The Old Country 

A survey of recent and cool, if unheralded, honky-tonk and Western swing reissues

A survey of recent and cool, if unheralded, honky-tonk and Western swing reissues

During the heyday of independent record labels, King Records of Cincinnati more than lived up to its royal name. A pioneer in the fields of country and rhythm and blues, the label was home to a number of famous artists, including James Brown, Bill Doggett, Little Willie John, the Delmore Brothers, and Cowboy Copas. But while many of King’s rhythm & blues sides have been featured on quality reissues, many of its great hillbilly recordings have remained hidden in the vaults, the music still locked into the grooves of old 78s.

The British label Westside Records has finally undertaken the task of liberating many of these classic recordings. In the last year-and-a-half, Westside has released well-thought-out collections of King material from the Stanley Brothers, Don Reno & Red Smiley, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Zeb Turner, Moon Mullican, Lattie Moore, and Cincinnati-based hillbilly chanteuse Bonnie Lou.

One of Westside’s most recent dips into the King vaults, Shuffle Town—Western Swing on King 1946-50, will be of particular interest for fans of off-the-beaten-path Western swing. While the CD primarily spotlights West Coast artists who recorded for King, among them Jimmie Widener and his group (featuring the incredible swing fiddle playing of Buddy Ray), the real treat for Nashville listeners is two tracks by Paul Howard and his Arkansas Cotton Pickers.

A member of the Grand Ole Opry beginning in 1940, Howard built one of the strongest Western swing bands east of the Mississippi, placing the spotlight on great players like Jabbo Arrington and Billy Bowman, and serving as a musical boot camp for future masters like Hank Garland and Bob Moore. The two tracks included on Shuffle Town highlight the Cotton Pickers at a transitional period—shortly after Howard’s resignation from the Opry and just before his move to Texas in search of more swing-friendly fields. The two songs (one a previously unreleased alternate take) include Arrington, Bowman, and a 17-year-old Moore, along with some tasty hillbilly fiddle playing from the Juilliard-trained Roddy Bristol.

Westside is currently planning even more excavations of the King vaults, including a follow-up volume to Shuffle Town.

The Dallas-based Big “D” Jamboree held its own against the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride throughout the ’50s—spotlighting a large variety of homegrown Texas talent along with any of a number of national stars who happened to find themselves passing through the Lone Star State. The last few years, Dallas-based Dragon Street Records has been releasing the recordings of many of these Big “D” alumni on compilations of radio transcriptions, lost demos, and studio recordings.

The latest volume, The Gals of the Big “D” Jamboree, like the two-CD set that preceded it (last year’s The Big “D” Jamboree Live! Volumes 1 & 2), is a gold mine of unearthed recordings by native Texans and traveling stars. Two queens of rockabilly, Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin, are each represented by a solitary live recording, while the fabulous Charline Arthur is featured on a sampling of rare cuts, including two demos recorded in her mobile home in 1957.

But the true revelations are the selections by lesser-known artists such as honky-tonk queen Helen Hall, who’s represented by nine recordings ranging in vintage from 1955 to 1973. The most outstanding of these are four demos from 1957; Hall, who recorded one session for Coral Records in 1955 before being dropped by the label, tears through straight country, pop balladry, and hot rockabilly on these previously unreleased tracks.

Another forgotten hillbilly sweetheart is Sherry Davis, whose career took her from stints with the Lightcrust Doughboys to recording sessions with Buddy Holly and even Esquivel! Her tracks here date from 1951 to 1957 and find her kicking up her heels with hot boogies, torchified rockabilly, and heartbreak ballads.

Long before the ascendancy of country vocalists such as Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, many talented “girl singers” worked in relative obscurity, seemingly fated to be forgotten by history. The Gals of the Big “D” Jamboree goes a long way toward saving a handful of these fine artists from that undeserving fate.

For several years, CMF Records, the label administered by the Country Music Foundation, has been quietly releasing collections of previously unavailable gems and superb career retrospectives by deserving veteran stars who’ve otherwise been ignored by the major labels. Now just in time for the opening of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, CMF Records has signed a distribution deal with Audium Records that points toward CMF’s titles appearing with more regularity.

The initial releases from this partnership demonstrate what CMF does best on its record packages. The first, Jimmy Martin—The King of Bluegrass, is a well-conceived collection of tracks from Martin’s years on Decca (1958 to 1974), which are quite simply some of the greatest bluegrass recordings of all time. In recent years, Martin’s mastery as a singer and performer has been overshadowed by his hell-bent behavior, thanks largely to an Oxford American article and subsequent book by Tom Piazza. But it’s important to remember that the energy required for self-destructive lunacy, when channeled into music, can produce some awe-inspiring performances. (Just take a look at Jerry Lee Lewis.)

The King of Bluegrass includes Martin’s few chart hits, such as “Widow Maker,” alongside such acknowledged classics of bone-chilling despair as “20-20 Vision” and wild, breakneck bluegrass rave-ups like the amazing “Sophronie.” Even with only 18 tracks, The King of Bluegrass amply demonstrates how the title was earned.

The other new release from CMF, Young Buck: The Complete Pre-Capitol Recordings of Buck Owens, may not be an essential best-of, but it is an incredible collection of lost nuggets for fans of the boy from Bakersfield. Young Buck contains all 16 of the sides Owens recorded between 1955 and 1956, originally released on the Pep, Chesterfield, and La Brea labels, along with five demos and alternate takes.

Although the sound quality of these early recordings suffers in comparison with the clear-as-glass production that Owens would come to be known for on his Capitol recordings, they still contain some great honky-tonk and juke-joint blues, and point to the greater glories Buck was headed for. Among the tracks are “Hot Dog” and “Rhythm & Booze,” both sides of the rare rockabilly single that Owens recorded under the guise of Corky Jones.

Packaged with excellent liner notes by Chris Dickinson and several early photos of the “Young Buck” himself, The Complete Pre-Capitol Recordings of Buck Owens is a must for any buckaroo with a love for the real twang.

—Randy Fox

Platters that matter

Recent releases of note:

Anne Sofie Von Otter Meets Elvis Costello, For the Stars (Deutsche Grammophon) The famed opera diva Von Sofie collaborates with arranger/producer/occasional-duet-partner Costello for a record of pop covers, ranging from Costello’s own “I Want to Vanish” to The Beatles’ “For No One” and ABBA’s “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room.”

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part (Reprise) Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis joins the Bad Seeds (as do Kate and Anna McGarrigle) on this follow-up to 1997’s The Boatman’s Call. Advance word says that Cave has regained his melancholy sting.

Marshall Crenshaw, I’ve Suffered for My Art, Now It’s Your Turn (King Biscuit) The quintessential guitar-popster continues to mine his back catalog with this acoustic live album.

Creeper Lagoon, Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday (Dreamworks) Following up their catchy (albeit melancholy) EP Watering Ghost Garden, this San Francisco guitar-pop quartet makes a major-label debut with the help of hot producers Jerry Harrison and Dave Fridmann. All the elements are in place for a breakthrough.

Girls Against Boys, Series 7 Soundtrack (Koch) The D.C.-area heavy-groovers return for a record of mostly instrumental music, taken from the soundtrack of the reality-TV satire Series 7. Also included is Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which plays a central role in one of the film’s violent confrontations.

—Noel Murray


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