This week I’ll be delving into a genre about which I know almost nothing: country and western music! There’s plenty of trailhands and cowgirls on the list, so let’s see what they have to offer.
Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’
Cash had been playing gigs in prisons for years before recording this concert, which famously features a song written by one of the inmates among others that sound like they could have been. If you’ve heard any Cash you’ll know the basic template: his baritone murder ballads over a shuffling beat provided by his backing band The Tennessee Three. Prison suits his style though: the track sequencing is good, the gradual shifts in mood work and the interstitial jawing with inmates is fun (even if the album seems to abruptly terminate during a Q&A session). There are two other Cash albums on the list but this sets the bar high.
Ray Charles, ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’
Sort of a cheat as this isn’t a country album per se but a selection of country songs translated into Ray’s soulful big band stylings. The combination suits both the songs and the style, as it brings the melodies to the forefront without being drowned out by cornball arrangements of weeping pedal steel or violin. One of just two of Ray’s albums on the list, this is a gorgeous record.
Waylon Jennings, ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’
This album has an interesting back-story: Jennings invited a songwriter called Billy Joe Shaver to come meet him, but then forgot the invitation and neglected it. Shaver, livid, threatened to beat Jennings up if he didn’t listen to his songs: a risky move given Jennings’s tough-guy entourage. Lucky for Shaver, the songs were so good that Jennings decided to record a whole album of them. The record’s a bullish good-old-boys album, but Waylon’s own melodramatic voice is the most distracting feature. The crooning ‘You Ask Me To’ and the oddly swooning closer ‘We Had It All’ are the stand-out tracks here. As with many albums this week, it ends before the 30-minute mark: brevity appears to be a characteristic of the genre.
Loretta Lynn, ‘Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on Your Mind’
With country music, as with most music, it’s important that you believe the voice of the singer: sure we know that Johnny Cash hasn’t shot a man in Reno, but we can believe that he might. It’s the difference between authentic and ‘authentic’. Lynn was married to the same guy for fifty years but the relationship was volatile, which adds a veneer of plausibility to the title track and the gloomy ‘I’m Living in Two Worlds’. Initially sounding impenetrably cheesy, I warmed to this album the longer it went and when it finished after just 28 minutes I was disappointed that there was no more.
Willie Nelson, ‘Red Headed Stranger’
One of Nelson’s best-known albums is a concept album about a preacher who murders his adulterous wife and eventually finds redemption in the arms of another. Feels as sparse on justice as on instrumentation: many of the tracks here are stripped down to vocals and guitar only for long stretches. The first half, filled with violence and melancholia, is better than the second half’s corny instrumental sections (including a solo piano by Nelson’s sister) and unrewarding salvation.
Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, ‘Trio’
Ronstadt’s only appearance on the list as featured artist (although she’s on background vocals on ‘Harvest’) sees her team up with country stalwarts Dolly and Emmylou for a long-anticipated collaboration. I wanted to like this but it doesn’t quite work: whether because of the Dixieland cheese, the cheap-sounding piano on ‘Telling Me Lies’ or Ronstadt’s musical theatre take on Kate McGarrigle’s ‘I’ve Had Enough’, this isn’t an album befitting the three powerhouses. It seems redundant to say that the harmonies are on point, though, and Parton and Harris’s other albums on the list should be better fare. I was hoping this album contained the trio’s ethereal take on Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ but alas that’s on ‘Trio II’.
Marty Robbins, ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’
The oldest album this week sees Robbins concern himself with affairs of the heart: will it be Cupid’s arrow that pierces it, or a bullet? The protagonists of his stories are often morally wrong (on ‘I’m Getting Married Tonight’, he shoots his ex-girlfriend and new lover purely out of jealousy) but driven by loneliness and/or heartbreak. It sounds plausible coming from Robbins, and the melancholy is often spiced up by a Mariachi sound that comes in whenever he looks across the border (such as on ‘El Paso’). Good stuff.
Next week: we’ll be taking the time machine back to the 1950s as I cast my ear over some of the oldest albums on the list.
Progress update: 352 listened to (35%), 649 remain