Multi-talented Leon Russell, singer-songwriter-pianist, and more

Leon RussellLeon Russell a.k.a. Hank Wilson dies . . .

NASHVILLE — Leon Russell’s legendary status could be attributed to his tearing up the rule-book while making music, culminating in his being inducted into both the Rock – and Songwriters’ Halls of Fame (2011). Sadly, we lost this phenomenal talent Nov. 13, which also meant losing his celebrated country alter ego Hank Wilson.
According to wife, Jan Bridges, Leon had been recovering from heart surgery since last July, and died in his sleep at their suburban Nashville home. The 74-year-old entertainer had been looking forward to performing again in March (with the Tedeschi Trucks Band at the Ryman Auditorium). Russell’s Southern boogie-styled piano playing inspired no less than Elton John and Joe Cocker, while his writing skill produced such songs as “A Song For You,” “This Masquerade,” “Delta Lady,” “Superstar,” “Lady Blue,” “Hummingbird” and “Shootout On the Plantation.”
Family, friends and fans assembled at Victory Baptist Church in nearby Mt. Juliet, Nov. 18, for a memorial service. In from L.A. came soul singer Claudia Lennear, who worked with Leon on “Mad Dogs & Englishmen,” “Leon Russell & The Shelter People” and George Harrison’s “Concert For Bangladesh.” The lady, who reportedly inspired The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” acknowledged she will “eternally be grateful for Leon, for his wonderful music, his great leadership.”  Earlier Claudia explained, “Leon is probably the most incredible musician on this planet. He’s not only just an incredible musician, he’s the most creative arranger and bandleader that I’ve ever met. Leon has a way of taking something old and recreating it and making it so current and so plausible to music listeners in the here and now. For example, his re-arrangement of (Dylan’s) ‘Girl From the North Country.’ It’s such a wonderful tribute, in my view, from Leon to Bob Dylan, to upgrade that song the way he did. They’re both beautiful tunes. I’m not discrediting Bob Dylan by any means. I think Leon’s version was funky. When I say funky, I mean it had a groove.”
She pointed out how groovy Leon’s rendition of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” had been, literally electrifying some 40,000 fans for “The Concert For Bangladesh,” aiding the UNICEF-sponsored benefit program for refugees from 1971 East Pakistan, at Madison Square Garden (prompted by Harrison and Ravi Shankar). Russell shared a ’72 best album Grammy for his participation.
Others at the local service commenting on links to Leon included Steve Ripley (The Tractors), an Okie who bought Russell’s The Church studio in Tulsa, Okla., recalling nostalgically, “Leon was the first person to record there. They brought him and took over. He loved being back in that old studio and having his friends drop by and say hello.”; and Dr. Jim Halsey, artist manager, who proclaimed, “Leon was a pure and true genius. Part of what he did was offer healing to the world.” Too bad more VIP pals didn’t attend, including Willie Nelson, John Cowan and Jackie DeShannon, though some sent messages to be read, primarily Sir Elton John, whose long-distance eulogy included the Pinterest, “I can’t imagine a world without Leon’s music,” adding with impact, “He was everything I wanted to be as a pianist, vocalist and writer.” Another funeral farewell took place Nov. 20 at Oral Roberts University’s Mabee Center in Tulsa, which longtime buddy Bruce Hornsby attended, after missing the Nov. 18 event .
Leon was born Claude Russell Bridges, April 2, 1942, in Lawton, Okla., suffering a birth injury to his vertebrae that resulted in a slight paralysis to his right side that affected his later stage style. In reference to his birth defect, he later mused, “It gave me a very strong sense of duality; it gave me an outlook into this plane that we live on, and if I hadn’t had that, I’d probably be selling cars in Paris, Texas.”
From age 4, the youngster began tinkling the piano keys, maybe getting a sense of the road that lay ahead. Underage and anxious to perform in Tulsa niters as a teen, he had an older friend get him a phony I.D., depicting “Leon” as the first name, which became part of his stage monicker (along with his middle name). Young Leon had his own band The Starlighters, and once opened for Jerry Lee Lewis in Tulsa’s Cain Ballroom. Reportedly, Lewis was so impressed he took the band on tour with him for over a year.
Following graduation from Will Rogers High, however, Leon lit out for Los Angeles, where he began hitting the club circuit and even studied guitar under James Burton. Soon, he worked his way into session playing, becoming fair-haired boy at A&M Records, eventually part of the elite Wrecking Crew. His keyboard’s heard on the discs of such notables as Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, The Byrds and The Ronettes. That’s Leon playing on Jan & Dean’s “Surf City,” Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” and The Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”
In 1965, Leon’s “Everybody’s Talking ’Bout the Young” marked his first solo single for Dot Records. By then, he was also expanding into production, including arranging the #1 “This Diamond Ring” for Gary Lewis & The Playboys, for whom he wrote the successful singles “Everybody Loves a Clown” and “She’s Just My Style.” He also toured with The Playboys and Leon’s credits would include a wide array of artists he performed with, among them Delaney & Bonnie, Doris Day, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and The Rolling Stones.
A highlight for Russell was co-producing Joe Cocker’s self-titled second LP on which Joe sang Leon’s “Delta Lady.” That number also appears on Leon’s Shelter Records (which he co-founded with British music man Denny Cordell) debut album, “Leon Russell,” in 1970, along with “A Song For You” and “Hummingbird.” That same year, Leon served as bandleader for Cocker’s legendary “Mad Dogs & Englishmen’’ tour. Fans loved his colorful costumes, complete with top hats.
Artists who have recorded Russell songs include Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, B. B. King, The Carpenters, Neil Diamond, Rita Coolidge, Luther Vandross, Cher, Sonic Youth and The Motels. George Benson’s track of Leon’s “The Masquerade” won a Grammy as best recording in 1976, and earned kudos as the first song ever to occupy #1 spot on the jazz, pop, and R&B multiple charts.
Not known primarily for chart successes, Russell shared a #1 Billboard top country single with Willie Nelson on their revival of the Elvis Presley signature song “Heartbreak Hotel” (1979), off their #3-ranked LP “One For the Road,” which crossed into pop charts and earned CMA’s best album award. Nonetheless, Leon can claim chart accomplishments, notably his recording “Tight Rope” (#11, 1972), “Bluebird” (#14, 1975) and “Slipping Into Christmas” hitting #4 on Billboard’s Christmas chart (1972).  Four of Leon’s solo albums were certified Gold: 1971’s “Leon Russell & The Shelter People,” 1972’s “Carney” (which hit #2 on the pop chart), 1973’s three-disc set “Leon Live,” and in 1975 “Will O’ The Wisp.”
An Oklahoman, Russell had a natural feel for traditional country, having heard heroes like Bob Wills and Hank Thompson. In homage to all this, Russell released a 1973 album “Hank Wilson’s Back!,” featuring such fare as “A Six Pack To Go,” “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.” He engaged such Nashville troupers as Melba Montgomery, Billy Byrd, Charlie McCoy, Pete Drake and fellow Okie J. J. Cale, and garnered favorable reviews. It topped out at #15 country and crossed over as a #28 pop entry.
Sequels of sorts include the million-seller “One For the Road” with Willie Nelson, charting 40 weeks; and “Hank Wilson, Volume II” (1984), boasting tracks such as “Wabash Cannonball,” “Heartaches By the Number” and “I’m Movin’ On.” He also founded a new label Paradise Records, after a less than harmonious split with Denny Cordell. Among Paradise acts were The Tractors, but Leon also released his 1976 “Wedding Album,” made with then-wife Mary McCreary (Little Sister), co-produced with Bobby Womack on Paradise. (Mary and Leon were divorced in 1980).
Continuing into the ’90s, he released “Anything Can Happen,” produced by Leon and Bruce Hornsby in 1992 for Virgin Records. He followed that up with 1998’s “Hank Wilson, Vol. 3: Legend In My Time” and in 1999, “Face In The Crowd,” for which he penned every song.
In 2002, his (and Mary’s) son Teddy Jack released a self-titled album on dad’s new LRR label, as Leon produced his own “Moonlight & Love Songs,” with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
In 2006, Russell was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. T-Bone Burnett’s production “The Union” paired Elton John with his hero Russell, whose composition “If It Wasn’t For Bad” earned them a 2010 best pop collaboration Grammy nomination. The following March saw Russell honored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a few months later, come June 2011, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In his sunset years, Leon’s opted for a mountain man image, sporting mustache, wild and wooly gray hair that fell down into his lengthy white beard, usually topped by a cowboy hat (or occasionally a knitted wool cap). The last Russell studio album we heard was “Life Journey,” executive-produced by Elton John and released in 2014, featuring the Grammy winner spanning several genres performance-wise with bone-chilling effect. In 2015, two re-releases were marketed: “Prince of Peace: Radio Broadcast 1970,” and “Riding The Northeast Trail: The New Jersey Broadcast 1979 (With Willie Nelson).” Then this year along came “The Homewood Sessions: Live & Pickling Fast (With The New Grass Revival,” which we’ve yet to hear.
Survivors include his wife of more than three decades, the former Janet Constantine, daughters Tina Rose, Sugaree Taloa Noel, Gianny, Honey and Coco Bridges, son Teddy Jack Bridges, and grandchildren Payton Goodner, China Rose Goodner and Tiger Lily Schindler. In Leon’s honor on Nov. 20, Tulsa’s mayor and city council had issued a proclamation which was presented to his family, while the widow hugged her loved ones, as the document was read, declaring that Sunday officially “Leon Russell Day.”

Hall of Famer Jean Shepard remembered

JEAN SHEPARD, a fond farewell . . .

NASHVILLE – Country music lost one of its sauciest song stylists, when Jean Shepard, 82, slipped away Sept. 25, after suffering from Parkinson’s and heart disease. A week before she had entered Hospice for round-the-clock care. “Today is one of the hardest days of my life,” announced son Harold Hawkins, Jr. “Mom has been called home this morning and is now at peace. Please keep our family in your prayers during this tough time. Thank you everyone for your support.”
The Country Music Hall of Famer first debuted on Billboard’s charts in a big way with a 1953 #1 country cut “A ‘Dear John’ Letter,” that crossed over, becoming a pop Top Five. That number boasted a narration by Ferlin Husky, spawning an answer song – “Forgive Me, John” – that became a Top 20 pop favorite, while registering Top Five on the country chart that same year.
Not bad for a 19-year-old newcomer at Capitol Records. Well, Shepard also could proudly point to chalking up hits over three decades at the label, having hit Top Five in 1964 with her yodeling song “Second Fiddle (To An Old Guitar),” and scoring Top 10 with her ballad “Then He Touched Me” in 1970.
I remember our 2008 interview, one of several we had through the years, but on that occasion, she shared one of her big regrets, passing on 20th Century Fox’s request she dub vocals for Hollywood’s reigning sex symbol Marilyn Monroe in a heated Western flick co-starring Robert Mitchum. Of course, Marilyn could later thank Jean for passing up the opportunity, as she was asked by director Otto Preminger to try vocalizing the title tune “The River of No Return” herself, which gave the star her one and only Billboard charting (#30, 1954).
Why did Jean decline Fox’s offer? “They wanted me to be her voice, you know to overdub her singing ‘River of No Return,’ because she wasn’t known as a singer. Well, the thought of it scared me to death. I had only a couple records out at the time and she was such a big star . . . so I wouldn’t do it.”
Jean pointed out that Capitol label-mate Tennessee Ernie Ford sang the song for the movie’s credit-crawl and ended up with a Top 10 single (charting nine weeks). “I’m a dummy,” smiled Shepard. “I’d never done anything connected to a movie. Of course, they would’ve handled everything for me in the studio. Thinking back, I just can’t believe I didn’t do it! I’ve listened to it and feel I could have sung that song.”
She sang a bit of it: “There is a river called the River of No Return/Sometimes it’s peaceful and sometimes wild and free/Love is a traveler, on the River of No Return/Swept on forever, to be lost in the stormy sea . . .”
Shepard experienced her share of stormy seas, including two brief marriages, losing singer-husband Hawkshaw Hawkins, 41, in a fiery plane crash on March 5, 1963, just weeks before giving birth to their second son, Harold, Jr. Shortly after joining WSM’s Grand Ole Opry in 1955, she reportedly began a romance with Opry singer Doyle Wilburn, but rumor had it she rejected an offer of marriage due to his drinking. (He later wed singer Margie Bowes.)
She was born Ollie Imogene Shepard on Nov. 21, 1933 in Paul’s Valley, Okla., but in 1943, her parents Hoyt and Allie Mae (Isaacs) Shepard, made their keep-from-starving move out of the Dust Bowl to Visalia, Calif. Jean was one of 10 children born into the Shepard family.
“We would always sing together in church, and my mother played piano, so we’d gather round and sing,” she said. As a plucky teen, she had performed on KTNV-Porterville withthe Jelly Sanders Show, and formed an all-girl band The Melody Ranch Girls in 1948. “Yeah, we played the same place every weekend – Noble’s Melody Ranch – and had quite a following. Melody Ranch was a big dance-hall owned by Noble Fosburg. He became our manager and did our booking, so that’s where the name came in.”
During one engagement, they opened for Capitol Records’ star Hank Thompson, then nourishing a new number, “The Wild Side of Life,” which would become the biggest hit of 1952 (and a Grammy Hall of Fame record). Impressed by Jean’s dynamic vocals, Hank recommended Ken Nelson give a listen and sign her to their label, but she learned later that the A&R chief hesitated, telling Thompson women weren’t selling records in country music.
“Ken came to see me at one of our shows and it just mushroomed from there, thanks to Hank. But some of the others in the band got pissed because they felt Capitol was signing the group. I played bass and we weren’t all that great, but being all girls got us a lot of attention. Growing up, I played a little guitar and could accompany myself on the piano, but our band needed a bass player. So I got stuck playing that big ol’ upright bass, which my parents bought by hocking whatever they could find to get us the money for it. For years, the girls wouldn’t talk to me.”
Career-wise, Shepard’s is the story of a 1950s’ trailblazer who challenged the male-dominated music system, working towards equality for females. In doing so, she helped introduce the concept album via her 1956 LP “Songs of a Love Affair,” charted 45 Billboard singles, and earned two Grammy nominations through the years.
Nelson produced her first single “Cryin’ Steel Guitar Waltz,” but instead of promoting Jean on the disc, played up the name of Speedy West the guitarist. It did nothing sales-wise, and Decca’s Kitty Wells covered the song, which became the B side to her Top 10 “Paying For That Back Street Affair.” Jean remembered, “Ken felt there just wasn’t any place in country music for a woman, except as part of a band, thinking every band needs a girl singer . . . and he had turned down Kitty Wells when Johnnie Wright suggested he sign her.”
According to Ferlin Husky, who was responsible for Jean’s first hit, Ken asked him to help find some songs for his new signee: “Actually, I was a disc jockey and Bonnie Owens and Fuzzy Owen (no relation) had put (‘Dear John’) out on an indie label. It made the local jukeboxes and I got to thinkin’ it was a pretty good song, so I suggested that one.”
Husky also pointed out he didn’t want any billing on “A ‘Dear John’ Letter,” for he was irritated Capitol didn’t have faith enough to issue her first single as a solo effort, instead using a backup musician’s name on the imprint for “Cryin’ Steel Guitar Waltz.”
“I didn’t want any name on there, but Jean Shepard’s,” he insisted. “I didn’t want to take anything away from her. Well, when we got into the studio, and I was there to play bass, or maybe it was rhythm guitar, on the session, Ken said, ‘Who are we going to get to do the recitation?’ I said, ‘You, I guess.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ Anyhow, I was told to do the recitation, but in the end Ken said everybody wanted to know who was the guy talking, so he made the decision to use my name.”
Shepard added, “After the record sold a million or more copies, I asked Ken, ‘Do you still think there’s no place in country music for a woman?’ And we both laughed over it.” On Aug. 29, 1953, she became only the third country female to hit #1, just behind Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (Aug. 23, 1952) and Goldie Hill’s “I Let the Stars Get In My Eyes” (Feb. 27, 1953). Both were answer songs to Capitol hits: Kitty’s, ironically, to Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life”; and Goldie’s to Skeets McDonald’s “Don’t Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes.”
Mention of answer songs reminds us Jean wrote her own answer song “Forgive Me, John,” crediting Billy Barton as co-writer, a fall 1953 charting for her: “I didn’t sit down and co-write with Billy Barton, because I didn’t like him! He was an egotistical guy. Actually, truth is Billy (Hillbilly) Barton wrote ‘A Dear John Letter.’ Now I’m gonna tell you a story. In Bakersfield, (cousins) Lewis Tally and Fuzzy Owen had this old car (a 1947 Kaiser) they used to run back and forth to play two or three nightclubs out there, and to carry their equipment. Billy Barton was hanging around and he needed a car. So Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen heard the ‘Dear John Letter’ and said, ‘We’ll give you this car for the song.’
“Well, he said OK,” she continued. “So Billy went around Bakersfield laughing at the deal he made, saying ‘Look at what those silly guys gave me for my song!’ Bonnie and Fuzzy recorded it earlier (on Mar-Vel Records) and got a lot of airplay in Bakersfield on it, before Capitol recorded my version.”
Released in the post-Korean War era, she sang to a boyfriend overseas, “Dear John, oh how I hate to write/Dear John, I must let you know tonight/That my love for you has died/Away like grass upon the lawn/And tonight, I wed another, Dear John . . .”
Despite her disdain for Barton, Shepard insisted he be credited with her on “Forgive Me, John,” having originally conceived the song being responded to musically. She knew about being put down professionally.
“On my second session (Sept. 30, 1952), Cliffie Stone played bass, Billy Liebert played piano, Jimmy Bryant played pedal steel and Speedy West played lead guitar . . . Speedy could see I was a bit down, so he came out, put his arm around me and said, ‘Honey, just get up there and sing. Do what you know you can do, and we’ll handle the rest of it. Don’t worry about nothin’.’ That did give me some encouragement.”
After a few months had passed, Jean worried that the label would drop her: “I was lying on the bed, moaning that I knew they weren’t ever going to record me again. I’ll never forget what my mother told me, ‘Get up off that bed! Hush your crying! Now if you don’t have any confidence in yourself, how do you expect anybody else to.’ That was good advice from an ol’ country woman.”
Finally Ken came up with some songs for Shepard: “It had been about six months since I recorded. I was in San Luis Obispo working three nights a week with the all-girl band, when Ferlin came over and said they wanted me in L.A. to record the next week. So I went into record in a studio at Hollywood & Vine (streets, on Sept. 30, 19520).
“We recorded ‘A Dear John Letter,’ but Ken clearly didn’t have any faith in that song. He heard a song called ‘I’d Rather Die Young’ with The Hilltoppers, and told me, ‘You should do this, because it’s gonna be a big song.’ I said OK, and it was originally set as the A side of my next release. (It did hit Top 10 pop for The Hilltoppers.)
“Slim Willet, a DJ in Abilene, Texas, called Ken to say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a hit on your hands with Jean Shepard.’ Ken said, ‘Yeah, I figured‘I’d Rather Die Young’ would do well.’ Slim said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, because I mean the side that’s got that l’il ol’ boy doing the talking on it!’ Of course, that was ‘A Dear John Letter’ with me and Ferlin.”
She pointed out when it came time to hit the road to promote her hits, Nelson was concerned that Jean was not yet 21, and asked Husky to look after her on tour: “You know mommy and daddy had to sign for me to go on the road, because I was under age. So they agreed to let Ferlin be my guardian. When we got on the road and Ferlin started pulling his pranks, I thought, ‘God, what have mama and daddy turned me loose with?’”
In 1953, Shepard was voted most promising female vocalist in a trade poll. It was a couple years, however, before her next hit charting, “A Satisfied Mind,” which peaked at #4 on Billboard, on Aug. 27, 1955. “That’s a story in itself,” added Shepard. “When I was on the (ABC-TV) Ozark Jubilee, I spent a lot of time at KWTO-Springfield in the station’s library listening to songs. Well, I come across this song by Joe ‘Red’ Hayes (and Jack Rhodes) and thought, ‘Boy, that’s a really good song.’ So the next Saturday night, I sang ‘A Satisfied Mind’ on the Jubilee, all four verses. Then Porter came up and asked, ‘Are you going to record that song? Because I’d like to cut it.’ I said, ‘Yes, I am. Wait for me.’ A couple hours later, Red said he’d like to record it, again I told him, ‘Wait for me.’ But they didn’t and both cut it. Mine was the last to be released.” Trust no one, she learned, as Porter got his first #1 record off the song, while Red teamed with daughter Betty, to attain another Top Five.
Still, it remains one of her finest performances: “How many times have you heard someone say?/‘If I had his money, I could do things my way’/But little they know, it’s so hard to find/One rich man in 10, with a satisfied mind . . .”
Jack Rhodes also contributed her next Top Five single, “Beautiful Lies,” backed by another Top 10 success “I Thought Of You” (by Jimmy Rollins), both country blues. This gave Jean her only two-sided hit single, marking yet another banner year for her.
As a result, on her 1955 birthday, Shepard (concluding her tenure with the Jubilee telecast) became a cast member of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. At the time, she was only the fourth female Opry star aboard, behind Minnie Pearl (1940), Martha Carson (spring 1952) and Kitty Wells (fall 1952), but became the longest tenured female with 60+ years.
For the next seven years, her chartings took a downward spiral, though she remained a major concert draw. She was the first major female country artist to travel single with male troupes. Kitty and Martha toured with husbands; and Goldie Hill first traveled with brother Tommy Hill and then hubby Carl Smith.

Newlyweds Jean and Hawk.

Although the blonde singer kept her personal life private, there was a brief marriage on the West Coast. Jean was an established star when she met lanky Hawkshaw Hawkins, who would change her mind about musicians: “I knew enough about musicians that I felt I didn’t want one for a husband.”  While at the Ozark Jubilee, she came to know Hawkins: “He was married when I first met him . . . and 12 years older than me. We dated about a year, and I didn’t really fall all that hard at first. Hawk was a man’s man, a very friendly outgoing person, who liked to hunt and fish. He was 6’6” tall, but with boots on was more like 6’9” – I could walk under his arm (being 5’1” tall).”  After Hawk’s divorce, he and Jean were married on stage, Nov. 26, 1960 in Wichita, Kan., and booker Hap Peebles gave the bride away, while some 3,500 people witnessed. Thereafter, book one, you got the other. Hawk, newly-signed to Columbia Records, had several Top 10s under his belt, notably “Pan American,” “Dog House Boogie” and “Slow Poke.” Shepard matched him hit for hit, one a #1 (which Hawkins would achieve posthumously, with “Lonesome 7-7203”). Their happiness was short-lived, ending with that plane crash near Camden, Tenn., in which all four occupants died: Hawk, Cowboy Copas, Patsy Cline and pilot Randy Hughes.

Friends such as musicians Kitty and Smiley Wilson took her under their wing, getting her through the birth of Harold, Jr., which occurred April 8, 1963. Her first boy, Don Robin, was born Dec. 7, 1961, and 16 months old at the time of dad’s death. Jean’s first charting following her return was the upbeat “Second Fiddle (To An Old Guitar),” which at 24 weeks, charted a week longer than “A ‘Dear John’ Letter,” peaked at #5 and earned a best vocalist Grammy nod.
It’s been said that Jean had another brief marriage after the tragedy, to a cop, but never discussed that in any of our chats. Next thing she knew, her label paired her with newcomer Ray Pillow: “That happened after the Grand Ole Opry promoted a Pet Milk talent contest. Margie Bowes won it in 1959 and got a Hickory Records contract, and Ray won and got a Capitol contract. So Capitol decided to team him up with somebody, and I was the choice. But we did get a Top 10 duet ‘I’ll Take the Dog’ (1966) out of it.”
That same year, Jean took Don Wayne’s song “If Teardrops Were Silver” into the Top 10. Her take on Ned Miller’s “We Did All That We Could” was a near-Top 10 in 1967, preceding another dry spell.
In 1968, Jean fell in love again, this time with bluegrass musician Benny Birchfield, then playing in the Osborne Brothers’ band. They were wed on her birthday, Nov. 21, 1968.
“Right after we were married, my friend Teddy Wilburn came up to me and he said, ‘It ain’t gonna last!’ . . . About 15 years later, Teddy told me, ‘I owe you an apology.’ Well, it’s been 40 years now and if we ever make it to 50, we might exchange vows again.” The couple also had a son, Corey, born in 1969.
“A year ago this past April, he had a motorcycle wreck and is lucky to be alive,” she confided. “He completely disabled his right arm. Corey was really a good rock and roll guitar player. Now he’s able to move his fingers a bit, but he can’t hold his arm up for long. Fortunately, he was only riding about 40-mph. If he had been going about 80, he wouldn’t be here today.”
Just when they were counting Shepard out again, she cut another comeback track written by Norro Wilson and George Richey, “Then He Touched Me” (#8, 1970), earning her second Grammy nod. What was to be her last success on Capitol, “Another Lonely Night” (#12, 1970), was co-written by Jerry Crutchfield and Larry Butler. It was the latter, later as A&R chief at United Artists, who invited Jean to switch labels.
“I was between hits and tired of getting lost in the shuffle,” says Shepard, regarding her departure from Capitol after 20 years. “Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were big and I had two years to go on my contract. So I called Ken and said, ‘I want a release.’ There was complete silence on his end and I asked, ‘Ken, are you there?’ He said yes, and asked, ‘Are you sure?,’ and I told him I had given it a lot of thought, and he said he’d take it up with the board . . . I had been in touch with Larry Butler, and he got me a good check to sign with United Artists.”
The first U/A single out of the chute was Bill Anderson’s composition “Slippin’ Away” (#4, 1973), though Jean admitted she wasn’t initially big on it: “I didn’t really care about that song. I did a love song on the session called ‘I Want You Free.’ Jerry Reed played guitar on it and Henry Strzelecki played bass on it and just blew my hat in the creek!”
Benny, after hearing the songs, told Larry that “Slippin’ Away” was the hit, and Larry agreed. Jean couldn’t argue with success, and was a big fan of Anderson’s writing. In fact Shepard’s appreciation of Anderson’s writing skills, prompted her to cut an album of his songs (1976). Among Bill’s songs she’s recorded are “At the Time,” “Poor Sweet Baby” and “The Tip of My Fingers.” The latter charted in 1975, her last Top 20 single.
Like many of the Opry greats, she still did the occasional tour, and one of her favorite troupes was The Grand Ladies of Country Music, usually in Branson, featuring fellow veterans like Jeannie Seely and Jan Howard. In 1986, Jean tried something a bit farther afield for her, playing Jeannie Seely’s mom, while Lorrie Morgan played Seely’s daughter, in a local stage production for a 1986 country musical, “Takin’ It Home.”
One of Shepard’s favorite venues abroad was the Wembley Stadium in London, explaining a fond memory there: “They love country music and the more country it is, the better they like it. You know the last time we did the Wembley Festival, years ago, I went back on stage and took three or four bows because the people were just rantin’ and ravin’ over our set. Then during intermission, they set up the stage for Emmylou Harris and it took over an hour to tear down all the sound equipment to let her set up. The people booed her for that.”
Outspoken as always, Shepard recalled her own displeasure with how the Opry seemed to cater to contemporary divas. During a telecast of the Opry birthday some years back, Jean chose to pass, rather than be relegated to supporting status.
“I told (manager) Pete Fisher I wouldn’t be on it, and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to.’ I said I’d prefer not to. So the next week, he called to say, ‘Jean, please be on the TV show for me.’ But I declined, and he called me like three more times.”
By then Jean was the senior female artist on the program, approaching her half-century mark. Minnie Pearl, who died in 1996, still a member, had 56 years on the show.
“Finally Pete says, ‘Now c’mon, tell me why you won’t be on it?’ I said, ‘All right, I’m going to tell you like it is. I’m not mad or anything, but I’m not going out there and play second fiddle to somebody like Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, artists like that. I’d rather not go on than be embarrassed.’ Pete said, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you’ll be on it, I promise you’ll be in the front row.’ I told him, be careful what you promise, if you can’t deliver, and he said, ‘You’ll be on the front row.’
“Come rehearsal, they had me way over on the side as we sang the opening number. Well, I did it and then turned around to the other artists, ‘Y’all can hang around this crap if you want to, but I’m taking my butt outa here!’ Vince Gill grabbed my arm and said, ‘Jean, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Just watch me, Vincie baby, I’m going home!’ Meantime, I didn’t know it then, but they had gone to get Pete and Steve Buchanan (president). When I got as far as the water-cooler (backstage), Steve Wariner caught up to me, probably to slow me down. I love Steve, but when he said, ‘You can’t do like this,’ I told him ‘I’m gone.’
“As I walked by that last hallway, they were waiting. Pete told me to come into the office that we had to talk. I wasn’t going to, but then Jeanne Pruett came up and said, ‘Shep, go on in and listen to what they have to say.’ Of course, I knew what they had to say, I’d been listening to it for 15 years and I was sick of it.
“Well, I did go into the office and after his spiel, I reminded Pete, ‘You know what you promised me!’ He said, ‘Yes I do, and I’m sorry, but Reba (McEntire) called to say she wanted Connie Smith on the front row with her.’ I laughed and said, ‘Pete, listen to yourself. Here’s a woman who’s been a member maybe 10 years and has only been here when the TV cameras are on, and she’s dictating what you’re gonna do! B.S.!’
“I was simply tired of being pushed into the background, and I said, ‘I’ll tell you when I got something to say, and I’ll say it to your face, not behind your back.’ Steve Buchanan never said a thing. He didn’t open his mouth, only shook his head when I said something. I didn’t go on the Opry for a couple weeks, but I had the pleasure of telling them what I thought. You know what? Pete’s been very good to me since.”

2011 Hall of Famers Jean, Bobby Braddock and Reba McEntire.

In 1995, Bear Family in Germany produced a five-disc musical retrospective box-set titled “Melody Ranch Girl,” boasting 151 tracks Shepard recorded for Capitol between 1952-1964. There’s also a 36-page booklet written by Chris Skinker included.
Asked what her greatest memories are, she paused then proceeded, “I have worked with the greats in country music, and I’m so proud to have known people like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Don Gibson, Marty Robbins, Carl Smith and Webb Pierce. These are the people who made country music and sadly, you hardly hear their records anymore.” Among females, who did she most admire: “Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette. I love them so much, because they sing country.” She wishes more of the new breed would sing real country and singled out Chris Young as one of her new favorites: “I had the pleasure of introducing him on the Opry for the first time.”
In 2010, she was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
In 2011, she was finally named to the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with Reba McEntire and songwriter Bobby Braddock.
In 2014, Jean’s candid biography, “Down Through The Years” was published and heavily promoted via RFD-TV. She even made numerous guest appearances on shows sponsored by Springer Mountain Farms Chickens, one of her backers. Sadly, as her illness progressed, she appeared less and less.
When asked how she would like to be remembered, the Opry’s Grande Dame murmured, “I love what I do, and I do what I love; I just want to be known as a good person, who was good for country music.”
Survivors include husband Benny Birchfield, sons Don, Harold and Corey, brothers Sonny and Jerry Shepard; sisters Frances Bullock and Carolyn Shepard; 25 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Among those spotted in her Sept. 30 service overflow were fellow Opry artists John Conlee, Jan Howard, Jeannie Seely, Connie Smith, The Whites, Jeanne Pruett, Ranger Doug, Bill Anderson and former Opry manager Jerry Strobel, as well as Mandy Barnett, Kelly Lang (Sheppard), David Frizzell, Jeannie Bare, Casey Anderson, Billy Linneman, and . . . WSM announcer Eddie Stubbs delivered the eulogy, after her pastor The Reverend Larry Gilmore, opened the service, reminding attendees to silence cell phones: “Jean won’t be taking any calls today.”
Nonetheless, Terri Clark (“Girls Lie, Too”) tweeted, “R.I.P. Jean Shepard. You were a pistol and I adored you. Thank you for blazing a trail for us . . .”                                  Jean & Kitty Wells.

Rock guitar god Scotty Moore dies . . .

Elvis sideman Scotty Moore, 84, passes  . . .

NASHVILLE — Scotty Moore, the guy some say invented rock ’n’ roll guitar, died June 28, at his home in Nashville at age 84. Rock fans recall it was Moore, who with bassist Bill Black and “the kid with the strange name, Elvis” first performed “That’s Alright, Mama” in Sam Phillips’ historic Sun Records Memphis studio, July 5, 1954. They became known as The Blue Moon Boys, thanks to their hip revival of Bill Monroe’s classic “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” and later that year were playing KWKH-Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride.
Moore, a member of both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, had been suffering from ill health in recent months, including heart and liver disease. He was highly rated among guitarists, among those claiming his playing influenced them were Beatle George Harrison, Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Rolling Stone Keith Richards. For Page, it was the Elvis hit “Baby, Let’s Play House,” and listening to Scotty on guitar, that encouraged him to play. Keith told an interviewer that when most people heard Presley’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” they wanted to be Elvis, “but I wanted to be Scotty!”

Scotty Moore and longtime pal Wanda Jackson-1
Scotty and longtime friend Wanda Jackson.

Winfield Scott Moore III was born Dec. 27, 1931 on a farm half way between Gadsden and Humboldt, Tenn., the youngest in a family of boys, all of whom played an instrument. At 8, “Scotty” began pickin’ on the guitar which an older brother provided. Among his own influences were Merle Travis, B. B. King and later Chet Atkins: “I loved the playing of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, but I didn’t even know their names back then . . . I’ve always said if you can’t play a little blues in any kind of song, it ain’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Anxious to see the world, in 1948 he lied about his age (being just under the legal enlisting age of 17) to join the Navy. That service found him sailing aboard the ships USS Kent County and USS Valley Forge, to places like Korea and China, before receiving his January 1952 discharge.
Returning to Memphis, he worked at various jobs and was a hatter when he hooked up with Doug Poindexter & The Starlite Wranglers, playing guitar and handling bookings. In early 1954, he decided they needed a record to give them a more professional appeal, accomplishing that at Sun Records: “My Kind Of Carrying On.” Little came of their single, but Sam liked Scotty and engaged him for other projects. In June, Sam suggested Scotty give a listen to a youngster, who had cut a birthday disc for his mom a year earlier, named Elvis Presley. He did just that at his home, inviting Starlite Wrangler bassist Black to sit in on the lad’s July 4th “audition.”
“So he came over, and he had the pink shirt, pink pants on, with the typical ducktail haircut of that time, white shoes, which, well maybe he was ahead of his time, the way he was dressed, which didn’t bother me one way or the other, because I was interested in what he sounded like singing,” recalled Moore, adding neither he nor Black were terribly impressed with the teen singer-guitarist. Still, they thought with the right song, he might sound a lot better, for he was young “. . . and he sang in key.”
Based on their assumption, Sam set up a session right after the Independence Day holiday, for two songs: “Harbor Lights” and “I Love You Because.” During a session break, a bored Elvis began horsing around, pickin’ and singin’ R&B veteran Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup’s “That’s Alright, Mama,” quickly joined by Bill and then Scotty, caught up in their antics. A bewildered Phillips asked what they were up to, and they explained, but to their surprise, Sam said he liked what he was hearing, something new and fresh, so another number was added to the July 5 line-up. The two records created some interest, especially with local DJ Dewey Phillips (unrelated to Sam), particularly “That’s Alright, Mama,” backed by “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Based on airplay garnered, they began making personal appearances throughout the area, with Moore managing and booking the act. On Oct. 16, 1954 the Blue Moon Boys were strutting their stuff for KWKH-Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride audiences, which led to a year’s contract on the weekly program. Earlier, they had bombed at WSM, where an Opry official told Presley he had best go back to driving truck, his former day job.
It was in August ’55 that drummer D. J. Fontana joined the Blue Moon Boys, while on a Louisiana Hayride troupe tour. By then, Memphis booker Bob Neal was managing the act, landing them opening slots with such country stars as Roy Acuff, Martha Carson, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Kitty Wells, Johnnie & Jack, and Slim Whitman, none of whom quite knew what to make of this phenomenon in the wild attire, who attracted screaming teen-age girls and proved a tough act to follow. One such star Hank Snow decided to mentor Elvis and assigned his personal manager Tom Parker to promote the budding star, who had his first #1 single “I Forgot To Remember To Forget,” backed by another hit “Mystery Train” in 1955. Little did Snow or the Blue Moon Boys realize how drastically  “The Colonel” would change their star attraction, after signing Elvis to a personal management pact – much to Hank’s chagrin – while securing a lucrative RCA recording contract (Hank’s label) with Steve Sholes in November 1955. The first release “Heartbreak Hotel” stunned the industry, selling in excess of two million singles, hitting #1 on both Billboard’s country and pop charts early in 1956. To the amazement of all, Elvis added three more #1 songs to his country and pop resume that same year: “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Amazingly, the latter two also topped the R&B chart, a first for a country artist.
Meanwhile, musicians Moore, Black and Fontana were caught up in the action, performing on those initial hits, but without sharing in the profits (as Elvis had promised, if they made it big). In fact, the Colonel cut them off from their previous camaraderie with their chief Blue Moon Boy, creating diversions that kept Elvis from them, while convincing RCA chief Sholes to consider veteran session players at studio time. Parker put their salaries at $200 weekly when performing with Presley, and $100 weekly, when sitting out shows; however, with major guest shots on Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan and Frank Sinatra telecasts, Elvis was much in demand. Yet, he was calling less and less on his Boys, prompting Moore and Black to tender their resignation in writing (September 1957), since being denied access to the star of the show. Subsequently, they discussed their dilemma with an inquiring reporter, which infuriated the Colonel, enough so that Presley accepted their offer to quit. But fortunately that was short-lived and the boys returned for a time to backing their buddy, both in the studio and in films like “Loving You,” “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), “King Creole” (1958) and later “GI Blues”  (1960). As the world knows, Presley was drafted into the Army in 1958, taking him far from Memphis and Hollywood for two years.
As a result, Bill formed the Bill Black Combo, recording for Hi Records, scoring such pop hits as “White Silver Sands,” “Josephine” and “Blue Tango,” until his death of a brain tumor in 1965 at age 39. Behind the scenes, Scotty invested in and became vice president of Fernwood Records, and personally produced the 1959 Top Five pop hit “Tragedy,” recorded by Thomas Wayne (Perkins), brother to Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins.
Upon Presley’s 1960 discharge, Moore commenced recording sessions with Elvis at RCA, and also served as production manager at Sam Phillips’ Recording Service, which involved supervising all aspects of that operation.
In 1964, Moore recorded his own instrumental LP titled “The Guitar That Changed The World,” with producer Billy Sherrill for Epic, prompting a seemingly jealous Sam to fire him. Scotty relocated to Nashville, starting up Music City Recorders, a studio just off Music Row, and also initiated Belle Meade Records. Finally, in 1968, Moore reunited with Presley for his NBC-TV Elvis: Comeback Special in Hollywood, for what would be Scotty’s last recorded event with The King of Rock & Roll.
In 1970, Scotty engineered Beatle Ringo Starr’s recording “Beaucoup Of Blues,” an Apple release, cut at his Music City Recorders. Finally, in 1973, he sold his interest in the company and began independent engineering, primarily at Monument Studios. In 1975, Moore recorded with longtime friend Carl Perkins on his “EP Express,” a Mercury Records release. Ever the businessman, Scotty bought the building housing Monument Studios and opened his Independent Producers Corporation, a tape duplication firm, though continuing to handle free-lance engineering projects. From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, he engineered numerous TV shows for Opryland Productions, headlining players like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Minnie Pearl, Bob Hope, Perry Como, Ann-Margret and Carol Burnett. Incidentally, we first chatted with Scotty at We Make Tapes, a retail recording duplication business he launched in 1979, just off Music Row, which good friend Gail Pollock helped run. (At the time, we were wrapping a Dick Curless album.)
In 1992, Scotty did another Carl Perkins session – “706 ReUnion: A Sentimental Journey” – released on his Belle Meade Records. A highlight in August that year, was a live gig with Perkins, part of their “Good Rockin’ Tonight” program, boasting the celebrated Sun Rhythm section, featuring James Burton, D. J. Fontana, Ronnie McDowell and The Jordanaires, a project prompting a tour in England. Not necessarily known for writing, among songs Moore co-penned are “My Kind Of Carrying On,” “Now She Cares No More” and the instrumental “Have Guitar, Will Travel.” In 1997, Moore collaborated with James Dickerson to write his memoirs, “That’s Alright, Elvis,” at the urging of Scotty’s daughter Vicki, for Schermer Books. That year, too, Moore and D.J. Fontana recorded a tribute album “All the King’s Men,” which included such guest artists as Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, Levon Helm, Jim Weider, Rick Neilson.
Another United Kingdom tour occurred in April 1999 with Fontana, which saw Scotty meeting fellow guitarists George Harrison and Robert Plant. Come July that year, he was honored in a gathering of British guitar greats in Sir George Martins Studio, where Gibson Guitars introduced the limited production guitar Scotty Moore Signature ES-295.
Scotty was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman in 2000. He was invited in 2003 to record with Alvin Lee, “Ten Years After,” sharing studio time with Fontana, Pete Prichard, bass, and Willie Rainsford, keyboards. (That album was mixed at Alvin’s Space Studio in England and released in May 2004.)
In April 2003, Moore, along with Fontana and the late Bill Black, became one of the first recipients of NARAS’ Memphis Music Heroes Awards. That year he also underwent brain surgery to treat a subdural hematoma on Dec. 5, which proved successful for the veteran player.
During December 2004, Moore was honored by top UK artists Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Ron Wood, Bill Wyman and Albert Lee collectively, during an Abbey Road Studio celebration in London. That event was recorded and filmed, and released on DVD.
It was in August 2005 that Scotty made a tour in Norway and the UK, performing what he called his “swan song” abroad at the London Jazz Cafe (Aug. 15). Periodically, Scotty would still tour with such acts as The Mike Eldred Trio, Lee Rocker, Ronnie McDowell and The Jordanaires.
The Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville recognized The Blue Moon Boys, Nov. 26, 2007, with induction, co-sponsored by the Nashville Musicians Association, of which he was a Lifetime Member (AFM Local 257). In 2013, Moore and Dickerson published another bio, “Scotty & Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train” (Mississippi University Press).
Yet another accolade came Moore’s way in October 2015, induction into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, with Keith Richards accepting on his behalf, being too ill to attend.
Less lucky in love, Moore’s three marriages ended in divorce. His longtime companion, Gail Pollock, died in November 2015.  Survivors include five children and several grandchildren. Moore was buried June 30, beside his parents in Humboldt, following a private ceremony.                                                                     – Walt Trott

Ralph Stanley, pioneer bluegrass legend . . .

Ralph Stanley up close and personal‘O Death’ Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley dies . . .

NASHVILLE — On June 23, the Grand Ole Opry lost its senior member Ralph Stanley, 89, when the bluegrass icon died, following treatment for skin cancer at his Sandy Ridge, Va. home, says musician-grandson Nathan. Following participation in the 2000 blockbuster film “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Stanley won a 2001 Grammy award for his a cappella soundtrack performance of the song “O Death” and was invited to join WSM’s Opry cast after years of only guest shots. Amusingly, Stanley insisted on using the term “Doctor” with his name for news releases and advertising, having received that 1976 honorary designation from Lincoln Memorial University in East Tennessee, where the average class size is 13.
“Ralph Stanley was elemental. His voice was freshwater, wind, sky, and stone,” stated Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. “Dr. Ralph is revered by Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Ricky Skaggs, and most anyone else equipped to handle the unfiltered truth.”
Stanley was a featured artist in D. A. Pennebaker’s acclaimed documentary “Down From The Mountain” (2000); and, of course, “The Ralph Stanley Story,” yet another film documentary, directed by Herb Smith, that same year.
Born Ralph Edmund, Feb. 25, 1927 in rural Dickenson County, Va., to Lucy Jane (Rakes) and sawmill operator Lee Stanley, both were musicians, who survived previous mates. “I was borned way back in the hills,” Ralph recalled for a reporter. Of all Lucy and Lee’s children, only Ralph and Carter (two years his senior) showed musical talent, as she taught Ralph to play banjo from age 10, clawhammer style, while Dad guided Carter on guitar. Indeed, the boys once performed together on WNVA-Norton, Va. Following Ralph’s high school graduation in 1945, that same month he enlisted in the military. Upon discharge in 1946, he and Carter began the Stanley Brothers, forming their first Clinch Mountain Boys band.
Despite a slow start, they hosted the WCYB-Bristol, Va., Farm & Fun Time show for free, but promoted show dates on air, and toured briefly with fellow newcomer Mac Wiseman. When Mac and Carter fell out, due to Lee Stanley’s suspect arrangements as manager and booker, the siblings traveled solo. Signing with local label Rich-R-Tone in ’48, they recorded “Molly & Tenbrooks” as their first

Ralph Stanley Jr., senior and Vern Gosdin-1
Vern Gosdin with Ralph II and Ralph Sr. backstage.

track, a year ahead of Bill Monroe’s classic cut. It was at WCYB that Ralph developed his famed rolling three-finger banjo style.  In 1949, the Stanleys signed with Monroe’s label Columbia, causing an irate “Father of Bluegrass to switch to Decca, feeling they stole his songs and bluegrass style. Stanley successes there included “White Dive,” “Pretty Polly” and “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” and they began performing farther afield, thanks to radio stops in Maryland, Louisiana, North Carolina, Florida, West Virginia and Virginia, but believed Bill Monroe was their main barrier at prestigious WSM. At Mercury (from 1953-’57), the brothers recorded such songs as Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” their original “Dickenson County Breakdown,” “Big Tilda” and “Lonesome and Blue.” In the late 1950s, the boys signed with Syd Nathan’s King Records in Cincinnati, Ohio, recording such as “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” “Midnight Ramble” and Ruby Rakes’ “How Far To Little Rock,” charting 12 weeks (#17, 1960), their only Billboard country singles charting. (Ruby Rakes was yet another pen name for Carter Stanley.)
Ralph, admittedly not the prolific writer Carter was, did pen some songs, including “The Fields Have Turned Brown,” “Gonna Paint the Town” and “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” a lively banjo tune. He had a wry sense of humor, and didn’t cotton to the idiom bluegrass, preferring instead mountain music.
As rock and roll came onto the scene in the mid-1950s, the Stanleys started struggling, even down some say to accepting $50 gigs. At one point, Ralph augmented his income toiling as a welder in Detroit; however, by the later ’50s, they rebounded nicely, due to a trend towards folk and old-time music styles, putting them in demand on college campuses and at outdoor folk and bluegrass festivals. Among their more requested songs of the day were “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” “Angel Band,” “Little Maggie” and “The Lonesome River.”
Sadly, Carter’s penchant for hard liquor created friction on tour and caused a downturn in his health, leading to a sudden and early death Dec. 1, 1966, at age 41. It was a devastating loss to Ralph, whose keening tenor provided a distinctive touch to the gritty lead vocals of Carter, who was a charismatic front-man for the duo, and chief songwriter. Nonetheless, Ralph chose that old adage, the show must go on, stepping into the spotlight vacated by Carter. Striving to overcome an innate shyness, he assembled some of the finest young players for the band, including such future notables as Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Curly Ray Cline, Jack Cooke, Melvin Goins, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Charlie Sizemore and Sammy Adkins, to assure entertainment value. Meanwhile, he was steadily perfecting his own lead vocals.
In 1970, Stanley even began hosting an annual Hills Of Home music festival near Coeburn, Va., close to his old home turf. Unlike many country and bluegrass acts, Ralph didn’t migrate to Nashville, sticking instead to his Blue Ridge Mountain country roots. That may be part of the reason the Stanleys weren’t invited to join the Opry cast, though belatedly Ralph became a member at age 73, following the “O Brother Where Art Thou” flick, and its soundtrack album, which reportedly sold seven million. A runaway hit, it not only topped Billboard’s 200 chart, but also the trade weekly’s country album and soundtrack charts.
In 2004, the Ralph Stanley Museum & Traditional Mountain Music Center opened in Clintwood, Va. A year later, Ralph underwent triple bypass heart surgery at age 78, but following rehab treatment, hit the highway again, taking his music to fans across the country.
Soon Ralph was also collaborating with journalist Eddie Dean for his biography, “Man Of Constant Sorrow: The Life & Times of a Music Legend” (Gotham Books, 2009), which generated one of the biggest monetary advances ever for a bluegrass artist.
James Alan Shelton, then Clinch Mountain Boys’ lead guitarist and road manager, exclaimed, “He’s the man! And it makes me proud that he is getting recognition that is long overdue . . . and the thing is, he still sounds great.”
Besides Shelton, Ralph Stanley has influenced such notables as Skaggs, Whitley, Dwight Yoakum, Jerry Garcia, Patty Loveless and Bob Dylan. Stanley’s son Ralph II, who some say has vocals and guitar chops more reminiscent of Uncle Carter, played with his pop, before going solo, earning Grammy nods of his own. Reportedly, he’ll now assume leadership of the Clinch Mountain Boys to keep the show on the road, much as dad did back in 1966. And then there’s grandson Nathan Stanley, who has been performing with granddad several years.
In retrospect, Ralph could look back on numerous achievements, including the 1984 National Heritage Award given by President Ronald Reagan; a 1992 induction of the Stanley Brothers into the Bluegrass Hall of Honor; multiple Grammys, including one for best country male singer (2001), citing “O Death,” a musical dialogue with the Grim Reaper; another in 2002 for best bluegrass album, “Lost In The Lonesome Pines” (Jim Lauderdale, Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys); and also that year, IBMA’s best recorded event for his “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts,” cut with various female stars including Loveless. In 2006, Ralph was honored with a National Folk Medal of the Arts by President George Bush, despite being an avowed Democrat, who previously participated in the inaugurations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Survivors include Jimmi, his wife of 47 years; daughters Lisa Joy and Tonya; sons Tim and Ralph II; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. A service, open to the public, was held June 28 at Hills of Home Park, State Route 654, a.k.a. Carter Stanley Highway, between Coeburn and McClure, conducted by Mullins Funeral Home. Pallbearers included Ralph II and Nathan. Honorary Pallbearers: Clinch Mountain Boys bandsmen, plus Jim Lauderdale, Josh Turner, Dewey Brown, Ralph Murphy, Bobby Hammons and Ricky Skaggs. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Shriner’s Hospital and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Ralph Stanley’s honor.                                                                              – Walt Trott

Iconic music maker Moman . . .

 Versatile ‘Chips’ Moman produced rockabilly, R&B, country hits

     NASHVILLE — A man for all seasons of music, songwriter-producer Chips Moman died June 13 at a hospice in LaGrange, Ga., where he had been battling lung disease. A musical maverick, Moman’s best known for producing hits on Waylon Jennings, Aretha Franklin, B. J. Thomas and, of course, Elvis Presley. Moman copped a 1976 Grammy for his country co-write “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” (with Larry Butler), a #1 for B.J. Thomas. Born June 12, 1937 in LaGrange, he began playing guitar as a youngster. At 14, he ran away from home, hitchhiking to Memphis, where he obtained work on his cousin’s paint crew. While strumming his guitar in a drugstore, country singer Warren Smith (“Odds and Ends”) heard and offered him a job with his road show. Soon he was touring with rockabilly acts Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps (“Be-Bop-A-Lula”), and Johnny Burnette (“You’re 16”). In an interview later, Moman pointed out that all three of those artists died at a relatively young age.
While fresh out of his teens, he spent time in Los Angeles, trying to make his way as a studio musician at Gold Star Studio. During the early 1960s, however, Moman returned to Memphis, hitching his star to the indie Satellite Records, primarily a country label as an engineer, but when that didn’t pan out, started concentrating on producing soul singers. The label’s first regional success was Carla Thomas’ “Gee Whiz” in 1960, which Atlantic picked up, turning it into a national Top Five R&B single (and a crossover pop Top 10).
Moman, who liked to gamble, garnered the nickname “Chips.” Less of a gamble was aligning himself with the Stax label, bringing in Carla’s dad Rufus Thomas, who scored with “Walking The Dog.” Chips produced some of the now legendary label’s early soul hits, notably “Last Night” by The Mar-Keys and “You Don’t Miss Your Water” by William Bell. In a huff, Moman departed Stax in 1964, regarding payments for Booker T. & The MGs’ mega hit “Green Onions.”
Chips then organized The Memphis Boys, session bandsmen, who helped define the earthy Memphis Sound of the 1960s, and founded his American Sound Studio (with Don Crews) in ’67. There 120-plus hits were produced for such notables as The Gentrys, B. J. Thomas, Dusty Springfield and Neil Diamond. Chip’s most successful sessions, however, were with Elvis Presley, starting in January 1969, when the king of rock and roll turned to him to resuscitate his flagging recording career, cutting “Suspicious Minds” and “In The Ghetto,” for starters. Their collaboration resulted in the iconic studio album “From Elvis In Memphis” (1969), representing Presley’s first Memphis session since his mid-1950s Sun days. A year later, they reunited for Elvis’ “Back In Memphis.”
The innovative Chips also developed a talent for writing, including pairing with Dan Penn on the soulful “Dark End Of The Street” a hit for James Carr, and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” for Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. He left Memphis in 1972, played sessions at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and then moved north to Nashville. Among artists he worked with tin Music City were Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, producing such successes as “Luckenbach, Texas,” “The Wurlitzer Prize” (both of which he wrote), “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Pancho & Lefty” and Nelson’s 1982 cover of “Always On My Mind,” earning Willie a Grammy for best country vocal, plus best single and best song. Speaking of Grammys, Chips encouraged Willie, Waylon, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash in 1985 to do “The Highwayman,” which earned that prize as best song.
Moman and Memphis merged again, when in September 1985, Chips produced the “Class of ’55” session reuniting former Sun Records artists Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, prompting a documentary by Dick Clark Productions, tracking their historic get-together from start to finish. Initially it was coupled with the album and marketed as a TV product. Further, John Fogerty contributed the album’s song finale “Big Train (From Memphis),” which blended the vocals of John, Dave Edmunds, Ricky Nelson, The Judds, June Carter Cash and Sam Phillips, Sun’s founder. A sideline to the event was another recording, “Interviews From The Class of ’55 Recording Sessions,” which earned the performers and Moman a shared 1987 Grammy for Best Spoken Word.
Other compositions credited to Chips include “This Time,” recorded by Troy Shondell; “Love Looks Good On You,” cut by David Houston; and “So Much Like My Dad,” recorded by George Strait. Among other country artists cutting his songs were Johnny Lee, Barbara Mandrell, Archie Campbell & Lorene Mann. Moman, a member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame since 1990, was previously wed to songwriter Toni Wine (who wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love,” “Candida” and “Black Pearl.”
In the early ’90s, Chips relocated to West Point, Ga., not far from LaGrange, where for a time he continued to produce and record until ill health set in. Survivors include his wife Jane, daughter Monique and son Casey. Funeral arrangements were not completed at the time of writing.

Loss of another music legend . . .

  Hall of Famer Guy Clark . . . This One’s For Him

    NASHVILLE — I write stories about people and Guy Clark wrote songs about people, but there the similarities end. My pieces focus on the who, what, where, when and why, while Clark’s strong story-songs sound like sheer poetry when played. Upon learning the legendary artist had died, I was stunned, though not unaware that he had been suffering health issues in recent years, but we’re sure gonna miss his heartfelt originality.
Officially speaking, Texas-born Guy Charles Clark, 74, died in his Nashville home, May 17, according to manager Keith Case. Best known as the writer of  classic songs like “L. A. Freeway,” “Desperados Waiting For a Train,” “The Carpenter,” “She’s Crazy For Leaving,” “Heartbroke,” “Baby, I’m Yours” and “Oklahoma Borderline,” it’s easy to see why Clark was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 2004.

Guy Clark, no desperado-2
“I would not be the songwriter I am, if I hadn’t sat at your table and learned from a master,” Rosanne Cash, Tweeted the morning of his death, “Travel  safe, old friend.”
While Guy sure didn’t bust any chart records, Clark did land a trio of his own Warner Bros. singles onto Billboard’s country list, all self-penned: “Fools For Each Other,” “The Partner Nobody Chose” and “Homegrown Tomato,” the latter two Top 40s. Nonetheless, cover artists such as Jerry Jeff Walker (“L.A. Freeway”), The Highwaymen (“Desperados Waiting For a Train”), John Conlee (“The Carpenter”), Rodney Crowell (“She’s Crazy For Leaving”), Ricky Skaggs (“Heartbroke”), Steve Wariner (“Baby, I’m Yours”) and Vince Gill (“Oklahoma Borderline”) enjoyed hits from his magical pen. Others including Asleep At the Wheel, Bobby Bare, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Alan Jackson, Lyle Lovett, David Allan Coe, Brad Paisley, George Strait, U-2, Hayes Carll and Kenny Chesney covered his songs. Quite an impressive list for any writer.
He married Susanna in 1972, having first met her in Oklahoma. She was an art teacher, who later designed album covers for labels, including Willie Nelson’s acclaimed “Stardust” LP. She co-wrote such successful songs as Kathy Mattea’s #1 “Come From the Heart,” and near Top 10s for Emmylou Harris, “Easy From Now On,” and Dottsy, “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose.” In 2012, Susanna died from cancer. That was tough for her surviving mate, who was already experiencing poor health himself.
A trio of Guy’s albums – RCA’s “Old No.1,” “Texas Cookin’,” and Warner’s “Better Days” – also scored near the Top 40 on Billboard’s chart – and he won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album: “My Favorite Picture Of You” (2013). He confided it was inspired by a picture of Susanna, taken when she was angry with him, but his lyrics inform her, “The camera loves you/And so do I.”
Guy joined his writing hero Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle for a “live” album “Together At the Bluebird Cafe” in 1995, and both Clark’s “Old Friends” 1989 and “Workbench Songs” in 2006 were Grammy-nominated. A 2011 double-CD, celebrating his influence on music – “This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark” – featured an all-star cast, including Rosanne Cash and Willie Nelson, paying him homage, while earning Americana’s Album of the Year award.
Born Nov. 6, 1941, in Monahans, Texas, Guy was mainly raised by his grandmom in her small hotel, where her World War II roomers consisted mainly of bomber pilots, drifters and oilmen, while Guy’s dad was away at war. One tenant, a wildcatter called Jack Prigg, was referred to in Guy’s “Desperados Waiting For a Train.” In his ballad “Randall Knife,” Guy saluted his father (and as a result the tradition of American craftsmanship), writing: “If you’ve ever held a Randall knife/Then you know my father well/If a better blade was ever made/It was probably forged in hell . . .” 
In high school, Guy proved a skilled athlete,  playing basketball, football and track and field, but also did some acting in school productions, and participated on the debate team. Guy proclaimed,  “I grew up in a family where poetry was read every night.” He didn’t own a record player until he was in his teens, and was 17 before he began playing guitar.

A young Guy Clark-2
Reportedly,  he was a shipbuilder’s apprentice, and also briefly joined the Peace Corps, before launching his professional pickin’ and singin’ career in Houston, where he and pal Minor Wilson also started up a guitar repair shop. He once joined the Houston Folklore Society, which reflects on his thought process in those formative years.  While playing music in Texas, Clark shared the stage with such future luminaries as Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, and at one time, was part of a trio, with star-to-be Kay Toinette Oslin (K. T. Oslin) and David Jones. (She said they actually recorded an independent album together that was never released.)
With his guitar building experience, he moved to Long Beach, Calif., landing a day job repairing and building Dobros for the Dopyera Brothers’ Original Music firm. He continued to perform in his off hours. Guy also was writing, and regarding “L. A. Freeway,”  recalled he initially titled his song “Long Beach Freeway,” but wisely figured it would be more recognizable outside of California by substituting the nonexistent “L. A. Freeway” name. It was in 1971, that Clark scored a writing contract with a Nashville publisher, triggering a relocation to Music City. Subsequently, his 1975 RCA-produced debut album, “Old No. 1,” boasted both “L. A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting For a Train.”
Raspy-voiced Clark once noted how much he liked doing acoustic sets, especially in the United Kingdom, singling out gigs in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and, of course, on this continent for Canadians: “In England, I think that’s something they’ve always liked, that storytelling troubadour kind of approach. I’m up there singing and it’s like they’re out there taking notes . . . It’s amazing. In Australia and New Zealand, I sold out rooms that hold three or four hundred people.”

Guy with Arlo Guthrie-1
                                     Guy and Arlo Guthrie.

Author and long-time friend Tamara Saviano says her book, “Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life & Music of Guy Clark,” is scheduled for publication in October. Of his passing, Saviano says, “My heart is broken.” Musicians mourning him on social media, include  Zac Brown Band’s Clay Cook:  “I guess we can’t live forever. Gonna miss Mr. Guy Clark. He was a great ol’ feller.” Fellow singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who co-wrote the #1 “She’s Crazy For Leaving,” posted a picture of his hero/mentor, writing, “My friend @GuyClarkKCA passed from the world this morning. – Rodney.”
A member of the Nashville Association of Musicians union, guitarist Guy has also earned the Academy of Country Music’s Poet’s Award in recognition of his iconic writing talent. Survivors include his son Travis, sisters Caroline Dugan and Jan Clark, and two grandkids. As funeral arrangements were pending, we couldn’t help but recall the songwriter’s words in “Homegrown Tomatoes”: “When I die don’t bury me/In a box in a cemetery/Out in the garden, would be much better/I could be pushin’ up homegrown tomatoes . . .”           – WT

Reflections on Merle Haggard . . .

Remembering Legendary Merle Haggard

     NASHVILLE — Merle Haggard, a legendary, but complex figure in country music, passed away on his 79th birthday, April 6, 2016, in California. Weeks earlier, the singer-songwriter-musician had postponed touring, due to a respiratory ailment, complicated by double pneumonia.
Known as “the common man’s poet,” The Hag was hailed for hits such as “Branded Man,” “Mama Tried,” “Working Man Blues,” “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” all self-penned. Between 1967 and 1987, Merle scored 38 #1 Billboard singles, an amazing track record, that also boasts 71 Top 10’s over a quarter century (1965-1989).

The Hag . .     Merle Ronald Haggard’s life reads like a Picaresque novel, our anti-hero being born April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, Calif., to an emigrant Oklahoma couple, James Francis and Flossie Mae (Harp) Haggard, who a few seasons earlier fled the disastrous Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Home was a converted railway boxcar in Oildale, a few miles north of Bakersfield. After Dad’s death from a stroke, the 9-year-old began pursuing a precarious existence at best, trying to help Mom feed the family, when not running away. At age 11, Flossie turned him into authorities as “incorrigible,” and he spent some time in reform school.
Putting school behind him, the 14-year-old drop-out hitchhiked, climbing onto trucks and hopping freights, to hang out in hobo jungles and labor camps, things he heard his musical heroes Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Snow only sing about. Soon, he toiled in the oil fields, picked fruit with migrant Mexicans, pitched hay for farmers, drove a delivery truck, and even toiled as a short-order cook in a greasy-spoon diner.
The teen-ager was already trying to pick and sing some, having been given a guitar by his older brother when he was 12, and later played a local TV program Chuck Wagon in ’56. But a temptation to score easy cash via rolling drunks, stealing cars and burglaries, soon led to San Quentin Prison, with a sentence of one-to-15 years. Ironically, Merle was among those cheering Johnny Cash when on Jan. 1, 1958, he performed there, serenading the cons with hits like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line.” Six months later, Merle’s wife, the former Leona Hobbs, gave birth to their first boy, Marty, while – as later lyrics revealed – Merle “turned 21 in prison.”
Fortunately, Merle put time served, 33 months, to good use, working in the prison textile mill, obtaining a high school GED diploma, and honing his talents by playing in the warden’s band. He came naturally by it, as both James and granddad had played fiddle, mainly in Oklahoma honky tonks.
Once back on the street, the parolee continued playing music weekends, while working day jobs to keep his kids fed. He even dug ditches, working with his brother, an electrical contractor. Haggard later confided, “Since I was 23 years old, it’s been uphill all the way.” He kept up this routine a few years before hooking up with Bakersfield music veterans Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Tally, who co-wrote the 1953 Jean Shepard chart-topper “A ‘Dear John‘ Letter” (recorded with Ferlin Husky), which helped launch the Bakersfield Sound.
It was on the indie Tally label that Haggard’s first four Billboard chartings set him on the path for further acceptance: “Sing a Sad Song,” written by Wynn Stewart; “Sam Hill,” penned by Tommy Collins (who helped Merle define his writing skill); and two written by Liz Anderson, “Just Between The Two Of Us,” a duet with Bonnie Owens, and Merle’s first Top 10 “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” in 1965, and after which he named his bar room band (The Strangers).
Merle and Leona finally called a halt in 1964 to their tumultuous marriage, which produced four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli and Noel. Subsequently, he and duet partner Bonnie Owens, herself divorced from Bakersfield star Buck Owens, were wed (1965). Incidentally, daughter Dana was the first offspring to try her hand as a performer, forming Dana & The Drifting Cowboys, a local band which later recruited Marty (in the early 1970s).
Dad’s first Top 20 singles – “Sing a Sad Song” and the duet with Bonnie – prompted producer Ken Nelson to urge Merle to sign with Capitol. According to Nelson, in turning him down in 1964, Haggard cited loyalty to Tally; however, at the behest of both Fuzzy and Lewis, Merle signed with the major label in 1965. Capitol was also home to Buck Owens, Hank Thompson and Tommy Collins, all of whom were role models to Merle, and several years his senior.
Early 1960s ad for Merle and BonnieThe best advice Collins gave him was to write about what he knew, and almost on cue, Haggard fashioned two back-to-back Top Five singles: “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” (1966). Thanks to a Liz Anderson ballad, “Fugitive,” the cocky newcomer landed his first #1 disc (on March 4, 1967).
That proved a banner year for Merle, thanks to “I Threw Away the Rose” (#2); “Branded Man” (#1); and “Sing Me Back Home” (#1), all self-penned. Obviously on a roll, he had a trio of best-sellers in ’68, as well: “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde” (#1), benefitting from the movie smash of that title, co-starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway; his semi-biographical “Mama Tried” (#1), which became a signature song and eventually voted a Grammy Hall of Fame Song. It was also heard in the film “Killer’s Three,” marking Merle’s movie debut, opposite another new face, Robert Walker and former DJ Dick Clark, who also produced. (Ironically, ex-con Merle was cast as a sheriff.)
“Merle Haggard is living proof that with self-confidence and determination, a person can go from the depths of degradation to the pinnacle of success,” mused Ken Nelson, years later.
Indeed, his “success story” vindicates the American Dream, a semblance that suggests success for those seeking and striving, who never give up the struggle. Yes, Haggard’s bosses were solidly behind him, and even encouraged Calif. Gov. Ronald Reagan to issue Merle a pardon for past offenses (1972). A 1960s Merle in the studio
Instead of hurting him, Haggard’s checkered past propelled him to superstardom, fascinating fans who love the outlaw, the anti-authoritarian figure, though never taking into account chaotic consequences. To be sure, Merle suffered inner devils that threatened to consume him at times, and certainly marred his marital relationships, sometimes extending to his children.
Although Bonnie was married to Merle 13 years, their union was one-sided at best, as he went on his merry way, but kept her close to his side professionally, as backup vocalist . . . and shortly after their divorce, she served as a bridesmaid when he wed younger singer Leona Williams in 1978. Leona, who wrote or co-wrote songs for him – “The Bull & The Beaver,” “Some Day When Things Are Good” – suffered through some tough times with her mate, who once stranded her in a houseboat in the middle of Kern River, while he went partying. Two songs she wrote, “You Take Me For Granted” and “We’re Strangers Again,” signaled their finale in 1983.
As noted above, The Hag’s flirted with films, and in fact even co-wrote a salute of sorts, “It’s All In the Movies” (#1, 1975), co-written with daughter Kelli. His involvement includes more than 80 soundtrack contributions on both the big and small screens, such as “Chisum,” “Six Pack,” “Platoon” and “Bronco Billy,” in which he furnished the ballad “Bar Room Buddies,” a #1 duet with his cinematic hero Clint Eastwood (1980). In the acclaimed 1979 TV series “Centennial,” Haggard was Cisco, while in the 2005 Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain,” he sang “I’m Always On a Mountain When I Fall,” one he didn’t write (Chuck Howard did).
Harking back to the controversial Vietnam War, Haggard penned two hawkish tunes that conservatives took to heart, “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” at a time when protesters were dissing President Nixon and spitting on GIs back from battle. Despite Merle’s insistence that he did not intend to become known as a right-winger, it was those anthems of country patriotism that attacked dissent, garnering him an invitation to the White House in March 1973.
Further, they accounted for management tripling his one-night fee from $3,000 to $9,000, and assured his victories, as both CMA and Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year, along with best male vocalist, album and single trophies, as well. It wasn’t until 1984, however, that he earned his first Grammy, but for a decidedly more romantic remake of Johnny Rodriguez’s 1974 #1 “That’s the Way Love Goes” (which 15 years later Merle again revised in collaboration with pop icon Jewel). Merle relaxes during interview
It was in 2004, that trucker and sometimes singer Scott Haggard introduced himself to Merle as his son, the product of a brief liaison years back. Armed with DNA proof documentation, the two talked amicably, and Merle didn’t deny the possibility. Though reportedly they remained in touch, they never did pursue a father-son relationship. Haggard once thought he might relocate to Nashville, as well, but after a short stay decided Music Row turned him off, and decided he preferred life in Bakersfield, boating and fishing on Kern River.
In 2006, Merle was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Other major accolades include induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977); ACM’s Pioneer Award (1995); Country Music Hall of Fame (1994); Broadcast Music Inc.’s BMI Icon Award (2006); and the national Kennedy Center Honors arts recognition (2010) for “Outstanding contribution to American culture.”
Merle was like no other country music artist talent-wise. He was a gifted writer, skillful lead guitarist and fiddler, who possessed one of the most unique baritones in the business. Still, there was no denying his dark personality traits, fostering disagreeable and sometimes even aggressive behavior, like stomping on the foot of a musical partner he felt was taking too much of the spotlight. His eldest son Marty gave Merle low marks as a father, noting in an interview the ugliness he and his siblings witnessed in their early years: “Dad liked to argue and Mama would take it a step farther and go berserk! It took all his strength to keep her from whipping his butt, and half the time she did . . . it was like a damn circus.”
Nonetheless, he went beyond the norm in appreciation to another artist, most notably Tommy Collins, whose once promising career got sidetracked by his own demons within. Merle did so via a song, recalling a helping hand he’d been given in hard times. Titled simply “Leonard” (after Tommy’s real name, Leonard Sipes), Merle wrote: “He was on his way to having what he wanted/Just about as close as one could be/Hey, once he even followed Elvis Presley/And he wrote a lot of country songs for me . . .” including #1’s “Carolyn” and “The Roots Of My Raising.” Merle told of Tommy turning to the ministry, “For years he chose to let his music go/But preaching wasn’t really meant for Leonard/But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know . . .” Attesting to his finite way with words, Haggard proceeded, “Well, life began to twist its way around him/And I wondered how he carried such a load/He came back again to try his luck in music/And lost his wife and family on the road . . .” Collins was proud of that tribute.
We also remember when Kitty Wells scheduled a farewell performance at the Nightlife Theatre near Opryland, shortly after the start of the Millennium, and a sentimental Merle sent the Queen of Country Music several dozen roses in commemoration.
Haggard had a good heart when it came to the music folk who inspired him, like recording tribute albums to the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, “Same Train, A Different Time,” featuring the Blue Yodeler’s classics (1969); “A Tribute To the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World,” his salute to Texas Playboy Bob Wills (1970); and a contemporary hero, “My Farewell To Elvis,” shortly after his untimely death in 1977.
Songs he wrote have honored his mom, “Mama Tried,” her parent “Grandma Harp,” father “Daddy Frank,” and his poignant remembrance of their hard scrabble existence in “Hungry Eyes,” reading in part, “I remember Daddy praying for a better way of life/But I don’t recall a change of any size/Just a little loss of courage, as their age began to show/And more sadness in my Mama’s hungry eyes . . .” and even more heart-rending is its climaxing chorus, “Mama never had the luxuries she wanted/But it wasn’t cause my Daddy didn’t try/She only wanted things she really needed/One more reason for my Mama’s hungry eyes.”
A career highlight was returning to prison to entertain the San Quentin population, a number of whom were inside the walls when he was serving time. Though admittedly not much of a churchgoer, he occasionally came up with an inspirational triumph, such as “Jesus Take a Hold” (#3, 1970) and the album “Land of Many Churches” with Bonnie and The Carter Family (#15, 1972). In 2001, he and gospel legend Albert Brumley got together to record an album of Christian songs, titled “Two Old Friends.” More recently, “Sweet Jesus,” which he co-wrote and sang with the Oak Ridge Boys, earned a 2015 Dove Award for song of the year. This from the man who wrote and recorded such rousers as “Ramblin’ Fever,” “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad),” “Misery and Gin,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” and “C.C. Waterback.”

Mighty Merle in action!
Mighty Merle in action!

Some might argue that his works were variations on a similar theme, but he never forgot what Tommy told him, and wrote about what he knew and understood, no doubt slyly calculating it was what listeners longed to hear, and rightly so from the poet of the working man. Haggard’s albums and CDs also sold well, 16 of which went #1, including the Platinum-selling “Pancho & Lefty” with buddy Willie Nelson in 1983 for Epic, boasting a chart-topping title single, as well as their Top 10 duet “Reasons To Quit.” It also became Merle’s highest-charting crossover album (#39), and his #1 single “If We Make It Through December,” peaked at #28, in 1974, making it his top pop charting.
A few seasons earlier, Merle and pal George Jones hit #1 with their collaboration on “Yesterday’s Wine” (written by Willie), featured on their successful LP “A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine” (#4, 1982). Janie Fricke joined him in the mid-1980s on a pair of #1 singles: “A Place To Fall Apart” and “Natural High.”
Following his split with Leona in 1983, he encountered financial difficulties, but was able to recoup thanks to that terrific talent. Although he once wrote, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” he later confided that he did indeed do so, and even experimented with cocaine. But recognizing what it was doing to him, he quit under his own steam. Haggard in Wisconsin
In 1985, he married Debbie Parret, but that coupling also ended in divorce in 1991. Two years later, he wed Theresa Ann Lane, mother of his children Jenessa and Ben, who as an adult played in pop’s band The Strangers, much as sons Marty and Noel had done years before.
Haggard’s last #1 was “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (Feb. 20, 1988). A year later, he scored his last major success, “A Better Love Next Time” (#4, 1989), but he never stopped recording or taking his music to the fans, until failing health caused him to be hospitalized.
In June 2015, another Willie and Merle album, “Django & Jimmie,” debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and at #7 on the pop Top 200 albums list. Nelson described it thusly, “The title track is about (guitarist) Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. Both of these guys were very influential in both of our careers.” It received critical acclaim internationally. And according to Merle, “Willie sang like he was a teen-ager.”
Meantime, Merle and Mac Wiseman also had an album collaboration, “Timeless,” released in 2015, in which the two icons shared the mic on songs from the past, such as Carl Smith’s “If Teardrops Were Pennies,” Tommy Collins’ “High On a Hilltop,” Mac’s “Jimmy Brown The Newsboy,” Merle’s “Mama Tried” and another Haggard creation that was never a single, “Learning to Live With Myself,” as a solo featuring backing by The Isaacs. Merle long admired Mac’s vocals and initiated the joint sessions, produced by longtime Haggard producer Ronnie Reno, and included guest vocals by Vince Gill on two tracks. Mac n Merle, 2015
“I think Merle had also done one by himself recently,” muses Mac, 90, commenting on his friend’s studio sessions, shortly after Merle’s passing. “I was half-way prepared because Ronnie (Reno) had kept me pretty much updated on his health problem . . . but of course I was still hoping and praying he might bounce back. One thing’s for certain, he left one helluva legacy.”
Reno adds his reaction to the news, “I am incredibly saddened by the passing of my dear friend Merle Haggard . . . today, of all days, on his 79th birthday. I first met Merle while working with the Osborne Brothers. I worked for Merle about eight years, and we went through so much together. There were good times and there were other times, well, that only he and I could laugh about. He loved to hear me laugh for some reason. He would call me up just to hear me laugh when he needed some cheering . . . I was hoping to see him last month, but he fell ill and I’ve been praying and talking with him often throughout this time. Today, I was contacted by the family and found out that Merle had expressed his desire to have me sing ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’ at the funeral. What a fitting song for such an amazing man.” Reno, son of Bluegrass Hall of Famer Don Reno, currently hosts Reno’s Old Time Music on RFD-TV.
“Merle was a singer’s singer, a musician’s musician, and a songwriter’s songwriter,” notes singer-songwriter Bill Anderson. “He set the feelings of the everyday common man to music, creating songs that will outlive us all. I feel privileged to have toured with him and known as both a great artist and as a friend. His passing leaves a big hole in country music and in the hearts of the millions who loved him and his artistry.”
“We join the world of the broken-hearted, hearing of the death of Merle Haggard,” says Kenny Alphin, who with John Rich comprise Big & Rich. “One of the first things John and I realized we had in common was our love of Haggard songs. What a blessing to have had a chance to get to know him and work with such a legend in our career. Merle, guess you finally are on the ultimate ‘Natural High.’ We will have your music in our hearts and souls, and honkytonk nights forever.”

Merle backstage with John Rich of Big & Rich.
Merle backstage with John Rich of Big & Rich.

    Jeannie Seely, who sang backup on Haggard hits “Ramblin’ Fever” and “I’m Always On a Mountain When I Fall,” recalls their first meeting: “When I first met Merle, I was a little intimidated because my Mom warned me of anybody who had been in prison. I got over my fears and we became very close through the years. He recorded two of my songs ‘Life Of a Rodeo Cowboy’ and ‘My Love For You.’ His passing is such a loss to not only me personally, but our entire industry. We all loved The Hag.”
Willie Nelson penned this on Facebook the afternoon of Merle’s death: “He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him.” Dolly Parton, who wrote Merle’s #1 song “Kentucky Gambler,” opines, “We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads . . . Rest easy, Merle.”

Linda Davis and Merle Haggard
Merle with singer Linda Davis.

Remembering Sonny James, country legend

Sonny James voice silenced . . .

NASHVILLE — “True Love’s a Blessing,” which no doubt Sonny James wrote and sang from the heart, sort of sums up his life. First there was the musical family of his childhood, then Doris, the love of his life, and the loyalty and affection of fans, celebrating him as The Southern Gentleman.
Sonny James died Feb. 22, age 87, at Alive Hospice in Nashville. Among the Country Music Hall of Famer’s finest hits were his co-writes “You’re the Only World I Know,” “A Little Bit South of Saskatoon,” plus a 1956 release, “Young Love,” a #1 pop and country crossover disc that helped launch the fabled Nashville Sound.
On a personal note, our family misses the annual holiday card from the James household, a tradition we’ve delighted in for years. Doris and Sonny were indeed caring and thoughtful folk, and unfortunately she suffered a stroke more than a year ago.

Mr. and Mrs. Sonny Claus
                           Mr. & Mrs. ‘Sonny’ Claus!

Sonny’s genuineness was reflected in his sincere and straightforward presentation of songs produced through the years. That he succeeded is evidenced by over 110 Billboard chartings between 1953 and 1983, including #1 albums “The Best of Sonny James” (1966) and “Need You” (1967), boasting such chart-topping singles as “Take Good Care Of Her,” “Behind the Tear,” “You’re the Only World I Know” and “Need You.”
Born May 1, 1928, James Hugh Loden’s parents Della and Archey ran a small country store in Hackleburg, Ala. Already performers, they included their children Thelma and Sonny soon as they were big enough to sing and play as part of The Loden Family, making their way via local radio and in-person appearances promoted on-the-air.    As a youngster, their “Sonny” boy first learned to play mandolin from a rough-hewn instrument father fashioned from a Shaker wooden molasses bucket.
At 4, he took his first public performing bow at an Alabama convention, and the applause hooked him for the next half century. A quick study, Sonny soon mastered fiddle, banjo and guitar, and later reflected on this skill: “Most pickers – I know Ricky Skaggs is that way – can play most anything with strings. I just grew up playing ’em, not realizing I wasn’t supposed to, so I learned to play both fiddle and guitar.” Nonetheless, his fiddlin’ surpassed the competition enough to win several championships as a youth, and later played on sessions for other acts, such as Jim & Jesse, the bluegrass duo.
“Each (instrument) would help you play the other one better, I think, because it has to do with coordination,” James mused. “I find most fiddle players can adapt to most any instrument  . . .  I don’t know why, I guess, unless it’s the action of the wrist and the noting of the fiddle. It has no frets on it. You see a lot of people, they don’t realize in playing fiddle, it’s almost a marriage between your ear and hand. That’s the only gauge you have . . . you don’t have a fret like you do on mandolin . . . but on a fiddle , you sort of have to learn you can be a little sharp or a little flat, see? So that really helps you . . . I’m speaking in country music, for that’s all I can talk about. Once you get your coordination down on the fiddle, you can generally play other instruments. At least that’s the way it was with me.”
The Lodens played show dates throughout the Southeastern U.S. As Sonny’s vocals matured, he stepped up front at their shows, ultimately billed as Sonny Loden & His Southerners, berthed at such radio stations as WAPI-Birmingham, WJDX-Jackson, Miss., and WPTF-Raleigh.

The Loden clan and teen-aged Sonny
The Loden band (from left) Pop, Joe Turner, Mom, Thelma, Sonny and Ruby Palmer, who was raised by the Lodens.

Still there was time for Sonny to partake of his love of sports, and he played ball in school. Following graduation from high school, James joined the Alabama National Guard, and Uncle Sam called them into service to fight the Korean War, which kicked off in June 1950. In his 15 months, Sonny still managed to write songs, filling up a notebook, while entertaining fellow GIs and Korean orphans with his pickin’ and singin’ talents, until his ’52 discharge.
During his stint at WPTF, he’d met musician Chet Atkins, then playing fiddle (before switching to guitar) for Johnnie Wright’s Tennessee Hillbillies. When James came to Nashville, he looked up Atkins, then understudying A&R honcho Steve Sholes at RCA Records. Chet listened to Sonny’s songs and recommended him to Capitol boss Ken Nelson, who liked his vocals better than the compositions, and gave him a contract that summer of 1952.
A year later – having taken Ken’s advice to drop the Loden – as Sonny James he charted his first single “That’s Me Without You” (a cover of Webb Pierce’s hit), notching Top 10 for a single week. Still it was a warm welcome for an unknown.
Ken Nelson told this writer of a song he supposedly put “on hold” for Sonny with its publisher, titled “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” which they recorded after Ken prompted Fred Rose (Acuff-Rose) to do a slight rewrite of the Cecil Null creation. Fred Stryker, the local publisher, pulled a fast one on Ken, asking for a dub of Sonny’s track, then gave it to a new duo The Davis Sisters, whose subsequent RCA single beat Capitol’s to the punch complete with changes, giving the gals a #1 disc from the get-go, and sold a million records in ’53.
The next chart single, “She Done Give Her Heart To Me” (#14, 1954), which Sonny wrote, also lasted one week. He fared better via a co-write with Jack Morrow, “For Rent (One Empty Heart),” charting 11 weeks (#7, 1956). Two additional charters were “20 Feet of Muddy Water” (#11) and his self-penned “The Cat Came Back” (#12), preceding the year-end smash “Young Love” (co-written by Carole Joyner & Ric Cartey), which made Sonny a star to be reckoned with.
That gem was “pitched” to Ken by Atlanta publisher Bill Lowery, and despite Sonny’s less-than-enthusiastic reaction, recorded it a week later in October 1956. To James’ surprise, “Young Love” topped both country and pop charts, and also peaked #3 on the R&B chart, placing Sonny in a rarefied list of country stars claiming a hit on Billboard’s three coveted lists.
“I had so much faith in the record, I put it on rush release,” recalled Nelson, who assigned Wade Pepper, an adept Atlanta promoter, to plug the disc nationally. An across-the-board success, it did extremely well with DJs, on jukeboxes and sales-wise totaled three million discs sold. No doubt Dot Records’ screen teen idol Tab Hunter’s quick cover disc cut into James #1 stay atop the pop chart, though both charted pop 17 weeks each. Tab’s tune spent six weeks topping the pop list, five weeks longer than Sonny, who held fast to his #1 country status nine weeks, for a total 24 weeks’ charting.     Additionally, “Young Love’s” flip-side “You’re the Reason I’m in Love” also enjoyed hit status on the country chart (#6, 1957).
(Ken Nelson, irked with Dot, got revenge by covering Dot’s hit “A Fallen Star” by Jimmy C. Newman that same year, with Capitol’s Ferlin Husky release, which kept Newman just shy of scoring #1.)

Sonny James 1950s
During the 1950s, Sonny became a regular on WNOX’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, KWKH’s Louisiana Hayride, and the CBS-TV series Ozark Jubilee. The slender 6’3” star was a popular guest on such broadcasts as KRLD’s Big D Jamboree in Dallas, WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, as well as covering the national scene, via shows of Jimmy Dean, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Pat Boone and Ed Sullivan’s CBS Sunday Toast Of the Town variety series.
In the pop realm, James’ follow-up was “First Date, First Kiss, First Love,” a 1957 teen ditty, scoring Top 20, while charting country’s Top 10, as well. It proved timely, making a great serenade while dating Doris Shrode, whom he’d recently met at a church in Dallas. The couple wed in July 1957, and though childless, theirs became one of the music scene’s most successful marriages.
Come August 1957, Sonny charted “Lovesick Blues” (#15), his smooth revival of Hank Williams’ 1949 breakthrough #1, backed with “Dear Love.” Its novelty number follow-up, “Uh-Huh-mm,” brought him back into the prestigious Top 10 (#8, 1958). For some four years, however, James was noticeably absent from Billboard, with the sole exception of a 1960 Top 20 country cut “Jenny Lou.”

TX ad for Big D Jamboree radio show
In 1962 James became a regular Opry cast member, while touring constantly with his Southern Gentlemen backing group. In 1963, Jimmy Gately’s “The Minute You’re Gone” chalked up another chart Top 10 for James, followed by the melodic Jean Chapel number, “Going Through the Motions of Living” (#17, 1963).
Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s ballad “Baltimore” proved another winner (#8, 1964), followed by a romantic #1 “You’re the Only World I Know,” which he wrote with Bob Tubert, who also supplied his next release “I’ll Keep Holding On,” a near number one. Next up, Ned Miller’s “Behind a Tear” proved a chart topper, as well, and followed by Sonny’s self-penned “True Love’s a Blessing” (#3, 1965), co-written with Carole Smith, who became a frequent song collaborator with the Southern Gentleman.
James’ pattern of a #1 and a near-#1 reoccurred in 1966, with release of back-to-back singles “Take Good Care of Her” (#1) and his own “Room in Your Heart” (#2). In 1967, he co-hosted the Country Music Association’s premiere awards show with singer Bobbie Gentry, in spite of an innate shyness.
As former label boss and mentor Ken Nelson noted, between 1967’s “Need You” and 1971’s “Here Comes Honey Again” (another Carole collaboration), James hit the musical jackpot: “Sonny was the only artist during my era, pop or county, who had 16 successive number one hits!”
A little explanation is in order. As a boy, Sonny learned his dad’s favorite singer was Nat (King) Cole, a fellow Alabamian. So when signed to Capitol, Sonny got to meet the amiable black artist. Not only did they become fast friends, but it was Cole who suggested James consider R&B classics that lend themselves to country. His King Cole Trio had done just that in reverse, notably the 1944 #1 country click “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “I Can’t See For Lookin’,” (#2, ’44), as well as “Ramblin’ Rose” later.
Like the 1950s’ Johnnie & Jack (with “Oh Baby Mine, I Get So Lonely” and “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight”), James began arranging R&B songs suitable for the country crowd, among these hitting #1 for him were the Big Bopper’s “Running Bear,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” and “Empty Arms,” Brook Benton and Clyde Otis’ “It’s Just a Matter of Time” and “Endlessly,” and Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City.” James also revisited other genre hits, including Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” Arlie Duff’s “It’s the Little Things,” Cindy Walker’s “Heaven Says Hello,” and The Chordette’s “Born To Be With You,” his formulaic twist turned them all into #1 country cuts.
Oddly enough, his re-do of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” ranking 17th (and once a hit for Gene Pitney), stalled at #2, but its two successors “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do” (by Jack Morrow and Kelso Herston) and “When the Snow Is On the Roses” also struck the bell at #1 in ’72. James’ final Billboard #1, his 23rd, was “Is It Wrong,” a 1974 revival of Warner Mack’s 1957 breakthrough ballad.
Nonetheless, on the competitive trade chart Cash Box, Sonny actually scored 21 successive #1 songs from 1966-1972, counting “Take Good Care of Her,” “Room In Your Heart” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart” all deemed chart-toppers, followed by “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do” and “When the Snow Is On the Roses,” totaling 21.

Sonny James a 1970s cover boy
1970s cover boy Sonny James.

In 1971, James became the first artist to record especially for a space flight, Apollo 14, taking his music to the moon, and upon its return, Commander Alan Shepard presented an awed Sonny with an American flag that had been part of the project.
Meanwhile, Sonny’s post-1971 Top 10s also included “White Silver Sands,” “I Love You More and More Every Day,” “A Mi Esposa Con Amor (To My Wife With Love),”  “A Little Band of Gold,” “What In the World’s Come Over You,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” “Come On In” and “You’re Free To Go,” his last (1977).
“Ken Nelson was the best person to work with for me,” James explained. “I cut two albums on the West Coast, but the rest of them were recorded here. Then the people who worked the Nashville office for Ken, notably Marvin Hughes, we never went into the studio that we didn’t work well together, and he cut I don’t know how many top songs for me; and also Kelso Herston, one of my dear friends, and all through that time, I couldn’t ask for better production men.”
Helping to spread his musical fame farther afield were appearances and soundtrack vocals in various cinematic ventures a la “Las Vegas Hillbillies” (1966) and its (1967) sequel “Hillbillies In a Haunted House,” both with friend Ferlin Husky and Hollywood glamour girls Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield and Joi Lansing. Rounding out James’ film credits are “Nashville Rebel” (1966), Paul Newman’s “Slap Shot” (1977), “Lipstick On Your Collar” (1993), “A Holiday For Love” (1996), and Jake Paltrow’s “Young Ones” (2014).

Sonny James upclose
Moving to the other side of the mic, James produced the Osmond family’s only daughter Marie for MGM, writing all the arrangements for her debut album “Paper Roses,” which not only scored #1 three weeks, but sold Gold, and crossed into the Billboard pop chart. It also introduced Marie to the singles chart, giving her a #1 chart debut – a feat accomplished by only a handful of female artists, notably Kitty Wells, Goldie Hill, Jean Shepard, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith and Donna Fargo – and helped her win a Grammy. Sonny also produced her twin follow-up albums, “In My Little Corner Of the World” (#10, 1974) and “Who’s Sorry Now” (#20, 1975), giving the newcomer a good foothold in the genre. Big brother Donnie Osmond decided to revive Sonny’s biggest success “Young Love” (#25, 1973), his falling  far short.
A highlight for Sonny – a concept album pioneer – was the 1976 LP, “200 Years of Country Music,” musically marking the nation’s 200th anniversary, a project taking over a year to research and record. Another he prized, was “In Prison, In Person,” a 1977 release, utilizing musician-inmates credited as his Prison Band, cut inside the walls of Tennessee State Prison. When WestSide Records in England combined these two landmark LPs into a single 2001 CD, this writer had the honor of writing its liner notes (and still treasures James’ thank you copy).
At the time, Sonny confided, “I’m glad that’s coming out, especially the ‘200 Years’ album, which I recorded for the Bicentennial, so that marks its 25th anniversary.”

James double LP revived in the UK
Sonny last charted in August 1983, “A Free Roamin’ Mind” (#58), another co-write with Carole Smith and in 1985, James retired from show business. The single “One Big Family” found Sonny guesting on a Heart Of Nashville collaborative benefit, sharing the mic with fellow artists like Roy Acuff, Lynn Anderson, Eddy Arnold, Bobby Bare, George Jones, Webb Pierce, Jerry Reed, Tanya Tucker, Porter Wagoner and Faron Young, as his swan song (#61, 1985).
James confided he was suffering a mysterious throat ailment that affected his singing, and despite treatment by specialists, never recovered enough to satisfy his own high standards vocally. In retirement, he relished the freedom for fishing, and along with Doris, his wife of 58 years, the opportunity to travel, and serve others through their involvement with the Church of Christ. They were both physical fitness buffs, visiting the gym regularly. At the time, he joshed, “Doris is really keeping me in shape.”
Sonny also acknowledged: “I love sports; I follow them all, according to the season. I really get caught up in it. Some of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever had, have been with Little League teams, watching little kids play ball.”

Sonny and wife at ann'y party 1987
Doris and Sonny at a 1987 reception (photo by D. Trott).

Honors coming his way have included a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame; Record World magazine’s citation as 1970s’ Artist of the Decade; induction into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987; being named a Lifetime Member of the Nashville Association of Musicians (AFM Local 257); and climaxing his career by being voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2006. He declared then,  “It’s a great honor to join many of my friends in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
A memorial service conducted Feb. 25 at  Brentwood Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, consisted of prayers, hymns and fond remembrances of those who knew him well. Participants included vocalist Andy Flatt, Jonathan Seamon and Walt Leaver. The Recessional was his own recorded instrumental interpretation of “Eres Tu (Touch The Wind),” while other songs sung included “Love Lifted Me” and “When They Ring Them Golden Bells.” Pallbearers were former bandsmen and friends Kevin Anderson, Barry Estes, Milo Liggett, Reggie McLaughlin, Gary and Greg Robble and Ronnie Williams. A down-home service was held Feb. 27 at Hamilton Funeral Home, with Interment in Cedar Tree Cemetery, Hackleburg, Ala.
Sharing her condolences, Marie Osmond Twittered: “Country Music Hall of Famer, producer & lifelong friend #SonnyJames. U will be missed! #RIP.”  Marie’s former label boss Mike Curb weighed in with his remembrance of his late friend: “Sonny James opened the doors of Nashville to me. He was the first person to invite me into a recording session at the Quonset Hut in 1964, and it started a friendship that lasted our whole lifetime. When I became Billboard Producer of the Year (in the early 1970s), I realized that I needed to find someone better than me to produce Marie Osmond. I called Sonny, who produced ‘Paper Roses,’ which went all the way to #1. I also got to witness Sonny’s first #1 country record ‘You’re The Only World I Know’ (actually his second). More important than all of that was a lifetime of friendship with Sonny and Doris; even seeing him the last two days of his life will have eternal meaning for me.”
Yet another producer, Jerry Crutchfield (Dave Loggins, Brenda Lee, Glen Campbell), added, “Few if any possessed such a combination of talent, character, personality and genuine niceness to others, as did Sonny. Best and warm thoughts to Doris.”
Songwriter Curly Putman (“Green, Green Grass of Home”) texted this message regarding Sonny to Doris, “Bernice and myself, Curly Putman, fellow Alabama songwriter, will miss him. We will be thinking of you. I will think of him with each fish I catch at Center Hill Lake. Love!!!”   (- By Walt Trott)

Sonny James hitmaker
Sonny James: country-pop musician,   vocalist, writer, producer, Hall of Famer.


Jimmy Fortune sans Statlers . . .

Jimmy Fortune at 60 . . . a visit with Walt Trott

NASHVILLE –Thanks to captivating vocals, country’s Jimmy Fortune ranks right up there with the legendary likes of fellow tenors Vince Gill, Mac Wiseman, Hank Locklin and Bobby Osborne. Of course, Jimmy’s already a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, due to his 21-year membership in the now-retired Statler Brothers, for whom he also wrote the #1 songs “Elizabeth,” “My Only Love” and “Too Much On My Heart.”

Jimmy Fortune's new CD.
                          Jimmy Fortune’s latest CD.

Those who dig hearing his soaring tones will be pleased knowing Jimmy’s got a new collection, “Hits & Hymns,” being released Oct. 23 in both CD and DVD formats. The latter will be the basis of a forthcoming PBS special, as well. Although it’s Fortune’s voice showcased throughout, he’s joined by a troupe blending familiar harmonies to the soundtrack, among these are Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, The Whites, The Oak Ridge Boys, Charlotte Ritchie and The Isaacs, Sonya and Ben.

“There are also a couple of other singers – Sydni Perry and Mike Rogers – we feature on three gospel tracks,” notes Fortune. “They also accompany me sometimes on tour. No, I don’t take a band out, we just do a trio thing on the road.”

Fortune’s touring averaged about 80 shows a year, however, his friendship with bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent (Jamie and Darrin, respectively) and their appearances together on RFD cable TV, resulted in additional shows this year, including bluegrass festivals.

“On those, I do a 90-minute set and then come out later for another 30 minutes guesting with them,” adds Fortune. “You know they did an album of Statler hits – ‘Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers’ – that won a couple bluegrass awards, and even got a (2011) Grammy nomination for their recording of ‘Elizabeth.’ Can you imagine that, after all those years! Daily & Vincent are absolute talents and I think they’re trying to expand their musical boundaries, doing other than bluegrass, and I hope the people out there will recognize that.”

            Apart from being an advocate for them, Fortune maintains, “I am still a Statler Brother, and I will die being one. I’m an ambassador for the group. They were about God, family and country, and that’s what I’m all about. You know (acclaimed author-humorist) Kurt Vonnegut called the Statlers, America’s poets.” Statlers Xmas card-1The Statler Brothers in their heyday!

            Their repertoire represents a mix of downhome original songs, performed with an almost gospel feel, though sometimes peppered with humor and satire. Among their greatest hits are “The Class of ’57,” “Bed of Rose’s,” “The Official Historian of Shirley Jean Birrell,” “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You,” “Ruthless,” “You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith, Too,” “Do You Know You Are My Sunshine” and “Charlotte’s Web.”

In 1955, the year Jimmy was born, the former Staunton, Va., high school group – Harold Reid, Phil Balsley, Lew DeWitt and lead singer Joe McDorman – were performing professionally as The Four Star Quartet. They became The Kingsmen in the early 1960s, but by the time a Portland, Ore. Rock band emerged under that name with a national 1963 hit “Louie, Louie,” they changed to The Statler Brothers, adopting a name spotted on a box of tissue in a hotel room. By then, McDorman had opted out, being replaced by Harold’s kid brother Don Reid.

So that was the Statler line-up when Johnny Cash engaged them as an opening act on a major tour in ’63. Two years later, Lew DeWitt’s song “Flowers On the Wall,” became their first Billboard chart song (#2) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Obviously, the Statlers did quite well by their tenors, as Lew’s “Flowers On the Wall” was their first chart record, and Jimmy’s “More Than a Name On a Wall,” their last Top 10 charting, a quarter of a century later.

Due to DeWitt’s declining health, suffering Crohn’s disease, he departed the group in 1982, replaced by Fortune (and DeWitt died in 1990). Jimmy says the first song he recorded with the Statlers was their remake of the Johnnie & Jack hit “I Get So Lonely (Oh Baby Mine),” for their Top 10 “Today” album, and which as a single peaked at #2 in 1983. In 1985, the group enjoyed its only #1 album “Pardners in Rhyme,” which boasted the Fortune-penned chart-topper “Too Much On My Heart.”

Their longest-charting album is the Mercury compilation “Best Of The Statler Brothers” (#2, 1975), a triple-platinum seller, hanging in there 168 weeks. Yet another longevity album is “Atlanta Blue” (#8, 1984), charting 136 weeks and featuring the #1 single “My Only Love.”

One of country’s major award winners, The Statlers earned CMA’s best vocal group annually (1972-’77) and again in 1979, 1980 and 1984, and a trio of Grammy statuettes. Their Gospel Hall of Fame induction occurred in 2007, a year prior to their Country Music Hall of Fame honor.

The Gospel Hall of Fame citation would have pleased his mother, who originally hoped Jimmy would become a preacher. He remembers her affectionately as “a prayer warrior,” a no-nonsense person, who was concerned about her son’s marital failures and its effect on his family.

“She didn’t like it,” muses Fortune, looking a decade younger than his 60 years. “My mom and dad were both disappointed those marriages ended in divorce. I wasn’t a perfect person, and there are things I wished I could change, but I take the blame.”

Lester James Fortune, one of nine children born to Odie (Byrd) and Dabney Fortune, arrived March 11, 1955, in Williamsburg, Va. While growing up, the family entertained themselves, harmonizing at home.

Jimmy started out playing in high school groups, and kept nurturing his first love.

“Of course, I was out in the bars a lot in my life and it taught me something. But I never was into alcohol or the drug scene. Unfortunately, my dad was an alcoholic and that’s probably what turned me away from it. I saw what it did to him, but at a late age, he turned his life around and gave himself to God. It was in time enough that he became my hero. I knew anybody could turn his life around, if my dad did, because he had it so bad. That showed me that I could turn my life around, too.”

When he first became involved with the Statlers, he had a day job selling cars in Charlottesville, while playing in local bands six nights a week, singing cover songs. Lew heard Jimmy sing and when he became ill, suggested the unknown 26-year-old as a temporary tenor in the internationally famed quartet (in November 1981).

“Initially, it was temporary, as Lew was supposed to be back in about six months. With that in mind, I could accept it. If they hired me from the start to replace Lew, I think I would’ve said, ‘Fellows, I don’t think I can do this.’ Thinking it was only temporary, I could feel good about helping somebody. I just loved being able to do what I did. I mean it was a dream come true.”

Then upon Lew’s return, they kept Jimmy in the band playing rhythm guitar and as backup singer in case DeWitt took sick on the road. Fortune said his first audition was in Staunton, but for the final verdict he was sent an airline ticket to try-out in Nashville, which marked his first ever flight.

After DeWitt bowed out, Fortune was finally announced as his permanent replacement: “When I went out for the first few shows, people would walk through the line when we’d sign autographs after the show, and some would kinda pull back their pen and paper, and walk around me, to go to the next artist. I could understand that and I’d look at them and grin. I knew it wasn’t easy to accept somebody new like that.

“I wanted to make a place for myself so bad. I finally figured the best way to do that was to write a song they would like. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it belonged to somebody else, not me . . . I mean face it, one week I was in Charlottesville working a day job and playing local bars, and the next week I was in Texas at the Astrodome, playing to 40,000 people. I wondered how did I get here?”

Songwriting was something he longed to do, and Jimmy asked Don and Harold if he wrote a song would they record it? “Harold gave me the most honest answer he could, ‘Yeah, little buddy, if it’s good enough.’ Well, I had a melody that kept sounding in my head, and it really lent itself well to harmony. But I didn’t have any lyrics.”

One day in a store buying supplies to take on their tour bus, Jimmy heard “This little girl in a shopping cart, and it seemed she was into everything, and her mother kept saying ‘Elizabeth’ this . . . and ‘Elizabeth’ that, and I got a kick out of it. Then while playing in Tulsa, Okla., I kept seeing this hand coming up over the front of the stage, from back where I was playing. Towards the end of the night, we’d go up towards the front of the stage, and I looked over to see who belonged to the hand and there was this beautiful young lady, saying, ‘Hey, I’m Elizabeth! I’m Elizabeth!,’ like I should know her, and she was so pretty, with that beaming face. I told her ‘I’m going to write a song about you.’ Some time later, she and her brother came to our 4th of July show and she reminded me of that Tulsa time, ‘You said you would write a song about my name, and you did!’ She’s not the only one who felt ‘Elizabeth’ was inspired by her name.”

In February 1984, the Statlers, who have played for presidents, were invited to perform at Elizabeth Taylor’s 52nd birthday party in old Tucson, Ariz. “Elizabeth” was climbing the charts, so the boys sang it to honor the movie legend. “After we sang it, Harold said we wrote the song especially for her,” grins Fortune. “That was all right. She was very gracious and a nice lady.”

From 1991 to 1998, the group produced its own variety series on TNN, which was the cable network’s top rated show during its run. Fortune also recalls the group’s last gig’s date and site – Oct. 26, 2002 at the Salem (Va.) Civic Center – a heart-wrenching experience: “The last song we sang there was ‘Amazing Grace’ and it was also the very first song I ever sang with them on stage. Just before we did that closing number, we talked about my Mom, who died in 2000, and I about lost it. Later, I saw on the DVD of that final show, I actually made it through the song, but Lord I was torn up.”

Jimmy notes it was only a short time before the Salem show, that his “brothers” broke it to him that would be their finale, saying, “We’ve been knockin’ this around, and we’re retiring this year. We wanted you to hear it from us before the word got out . . . What do you think you’re gonna do?”

At age 47, the Virginia native felt too young to quit, and recorded a secular album for Audium Records, fittingly titled “When One Door Closes,” and made some promotional appearances.

“I’d built a brand new home out there on the side of a mountain, a beautiful place, but I had four kids in college and was having a tough time trying to run a career out of Staunton. Well, I put a price on the house and four days later, it sold. I took that as a confirmation from God, it was right.”

In June 2004, he and wife Nina determined it was best to move to Nashville to conduct a solo career in earnest. “We were married in 1998, after I’d dated her awhile, but being older than she is, I wasn’t sure it would work. But now I know if it wasn’t for Nina, none of this would’ve been possible. After being with the Statlers, I didn’t know anything about booking or publishing. She had been an accountant, and started learning about all this, and now she runs a tight ship, and I need that. She is my left brain.”

Once in Nashville, Jimmy recorded his first solo gospel album, “I Believe” (2004), co-produced with bassist Dave Fowler, who had co-authored the title track with Fortune: “I got to know Dave years ago when he was playing for Helen Cornelius, and they opened for the Statlers. He said then, ‘If you ever do something on your own, I’d like to be part of it.’ I remembered that.”

Other Fortune collections include “Feels Like Christmas” (2006), “Windows” (2009) and “Lessons” (2012). For the new “Hits & Hymns” CD, he had Ben Isaacs produce, and among the selections are three former Statler hits: “Elizabeth,” “Too Much On My Heart” and “More Than a Name On a Wall.” Naturally, Jimmy was concerned how to make them sound fresh.

“What Ben did when he got all the musicians and me together in the studio, he said, ‘Guys, these songs have been done a lot. What I want us to do is approach these songs like it’s the first time anybody’s ever heard them.’ Gordon Mote, the pianist, whom I think is anointed, starts playing and I wonder ‘where’s this going?,’ when all of a sudden Aubrey Haynie, the fiddler, joins in and starts doing his thing in the same vein, and it took me to a place I’d never been before. It’s all more acoustic, and to me the music is simply brilliant. I heard ‘Amazing Grace’ like never before . . . Sonya Isaacs comes in on it and I get chill bumps, and when Vince Gill comes in, I start crying like a baby. It’s so different.”

Fortune fathered sons Chris, Matthew, Grant, Jimmy Jr. and daughters Jessica, Meghann and Courtney: “Yes, I have seven children and eight grandchildren, and they’re all so special to me.”

Are any musically inclined, or interested in a career as an artist?

“My son Matthew writes well and sings. I told him, ‘If you come to Nashville, maybe I could help you.’ He’s got three kids, and he looks at his boys and says, ‘This is the reason I won’t do it.’ I told him if he became an artist and won best song year after year, I couldn’t be any prouder of him than I am when he said that.”

Currently, Jimmy’s prepping his own book, a biography, with the aid of a ghostwriter: “He’s a friend of mine, who went with me to Virginia and we talked about my growing up there. He’s a great guy. I’ve decided on a title for it, ‘Untold Fortune,’ there’s no better way to put it.”



Promoter Charlie Dick dies

Promoter Charlie Dick dies

Promoter Charlie Dick succumbs at age 81 . . .

NASHVILLE – Entrepreneur Charlie Dick, 81, died Nov. 8 at his home here, following a brief illness. Good buddy Mac Wiseman called Charlie “the keeper of the flame,” noting how he kept the career of his late wife Patsy Cline burning brightly more than half a century after her tragic 1963 death.

Today (Nov. 12) we honored him for this and his own country music contributions through the years, at a funeral service in First Baptist Church. Among mourners besides daughter Julie Fudge, sons Randy and Chip Dick, and their families, were friends like former Opry manager Jerry Strobel, singers Jeannie Seely, Jett Williams, Michelle & Jimmy Capps, his former secretary Marsha Basore, and even ex-wife Jamey Ryan.

Keith Bilbrey, announcer on RFD’s Larry’s Country Diner, spoke at the family’s request, saying, “Charlie was a prankster.” He remembered the time that he had to have surgery for a hernia, and Charlie related the tiniest detail about his corrective surgery for the same problem, to prepare Keith ad nauseam;  however, following Keith’s surgery, sent him an invitation to join Charlie and friends on a “trail ride.”

Although understandably emotional, Chip eulogized his father, managing to weave in some humorous anecdotes, agreeing Dad was indeed a jokester. On a more serious note, The Reverend David Royalty officiated, and a three-piece string band offered a mix of gospel and country songs between the talks.

Charles Allen Dick was born May 24, 1934 to Mary (Heflin) and Leland Dick near Whitehall in Frederick County, Va. In 1950, he dropped out of Handley High School – “I didn’t get along with teachers very well” – then worked as a linotype operator for the daily Winchester Star newspaper (which he’d once sold as a kid).

Country Music Hall of Famer Wiseman, 90, said in a telephone chat, “Charlie was special, and you could always rely on him . . . what you saw was what you got. He was the same fun fellow when I talked to him the other day, as he was when I met him close to 60 years ago.”

Charlie and Mac were Lifetime Members of the Reunion Of Professional Entertainers (ROPE), both still heading up the association’s executive board. Mac, five times president, offered to step down one summer while performing in Branson at Willie Nelson Theatre, sharing the bill with Willie and Merle Haggard.

“Well, Charlie and (fellow officer) George Riddle told me to forget about doing that, saying they could keep things running smoothly until my return.”

In an interview for Wiseman’s biography (“All My Memories Fit For Print,” Nova Books), Charlie recalled listening to country music on the radio as a youngster: “I never was a big bluegrass fan myself. When I first heard that type of music, we called it ‘string music.’ I lived in northern Virginia, up close to the West Virginia state line, out in the country. My mother kept the radio on as long as its battery would hold out. That was in the 1940s and actually I didn’t know one style from the next. She could pick up stations clearly like WSVA-Harrisonburg. Mac was on that station back then. I listened to some of it, the things I liked. Mom listened all the time, until the battery wore down.

“Mac was just country to us. The music we heard in Virginia then wasn’t called bluegrass, it was more raw hillbilly country without any amplifying or anything. As I got older, we started going to parks on weekends, where they had about any kind of acoustic music you could think of, some pretty smooth and some wild and crazy. I got so I liked all of it and maybe that’s why I ended up in the music business.”

After moving to Winchester, Charlie got to hanging around with local musicians and got more into it: “One weekend after I met Patsy, she was working a park down in Fredericksburg, and one of the other artists on the bill was Mac Wiseman. I had not yet met Mac. Well, Patsy brought along a box of fried chicken and me, I had a picnic-jug full of grapefruit juice and something else – it might’ve been gin (he chuckles). Now Mac was tickled to death to share Patsy’s chicken, but I think he even liked my beverage better, you know having something to wash it down with.

“Also on that day, they were advertising to ‘give away’ a Mac Wiseman Cadillac car by means of a raffle. I thought, ‘Wow! This is great!’ Back then I didn’t know too many people driving Caddies, especially one who was going to give it away. Then I heard it had a hundred thousand miles or more on it already, and figured Mac had driven it about all it was gonna go. But they did give it away. Meanwhile, backstage, the three of us ate, drank and visited, and we got on very well.”

Patsy, who had split with first husband Gerald Cline, liked Charlie’s take-charge manner and after receiving her divorce decree in March, married Charlie Dick on Sept. 15, 1957.

She was already making a name for herself, having signed with Four-Star Records, became a semi-regular on Jimmy Dean’s WMAL-TV Town & Country Time in Washington, D.C., and won CBS’s national Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts competition, thanks to her performance on her first hit “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

Charlie was summoned by Uncle Sam to serve in the Army (1957-1959). After Charlie wed Patsy, she went with him to Fort Bragg, N.C., temporarily putting her career on hold, while he worked as a motor pool dispatcher. Following discharge, they went back to Winchester with baby daughter Julie. In 1960, they moved to Nashville, where Patsy was signed to Decca Records, and Charlie went to work for Curly Printing.

The year 1961 was especially rewarding for Patsy, who scored her first #1 single “I Fall To Pieces,” and the classic “Crazy” (#2), which eventually became a Grammy Hall of Fame disc; she joined WSM’s Grand Ole Opry cast; and gave birth to son Allen Randolph (Randy).

Charlie frequently accompanied his wife on tour, and the associations he made led to later work within the music industry. One particular gig he missed was a benefit show to aid ailing Kansas City DJ Jack Call, and the returning flight with Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas in a plane piloted by Copas’ son-in-law Randy Hughes, struck a storm, crashing near Camden, Tenn., where all four occupants died on March 5, 1963.

The death of the three Opry stars reverberated around the world, and Randy’s wife Kathy, herself a former singer and mother of a son, lost both husband and dad. Cowboy’s wife had two teen-aged sons at home; Hawkins’  singer-wife Jean Shepard had a two-year-old and another son due a month later; while Charlie was left to raise Julie, 4, and Randy, 2.

Charlie Dick later worked as a music promoter for various independent labels, covering the Starday, King and Gusto catalogs. He was proud of his role in producing the smash Red Sovine single “Teddy Bear,” in coordination with Tommy Hill, in 1976. Dick explained: “Moe Lytle bought the Dickerson Road studio and Starday masters from Don Pierce. Tommy Hill, who was as good as they come, was part of that deal. One time when Tommy was on the road, Red called me and said, ‘I got something I want you to hear.’ He added, ‘Somebody gave it to me awhile back and I didn’t pay any attention to it, but I’ve just listened and like it. See what you think?’ So he played the tape over the phone, asking ‘What would you do if you had it?’ I told Red, ‘If it were me, I’d record it today.’

“Red already had a smash recitation ‘Giddyup Go,’ which he co-wrote with Tommy, so when Tommy got back, we all listened. But Moe was out of town and Tommy didn’t do too many things without his OK; but, as I recall, we went ahead and recorded it. Well, we put it out right away and ‘Teddy Bear’ sold over a million records and hit number one for us. Moe wasn’t upset about that.” (It also became a Top 40 pop success for Red.)

Harking back to July 4, 1965, Dick married newcomer Jamey Ryan, a talented Texan and younger cousin to Tommy Hill and sister Goldie Hill (Mrs. Carl Smith). In explaining their breakup in 1972, Charlie surmised Jamey didn’t dig standing forever in the shadow of Patsy Cline. Nonetheless, the couple produced a son Charles (Chip) Dick, Jr., in 1968, and he fit snugly into the surviving Dick family, while his parents remained friends.

In the meantime, Charlie devoted himself to promoting Patsy’s music in liaison with Decca/MCA, and her “star” shines even brighter, more than half a century after her untimely passing. In 1973, she was enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, while Charlie’s company, Legacy, Inc., kept him busy overseeing her estate. This includes platinum-selling albums (one electronically with Jim Reeves, since they didn’t record together), technically advising two major motion pictures depicting Patsy – “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Sweet Dreams” (in which Ed Harris plays Charlie) – and stage shows licensed about her life and songs, notably “Always . . . Patsy Cline,” “A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline,” and “Patsy Cline, The Musical” in the United Kingdom.

Later, in 1980s’ collaboration with Canadian filmmakers Greg and Mark Hall, Charlie helped produce documentaries like “The Real Patsy Cline,” “George Jones: The Same Ole Me,” “Loretta Lynn: Honky Tonk Girl,” “Waylon Jennings: Renegade, Outlaw, Legend,” and “Willie Nelson, My Life” for their Hallway Productions.

Survivors include daughter Julie Fudge, sons Allen (Randy) and Charles (Chip) Dick; five grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and brother Melvin Dick. Interment will be next to wife Patsy in the Shenandoah Memorial Park, Winchester, Va., where on her stone it reads: “Death cannot kill what never dies: Love.