The River's Badge

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Billy Sherrill, Epic Producer


As a kid just getting into country music, I didn't know what a record producer was. I had a vague notion that he was kind of an "overseer", making sure that everything synched up okay; and that the studio musicians rather went their own way, and the singer went his/her own way; and the producer? Well, he sat in the booth and every once in awhile spoke, "One more take" into the mic. Reading my album liners, I was more interested in who wrote the songs, because I figured if I liked one song by somebody, I might want to check out some others. Therefore, I read, "B. Thimble - S. Sanitary" (they never put the first names of the writers on the liner, so I didn't know who these guys - and they were mostly guys - were. And unless he was a songwriting phenom, it was always co-writes - much like now). So I didn't pay much heed to who the producer was; just like I also didn't understand that a movie director was some big deal.

But I always knew the name Billy Sherrill. First of all, Billy Sherrill was also part of a songwriting team - with Glenn Sutton (he, the ex-husband of Lynn Anderson, who didn't apparently grasp Lynn's appeal to country music purists. See this.)

So when Billy's name started showing up on Tammy Wynette albums, I noticed. For example, there was this (sorry, no live performance video, naturally). This song, by the by, was written by Johnny Paycheck:


Billy was David Houston's producer, too. Everybody has forgotten David Houston - he died young - but he had monster hits in the sixties. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I can't embed a performance of his song that made the charts cringe in 1967, "Almost Persuaded", which was a really maudlin dirge only rescued by the tinkling piano riff that caused drunks across the USA to drop a tear into their beer mugs. However, so as to not forget David Houston, here's a song he did with Barbara Mandrell:


Billy Sherrill's obituaries pounced on his embrace of the "countrypolitan" sound, but I disagree. Countrypolitan, to me, was Chet Atkins adding the Anita Kerr Singers to every recording that might have been country had it not been for the Anita Kerr Singers. As if Bobby Bare was going to take this group out on the road with him. He had, I'm sure, enough trouble just making the payroll for the actual players in the Bare band.

No, Billy Sherrill didn't forgo the steel guitar. Not at all. And he didn't add a bunch of chipmunks behind the vocalist to "smooth out" the sound. He was too smart for that. Yes, he liked the piano, and he was right. Get a load of this:


Billy also produced Tanya Tucker, who I hated because she was thirteen and I was thirteen, but she could actually sing, whereas I couldn't (I love Tanya Tucker, actually.)


And this, I don't think, is any kind of "politan":


I'm not gonna say that Billy "inherited" George Jones, but I will point out that George had a different producer before he hooked up with Tammy. George was, no doubt, grateful for serendipity.


There are, of course, two recordings that will forever cement Billy Sherrill in the annals of country music. The first one he co-wrote with Tammy:


Historians will debate for eons the cultural impact of "Stand By Your Man". It was a song of its time, and that time was 1968 - 47 years ago! Calm down, everyone! Claudette Colbert is no longer hitching up her skirt and thumbing a ride on a country road with Clark Gable, either! Yes, Tammy divorced George. How dare she, when she sang like an angel about how she'd forgive every one of his transgressions?

Here's the deal - it was a song! I was around and listening to country radio when that song hit the airwaves. Know what I like about it? I like the last chorus, where Tammy slides up the scale full throttle and sells it. The secret about good music is, the lyrics don't mean a fig. That's why they call it music. It's melodic. And if you've got a great singer, the lyrics don't matter. Just ask Sinatra and his dooby-dooby-do's.

And that song will last centuries longer than Rose Garden or Achy Breaky Heart or any other song one can name that wriggled its way into becoming an ear worm.

The other song that Billy Sherrill will be remembered for is one that, in a poll of folks who mimic what everybody else says, is the greatest country song of all time. Ahh, contraire! But I'm not here tonight to argue. This recording was done piecemeal, because George was rather - battered - and couldn't make it through a three-minute song if his life depended on it. Heck, he often couldn't even show up for his own concerts. George was down and almost out before Billy Sherrill saved his career with his patience and persistence.

The key to this song, in my opinion, is the key change, which naturally builds tension. Secondly, the twin fiddle glissando that stabs you in the gut. The recitation? I'm thinking that was George just not being able to sing. A good song is sound. That's what a good producer creates.


Billy Sherrill was a good, nay, a great producer. Now I know what producers do - they create. Create glory. It doesn't matter if the words are a fairy tale; it doesn't matter if the singer had to come back to the studio fifty times in order to splice it together just right. It's the sound that comes out of our radio, or our turntable, or our computer that matters. We don't care how much peptic distress the creation caused. We care about what our ears, what our heart, hears.

Good job, Billy Sherrill.

And thanks for the magic.






























Saturday, August 1, 2015

Lynn Anderson


“I am a huge fan of Lynn’s,” Reba McEntire said. “She was always so nice to me. She did so much for the females in country music. Always continuing to pave the road for those to follow."

In the country music world of the sixties, there were essentially two tiers of female artists. The top tier consisted of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, who got all the press, good and bad. The second tier, and the chart gobblers, were Connie Smith and Lynn Anderson. I'm not saying Connie and Lynn had more top ten hits than Tammy and Loretta, but I'm also not saying they didn't. Look it up.

In my research today, I came across a site where a guy listed his thirty-six favorite female artists from the nineteen sixties, and he didn't even include Lynn Anderson! Number one, I didn't even know there were thirty-six female artists during that decade (well thirty-seven, ahem), and number two, the dude is either a hater or a dweeb. He even listed Jeannie C. Riley, and she only had one hit!

But that's sort of the story of Lynn's career. It seemed to me at the time that she didn't garner respect from the Nashville establishment - of course, they hated Buck Owens, too, because like Lynn he was from, of all places, California! And don't even get them started on Bakersfield's Merle Haggard, although they pretty much couldn't ignore him after awhile (snicker). Connie Smith was always placed on a pedestal, as she still is, and rightfully so. I love Connie Smith. It didn't hurt, though, that she had the backing of Bill Anderson, a songwriting and Nashville god. Meanwhile, Lynn just kept racking up the hits.

People remember Lynn Anderson, if they remember her at all, from her nineteen seventies hits. I prefer the tracks from her Chart Records days, before she moved on to bigger, shinier Columbia Records. Chart Records was an independent label that had the good taste to sign artists who were languishing without a deal, for no apparent reason other than that some of them were from California. LaWanda Lindsey, whom you've no doubt never heard of, had her first hits on Chart Records, before, like Lynn, moving on; in LaWanda's case to Capitol. Look her up sometime. Needless to say, I was a big Chart Records aficionado.

Lynn was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota (like me) to songwriting parents, Liz and Casey Anderson. Liz wrote "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" for Merle Haggard. He liked the song so much he named his band after it. Liz also wrote "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive" for Merle. As a kid, Lynn's family moved to California (gasp!) and Lynn later became a featured vocalist on the Lawrence Welk Show (Lawrence, like me, was from...well, you get the gist.) As an aside, my mom always claimed she was a cousin, a few times removed, of Lynn's. I never did obtain definitive proof, so it may be a wishful fable.  Oh, and my last name, too, is Anderson. Whoo! Eerie! (kidding).

There was never a time that the Lawrence Welk Show wasn't thought of as cheesy. I certainly considered it so. But Mom and Dad loved it. Again, it was the sixties, so there were three major broadcast channels. Therefore I am willing to cut Mom and Dad some slack. But honestly, where was a young California girl to go to launch a singing career? She wasn't seasoned enough to join Buck's stable (oh, that doesn't sound good - I mean, stable of artists). So, network exposure? Why not? She was the only good thing about the show, except maybe for that ragtime piano player, who fascinated me as a kid. Yea, I took accordion lessons, too; no doubt my dad's decision was influenced by that damn show. Thanks, Dad. If I remember, when I wasn't snoring into my floor pillow, Lynn only got to do one number per week, but it was the highlight of that snooze-fest. And Lawrence seemed to like her.

This show was where Lynn introduced some of her first hits.

Like this:



Wow, she looks like a little kid here! I was such a dork, I learned all the words to this song.

 Okay, one more. Both of these songs were covers, but what the heck? (I never learned how to do this, by the way.)



Yes, she is lip-syncing both of these, but maybe Lawrence didn't have a steel guitar player. Also, I guess a drum kit isn't the only thing that has a "high hat". But it was the conservative sixties - conservative in some corners, including my parents' living room.

Soon Lynn moved on to bigger things like Hee Haw? I guess you had to be there.


Liz Anderson wrote this song, along with many of Lynn's early hits. 

Naturally, all the songs I love have no live performance videos. Lynn was at her best on ballads. She had the voice of an angel.

Here's one (just pictures, sorry):



One more:


When Lynn married Glenn Sutton and moved to Columbia Records, somebody (I'm not pointing fingers) picked out for her some inferior material.

It didn't start out too badly:


At least this track had a banjo (when banjos weren't de rigueur, like they are now, to prove that country artists are actually country - doesn't really work).

She even dusted off an old Johnnie Ray torch song from the fifties (yea, I don't know how I know that, either):


No respect.

I can't blame Glenn Sutton for Lynn's omnipresent hit from 1970. She picked that one out all by herself. Written by Joe South to be sung by a man, Lynn was enamored by it and insisted on recording it during a session which had fifteen minutes left and no more songs to record. I didn't like the song then; I don't like it now. But that's just me. It's...monotonous? And imagine hearing it fifty times a day on the radio. One would get sick of a song real fast, even one they initially liked.

Nevertheless, this recording cemented Lynn's career. So, who am I to quibble?


Some of the Lynn Anderson albums I own?





(It really doesn't look this goth in person.)





I most likely own more. 

I am a Lynn Anderson geek. I love Patsy, I love Tammy, I love Connie Smith; but I never felt the personal connection with them that I did with Lynn. Time (decades?) goes by and we get distracted by life. I hadn't listened to a Lynn Anderson track in years. And then I read that she'd died. She was only sixty-seven; far too young. Lynn had some hard knocks along the way; I'm not interested in rehashing those.

A lot of artists don't get their due. I don't know why that is. I don't believe Lynn got hers. She only drew attention when she became a pop star. Everybody missed the beautiful country recordings that came before. Well, not everybody.

Memories come tied with raffia - often pretty, sometimes rough to the touch.  This news is rough, but the music is so pretty.





















Saturday, July 25, 2015

NItty Gritty!


I like to write about things that pop (POP!) into my brain at any given moment.

I'm not sure why I thought about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tonight, but maybe I was in a reminiscent mood.

When I slid back into country music in the late nineteen eighties, there were a few acts that resonated with me. One of them was the Sweethearts of the Rodeo, a duo that is long gone, except maybe for reunion shows (I honestly have no idea). One was Dwight Yoakam, who grabbed hold of my heart and has never let go. My parents were into George Strait, who I considered a "pretty boy" out of sheer obstinance (I think I was in the second coming of my rebellious stage). An upstart! I snickered. Good lord, I was a moron.

Another was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Oh sure, I'd heard of them. They'd done that awful song about some dude who jumped around and thumped a tambourine against his shin:


Honestly, I never grasped the appeal of that song. It seemed uncomfortable to me - a throwback to the days of Jim Crow. Jerry Jeff Walker wrote that song, and he's written some pretty tasty ones - just not this one. But I understand he's huge in Texas.

My next cognizance of NGDB was notable for the Linda Ronstadt solo in this song (written, by the way, by Rodney Crowell). Interestingly, we hear Linda in this video, but she's apparently not actually there:


And they did that "Circle" album, featuring a bunch of old-time artists that, honestly, I could take or leave. I wasn't in an appreciative frame of mind then. I kinda am now.

NGDT didn't, however, hit their stride until the eighties, when things took off rather rapidly. That's where I came in.

I started to hear songs like this:


I will point out, however, that this song is impossible to dance to. Try it.

And this one (I apologize for the pitifully poor quality of this video):


Don't forget this Bruce Springsteen anthem:


Naturally, my favorite NGDB song doesn't have an actual video. Here it is anyway:


The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was a band-savant looking for their niche. They found it in the nineteen eighties.

But one more reason why I love eighties country music.



Friday, July 3, 2015

God Bless The USA


Call me old-fashioned. I'm old and I'm "fashioned"?

I still remember attending the Fourth of July parade with my dad, and he loved it. It was pretty much the highlight of his year. And it was actually pretty cool for me, too. Everybody stood up when the flag passed by, and I inevitably got a lump in my throat. But I'm sentimental like that. Just like my dad got sentimental when the old farm implements trudged down Main Street, I was a sucker for the flag.

Because you've gotta stand for something, right?

I was watching a news channel this morning that shall remain nameless, because, you know, politically correct bullshit. And I saw Lee Greenwood. His song took me back to 1985, when both he and I looked a whole lot better, but he's still out there doin' it, whereas I have gotten old and I just miss my dad.

I can't go home, and even if I did, it wouldn't be the same. Dad is gone, Mom is gone. Mom always stayed behind while the rest of us went to the parade, because she had to nurse the potato salad for when we all straggled back home.

My sister Lissa and I would park on the curb with our cameras and our sunglasses and laugh about nothing and everything. My boys would be tromping around the McDonald's parking lot, waiting for the candy-throwers to finally show up, and then they'd lurch out onto the street and battle the other little kids for a piece of taffy to stuff inside their plastic grocery bags.

My big brother Rick would stand alongside my dad and offer prescient comments, while his wife Kathy was still inside McDonald's, chatting up the lunch ladies. My little brother Jay was sort of like ether; here one moment, gone the next.

Lissa and I snapped pictures of the Mandan Braves marching band with their high-white headdresses and black-and-white MANDAN banner. We hoo-rahed the stupid US Healthcare flatbed (me) and the Golden Dragon Restaurant float (her). I applauded the truck that towed the local country band, because, you know, country. We snapped pictures of the same stuff year after year, but we didn't care.

 The Fourth of July is when I miss my dad the most. We shared the same corny patriotic sentiments. We were both sentimental that way.

So, here you go, Dad.

And I still tear up. I can't help it.



Friday, June 19, 2015

Jim Ed Brown

Relics? I suppose. I prefer "gems".

Jim Ed Brown died June 11 at the age of 81. For those of us of a certain age, we well remember Jim Ed. No, I'm not old enough to remember the Browns when they were topping the charts, but I know their songs, and you probably do, too. A family trio, Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie, had a monstrous hit in 1959.


For something a bit peppier, here are Jim Ed and Maxine (Bonnie's whereabouts are unknown) doing "Looking Back To See", which was later recorded by Buck Owens and Susan Raye (more relics!):


But I didn't get to know Jim Ed until 1967, when he began a string of solo hits, starting with this one:


If 1967 is too mind-blowing for you, maybe you'll recognize the name Alan Jackson from his Under The Influence album:


But enough about the youngsters. In 1970 Jim Ed had another hit with the song, "Morning". Alas, there is no embeddable video to be found, but trust me, it was a good song. If you'd like to view a live performance, here it is.

My fondest memory of Jim Ed Brown was a 1973 graduation road trip I took with my best friend, Alice. We cranked the windows down and the radio up and sang along with "Southern Lovin'". Naturally, I can't find a live performance from 1973 (because video didn't exist then?), but here is a later performance (doesn't quite do the song justice):



Later Jim Ed teamed up with Helen Cornelius and they scored some major hits, including this number one recording from 1976 (oh, I was a mom by then!):


Of course, there were the inevitable rumors about the duo - I don't know what's true or not true, and don't care. But frankly, they were both a little long in the tooth by that time to worry about "having" to get married. Nevertheless.

If you watch Jim Ed in this video and others, you'll notice his easy way with a melody. Perhaps it was familial, genetic - all the better. A good singing voice is made up of good genes, let's face it. Lots of us love to sing, but few of us can without a stretch (speaking for myself).

Jim Ed Brown was one of those artists who was beloved in Nashville, not as a relic, but as a gem. Witness the Bluebird Cafe (the real one, not the "TV" one) tribute, featuring Jeannie Seely, Mo Pitney, and Jimmy Fortune (of the Statlers):



Rest in peace, Jim Ed. Say "hey" to Alice when you see her. In fact, you two should do a duet. She knows all the old songs, just like me.













Sunday, June 14, 2015

Saturday, June 13, 2015

No Women On The Radio!

Some guy, apparently a "programming consultant", recently made waves when he proclaimed that if one wants to build a successful radio station, one needs to stop playing women, dammit!


 Naturally that got some feathers ruffled (ooh, is that sexist? I guess male chickens have feathers, too.) But aside from the predictable outrage, this man's proclamation is just asinine. Is he at all familiar with country music?

Now, I'm not really "hip" to the latest in country warblings - my husband flipped the channel to the CMT Music Awards the other night, and I didn't recognize anyone except the two guys from the TV show, Nashville, and Reba. And I still don't know who the dude was who was dressed as a hospital orderly. But I do know the history of country music - the soul of country music. And you and I can thank the women for that soul. Need I remind everybody?


Oh, wait:


Did you forget:


What a wimp:


Oh, I forgot:


What?


Damn those women singers!


Demure:


 Ridiculous to think that women could...


OMG, not two women!


Scandalous!



 
Okay!


I still remember this:


Well, I could go on...and on...but you get my drift.

So, radio programmer guy, I think you know where you can stick your "bro" records. You can stick 'em on the turntable, if you want, but c'mon. Let's not pretend.