“Everything worth doing takes time. You have to write a hundred bad songs before you write one good one.” Bob Dylan, interview with The Telegraph’s Edna Gunderson, 10/29/16.
I’ve spent more hours than I care to count over the last few weeks listening to new releases, especially in the Americana vein, that start out with great promise – I like the singer’s voice and the arrangements and the playing of the musicians. But when the album is over there just isn’t any song that I want to hear again. Not just don’t want to hear it right away, but I don’t particularly care if I ever hear any of them again. Since most Americana albums feature singers who write their own material, I want them to consider Dylan’s comment carefully.
There have been many terrific singer-songwriters over the years, who have the good sense to know they need to look farther afield to find really good material. Songwriters as good as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Jeff Walker, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles and even Guy Clark, to name just a few, have been willing to include songs by other writers whose work fits their voice and persona. Because my children read this blog, I’ll put an old “locker room” saying in a different form – those artists know you have to have real chicken to make good chicken salad. Their repertoires and our pleasure were enhanced as a result.
Last week the CMA Awards show featured a retrospective of award winning records and artists over it’s fifty year history. I was struck by the high quality of the songs, whether they were performed by the original artist or one of country’s contemporary stars. One of the beefs I have with commercial country music today is not that the singers aren’t talented, it’s that the songs are so weak and all sound the same. I’ve heard what some of these singers could do with some of country’s great songs.
Vince Gill, another songwriter who readily augments his material with songs by other writers, in an interview about new artists in the Raleigh News and Observer, 11/4/16, concluded by saying…
“At the end of the day…The song he’s singing is either good, or it isn’t.”
So this post is dedicated to great songs, or more specifically this week, great country songs. I have assembled four terrific albums of cover songs by four great singers, two men and two women. The songs covered run the gamut of country music. Most were hits by other artists from the 1940’s through the 1980’s. A few of these songs became hits again for these four artists.
Instead of discussing each album, I will simply list the songs and their writers because that’s where I want to shine the spotlight. The talent of the original singers helped make these song hits, but as these albums demonstrate, a great song could be a hit for any number of singers. This week is all about cerebrating great songwriting while enjoying some really fine singing. I hope you’ll make a mental note of these songwriters’ names, and look for them on other records. You’ll be rewarded with good music.
Alan Jackson – Under The Influence
A collection of songs – some hits some album tracks – that influenced Alan and were part of his repertoire when he first started learning his craft in small honky tonks and dive bars.
“Pop A Top” by Nat Stuckey, original hit by Jim Ed Brown.
“Farewell Party” by Lawton Williams, original hit by Gene Watson.
“Kiss An Angel Good Morning” by Ben Peters, original hit by Charley Pride.
“Right In The Palm Of Your Hand” by Bob McDill, originally recorded by Mel McDaniel.
“The Blues Man” written and recorded by Hank Williams, Jr.
“Revenooer Man” by Johnny Paycheck, original hit by George Jones.
“My Own Kind Of Hat” by Merle Haggard and Red Lane, original hit by Merle.
“She Just Started Liking Cheating Songs” by Kent Robbins, hit by John Anderson.
“The Way I Am” by Sonny Throckmorton, original hit by Merle.
“It Must Be Love” by Bob McDill, original hit by Don Williams.
“Once You’ve Had The Best” by Johnny Paycheck, original hit by George Jones.
“Margaritaville” (featuring Jimmy Buffett) written and recorded by Jimmy Buffett.
Martina McBride – Timeless
An avatar for new pop country sounds in the 1990’s, Martina recorded this 2005 album old style, for example using no guitars or amps newer than 1965, in part as an homage to her Dad, who led a country band when she was growing up in Kansas. Ironically it became her fastest selling album and debuted on the Billboard country charts at #1.
“You Win Again” written and recorded by Hank Williams.
“I’ll Be There” by Rusty Gabbard and Ray Price, original hit by Ray Price, then decades later by Johnny Bush and Gail Davies.
“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” written and recorded by Don Gibson, and also a hit for Ray Charles, of course.
“I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” by Joe South, original hit by Lynn Anderson.
“Today I Started Loving You Again” by Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, original hit by Merle.
“You Ain’t Woman Enough” written and recorded by Loretta Lynn.
“Once A Day” by Bill Anderson, original hit by Connie Smith.
“Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” by Harlan Howard, original hit by Charlie Walker.
“I Don’t Hurt Anymore” by Jack Rollins and Don Robertson, original hit by Hank Snow.
“True Love Ways” by Buddy Holly and Norman Petty, originally recorded by Holly but not a hit until released by Peter and Gordon.
“’Til I Can Make It On My Own” by George Richey, Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette, original hit by Tammy.
“I Still Miss Someone” (featuring Dolly Parton) by Johnny Cash and Roy Cash, Jr., original recording by Johnny.
“Heartaches By The Number” (featuring Dwight Yoakam) by Harlan Howard, original hit by Ray Price.
“Satin Sheets” by John Volinkaty, original hit by Jeanne Pruitt.
“Thanks A Lot” by Eddie Miller and Don Sessions, original hit by Ernest Tubb.
“Love’s Gonna Live Here” written and recorded by Buck Owens.
“Make The World Go Away” by Hank Cochran, original hit by Eddy Arnold.
“Help Me Make It Through The Night” by Kris Kristofferson, original hit by Sammi Smith.
Most far out story behind the song goes to Satin Sheets. Volinkaty was a Minneapolis factory worker who had never written a song before he got the idea while grocery shopping. He mailed a tape to Jeannie Pruitt who actually took the time to listen to an unsolicited tape. She polished it up, without taking any songwriting credits, recorded it, promoted it herself when her record company thought it was “too country”, and took it to number one.
Patty Loveless – Sleepless Nights
Patty was motivated to sing the music she grew up singing in her family’s kitchen. She wanted to bring them to the attention of the contemporary audience in 2008 when the album was released. “I want to inspire and remind people of what country is made of,” she said at the time.
“Why Baby Why” by Darrell Edwards and George Jones, original hit by Jones.
“The Pain Of Loving You” written and recorded by Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner.
“He Thinks I Still Care” by Dickey Lee, original hit by George Jones.
“Sleepless Nights” (featuring Vince Gill) by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, original hit by the Everly Brothers.
“Crazy Arms” by Ralph Mooney and Chuck Seals, original hit by Ray Price.
“There Stands The Glass” by Audrey Greisham, Russ Hull and Mary Jean Shurtz, original hit by Webb Pierce.
“That’s All It Took” (featuring Jed Hughes) by Darrell Edwards, Carlos Grier and George Jones original duet hit by Jones and Gene Pitney.
“Color Of The Blues” by George Jones and Lawton Williams, original hit by Jones.
“I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” by Cecil Null, original hit by The Davis Sisters.
“Next In Line” by Wayne Kemp and Curtis Wayne, original hit by Conway Twitty.
“Don’t Let Me Cross Over” by Penny Jay, original hit by Carl Butler and Pearl.
“Please Help Me I’m Falling” by Hal Blair and Don Robertson, original hit by Hank Locklin.
“There Goes My Everything” by Dallas Frazier, original hit by Jack Green.
“Cold Cold Heart” written and recorded by Hank Williams.
“We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes In The Morning” by Joyce Ann Allsup, original recording by Carl Butler and Pearl.
“If Teardrops Were Pennies” by Carl Butler, original hit by Carl Smith.
Note: The final two songs are bonus tracks on the iTunes version of the album; they’re not on the original CD.
George Jones – Hits I Missed…And One I Didn’t
According to the liner notes for the CD released in 2005, “Most of these songs were sent to George Jones to record over the years. All of them went on the become big hits and, as he’d hear them on the radio, he’s laugh about the “hits he missed.”
“Funny How Time Slips Away” by Willie Nelson, original hit by Billy Walker, cover by many others.
“Detroit City” by Mel Tillis and Danny Dill, original hit by Bobby Bare.
“The Blues Man” (featuring Dolly Parton) written and originally recorded by Hank Williams, Jr.
“Here In The Real World” by Alan Jackson and Mark Irwin, original hit by Jackson.
“If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong” by Max Barnes and Vern Gosdin, original hit by Gosdin.
“Today I Started Loving You Again” by Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens, originally recorded by Merle.
“On The Other Hand” by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz, original hit by Randy Travis.
“Pass Me By” by Hillman Hall, original hit by Johnny Rodriguez.
“Skip A Rope” by Glenn Tubb and Jack Moran, original hit by Henson Cargill.
“Too Cold At Home” by Bobby Harden, original hit by Mark Chesnutt.
“Busted” by Harlan Howard, original twin hits by Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, both in 1963.
And the “one I didn’t” was his own biggest hit, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, who just passed away in the last couple of weeks. Jones recorded this version twenty-five years after the original.
George’s most interesting “pass” was on “The Blues Man.” While Hank, Jr. wrote it about himself, George felt it hit too close to home in his own life – with references to his reputation as “No Show Jones” for example – to record at the time. Thank goodness he decided to not let it pass again, and got a little help from a friend.
Great music, great singers
As Vince said, the song is either good or it isn’t. Perhaps that’s why the award for “Song of the Year” goes to the songwriter. Reading through the liner notes to Patty Loveless’s album, I found these comments: “These songs are classics for a reason. Not just for what they say, who recorded them, who wrote them, but because of the emotional charge they carry.” And when songs like these are covered by the likes of singers like these, they become treasure to be enjoyed anew.