Sonoma Music - Mike Hyland

Two new old country albums

It seems that about every 10 to 15 years, country music goes through an evolutionary process and each time music fans scream that “country music” is not country music anymore.  It happened in the early ‘60s when legendary record producers like Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins began experimenting with strings on records, pretty much taking the twang out of the tunes and making it (as they once called it) “cosmopolitan country.”

Singers like Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold were branded as renegades to the Nashville music community and trying to “crossover” to the pop charts.  It happened again in the early ‘70s when pop diva Olivia Newton-John was named Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMA awards in Nashville in 1974 just on the strength of her hit single “Please Mr., Please.”  Then, the following year, John Denver was named Entertainer of the Year at the CMA’s, which suggested to the old guard that Nashville was doomed once again.

It happened yet again in the early ‘80s, when the “Urban Cowboy” soundtracks made country music seem cool, but luckily, Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs came along and brought the music back toward the “traditional country” side of the business.  George Strait helped in that cause as well, but there were still artists like Barbara Mandrell, Eddie Rabbit, Kenny Rogers, Dottie West and Mac Davis stretching the pop/country boundaries.

Even now, people are saying that today’s country music is pretty much watered down Southern Rock.  Look at Toby Keith, Jason Aldean, Luke Byran, Kenny Chesney, and a host of others that are making rocking records nowadays.  Their live performances are nothing short of rock concerts, with pyrotechnics, huge speaker banks and backing bands that play louder than The Who.

All that said, I am pleased to report that there are several ‘Keepers of the Flame’ holding on to the great traditions of country music.  Two fairly recent album releases, from 2012, have an overall sound like it’s 1962 again.   The first, by Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, is titled “Nashville Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down.”  The other disc is by The Time Jumpers, an always evolving group of studio musicians and singers, and the group’s first studio release. Unfortunately, you will not hear these records on country radio stations.

Marty Stuart has been playing music professionally since he was 13 years old and joined legendary bluegrass pioneer Lester Flatt’s band.  He then hooked up with Johnny Cash and toured constantly with Cash until the early ‘80s when he decided to step out on his own. Over the last 10 years, he made a series of excellent albums including “The Pilgrim,” as well as “Badlands” and “Live at the Ryman,” with his band The Fabulous Superlatives.

“Nashville Vol. 1” is  a brilliant album.  Most everything was penned by Stuart and backed by his incredibly talented band. And since Marty knows everybody who ever sang or played a musical note, he invited a few close friends to join in, including Kenny Lovelace (longtime member of  Jerry Lee Lewis’ band) on “A Matter of Time,” that sounds like something Jerry Lee would have recorded back in the late ‘70s.  The great Buck Trent, former member of Porter Wagoner’s Wagon Masters and a “Hee-Haw” regular, tears it up on two tracks, “Tear the Woodpile Down” and “Holding on to Nothing.”   Also stopping by the studio is a bit of country music royalty in the form of Lorrie Carter Bennett, granddaughter of Mother Maybelle Carter and daughter of Anita Carter (the Carter Sisters), harmonizing on “A Song of Sadness,” followed by Hank Williams III, adding  his unique hillbilly vocals to the haunting “Picture From Life’s Other Side.”

The songs are brilliant, wrenching with crying, loneliness, heartbreak and pain all held together with incredible musicianship.  An ode to the thousands who flock to Nashville to make it as a singer or songwriter, “Sundown in Nashville” tells of when“they sweep broken dreams off the streets.” “The Lonely Kind” with its Chris Isaac guitar feel coupled with tasty licks from Kenny Vaughn, invokes a real sense of pain, with a lyric like “Hearts ain’t nothin’ but sadness, Teardrops ain’t nothin’ but blue, Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin,’ It’s what’s left of me without you.”

The best part of it all is that the record has a feel like it was recorded in the early 1960’s around the time that Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Ray Price and others were creating country music masterpieces.  If there’s a true caretaker of country music, it might be Marty Stuart.

The Time Jumpers debut studio release comes after these incredibly talented session musicians have been playing live every Monday night in Nashville for some 13 years at the famous Station Inn.  The shows have recently moved to a long-standing Nashville club called 3rd & Lindsley primarily because it’s a bit bigger than the old club, has a lot more parking — and because within the last couple of years, Vince Gill has become a regular member of the band.

Everyone in the band is an exceptional musician and they have a great grasp of reviving a country chestnut from 40 years ago to presenting newly written songs for this project.  They play country, sure, but they also play Western swing, jazz, blues, whatever floats their boat at the time.

Nowadays, you would be hard pressed the hear one fiddle on a country record, much less than three very hot fiddles played exceptionally well.   Vince Gill, Andy Reiss and “Ranger Doug” Green (of Riders In The Sky) join on guitars; Jeff Taylor’s tasty accordion playing; the great Paul Franklin (Musician of the Year for many years) on steel guitar; and vocals with “a special power and nuance that regularly draws chills, tears and rousing ovations” by Dawn Sears, wife of fiddler Kenny, who himself also handles many of the vocal chores.

From the opening swing instrumental, the band begins to percolate with incredible musicianship, tight, heartfelt vocals and a song selection that covers all the bases.

Dawn Sears co-wrote and sings the beautiful heartbreak ballad “So Far Apart” and brings her killer vocal talents to “Someone Had to Teach You,” a long hidden gem written by the late, great Harlan Howard, once known as the dean of country music songwriters, who also wrote such classics as “Busted,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Heartaches by the Numbers” and “Pick Me up on Your Way Down.”

Vince Gill contributes five songs to the project including “The Woman of my Dreams,” the up-tempo “New Star over Texas,” and the gripping “Three Sides to Every Story.”

Listening to this record is a pure pleasure, as each solo is expertly played and every musician is on top of their game.  I think the release, recorded at Vince Gill’s “The House” studio (which is actually in his house) in Nashville, is flawless.

If you are a country music fan, I whole-heartedly suggest you seek out these two discs and revel in the fact that, yes, they can still make records like they used to.  The tradition lives on.

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