The story of Emmylou Harris is well established, the stuff of legend at this point.
She could’ve been Gram Parsons’ harmony singer for the rest of her career and been happy, but she ended up carrying on his legacy instead, becoming a Hall of Famer with the most consistently excellent catalog in country music history.
She’s addressed Parsons in song before, most directly with the grief-stricken classic “Boulder to Birmingham” from her 1975 classic Pieces of the Sky. Whereas that was a statement of heartbreak to a lost friend, “The Road” is a letter of gratitude, thanking him for starting her on a journey that she never would have embarked upon alone.
For future music historians, this song will be a goldmine. For listeners, it’s pretty good, too. Harris is a solid songwriter and her lyrics are closer to poetry than standard Nashville writing. Her voice is showing signs of wear, but much like on the later work of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, that works to her advantage.
Is it as good as the best tracks on All I Intended to Be or Stumble Into Grace? Not quite, especially if you don’t know the back story and can’t fill in the gaps. But even very good Emmylou Harris is better than most of what’s out there today. Still, I hope the rest of her upcoming album is more than just very good Emmylou Harris.
September When it Comes
Rosanne Cash featuring Johnny Cash
Written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal
In her memoir Composed, Rosanne Cash describes a handful of prophetic songs that she has written as being “Postcards From the Future”, describing life events in detail before they happen. The most haunting example of this is “September When it Comes.”
She had written the lyrics in the nineties, scribbled quickly on a piece of paper while she was on the Long Island Expressway. At the time, her father Johnny was suffering through a health crisis. The lyrics describe her preparing for the impending death of her father, the time of reckoning described as September, a beautiful metaphor for the autumn years of life.
Her husband, John Leventhal, discovered the lyrics and wrote the music to go along with it. He suggested that it would be a perfect duet for her to do with her father. She struggled with the idea for months, before finally calling her father up to ask him to sing on the record. After a few moments thought, he responded, “I’ll have to read the lyrics first.”
She flew down to Nashville and delivered them in person. He quickly agreed to sing on the song about his own impending mortality. Though he was in poor health and struggled during the recording session, he insisted on completing three takes. As he sang the lyrics, Rosanne cried quietly on the other side of the recording glass.
“September When it Comes” was released in the spring of 2003, the centerpiece of Rules of Travel, Rosanne’s first studio album in eight years. A few months later, the song’s prophecy came to fruition. Johnny Cash died in the early morning hours of September 12, 2003.
The eerie accuracy of the timing aside, the song is a quiet masterpiece in its own right. It captures the pain of losing a parent to a crippling illness, but also the peace that comes with the knowledge that they have a reached a place that they can rest, and fall into the loving arms of those who wait for them.
More so than any of the work that Johnny Cash recorded in his final year or that Rosanne Cash has recorded since his death, “September When it Comes” is the most beautiful swan song for both Johnny’s musical career and this father-daughter relationship.
He broke through to stardom singing love ballads in the style of Vince Gill, but it was his turn toward more adventurous topical material that cemented the musical legacy of Collin Raye.
Born Floyd Collin Wray in Arkansas, he is the son of Lois Wray, a professional musician who often opened for the big acts of the fifties, including legends like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. Growing up, Collin and his brother Scott would often perform on stage with their mother. As the boys got older, they struck out on their own, forming the Wrays Brothers Band. They soon became popular local performers across Texas, and also had success performing in Reno, Nevada.
The band, now performing as The Wrays, signed with Mercury Records in the mid-eighties, after a few independent label releases raised their profile. But their major label releases were not successful, and the band broke up after losing that deal. At this point, Raye adopted his stage name and embarked on a solo career, signing with Epic Records in 1990.
His first single, “All I Can Be (Is a Sweet Memory)”, did reasonably well, peaking at #29. It set the stage for the big breakthrough, “Love, Me.” A heartbreaking ballad about a grieving grandfather, it was an instant classic, and began an impressive streak of hits that would make Raye one of the most dominant radio acts of the nineties.
Though he had some mid-tempo hits scattered among them, it was a string of ballads that kept him on the charts. Mostly love songs, some became wedding hall staples, like “In This Life” and “That Was a River.” Raye’s first two albums sold well and produced many hits, but he was not satisfied with them. Thinking himself capable of more meaningful music, he set out to make an album for the ages. The result was extremes, his 1994 album that found him singing up-tempo material convincingly for the first time (“That’s My Story”, “My Kind of Girl.”)
But the standout hit was “Little Rock”, a powerful monologue from a recovering alcoholic that remains one of Raye’s finest moments on record. The success of this song encouraged Raye to tackle more socially relevant material. On his fourth album, I Think About You, the title track explored the exploitation of women in the media and society at large; “Not That Different” made the case for the universality of the human experience outweighing surface differences; and “What If Jesus Comes Back Like That” put the social justice inherent in Christ’s teachings front and center.
The depth of these hits elevated Raye into the Male Vocalist races at the country award shows, and gave the fuel for his run of hits to continue throughout the nineties. Though those hits would return to being more conventional in theme, they were still quite popular. Highlights of this run include “I Can Still Feel You”, “On the Verge”, “Someone I Used to Know” and “Couldn’t Last a Moment.” Raye also scored a major Adult Contemporary hit with “The Gift”, his 1997 collaboration with Jim Brickman.
As with so many other nineties stars, the new century brought a decline in fortunes. While his first four studio albums had gone platinum, nothing beyond a hits collection would sell gold in the years to come. After his 2001 set Can’t Back Down failed to produce a hit, he left Epic Records. He’s since resurfaced on various independent labels, releasing 2005’s Twenty Years and Change to warm reviews and having a top 40 country album with 2009’s Never Going Back. He had a minor chart hit with “A Soldier’s Prayer” in 2007, and continues to record new music and tour across North America.
There was a lot of good music out there in 2010, provided you knew where to look. Sometimes, you could even find it on the radio. Here are the top ten albums of 2010, according to our staff:
#10 Easton Corbin Easton Corbin
With the charisma of Clay Walker and the chops of George Strait, Easton Corbin sauntered onto the mainstream country music scene with a hit song that –refreshingly– name-checked “country” in all the right ways. He needs no such affirmation, though, as his debut album is a collection of effortlessly neo-traditionalist songs, ripe with sincerity. It’s fair to compare Corbin to his obvious influences, but there’s something about the natural, youthful effervescence he brings to his music that makes it sparkle all on its own. – Tara Seetharam
#9 Freight Train Alan Jackson
Like an old, trusted friend, Freight Train is easy to take for granted – and that’s a shame, because it’s as rousing as any of the boundary-pushing albums released this year. Jackson returns to his signature sound on this album, sinking comfortably into the set of twelve songs but never skimping on emotional investment. From the smoking “Freight Train” to the exquisite “Till the End” to the shuffling “I Could Get Used To This Loving Thing,” Jackson reminds us that his formula of bare-bones authenticity and quiet charm is as relevant and rewarding as ever. – TS
The entire story of recorded country music can be traced back to a fiddle player named Eck Robertson, “World’s Champion Fiddler.”
Robertson was the son of a Confederate soldier, born in Arkansas in 1887 and raised in Texas. His father made a living as a farmer and a preacher, but also taught his son how to play the fiddle. Robertson carried on the family tradition of playing fiddle, learning the instrument at the age of five years old. Once grown, he joined the traveling band of a medicine show.
Robertson married his wife Nettie, also a musician, in 1906. He became a piano tuner by trade, but Eck and Nettie would still perform in the Texas area, competing in fiddling contests and providing the musical accompaniment in silent movie theaters. It was in 1916, while playing at an Old Confederate Soldiers reunion, that he met Henry C. Gilliland, a veteran fiddler in his mid-seventies. The two became a powerful team, touring similar reunions across the south, with Robertson serving as lead fiddler and Gilliland playing second fiddle.
As the duo was gaining popularity, so was the recording industry. Records were being made as early as the 1890s, but their popularity truly soared during the economic boom following World War I. By that point, Columbia, RCA, and Victor were major players in the market, but by the early twenties, there still hadn’t been any hillbilly sides of note.
In walked Robertson and Gilliland. Quite literally. They walked right into the label offices of Victor in June, 1922 and requested an audition. Expectations were low, as fiddlers were high in number and not considered anything special. But they had the right combination of moxie and talent, and Victor saw their fiddle playing as an opportunity to make records for country dances.
So the next day, Robertson was asked to come into the studio and make a test record. A successful session led to Robertson’s debut 78, “Sallie Gooden”/”Arkansas Traveler”, the very first release in the genre that would eventually be called country music.
Robertson laid down several tracks with Victor Records, most of which were released in 78 form, the most significant being “Turkey in the Straw” and “Ragtime Annie.” Not much commercial success was found, and Robertson was soon eclipsed by newer artists and better recording technology. But Robertson remained a forceful presence on the road and returned to the recording studio again, putting down another set of tracks for Victor in 1929 and 1930.
He played barn dances and fairs throughout the next few decades, and the folk revival movement brought him overdue recognition. County Records visited him at home in 1963, and recorded the tracks that became his first LP, Eck Robertson, Famous Cowboy Fiddler. He was featured in the 1968 documentary Newport Festival, alongside Johnny Cash and Cousin Emmy.
Robertson passed away in 1975, but his music lives on. His recordings for Victor remain widely available on compact disc and through digital download, while his County LP is a highly prized collector’s item for country music historians and enthusiasts.
I am not one who typically embraces extremes, but I must make an exception for Johnny Cash’s recording of “Ring of Fire.” It’s the definitive version; it’s an untouchable. Sure, some people have made valiant attempts, even changing things up so as not to try to mimic Cash, but make it their own, and I even like some of these other versions. None of these other efforts, however, has surpassed or even come close to touching Cash.
So, I implore, why even try when any other version will only be runners up at best, especially when recording it for a tribute album isn’t the excuse? Although only in my head, I’ve asked this question of excellent artists such as Pam Tillis, Dwight Yoakam, Ray Charles, along with odder choices like Social Distortion and Blondie. Alas, now, I must ask the same of Alan Jackson and his somewhat superfluous (meaning she doesn’t add to or detract from the recording) accomplice, Lee Ann Womack.
While Alan Jackson’s version is technically easy on the ears, therein lies the major problem with the recording. It’s too mellow, devoid of passion. Instead of the imperative fiery recording that Cash seamlessly gave us, his is frustratingly lackadaisical, even amidst a bouncy, though uninspired, production. Ultimately, he seems to miss the point of the song altogether, which is a shame because it’s the only previously unreleased song on his 34 Number Ones Hits package that is supposed to hold us over until his next studio album.
Growing up, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday, and it’s still pretty high up there today. When I was younger, I loved it because it was the one day out of the year that the extended family was all in one place, gathered around what seemed like an endless table. Those days are long gone, so now I appreciate the concept as much as the actual day.
For one day a year, people actually take the time to reflect on what they’re thankful for and verbalize it. I wish we could make it a semi-annual event, maybe add another three or four day weekend. Who wouldn’t be grateful for that?
So before you dust off those Christmas records and put them in rotation – or in Leann’s case, just put them to the side for a few minutes – share with us your favorite song that expresses gratitude.
My country favorite is definitely “Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson, though I’m just as partial to the Johnny Cash version.
But if I’m going to pick overall favorite, this is the one that best captures my perspective. Doesn’t hurt that I never get enough of that voice.
What are your favorite gratitude songs?
Oh, and I’d be remiss not to add that today is the birthday of Tara Seetharam, one of my favorite people in the world and a talent that I know all of us at CU are grateful for, colleagues and community members alike!
UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who entered the contest. The response was impressive. The randomly selected (random.org) winners are:
Jake Kremmel, Lora Purcell, Bradley, Paul Dennis, and Rachel Summit
Congratulations to the winners. Emails will be sent to you shortly. However, if you’d like to make my job easier, feel free to contact me with your email address. Stay tuned for another giveaway very soon.
As a virtuosic instrumentalist in both mandolin and guitar, Marty Stuart was one of the very talented artists whose peak occurred in the early nineties. While his chart success wasn’t as numerically present as many of his counterparts, his reverence for country music and its history has turned him into one of the most respected nineties country artists today.
Stuart has explored several facets of country music over the years, including rockabilly, traditional, and honky tonk. Now, he is paying his respects to traditional country music with his latest release called Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions”, which will be released on August 24th. Along with 12 other quality tracks, the album includes a haunting song that Stuart wrote with Johnny Cash just four days before Cash’s death. From the perspective of a man who hanged people for a living, the song is called “Hangmen.” The other stand out song is called “Porter Wagoner’s Grave.”
As one of the summer releases that I’ve most been looking forward to, I am pleased to report that the album does not disappoint. Therefore, I am excited to announce that courtesy of Sugar Hill Records, Country Universe has five (5) copies of Ghost Train: the Studio B Sessions to give away to five lucky winners.
One of my favorite Marty Stuart projects is the concept album that explores Native American culture, specifically the plains Indians of the Dakota Badlands. To enter the drawing for a copy of Stuart’s new album, leave a comment that tells us about your favorite country concept album. If you don’t have a favorite concept album, tell us your favorite Marty Stuart song. As always, if you can’t comment on either of those topics, but are still interested in hearing the album, feel free to leave a comment anyway. All comments relevant to Marty Stuart will be eligible.
In order to get the album to the winners by release day, the contest will end Wednesday, August 18, at midnight. Good luck.