Merle Haggard – That’s the Way Love Goes

Back in the late 1980s I worked on-air at two radio stations in Michigan at the same time. One was a rock station near Bay City and Saginaw, the other was a country station in Bad Axe, a small town in the center of the thumb. It was there that I really came to appreciate the music of Merle Haggard and other country artists of that era.

Merle Haggard has become a legend in country music. During his musical career, he released an amazing 63 studio albums, writing or co-writing most of the songs on them. “That’s the way Love Goes” was his 38th album and one of my favorites by him. The Strangers are his backing band throughout this album, as the were for many of Haggard’s records. Their sound was a perfect fit for his distinct voice and style that was a bit rougher around the edges than some of the slick country sounds coming out of Nashville in the 1980s.

Merle Haggard was an artist who wrote and played music on his own terms. He forever changed the sound of country music and helped define an era of authenticity in it that many feel may never be equaled.

That’s the stuff a musical legend is made of.

Jim Croce – Photographs and Memories

Jim Croce was one of the most prolific singer songwriters ever. “Photographs and Memories” is a greatest hits package that proves that point. Throughout his career his songs have evoked emotions and painted musical scenes like no other.

He sang mostly his own songs, but was known on occasion to interpret one by other songwriters. When he did, he alway made it his own. Along with the ones he did pen – songs like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, “Operator”, “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song”, and “Time in a Bottle” – I personally can’t imagine “I Got a Name” being performed by anyone except Croce.

Unfortunately, Jim Croce’s life and songs were cut short when he died in a plane crash while on tour in 1973. He was only 30 years old.

Hank Williams – The Hank Williams Treasury

Growing up in the golden age of vinyl my main music of choice was the same as most of my friends: rock and roll. But that wasn’t the only genre I grew with up with in abundance. My dad listened almost exclusively to country music. Consequently, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Ray Price were as much a part of the soundtrack of my youth as were Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and The Who.

Even though my dad didn’t get my definition of rock and roll back then (his never went beyond Bill Hailey and the Comets, Elvis, and early Beatles) I liked a lot of the country music he listened to. Of all the country artists I grew up with, Hank Williams was by far, my favorite.

I had no Hank Williams records in my collection when I ran across this 1976 four album box set at a used record store four or five years ago. When I saw it and looked at the songs on it, I had to wonder why not.

Although considered to be one of the most influential country music artist ever, Hank’s heavy use of southern blues influences in the songs he wrote and performed made just as much of an impact on the formative days of rock and roll. Maybe that’s why I was so drawn to his music all those years ago.

Stray Cats – Built For Speed

In the US, the Stray Cats pretty much single-handedly revitalized the popularity of rockabilly music in the 1980s. As much as anything, the success of that revival was due to the guitar talents of Brian Setzer.

Rockabilly is rock and roll in one of its earliest forms. Combining old-school country music along with rhythm and blues and a lot of attitude, rockabilly first became popular in the early 1950s. Somewhat limited in the core of its scope, other influences quickly merged with rockabilly, morphing away from the earliest style of rock and roll. This left rockabilly regarded as nothing more than an oldies piece of musical nostalgia.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s some bands tried to revitalize rockabilly by infusing a little punk rock attitude into it. None were more successful than Stray Cats. Brian Setzer was the lead guitarist for the Stray Cats and not only did he have the persona to bring attention to the band, his guitar playing demanded you to listen. Setzer could keep pace with, and even outplay any of the hard rock and metal shredders around then…and now. It just wasn’t as noticable because his solos were played on a hollow bodied Gretsch guitar with a semi-twangy tone instead of an overdriven solid body electric. It was that guitar virtuosity helped the Stray Cats stand out and turn rockabilly into something new in the 1980s, making it more than just nostalgic oldies. It also helped their US debut sell over a million copies.

Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits

Americana.

That’s perhaps the best way to refer to Willie Nelson’s music. Yes, you’ll probably have to tune into a country radio station to hear his songs, but Willie goes far beyond country. The songs he writes are so ingrained with the roots of what America truly was, is, and hopefully will be for years to come.

Willie Nelson has always written his songs from a place deep in his heart. And when he performs a song written by somebody else he always makes the song his own, like it’s the first time you’ve heard it. Even though you know he’s not the first to play and sing a particular song, his becomes a definitive version of the song.

Although Willie Nelson is considered to be a country music performer. Even to tag him as one the pioneering artist who defines “outlaw country” seems a disservice. Willie Nelson’s music is beyond that. It defines itself; just as it defines the innocence and pride, the trials and tribulations, the sentimentality and hope of what can only be referred to as “Americana”.

Kris Kristofferson – Jesus Was A Capricorn

Kris Kristofferson is one of the originators of what is now known as outlaw country. All that really means was that his music, in many ways, eschews traditional country music and at times, crosses over with rock and roll. Kristofferson has a DIY, singer songwriter style that both meshed with and cut across the grain of what was popular in country and rock. He wrote, sung, and played songs that were deep-rooted and highly personal. Much in the way Hank Williams changed the sound of country and influenced rock music in the ’50s, Kristofferson, along with a few other “outlaws” from the ’60s and ’70s, redefined country music for a new generation, opening the door for southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, and Charlie Daniels.

Quite often, Kris Kristofferson’s songs shared as much in common with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan as with Merle Haggard and George Jones. Like his other albums, “Jesus was a Capricorn” isn’t an album filled with fiddles and twangy guitars (although there is lap-steel and dobro). It’s an album that focusses on roots and emotion, dedication and defiance.

“Jesus Was a Capricorn”, like the rest of Kristofferson’s catalog, is not really country or rock and roll. He is of that rare breed of performers that fits somewhere in between definitions and outside genres. In a true DIY style, with albums like “Jesus Was a Capricorn”, Kris Kristofferson defined something new with his music; something called outlaw country.

The Charlie Daniels Band – Greatest Hits

I worked in radio from the mid-eighties to the early 90s. My first radio station was a small market country station in the thumb of Michigan, WLEW. The nice thing about being a DJ at a small-market radio station is, for the most part, you get to play what you want. I played a lot of Charlie Daniels while I was there.

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that knows me that I’m a rocker. To me, the Charlie Daniels Band was always the perfect combination of rock and country music. Best known for his fiddle-playing, Charlie Daniels was also an accomplished guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass player. 

As should be expected from any Greatest Hits compilation, every song on this album is exceptional. But there are definitely some standouts.

“The Legend of Wooley Swamp” is probably the least traditional country song Charlie Daniels ever did. If it weren’t for his North Carolina accent, it might not even be associated with country music. It tells the story of a swampland that’s haunted by the ghost of a greedy old man who was murdered for his money.

On the other end of the spectrum is “The South’s Gonna Do It Again”. Opening and closing with Charlie’s signature fiddle playing, it pays homage to the other country and southern rock performers that were becoming popular at that time. 

“Still in Saigon” paints a poignant picture of a solder who has returned from the Vietnam war. After surviving a brutal war, he returns home only to be tormented by his memories and finding himself hated and chastised by many of the people around him. Sadly this is an accurate depiction for many who fought in Vietnam.

“In America” is a song written following the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and the recession the American economy was dealing with at the same time. It is a patriotic and prideful song with a strong “United We Stand” message.

“Long Haired Country Boy was the first song I had ever heard by The Charlie Daniels Band. A simple song about living a simple life. Simply, one of my favorites.

“Uneasy Rider” was Charlie Daniels’ first hit single. It’s a humorous song in which Charlie’s car has a tire blowout down in a redneck town where they don’t take kindly to “long-haired hippies.” When his hair falls out from under his hat, he has to fast-talk his way out of trouble…and drive away even faster. Luckily, the tire was fixed in the nick of time.

And then there’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, which needs no introduction. It’s the CDB’s most famous song and proves that among fiddle players, he is the best of the best. 

I have had the pleasure of seeing Charlie Daniels live, in concert three times. The most memorable was in Nashville, Tennessee, at Volunteer Jam 8, a benefit concert he would put on every year. I was standing near the front of the crowd when he tossed one of his bows out into the audience. I saw it flying towards me  I reached up,  jumped just a little bit, and touched it ever so briefly as it bounced off my fingertips. 

So close.

The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams

Hank Williams was one of the greatest American songwriters ever. He died way too early at only 29 years old, yet he left us with so many great and influential songs. But he also left many more songs unrecorded. He always wrote the lyrics to his songs first, usually putting them to music shortly before recording them, sometimes right in the studio.  All the lyrics on this album are from notebooks that Hank kept his future songs in.  The artists on this album were asked to select a song from Hank’s notebooks, write the music for it and record it.  The results were amazing, and an incredibly heartfelt tribute.

Although all of the artists on this album are self-proclaimed Hank Williams fans, not all are country music stars. Along side Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Patty Loveless, Vince Gill and Rodney Crowell, are Jack White, Noah Jones, Bob Dylan, Jacob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, and Levon Helm. Plus, as a special treat, one song was done by Holly Williams, Hank’s granddaughter, with her dad, Hank Williams Jr. singing backing vocals.

A bit of Hank trivia: his real name wasn’t Hank, it was Hiram King Williams.