The Best of 1995 

A boom year for Music City

Just as some of the most exciting music being played this year in local clubs was the music of the past—the joyous hillbilly swing of BR-549, the Cruel Oval Brown Stomachs’ inspiring deconstruction of pop classics, the fevered lounge stylings of Kristi Rose and Nine Parts Devil—1995 proved to be a great year for the records of 1955. As Lower Broadway’s honky-tonk renaissance created new interest in pre-countrypolitan country, and a lackluster year for pop music left rock audiences feeling disenfranchised, record companies and record buyers both mined the gold buried in back catalogs.

Whatever its shortcomings for original recordings, 1995 was a vault of treasures where reissues are concerned, especially for Nashville music. The Country Music Foundation, and compiler/annotator Daniel Cooper in particular, released or assembled authoritative CD retrospectives on deserving artists, including a fine Roger Miller box set. The Northeastern label Razor & Tie followed suit with tributes to Billy Joe Shaver, Billie Jo Spears and others. Meanwhile, AVI Records continued to issue outstanding repackages of classic R&B and gospel from the Nashville labels Excello and Nashboro. The shock of the year for many music buffs was discovering how many landmark soul records were issued out of Nashville.

The coming year promises a retrospective of Nashville R&B producer Ted Jarrett’s work, as well as a mouth-watering four-CD Merle Haggard set, which is reportedly due soon from the CMF. A wish list for 1996 would also include collections on Porter Wagoner, Connie Smith, and Johnny Paycheck’s work on the Little Darlin’ label.

But there’s plenty here in 1995 to keep any record collector occupied. In a year of terrific reissues, these 10 stood out—whether in terms of entertainment, historical value, or both.

Bobby Darin, As Long As I’m Singing: The Bobby Darin Collection (Rhino)

On the surface, Bobby Darin qualifies as the archetypal refusenik. In the late 1950s, at the height of his popularity as a teen idol, he started cutting hepcat big-band versions of Kurt Weill and Sheldon Harnick songs. Then, by the time audiences thought they had him pegged as a Vegas crooner, he mothballed his tuxes and traded Richard Rodgers for Harlan Howard and Bob Dylan. But the music on this consistently entertaining four-disc set doesn’t sound like the work of a dilettante: The fourth disc, which showcases gems like “Things” and “18 Yellow Roses” from Darin’s country/folkie period, contains just as many substantial cuts as the superb second disc of big-band pop—which kicks off with the switchblade ironies of “Mack the Knife,” the majestic “Beyond the Sea,” and “That’s the Way Love Is.” A surprise delight.

Merle Haggard, The Lonesome Fugitive: The Merle Haggard Anthology (1963-1977) (Razor & Tie)

Razor & Tie boldly challenged Rhino’s dominance of the reissue market with an entire roster of gotta-have country and soul compilations by artists long overdue for career retrospectives. And none was more welcome than this staggering two-disc collection, which charts Merle Haggard’s progress from Bakersfield crooner and cut-up (“Sing a Sad Song,” “Sam Hill”) to the fearless working-people’s champion of “Okie from Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “If We Make It Through December.” Here’s a stirring reminder of what’s missing from so much contemporary country—a point of view.

The Louvin Brothers, When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers (Razor & Tie)

If you needed proof of the potency of the Lower Broadway honky-tonk renaissance, which introduced the music of Charlie and Ira Louvin to a large new audience, you should’ve tried finding a copy of this sterling 24-song retrospective in a record store last spring. Those who bought it weren’t disappointed: The CD gathers the Louvins’ music at its most gorgeously stark (“In the Pines,” “Knoxville Girl”) and blisteringly Pentecostal (“Broadminded,” “The Great Atomic Power”), with about a dozen of the most plaintive and heartsick love songs ever recorded in between.

Roscoe Shelton, Roscoe Shelton Sings (Excello)

In the 1950s and ’60s, the Nashville label Excello released truckloads of the coolest R&B ever recorded—start with Arthur Gunter’s original recording of “Baby Let’s Play House,” the Gladiolas’ “Little Darlin’,” Slim Harpo’s “Baby Scratch My Back,” Lazy Lester’s “I Hear You Knockin’,” Lightnin’ Slim’s “Rooster Blues” and Lonesome Sundown’s “My Home Is A Prison,” all collected on the astonishing AVI single-volume CD The Best of Excello Records. (If you don’t own it, drop this paper and buy it immediately.) Of the label’s Nashville artists, however, none was smoother than soul singer Roscoe Shelton, whose best Excello sides are amassed on this 25-song CD compilation of singles, album tracks and unreleased recordings.

Jean Shepard, Honky-Tonk Heroine: Classic Capitol Recordings, 1952-1964 (Country Music Foundation)

In a year with more than a dozen excellent country reissues, this 24-song salute to pioneering female honky-tonker Jean Shepard nonetheless strikes me as the country compilation of the year—not just for spotlighting the work of an unjustly overlooked artist, but for the sheer walloping vitality of the music. Covering the years between 1952 and 1964, Honky-Tonk Heroine assembles a jukebox’s worth of five-star weepers (“One White Rose,” “That’s What Lonesome Is,” the sublime “Crying Steel Guitar Waltz”) and whipleather-tough declarations of feminine independence (“Two Whoops and a Holler,” “Twice the Lovin’ (In Half the Time),” “I Want to Go Where No One Knows Me”).

The Skylarks, The Best of the Skylarks (Nashboro)

This record will rock your world. The great R&B singers may have performed secular music with the emotion and feel of gospel, but the Skylarks, founded in 1949 by former members of the Fairfield Four, sang gospel that reeled and rocked like the best R&B. A collection of sides produced by two of Nashville music’s unsung heroes, Ernie Young and famed Nashboro Records producer Shannon Williams, The Best of the Skylarks opens with the great 1954 single “Baptism of Jesus”; from that moment on, the group (which once included a young Roscoe Shelton) rumbles like a thundercloud directed by the hand of God—and that’s even without the screechy organ, ebullient piano and fervent handclaps. Seek out some of AVI’s other excellent Nashboro reissues, including The Best of Madame Edna Gallmon Cooke, The Best of the Salem Travelers and the amazing Ring Them Golden Bells: The Best of the Gospel Songbirds.

Stanley Brothers, Angel Band: The Classic Mercury Recordings (Mercury)

Decades before his band brought renown to such talents as Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter, a tremendous songwriter with a distinctively high tenor, recorded several sides of traditional music for Mercury in the early 1950s—just as popular tastes in country music were edging bluegrass aside for rockabilly. Nevertheless, the Stanleys’ deathless harmonies and celebratory songs of home and hearth endured, as these 18 recordings of pristine beauty attest.

Wynn Stewart, The Best of the Challenge Masters (AVI)

Long regarded as the overlooked architect of Bakersfield country—Buck Owens reveres him in the same breath as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, and Merle Haggard started out playing bass in his band—Wynn Stewart finally received some recognition with AVI’s outstanding 29-song compendium of recordings made between 1959 and 1964. Start with his soaring versions of “Wishful Thinking” and “Playboy,” move on to the lewd, frantic rockabilly of “Come On” and “She Just Tears Me Up,” and by the time you get to Harlan Howard’s “Above & Beyond” you’ll wonder where this record has been all your life.

Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant, Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant (Razor & Tie)

Yet another astounding Razor & Tie compilation, this one gathering the indescribable instrumental classics of guitarist Jimmy Bryant and steel-guitar colossus Speedy West, whose best songs (“Stratosphere Boogie,” “Midnight Ramble”) sound today like some visionary fusion of Western swing, surf music and space jazz.

Faron Young, Live Fast, Love Hard: Original Capitol Recordings, 1952-62 (Country Music Foundation)

Honky-tonk music at its feistiest and most hellacious, as practiced by a fire-breathing son-of-a-gun whose chief ambition was to grab a bottle and a babe and “smoke cigars at a dollar a puff” all damn night. As a bonus, you get Daniel Cooper’s hilarious liner notes—which describe, at one point, how Young supposedly almost lost an eye filming a Western. “According to what the press was told,” Cooper deadpans, “ ‘the accident occurred when Young insisted on doing his own fight scenes with Comanche Indians.’ ”

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