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Lost Country: The Louvin Brothers (Scott)

April 22, 2013

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As the slick, overproduced country sounds of the 1980’s transitioned into the insufferable cubicle pop of the 1990’s and beyond, traditional country music was pushed to the AM radio fringes and then mostly forgotten by mainstream radio. LOST COUNTRY will take a look back at obscure and overlooked artists from country music’s heyday of the 1960’s through 1970’s.

The Lure of The Louvin Brothers

There might not be a sweeter, more pure sound escaping from a set of speakers than the perfectly matched voices of Charlie and Ira Louvin. They weren’t the first country duo to bring close harmony-style singing to the mainstream – they have the Monroe and Delmore Brothers to thank for that – but damned if they didn’t perfect it.

Growing up on a struggling farm in Sand Mountain, Alabama just after the Great Depression, brothers Charlie and Ira got the music bug after walking ten miles to see Roy Acuff perform a concert at their local school. They decided that night that music was going to be their escape from poverty, their escape from the suffocating cotton fields that left their hands raw, and their escape from the abusive hand of their father.

Success didn’t come fast for Charlie and Ira. After scraping up enough money to buy a mandolin and a beat-up Gibson guitar, the brothers set out with the dream of one day performing at the Grand Ole Opry. They found minor success performing gospel songs on a tiny 250-watt radio station, but it wasn’t enough to pay the bills. A stint in the Army for Ira and two stints in the service for Charlie put a hiccup in their plans, but they were soon reunited.

The Louvins finally found their breakout success in 1955 with the release of their first album The Louvin Brothers (MGM). The album spawned two Top Ten hits – When I Stop Dreaming, a gorgeous, heart-breaking song about love lost but not forgotten, and I Don’t Believe You Met My Baby, an up-tempo sing-along executed in harmonic perfection. Charlie and Ira’s voices blend flawlessly, with Charlie’s alto and Ira’s high tenor weaving around each other in close harmony while a strummed guitar and plucky mandolin spring the song forward.

The album also saw the release of what could arguably be called the Louvin Brothers most popular and controversial song, Knoxville Girl, a dark, disturbing Appalachian ballad about a jilted lover who beats his girlfriend to death with a stick after he catches her cheating. “She never spoke another word/I only beat her more/until the ground around her within her blood did flow.” Chilling stuff, delivered beautifully.

The 1956 release of Tragic Songs of Life was their first in a long-line of releases on Capitol Records. The album, a collection of cautionary tales, were country tunes spun with a dark edge. The album saw three songs climb to lucky number 7 on the charts, Hoping That You’re Hoping, Cash on the Barrelhead and You’re Running Wild, an ode to a cheating lover.

The Louvins were a critical and popular success in the late 1950s and early 1960s and were making a good living on the road, but Ira’s behavior was erratic at best. A notorious drinker, the older of the two brothers would often smash his mandolin on stage when it failed to stay in tune, ultimately ending many shows prematurely. He was a mean drunk, too, and he didn’t have much luck in marriage (his third of four wives shot him after he attacked her) – he survived. Charlie, on the other hand, was the polar opposite, and was the quiet, responsible, driving force in the band.

Having been raised as hardcore Southern Baptists, songs about God and Jesus were a staple of the Louvin Brothers discography. Their 1959 release, Satan is Real, was a concept album that opened with a religious monologue from Ira, then transitioned into The Great Atomic Power, a song that questions whether the listener is ready to meet God in case an atomic bomb is dropped on America. It comes across as kitsch now, but at the time, the brothers meant business.

More than anything, Satan is Real is known for its curious album over which depicts Charlie and Ira performing in front of a backdrop that features a goofy-looking Satan staring out at a pit of fire. According to Charlie’s autobiography, Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers (It Books, 2012), Charlie took two pieces of plywood from his son’s train set, cut them in half and built the 16-foot-tall Satan. The pair then hid old tires in a rock quarry, soaked them in kerosene and set them on fire. The photo shoot got complicated when rain began hitting the hot rocks, causing some of them to explode. The whole ordeal nearly scared off the Capitol Records photographer, but luckily he got the shot. It truly is an amazing album cover.

The Louvin Brothers released six more albums on Capitol Records before Ira’s drinking and lack of showmanship became too much for Charlie to take. In 1963, the pair disbanded, with Charlie setting out on a solo career and Ira setting out on a drinking binge. Sadly, in 1965, Ira and his fourth wife were killed in an early-morning head-on collision with a drunk driver in Williamsburg, Missouri. At the time, Ira had recorded but not yet released his self-titled debut solo album. It was eventually released posthumously six months after his death.

Charlie would go on to have a successful solo career, landing songs on the charts from the mid-1960′s through the mid-1970′s. His highest charting solo efforts were his first two singles, Less and Less and I Don’t Love You Anymore, which reached number 4 on the charts. After Ira’s death, Charlie took his music in a slightly more upbeat direction, embracing less serious songs but delivering them with the same strong voice.

Charlie continued to record and perform all the way up to his death in 2011 at the age of 83. He was a member of the Grand Ole Opry from 1955-2011.

The Louvin Brothers’ music continues to influence artists to this day. They were highly inspirational to historic acts like the Everly Brothers, and Gram Parsons loved them so much he recorded their song The Christian Life during his brief stint with The Byrds on 1968′s country masterpiece, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Recommendations: There really is no wrong entry point for The Louvin Brothers. Pick an album and just listen. My personal favorite is Tragic Songs of Life, (1959, Capitol Records). Light in the Attic re-released Satan is Real on vinyl in 2012, and it’s worth picking up for the album cover alone. Charlie’s autobiography, the aforementioned Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers (It Books, 2012), is a fun read as well.

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Lost Country: Billy Joe Shaver (Scott)

March 25, 2013

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As the slick, overproduced country sounds of the 1980’s transitioned into the insufferable cubicle pop of the 1990’s and beyond, traditional country music was pushed to the AM radio fringes and then mostly forgotten by mainstream radio. LOST COUNTRY will take a look back at obscure and overlooked artists from country music’s heyday of the 1960’s through 1970’s.

The Old Five And Dimer, Billy Joe Shaver

Texas singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver has lived through enough tragedies to fill a milk crate’s worth of country albums. His run-ins and brushes with tragedy have been well documented elsewhere, but it would be remiss not to mention them. Shaver was born dirt poor in an East Texas oil town, picked cotton as a child, lost two fingers in a saw mill accident, learned to play guitar anyway, married and divorced the same woman three times, buried his wife, mother and son in the span of two years, survived a heart attack on stage, and oh yeah, shot a guy in the face and got away with it.

Shaver spent much of his aimless youth getting shuffled between Corsicana and Waco, Texas. Raised by his grandmother while his mother struggled to make ends meet, Shaver had minimal guidance and direction (he never met his father). After an unsuccessful stint in the Navy, the self-described “loser and low-life drifter” worked numerous go-nowhere jobs and grew restless. On a whim, he hitchhiked to Los Angeles with his guitar but somehow ended up in Memphis, Tennessee, with a truckload of songs written along the way.

Shaver’s blind determination, hard-headedness and general ignorance of the music business somehow worked in his favor. After beating down doors and sleeping on couches in Nashville, 35-year-old Shaver finally caught the ear of Kris Kristofferson, who promised to produce his first album. The result, Old Five And Dimers Like Me (1973), was a country masterpiece that helped create the “Outlaw” movement in the 1970’s. The album’s cover features a sly, smiling Shaver leaning against the door frame of a dive bar in who knows where, Texas with a sign next to him that reads “Do not stand in doorway.” It was the perfect image to compliment the wry charm of a perfect album.

Shaver is a songwriter’s songwriter if there ever was one. He possesses a gruff, distinct voice and an unmistakeable drawl, and there’s simply no matching his skills as a lyric writer. On what may be his best-known song, Georgia On A Fast Train, Shaver howls “Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education/ain’t no need in ya’ll a treatin’ me this way” as a driving shuffle beat and train whistle push the track forward.

In 1973, songs about interracial relationships weren’t exactly tearing up the charts, but that’s exactly the ground Shaver covered on Black Rose, the wry, mischievous first track on Old Five And Dimers. “The Devil made me do it the first time/the second time I done it on my own/Lord put a handle on this simple-headed man/help me leave that Black Rose alone”

Old Five And Dimers is loaded front to back with classics, many of which later became hits once Waylon Jennings recorded them. Later in 1973, Jennings recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, an album of cuts completely written by Shaver (except for one). Notable songs included the title track, Ride Me Down Easy, Omaha, And Willie, and The Wandering Gypsy And Me, a song which nearly sparked a fistfight in the studio when Shaver accused Jennings of changing the lyrics without his permission.

Shaver never achieved the financial success or popular acclaim of fellow outlaws Jennings, Kristofferson, or Willie Nelson, but he was always a darling amongst his peers, who constantly covered him. Shaver’s biggest hit as a songwriter, I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal, didn’t make much of a splash when he recorded it, but John Anderson’s cover in 1981 rose to number four on the charts. Bob Dylan once called Shaver one of his favorite songwriters, and Elvis Presley even recorded a Shaver song, You Asked Me To, during his brief “country” phase in the late 1970’s.

Shaver’s hard-living, gig-to-gig lifestyle often meant spending his money as soon as he made it. He never had any luck with record labels, as they often folded soon after he signed with them. From 1973-1981, Shaver released five albums on Monument and Capricorn, both of which promptly closed up shop and took Shaver’s money with them into bankruptcy. He released two more albums on Columbia Records in the late 1980’s before parting ways with yet another label.

In the early 1990’s he rebranded himself as “Shaver” after forming a band with his only son, guitar virtuoso Eddy Shaver. Their debut, 1993’s Tramp On Your Street was a surprise hit with the CMT crowd. The album featured a re-recording of Shaver’s classic Georgia On A Fast Train and introduced his most touching song yet, Live Forever, a somber ballad about parenthood that cuts straight to the heart. “Nobody here will ever find me/but I will always be around/Just like the songs I leave behind me/I’m gonna live forever now”

After Eddy’s sudden and tragic death of a heroin overdose in 2000, Shaver staggered forward and released Freedom’s Child, his strongest album in almost a decade. Day By Day is a standout track, as Shaver tells the true tale of his family’s struggle as a single acoustic guitar accompanies him. “Day by day his heart kept on breaking/and aching to go to his home in the sky/but now he’s arisen from the flames of the forest/with songs from the family that never will die.” Shaver claims he didn’t finish the song until the day he recorded it. It’s a soul-wrenching admission from a man who has been through it all.

Now 73, Shaver still writes, records and tours. If he comes through your town, you would be remiss not to seek him out.

Recommendations: For vinyl lovers, the best entry point is 1973’s Old Five And Dimers Like Me (Monument Records), a hard to find gem but worth it if you can. Razor & Tie released a quality compilation CD Restless Wind, 1973-1987, in 1995. It’s also out of print but can be found online. For later Shaver, Tramp On Your Street (1993/Volcano Records) is excellent, as is The Earth Rolls On (2001/New West Records) and Freedom’s Child (2002/Compadre Records).

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Lost Country: Johnny Darrell (Scott)

February 25, 2013

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As the slick, overproduced country sounds of the 1980’s transitioned into the insufferable cubicle pop of the 1990’s and beyond, traditional country music was pushed to the AM radio fringes and then mostly forgotten by mainstream radio. LOST COUNTRY will take a look back at obscure and overlooked artists from country music’s heyday of the 1960’s through 1970’s.

The Late, Kinda Great Johnny Darrell

While the country “outlaw” moniker wasn’t formally kicked around until Willie Nelson released his Austin-recorded ‘fuck you Nashville’ album Shotgun Willie in 1973, Alabama-born Johnny Darrell was unknowingly paving the way for the movement in the heart of Nashville in the mid-1960’s.

In 1965, Darrell was managing a Holiday Inn near Music City Row when he was discovered by a United Artists rep looking to expand the mostly pop/rock label’s roster to include more country talent. His first release was the single Green, Green Grass of Home, a Curly Putman song later made famous by a myriad of artists, from Porter Wagoner to Elvis Presley to Tom Jones. Darrell’s version was low-key and dry, his maudlin baritone/tenor voice barely dragging the verses along -”The old hometown looks the same/as I step down from the train” - over a sparsely accompanied shuffle. Despite being the first artist to record the song, Darrell’s version did not chart.

Darrell and the charts never made friends. His ultra laid back, just drank a five-gallon bucket of whiskey singing style could be hit or miss, but it was rarely better than in My Elusive Dreams from 1967’s Son of Hickory Holler Tramp. The song is mid-tempo bruiser about a woman blindly following her man around the country as he hunts for and fails to find success. “I know you’re tired of following my elusive dreams and schemes/but they’re only fleeting things/my elusive dreams.” Whether or not he realized it, Darrell was singing about himself.

Darrell played the knocked-down fool perfectly in songs like 1967’s Come See What’s Left of Your Man, which finds him crooning “When I woke up this morning/I had $200 worth of shakes/It only took me two days to drink up the check/that it took me two weeks to make.” Boy oh boy, they don’t sing ‘em like that anymore.

Darrell’s anti-success only helped boost his charm. He was an impossible guy to root against. A motel manager turned never-would-be country star. It’s cliche to say, but Darrell was a few years ahead of his time. He released seven studio albums for United Artists and made it into the Top Five country charts only once with the somber waltz With Pen In Hand, which climbed to number three in 1968 but did little to boost his commercial success.

Darrell was a competent songwriter, but he was much better at discovering other people’s songs. He was the first to record the Mel Tillis classic Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town in 1967, a song made famous two years later when Kenny Rogers & First Edition recorded it. Likewise, The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp, which Darrell recorded in 1967, was a huge hit in 1968 for soul singer O.C. Smith.

And that was the rub with Darrell. He recorded songs that other people found success with but never made much of a splash on his own. After being dropped by United Artists in 1970 he drifted for a few years before releasing his last studio album, 1975’s Water Glass Full of Whiskey, on Capricorn, a label that fittingly went bankrupt just four short years later.

Darrell faded into obscurity and later struggled with diabetes that was exacerbated by his worsening alcoholism. He died in 1997 at the age of 57 in Kennesaw, Georgia.

Yours truly recently unearthed a still-sealed copy of Darrell’s 1969 album Why You Been Gone So Long at Waterloo Records in Austin. I decided it might be fun to open it and play it for the first time on video. Here is the result.

Recommendations:  If you’re interested in checking out Johnny Darrell and are into vinyl, a good place to start is The Best of Johnny Darrell (1970) – United Artists. For a more complete retrospective, Singin’ It Lonesome: The Very Best…1965-1970 (2000) – Raven Records is available on CD.

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