The last month has been pretty tough on hard core country music lovers. The biggest news was the passing of Merle Haggard. Within the same week, Randy Travis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and at the ceremony we could witness just how hard he was struck by the stroke that nearly took his life a couple of years ago. About four weeks ago, Rolling Stone reported that Glen Campbell is now in the final stages of Alzheimers disease and is no longer able to communicate with family nor caregivers. Much is being written about these three giant talents, especially Merle. Still, I couldn’t let this week go by without remembering them here.
Far better writers than I have written thousands of words about Merle just in the last week. It’s his music though that really matters. Within the last year, I’ve written a bit about his top selling collaboration with Willie Nelson, Django and Jimmie, as well as his late sixties album tribute to Jimmie Rogers and his early 2000’s release If I Could Only Fly. There are several compilations of his greatest hits you’d enjoy, if you don’t already have them, but there are two others I can recommend. One is his follow up to If I Could Only Fly called Haggard Like Never Before, which gives you a handful of terrific new recordings – some new tunes, some classics, all true to the Hag’s standards. The other from 1999 is Live At Billy Bob’s: Motorcycle Cowboy. As the name suggests, this is a live recording of Merle and the Strangers performing a great collection from his catalog including two of my favorites, “Silver Wings” and “Today I Started Loving You Again.” The recording quality is better than most live albums and Merle and the band are in fine form. On both albums, from the later stages of his career, Merle’s voice is a tad drier but no less expressive than in his prime. For now though, let’s roll the years back to Merle’s prime, some time in the seventies.
Still in recovery from a devastating stroke and with a long row to hoe, Travis could barely utter the words “thank you” at his induction into the Hall of Fame. His wife delivered an eloquent response to the honor on his behalf. To hear his voice so dimmed is heartbreaking because his was one of the truly great voices in country music. It was shaped and flavored by Haggard and Jones, but at its heart, it was Randy. His first album, Storms Of Life, will probably make my top 100 favorite albums list. Beyond that, one could argue it changed the course of country music in the 1980’s becoming a prime catalyst of the so called “neo-traditional” era in country music. The album spawned four top ten singles including two number ones, “On The Other Hand” and “Digging Up Bones.” The album itself was the top selling country album of the year and was succeeded for the same honor by Travis’s second album, Always and Forever. It’s almost the perfect country album, and every song is a keeper. But best of all is Travis’s pure, resonant voice. Hard to believe he was turned down multiple times by every record company in Nashville for being “too country.” I love all the hits from the album, but my favorite is the title track, “Storms Of Life.” He’s living through some rough storms now, and I hope he finds a calm harbor.
I was not a big Glen Campbell fan back in the day. He may have been a little too “pop” for me, and his aw shucks performing demeanor seemed contrived for a guy who, before becoming a singing star, was already one of the most respected session musicians in Los Angeles. One of the group of first call studio players known as “The Wrecking Crew,” Campbell played guitar on records by everybody on the LA recording scene from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys. And although I thought his voice was only average, I can’t argue with the quality of his hits on songs by the likes of Jim Webb, John Hartford and Allen Toussaint. Negative qualifiers aside, the dude was a great entertainer and superb musician, as evidenced by this incredible rendition of the “William Tell Overture.”
Hi yo Silver, away!