pop and #30 country, but spawned his #1 best-selling LP of that title, charting Billboard 88 weeks, selling Platinum. Not bad for a new name, who soon had #1 singles “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” and “I Wanna Live” to boast about, as well as Country Music Association honors for best male vocalist and entertainer of the year (both in ’68).
Much thanks for his early success goes to music veteran Al DeLory’s exceptional arrangements as Campbell’s producer-conductor (and fellow multiple award winner). Glen was selected to co-star with the Duke himself, John Wayne, in “True Grit,” for which Wayne won an Oscar as best actor. Another newcomer in that 1969 flick was Kim Darby, also Glen’s co-star in “Norwood,” a music-drama about an inspiring young country singer’s goal to play KWKH-Shreveport’s show Louisiana Hayride (1970).
Glen’s second (16-year) marriage to beautician Billie Jean Nunley produced three children: Kelli, Travis and Kane. It was she who suggested their divorce (1976). On a personal level, Glen’s romantic life was rocky at best, some say due to his abuse of drugs, often linking him to the supermarket tabloids. Initially there was Sarah (Barg) Davis, who supposedly divorced singer Mac Davis to wed Glen (who denied that). They later divorced, but not before their only child, Dillon, was born just three weeks prior to the decree (1980). Then there was the much-publicized affair with half-his-age singer Tanya Tucker in the early 1980s, though they split without having wed.
According to Tucker’s publicist Scott Adkins, upon learning of Campbell’s death she released the following statement: “I’m just devastated. Absolutely devastated. It’s been so hard these past several years knowing what he’s been going through. My heart just breaks. Glen and I shared some incredible, precious memories together for a long time. There were some ups and downs and, of course, all the downs were played out in the press. We both got past all that. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. It’s why I’m releasing ‘Forever Loving You,’ in memory of Glen and for all those who are losing or have lost someone they love. I’ll forever love you, Glen.”
She co-wrote the song with Michael Lynn Rogers and Rusty Crowe, a Tennessee state senator who co-sponsored the Campbell-Falk Act, a law protecting communication rights for those who become wards of the state or who have conservators over their financial and living situations. She and Glen recorded a number of duets together, the most successful of which was “Dream Lover,” and her latest effort, a tribute to him, will benefit the national Alzheimer’s Foundation.
Campbell also recorded successfully with Bobbie Gentry, including their #1 LP “Bobbie Gentry & Glen Campbell,” which sold Gold in 1968, as well as their Top 10 single “All I Have To Do Is Dream” (1970); and with Anne Murray, “I Say a Little Prayer/By the Time I Get To Phoenix” (#40, 1971). Other solo Campbell clicks were “Dreams Of the Everyday Housewife” (#3, 1968), “True Grit” (#9, 1969), “Try a Little Kindness” (#2, 1969), “Honey, Come Back” (#2, 1970) and “Everything a Man Could Ever Need” (#5, 1970), ironically written by Mac Davis. His take on “Country Boy” (#3, 1975) became a classic. He’s also done well with revivals, among them “It’s Only Make Believe” (#3, 1970), “Dream Baby” (#7, 1971), “Bonaparte’s Retreat” (#3, 1974), the medley “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye/Don’t Pull Your Love” (#4, 1976) and “It’s Just a Matter of Time” (#7, 1985).
On Oct. 25, 1983, he married the former Kimberly Diane Woollen in Phoenix. They have three children: Cal, Shannon and Ashley.
In 1994, author Tom Carter’s candid Campbell bio “Rhinestone Cowboy” was published by Villard Books, which covered his abuse of cocaine and alcohol before coming over to religion. Regarding this conversion, the entertainer stated boldly: “How could I find God? He wasn’t lost. He found me. I simply let him . . . God has forgiven me, and I have forgiven myself.” Son Kane credits stepmom Kim for changing his dad from hell-raiser to happy homebody, which he was until struck by Alzheimer’s. Despite being born Baptist, he also converted to her Jewish faith, and they marked major Jewish holidays together, including Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, until his illness.
In 2005, Campbell was inducted into the Country Music Association’s Hall of Fame, and chief among his 10 Academy of Country Music awards are his best male vocalist (1968-69) wins, as well as induction into ACM’s Pioneer Award members, and a Career Achievement honor presented on his behalf in 2016.
Campbell’s last big screen effort was the Roy Clark-Mel Tillis comedy “Uphill All the Way” (1986) with Burl Ives and Trish Van Devere, which saw little action at the box office, but did OK sales-wise via video. He also lent his voice to the 1991 animated film “Rock-A-Doodle.” There were two TV specials: “Glen Campbell: Rhinestone Cowboy” (2013) and “I’ll Be Me” (2014), the latter dealing with his final tour prompted by Alzheimer’s, and it earned him an Oscar nomination for best original song, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” co-written with Julian Raymond (though losing to Common and John Legend’s “Glory” from the Civil Rights film “Selma”).
Raymond, who now lives in Nashville, noted his pleasure at the time, “I don’t know how to describe it, other then ‘Wow, what a dream!’ . . . Unfortunately for Glen, he wouldn’t be aware of it (alluding to the fact Campbell was by then residing in a Nashville memory-care facility). He wouldn’t understand it. I was lucky enough to be music director for (his) Grammys’ tribute (2012), too. I was so pleased that the Grammys gave him a Lifetime Achievement award when he could still understand and appreciate it.”
Julian also produced Campbell’s final albums, including “Ghost On the Canvas” (2011) just before Glen’s goodbye tour, which also boasted daughter Ashley Campbell as an opening act. (Incidentally, Raymond produced Ashley for Big Machine, a Nashville label noted for signees such as Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line.) Raymond disclosed a Campbell movie reportedly in the works by filmmaker James Keach, whose credits include the Campbell “I’ll Be Me” documentary and Johnny Cash movie “Walk The Line.” Meantime, Glen’s track “Southern Nights” is currently being heard in the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.” Survivors include wife Kim, children Debby, Kelli, Travis, Kane, Dillon, Cal, Shannon and Ashley; 10 grandchildren; great-and-great-great grandchildren. Burial was in Delight, Ark. A memorial service will be scheduled later.
Above photo of Glen with daughter Debby and wife Kim by Patricia Presley.
The 2016 ARSC Awards for Excellence
The Association for Recorded Sound Collections is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 ARSC Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. The awards will be presented at a ceremony on May 13, 2017, during ARSC’s annual conference in San Antonio, TX. Additional information about the conference and the ARSC Awards for Excellence can be found at www.arsc-audio.org.
Begun in 1991, the ARSC Awards are given to authors of books, articles or recording liner notes to recognize those publishing the very best work today in recorded sound research. In giving these awards, ARSC recognizes the contributions of these individuals and aims to encourage others to emulate their high standards and to promote readership of their work. Two awards are presented annually in each category, for best history and best discography, and several others are acknowledged with Certificates of Merit. Awards are presented to both the authors and publishers of winning publications.
Winners are chosen by a committee consisting of three elected judges representing specific fields of study, two judges-at-large, the review editor of the ARSC Journal and the President of ARSC. The 2016 ARSC Awards Committee consists of the following:
Dan Morgenstern (Jazz Music Judge); Jon Samuels (Classical Music Judge); Matthew Barton (Popular Music Judge); Cary Ginell (Judge-At-Large); Richard Spottswood (Judge-at-Large); James Farrington (Book Review Editor, ARSC Journal); Patrick Feaster (ARSC President); David N. “Uncle Dave” Lewis (Awards Committee Co-Chair), and Roberta Freund Schwartz (Awards Committee Co-Chair).
The 2016 Awards for Excellence honor books published in 2015.
The awardees are as follows.
BEST HISTORICAL RESEARCH IN RECORDED COUNTRY MUSIC
Walt Trott, Mac Wiseman: All My Memories Fit For Print (Nova Books)
Gary B. Reid, The Music of the Stanley Brothers (University of Illinois Press)
Certificates of Merit
Tim Newby, Bluegrass in Baltimore (McFarland Press)
Ivan M. Tribe and Jacob L. Bapst, West Virginia’s Traditional Country Music (Arcadia Press)
BEST RESEARCH IN RECORDED POPULAR MUSIC
Richard Martin, Anthology: The King of Comic Singers, 1894-1917 (Archeophone)
Daniel Lesueur, L’Argus DALIDA: Discographie Mondiale et Cotations (InfoDisc)
Certificate of Merit
Michaelangelo Matos, The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street Books)
BEST RESEARCH IN RECORDED ROCK MUSIC
Peter Guralnick, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll (Little, Brown & Company)
Certificates of Merit
Andy Babiuk, Beatles Gear (Hal Leonard)
Rick Shefchik, Everybody’s Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock ‘n’ Roll in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press)
BEST HISTORICAL RESEARCH IN RECORDED JAZZ
Peter Vacher, Swingin’ on Central Avenue: African-American Jazz in Los Angeles (Rowman & Littlefield)
George Hulme and Bert Whyatt, Bobby Hackett: His Life in Music (Hardinge Simpole)
Certificates of Merit
Monk Rowe, with Romy Britell, Jazz Tales from Jazz Legends: Oral Histories from the Fillius Jazz Archive at Hamilton College (Richard W. Couper Press)
Simon Spilett, The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes (Equinox Press)
BEST HISTORICAL RESEARCH IN RECORD LABELS
Michael White, Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records (Bloomsbury Academic)
BEST HISTORICAL RESEARCH IN RECORDED FOLK OR WORLD MUSIC
James P. Leary, Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946 (University of Wisconsin Press and Dust to Digital, in collaboration with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive)
Funding for this project was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Brittingham Trust, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Graduate School with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Scandinavian Studies’ Birgit Baldwin professorship, and the Finlandia Foundation.
Certificates of Merit
Clifford Murphy, Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line (Dust-to-Digital)
Richard Polenberg, Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” and Other Traditional American Folk Songs (Cornell University Press)
BEST HISTORICAL RESEARCH IN RECORDED BLUES, GOSPEL, SOUL, OR R&B
Ian Zach, Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis (University of Chicago Press)
Certificates of Merit
Charles L. Hughes, Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (University of North Carolina Press)
Robert Marovich, A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music (University of Illinois Press)
Jas Obrecht, Early Blues: The First Stars of the Blues Guitar (University of Minnesota Press)
BEST HISTORICAL RESEARCH IN RECORDED CLASSICAL MUSIC
Walter Moskalew, Svetik: A Family Portrait of Sviatoslav Richter (Boydell and Brewer)
Richard A. Kaplan, The Philadelphia Orchestra: An Annotated Discography (Rowman & Littlefield)
Certificate of Merit
Paul Watt and Anne-Marie Forbes, Joseph Holbrooke: Composer, Critic, and Musical Patriot (Rowman & Littlefield)
BEST HISTORICAL RESEARCH ON GENERAL RECORDING TOPICS
Stephen Witt, How Music Got Free (Viking/Penguin)
Certificates of Merit
Michael Denning, Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution (Verso)
Howard Massey, The Great British Recording Studios (Hal Leonard)
Erich Nunn, Sounding the Color Line: Music and Race in the Southern Imagination (University of Georgia Press)
NASHVILLE — Nostalgia ruled at the Nashville Palace as Tommy Cash sang his golden oldies, such as “Six White Horses,” “Rise and Shine” and “I’m Gonna Write a Song,” Sunday, Feb. 12. In fond remembrance, he covered big brother Johnny’s classics, including “Ring Of Fire” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Nice show, with fine backing by pianist Willie Rainsford, guitarist Charlie Vaughan, steel guitarist Ron Elliott, drummer Dina Johnson, and bassist Larry Barnes, despite some technical problems with the sound system. It marked one of Tommy’s rare public appearances since the tragic death of his granddaughter Courtney, 23, some three years ago. (That’s Tommy at right, with bassist Larry Barnes.)
Tommy, 76, managed a few light-hearted quips, and made it even more special with his recollections of songs delivered, notably “Six White Horses,” a Top Five country click, simultaneously #1 on the Canadian chart (1969), and hit Billboard’s Hot 100 pop list, as well. Its composer Larry Murray wrote about America’s ill-fated 1960s’ political triumvirate – John and Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – assassinated in the prime of life. Reflecting on its timeliness, Tommy noted, “I found that song, rushed in and recorded it the next week.”
Actually Cash kicked off his Sunday show with Johnny’s 1958 rouser “Big River,” after alerting patrons his manager-wife Marcie was in the audience (seated with Kitty Wells’ niece Jean Stromatt), and there would be a new CD come spring. Early in his career Tommy traveled with Johnny’s major arena touring shows and appeared on his network TV series.
When Tommy tackled the Ivory Joe Hunter #1 rocker “Since I Met You, Baby” (1957) – also a #1 country cut for Sonny James (1969) – Ron got in a good instrumental riff, complementing Willie’s piano vamp, making it a clear crowd favorite.
Cash has been big on tribute songs, recalling his brother and Waylon Jennings in “My Mother’s Other Son,” a duet with another brother Tommy, Jennings; and there was “The Greatest Voice Is Gone,” a salute to George Jones, which he recorded in 2013, shortly after the Hall of Famer’s passing. He dusted off this sentimental song for the show, recalling he and Jones did duets on “Some Kind of Woman,” included on Cash’s 2008 “Fade To Black” album, and another tip-of-the-Stetson song, “Hank and Lefty, George and Me.”
Introducing his next number, Tommy confided, “I was present when this song was recorded, and it was co-written by June Carter (with Merle Kilgore), who would be my sister-in-law.” Initially penned with June’s sister Anita in mind, she did record a terrific vocal version sans horns in 1962, which had all the ear-marks of a hit. There’s no mistaking that familial Cash sound, especially when singing one of his brother’s hits, like “Folsom Prison Blues,” which he did at the Palace (though Tommy was always careful not to be another sound-alike).
Before kicking off “The Way We’re Living,” an obscure ballad, Cash mused, “This one I wrote . . . ,” a commentary on life back then, that may well apply today. Picking up the tempo, Tommy chose Hank Williams’ lively “Jambalaya,” which the band seemed to relish. Among music pros on hand to cheer him were guitarists Lynn Owsley, Jerry Green, Billy Robinson, Johnny Moore, engineer Mike Figlio with wife Rita (who used to run the restaurant Figlio’s On The Row) and former rocker Gene Kennedy.
Another audience pleaser was the countrypolitan gospel song “Rise and Shine,” which he’d first heard while in Wisconsin (by Carl Perkins, who wrote it), and so became Tommy’s second Top 10 single (1970). Glenn Sutton, his producer at Epic, wrote a pair of Top 40 tunes for Tommy – “The Tears On Lincoln’s Face,” “You’re Everything” – and the upbeat tune that closed Cash’s Palace performance, “I’m Gonna Write a Song (The Whole Wide World Can Sing).” Incidentally, both Jody Miller and the ex-Mrs. Sutton, Lynn Anderson, covered Cash’s cut. Yeah, “It’s gonna be about love/The one thing the world needs a lot more of/I’m gonna write a song that the whole wide world can sing . . . ”
Hearing this, we felt like playing fan and calling for an encore, that is Tommy doing his Top 10 “One Song Away,” written by Don Reid (The Statlers), who also supplied Tommy his Top 20 “So This Is Love” (co-written with fellow Statler Lew DeWitt). Missing, too, were his excellent renditions on “Sounds of Goodbye,” Tommy’s breakthrough Top 40 from 1968, co-written by Eddie Rabbitt (covered by George Morgan); “Your Lovin’ Takes the Leavin’ Out Of Me,” also from Rabbitt; and “I Recall a Gypsy Woman,” his last Top 20 (covered by Don Williams) in 1973.
True, he’s had a good ear, selecting some smooth sounds, and while some will argue that if he hadn’t been in the shadow of such a famous brother, they would’ve been chart-toppers. We can rely on our own judgment, without reinforcement of radio statistics, and from our vantage-point, Tommy Cash has more than made his mark. This day at the Palace was all the better because it benefits the non-profit musicians organization, Reunion Of Professional Entertainers (ROPE). Anxious now to hear the new CD, Mr. Cash. – WT
NASHVILLE — Roni and Donna, stompin’ Stoneman survivors, succeeded in electrifying showgoers at the Nashville Palace, Aug. 21. The last of Country Music Hall of Famer Pop Stoneman’s 23 children, Roni and Donna resorted to footwork of sorts to enliven their performances: Roni stompin’ harder in prompting the band to up the tempo to match her lightnin’-like banjo pickin’, and Donna dazzling them with rhythmic dancing in accompaniment to her mandolin.
Although recent rumors had Donna, 82, in declining health, she dispelled such whimsy with fanciful footsteppin’ fans came to expect since The Stonemans won CMA’s first best group award (1967). Veronica, better known as Roni, demonstrated why she’s hailed as Queen of the Banjo, and between numbers bantered amusingly, as she did for decades on the popular Hee Haw TV series. Acting as emcee was Gene Kennedy, without his ’59 “doo wop” The Dons (“I’ll Still Be Loving You”).
Vocally, the sisters scored equally high marks, be it on the Davis Sisters #1 weeper “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” or Johnny Russell’s snapshot-in-time hit “Catfish John,” their sibling harmony melding together tightly (years of working with Pop, no doubt came into play). Superbly backed by veteran players Willie Rainsford, keyboards; Ron Elliott, steel guitar; Larry Barnes, bass; Charlie Vaughan, electric guitar; and drummer Eric Kaberle, who each got a solo spot, as the sisters stepped back, strumming along.
“Yeah, we’re all just old-timers,” joshed Roni, 78, “Hey, but I come back later with my Rap band!”
Following Steel Guitar Hall of Famer Elliott’s instrumental break, Roni quipped, “I just let him play in the band, ’cause he still owes me child support . . . Yeah, thanks Ron, for my one ugly child!”
Nobody in the audience laughed any louder than Leslie Elliott, Ron’s one and only spouse. She’s also executive director of co-sponsor ROPE (Reunion Of Professional Entertainers), a non-profit supporting musicians, and beneficiary of this “Sunday Social” gig. In the crowd, too, were singers Karen Jeglum (“A Thing Or Two On My Mind”) and Tommy Cash (“Six White Horses,” “Rise And Shine”), yet another staunch Stoneman fan.
Roni ad-libbed, “Tommy asked how I was doin’, and I said, ‘Other than diabetes of the blow-ho, I’m doin’ fine.’ Not really understanding, he replied, ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ so I explained it’s an old saying Mommie always used, like when callin’ her boys in outta the snow, she’d yell, ‘Y’all better get in here or you’ll get diabetes of the blow’ho!’ . . . and they’d come a’runnin’.’ It don’t mean nothin’.”
Apparently a pair of instrumentals meant a lot to the Palace patrons, judging by the thunderous applause ensuing: Donna’s “Under the Double Eagle” mandolin solo (complete with tapping toes), and the “Deliverance” film theme known as “Dueling Banjos,” this time substituting a banjo with a mandolin.
When it comes to entertaining, it’s hard to beat the pros, especially Roni and Donna, who represent an Appalachian family music legacy spanning more than a century. Their dad Ernest Van Stoneman (1893-1968) was 10, when he started learning how to play Grandma’s autoharp, first tapping into the family roots to promote a musical dynasty that included his fiddle-playing wife Hattie (Frost). In September 1924, on a Victrola cylinder, he became the first to record with an autoharp, and among the earliest to cut a country hit, “(Sinking Of) The Titanic,” a million-selling song released in 1925 (competing with Vernon Dalhart’s multi-million-seller “The Prisoner’s Song,” recorded in August 1924).
Years later, Ernest toured with his youngsters as Pop Stoneman & His Little Pebbles during World War II and beyond. In the 1960s, Pop enjoyed a national comeback, recording this time in stereo for MGM, charting such singles as “Tupelo County Jail” and “The Five Little Johnson Girls,” co-hosting the syndicated Stoneman Family TV series, then winning the CMA trophy the year before his passing.
According to Roni, at the Palace, “I was in the fourth grade, before I knew the whole world didn’t pick and sing.” Fortunately for us, she and Donna sure did. – WT