April 30: Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam

This week’s entry has been a difficult one to write. See, I’ve been feeling real lonesome since my old woman left me, and when I found that she’d found happiness in the arms of another, I had to shoot that guy for stealing my woman. I can’t go back to that prison though, no sir, so I gotta hit that dusty trail again and find myself a new town in which to lay low. Does this sound like an unlikely chain of events? Well, it happens constantly in this week’s genre, country music. Dust off your dobros, fix up that fiddle, and let’s see what this week’s septet has to offer…

Emmylou Harris, ‘Pieces of the Sky’

We first met Emmylou as part of a trio with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt; this is one of two of her solo albums on the list. Released in 1975, ‘Pieces of the Sky’ alternates between cheesy country music tropes (‘Bottle Let Me Down’) and gentle, largely acoustic soft-rock without the bluegrass trimmings (‘Before Believing’). The album is predominantly covers, but the choice is broad: Dolly’s ‘Coat of Many Colours’ appears, Harris does a version of a track by fire-and-brimstone Appalachians The Louvin Brothers, and there’s even a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘For No One’. When the album goes light on the cheese, it’s pretty good.

Merle Haggard and the Strangers, ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’

Haggard was a small-time bootlegger who’d been in prison several times before being scared straight when a couple of his pals hit Death Row. One of Johnny Cash’s prison gigs inspired him to join the prison’s country band, and once he was out of the clink he never looked back. A couple of tracks hint at his background: the title track and ‘Life in Prison’. The album’s most pleasant features are twangy guitar from Glen ‘Wichita Lineman’ Campbell, and the harmony vocals, and just as it threatens to get dull, the album ends.

Willie Nelson, ‘Stardust’

Nelson’s run of successful outlaw country albums gave him the right to do whatever he wanted, and apparently what he wanted in the late 70s was to exchange stetson for tuxedo with a series of cheesy standards, arranged as if he was performing on a cruise ship. Dipping into crooner regulars by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Willie produced an album of interpretations that was highly regarded both critically and commercially, but which now sounds like hoary old guff. I guess this is what Rod Stewart was aiming for with his Great American Songbook albums, but this is an astoundingly tedious record.

Dolly Parton, ‘Coat of Many Colours’

Not many singers would write one song in which their mother stitches them a coat out of rags, then follow it with another where she’s a rebellious teen who falls in love with a travelling man only to find her mother is already dating him, and manage to pull both off with aplomb: Dolly Parton, however, can do both effortlessly. Some of the songs here sound almost like psychedelic folk (‘Early Morning Breeze’) while she dabbles unsatisfyingly with theology in ‘The Mystery of the Mystery’. This album is Dolly’s only solo entry on the list, and it’s great: the harmonies and arrangements are all shimmeringly beautiful.

Gillian Welch, ‘Time (The Revelator)’

Welch is the only 21st century country album on the list (at least this edition). Her speciality is minimalist acoustic material, performed with a co-conspirator called David Rawlings. The Nina Nastasia-style sparseness prevents any corn from getting in, particularly on the opening ‘The Revelator’ that slow-burns seven minutes away, and the fifteen-minute closer ‘I Dream A Highway’ that miraculously fails to get monotonous despite its endless length. Only the live cut ‘I Want To Sing That Rock and Roll’ feels like a misfire. This is another album suitable for fragile 2am listens (see also Cowboy Junkies).

Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’

One of the most recent albums this week – a mere 19 years old – ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ features an appearance from prolific collaborator Emmylou Harris. Williams makes a sort of roots rock that is presumably influenced by Neil Young (and ZZ Top, who are referenced by name on this album), but which also reminds me of her contemporary Sheryl Crow. Where additional colour needs adding, she uses an accordion rather than a pedal steel or a fiddle. This was an easy listen: ‘Drunken Angel’ was the most arresting cut. I was disappointed, though, that ‘2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten’ did not live up to its Sonic Youth/Prince title (also as if it’s not ‘2 Kool 2B 4-Gotten’).

Dwight Yoakam, ‘Buenas Nochas From A Lonely Room’

With that name I was expecting a Tex-Mex border album from the 60s, but Yoakam was in fact an 80s singer who cut his teeth doing support slots for Husker Du before aiming for the top of the country charts with commercial fare like this. Country music in 1988, it seems, meant ugly-sounding drum machines under the fiddle and twanging, akin to Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks and other acts who liked to tuck their white shirt into their jeans. It’s competently played, the album certainly achieves its objectives, and the last track is pleasant enough, but this sort of music is pretty much my idea of hell. Music to line-dance to.

This week was kind of short of albums I really liked, but next week, it’s editor’s choice! There’s no theme other than “I would really like to hear this album”! Hopefully we’ll find seven great albums lurking in the pile for next Sunday’s update.

Status update: 492 listened to (49%), 509 remain.


November 27: Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton & trio, Marty Robbins

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