The Second Disc

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Review: “Classic Singles” of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Wanda Jackson

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Merle - SinglesWhat makes a (living) legend most?  Based on the label’s three most recent releases, Omnivore Recordings certainly has some ideas.  Omnivore has just issued singles anthologies from three tried-and-true country titans: Merle Haggard’s The Complete 60s Capitol Singles, George Jones’ The Complete United Artists Solo Singles, and Wanda Jackson’s The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles.  All three titles reiterate the eclectic label’s commitment to reissuing some of the most significant C&W music of all time.

Like another Omnivore favorite, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard epitomized the “Bakersfield sound” of country music, a style rooted in pure honky-tonk.  Unlike the Texas-born and Arizona-raised Owens, Haggard was actually born in Bakersfield, California and raised just across the river from that country capital.  Owens played a major role in his career, though, when he hired Haggard as his bass player; Haggard also would make Buck’s ex-wife, Bonnie Owens, his second of five wives.  The penultimate track on The Complete 60s Capitol Singles (OVCD-57) is “Okie from Muskogee,” the controversial song that catapulted the singer-songwriter to superstardom.  But the 26 tracks before “Okie” (and one after!) show why he’s one of the most revered names in country music, and are much more straightforward than that oft-misunderstood classic.  These songs are built around themes familiar to any country fan: the twin temptations of women and drink, the outlaw life, solitude, the love of a mother, all rendered with the piercing honesty on which Haggard built a still-formidable reputation.

And though misery and sadness do frequently prevail, Merle evinced a keen sense of humor as far back as his first Capitol single “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can” (“I’m gonna travel all around the worl’/I’ll be a threat to the sweetest girl/I’m gonna break every heart I can/Or my name ain’t Merle!”).  2010 Kennedy Center Honoree Haggard called Capitol home from 1965 to 1977, where he notched an impressive string of hits including many country No. 1s.  Many of the best are here.

Haggard wrote most of the As and Bs here, but also paid tribute to Hank Cochran and Jimmie Rodgers with covers, and his first Country No. 1, “The Fugitive,” was the work of Liz and Casey Anderson.  December 1966’s release of “The Fugitive” began Haggard’s impressive run of chart-topping hits, all of which dealt with the themes of the outlaw life, drawing on the singer’s own time spent in prison.  “Branded Man” (No. 1, June 1967: “No matter where I’m livin’, a black mark follows me…”) was followed by death-row anthem “Sing Me Back Home” (No. 1, October 1967) and then by the bluegrass-flavored “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” (No. 1, February 1968).  Unbelievably, “Mama Tried” followed on the same theme (No. 1, June 1968).  Music may have saved Haggard from a life of crime; as an inmate at San Quentin, he was inspired by seeing Johnny Cash perform there.  Clearly, he grasped the humanity of the characters he wrote in song and much like Cash, had a great deal of empathy for those who didn’t always “walk the line.”

Some of the all-time great drinking songs are here, including Merle’s first Capitol hit “Swinging Doors” (No. 5 Country) (“I’ve got swinging doors, a jukebox and a bar stool/And my new home has a flashing neon sign/Stop by and see me any time you want to/’Cause I’m always here at home ‘til closing time”), as well as “The Bottle Let Me Down” (No. 3) and “I Threw Away the Rose” (No. 2).  These 1966 hits could be maudlin or cliché as rendered by other voices.  But the emotional directness of Haggard’s resonant baritone keeps them rooted in reality, with those deep, low notes that seem to have come from the earth itself.

Many might be unaware of the role of Glen Campbell in Haggard’s recordings.  While serving as a session stalwart in the L.A. “Wrecking Crew,” Haggard’s Capitol labelmate Campbell was frequently called upon to provide both guitar and background vocals to Merle’s recordings as produced by Ken Nelson and Charles “Fuzzy” Owen.  When Campbell’s soaring tenor blended with Haggard’s lead and Bonnie Owens’ harmony vocal, the result was pure magic.  Drummer Jim Gordon and guitar legend James Burton also made their mark on these singles.  Their elegant musicianship and the singer’s own agreeable twang often masked the lyrical anguish.  Even the stellar recording of Hank Cochran’s “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive” conjures a jazzy mood; the Haggard/Bonnie Owens co-write “[Today] I Started Loving You Again” is gorgeously understated.

If the balance of the material on Complete ‘60s Singles wasn’t presented so compellingly, it would be easy for “Okie from Muskogee” to cast its long shadow over every other song here.  The topical, politically incendiary song’s power might have even taken its author by surprise.  The song is seemingly a condemnation of “long [haired] and shaggy” hippies who smoke marijuana, practice free love and burn their draft cards, but in recent years, Haggard has taken to interpreting it ironically.  Regardless of his intentions writing the song, many took its “patriotic” message to heart, and it thrust Haggard to the next stage of fame and success.  The B-side of “Okie,” “If I Had Left It Up to You,” is the concluding track on the compilation, and a much more traditional tune.  How appropriate that Haggard closed out the 1960s with the “Okie” single; how appropriate that Omnivore has left us wanting more from Merle Haggard, posed for greater crossover success on the heels of a rather atypical song.

Deke Dickerson has written the copious liner notes, and every track has been remastered from the original single masters (most in mono) save one which could not be located, 1969’s “California Blues.”

After the jump: we check out companion volumes from George Jones and Wanda Jackson!

George Jones - SInglesCall him, “No-Show Jones,” call him “The Possum,” or simply call him the greatest voice in country music, George Jones’ career has been, by all accounts, a legendary one, and it’s still going strong.  Omnivore’s The Complete United Artists Solo Singles (OVCD-55) covers Jones’ seminal period between tenures at Mercury and Musicor Records.  The UA years predated the tabloid notoriety of his marriage to Tammy Wynette and a long spell on the Epic label. Yet for all of the label changes, Jones’ style was always consistent, practically the definition of a pure country vocalist. Primarily recording in Nashville for UA, the Country Music Hall of Famer and Grand Ole Opry member tackled honky-tonk, gospel, ballads of love lost and found, and even comic and holiday novelties.

Only seven tracks were written by Jones (including some co-written with “Country” Johnny Mathis), and perhaps as a result, the songs here feel somewhat less personal than those on the Haggard set.  But Jones, ever a skilled interpreter, had many of Nashville’s finest penning songs for him, including some bona fide legends.  Songs here were written by the likes of Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, “Cowboy” Jack Clement and Ernest Tubb’s son, Justin.  Like Haggard, Jones has an instantly-recognizable baritone that epitomizes the sound of classic country, and frequently his songs emphasized the sad, plaintive side of the genre.  The titles speak for themselves: “Ain’t It Funny What a Fool Will Do,” “My Tears Are Overdue,” “Where Does a Little Tear Come From,” “I Get Lonely in a Hurry.”

The first track on The Complete United Artists Solo Singles is also its only Country No.1.  Dickey Lee’s “She Thinks I Still Care” is two-and-a-half minutes of sheer heartbreak, with Jones’ sad, drawling lead vocal cutting through the patented Nashville Sound.  (The durable hit would later have success for artists ranging from Anne Murray to Elvis Presley.)  Most of these sessions featured Pig Robbins’ tinkling, barroom piano and The Jordanaires’ big background vocals, as well as Grady Martin’s guitar, Bob Moore’s bass, Buddy Harman’s drums, Hal Rugg’s steel guitar, Tommy Jackson’s fiddle and Kelso  Herston’s electric six-string bass.  Pappy Daily produced the singles included here.

Though there’s plenty of “traditional” country balladry here, the more unusual songs are the greatest discoveries.  The over-the-top “Geronimo,” written by Johnny Western, was a rare movie tie-in, recorded in Hollywood with L.A. session pro Billy Strange on guitar.  While “Lonely Christmas Call” is a typical Jones tearjerker, its B-side, “My Mom and Santa Claus (Twistin’ Santa Claus),” is a truly zany oddity.  It almost plays like a rock-and-roll spoof record, playing off “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” with Jones adopting a goofy exaggerated voice amidst all the sleigh bells: “There was my mommy in her nightgown/She was jumpin’ all around/Twistin’ with old Santa Claus!”  The Possum’s own twist record likely didn’t instill any fear in Chubby Checker’s heart.  It’s hard to ignore the similarity between “What’s Money” and Johnny Horton’s hit “The Battle of New Orleans,” and indeed, Holly George-Warren points this out in her fine new liner notes.  It was no coincidence, either, as the rollicking song was penned by Billie Jean Horton, the widow of both Horton and Hank Williams.  But Jones gives the twangy, slightly-derivative tune his all.  Another atypical delight here is “Best Guitar Picker,” in which Jones extols hillbilly style and wishes to be “the best gee-tar picker in the whole county.”

The lyric of Harlan Howard’s “Your Heart Turned Left (And I Was on the Right)” was more forlorn fare, but Howard set it to a lean, catchy, and up-tempo melody that might bring to mind Don Rollins’ clever “The Race is On,” released just a few months later in 1964.  That all-time Jones staple reached a none-too-shabby peak of No. 3 Country, and also crossed over to the pop chart.  “Brown to Blue,” from late in ’64, is another three-hanky weeper – this time a three-minute courtroom drama.  Written by Jones, Mathis and Virginia Franks, its chorus is another deliciously memorable one: “They changed your name from Brown to Jones, and mine from Brown to Blue.”  With his intensely emotional wail, Jones never tired of finding the beauty in great pain.

The recordings on Jones’ United Artists Singles all date between 1962 and 1966, one of the most tumultuous periods in popular music.  Yet Jones’ style remained essentially unchanged over the course of these 32 tracks.  Whereas Haggard was pointing the way towards the “outlaw” revolution of the 1970s, George Jones kept his sound rooted in the timeless back pages of the country genre.  He’s remained true and steadfast to those ideals and inspirations ever since.

Wanda Jackson - SinglesWanda Jackson, the “Queen of Rockabilly,” was in on the rock and roll revolution at the ground floor.  Just take one listen to the first A-side included on The Best of the Classic Capitol Singles (OVCD-56), “I Gotta Know.”  The 1956 song, written by Thelma Blackmon, finds Jackson teasing the listener as she begins singing a ballad to fiddle accompaniment.  Soon, though, she’s gleefully abandoned the traditional country twang for a rockabilly rave-up, with the song shifting tempo and feeling.  The singer and guitar slinger was rewarded with a hit with her very first Capitol single, and proved her mettle whether at the honky-tonk or at the hop.  She was supported by top players whether recording in Nashville or in Hollywood; for her California sessions, Jackson was in the company of Billy Strange as well as of Buck Owens!

A tenure on the Decca label preceded Jackson’s signing to Capitol Records.  But the rise to prominence by Wanda’s friend Elvis Presley convinced her and her manager father that rock-and-roll was the future.  Jackson couldn’t be boxed into one style, though; not on that first single, and not on any of the singles collected here on this Capitol best-of.  Jackson could convincingly growl as the “Fujiyama Mama” who’s “just about to blow [her] top” but could be sweet, too, as a regretful gal who’s cheated on her man in “Half as Good a Girl.”  Unlike the Merle Haggard or George Jones sets, this compilation isn’t complete as to the prolific Jackson’s singles during the specified period.  It is, however, the best single-disc anthology yet of the singer in her prime.  Rather than cherry-pick A and B sides, producer Patrick Milligan has instead opted to present both sides of fifteen singles (though there are only 29 tracks as the B-side to “Let’s Have a Party” was previously an A-side, included here).   All are presented in their original mono mixes as originally prepared by producer Ken Nelson.

Among the goodies here, you’ll hear the first recording of Jack Rhodes and Dick Reynolds’ “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” probably most familiar in its 1962 folk rendition by The Springfields or its even later version by Linda Ronstadt.  Far more raucous is the scorching R&B of Chuck Willis’ “Let Me Explain,” the B-side of “Silver Threads,” with a full countrypolitan-style chorus for good measure.  The male chorus recurs on tracks like “Cool Love,” with Wanda’s sultry vocal also complemented by a smoking piano.  And R&B has a major place on this disc, perhaps to no better effect than on Jackson’s raucous 1960 revival of Leiber and Stoller’s “Riot in Cell Block No. 9.”  From the cell block to the saloon, Jackson leads what sounds like a barroom sing-along in “Rock Your Baby,” with its shouted response of “All night long!”

Pop-ish ballads (“Did You Miss Me,” Harlan Howard’s “Just a Queen for a Day”) alternate with all-around rave-ups (“Honey Bop” with its Elvis-esque delivery, or Wanda’s own “Mean Mean Man”).  Wanda’s throaty style also served traditional country story-songs like “No Wedding Bells for Joe,” in which the titular character is stood up at the altar.  Good as the tearjerkers are, though, the rockabilly songs are the most revelatory.  Jackson finally cracked the pop charts when the uninhibited “Let’s Have a Party” crossed over in 1960.  It was a two-year old album track of a song previously recorded by Elvis, but Wanda more than made it her own.  “Right or Wrong” and “In the Middle of a Heartache” are two more pop hits included here.

Not every track is a winner; none other than Boudleaux Bryant supplied Jackson with “Don’a Wan’a,” a bizarre little song sung in an exaggerated accent with such memorable turns of phrase as “You say you wan’a me to smoke’a your tobacco/I’ve a gotta me a cigarette-a too/You think I wan’a ride your big’a Cadillac’a/But I will make my little Chevrolet’a do…Don’a wan’a, don’a wan’a any kisses from you!”  It’s certainly a guilty pleasure to savor.  Another offbeat little item is the punning “Funnel of Love”: “My head is spinning around and around as I go deep into the funnel of love!”  Ever tough and confident, Wanda sounds ready for that fateful trip into the funnel of love.

Daniel Cooper’s notes make the case that the world just might not have been ready for a female rocker in Wanda’s heyday, though later generations certainly came around to appreciating her pioneering sides.  Wanda Jackson remained with Capitol until the early 1970s when she made a personal and musical change in discovering Christ.  Wanda turned to gospel, only returning years later to secular music.   The songs here are have all been derived from the original mono single masters.

If you like what you’re hearing, know that Haggard, Jones and Jackson have all been recipients of “complete” box sets from Germany’s Bear Family label, including the periods represented on the new Omnivore discs.  In addition, companion volumes were made available by Omnivore on vinyl for Black Friday 2012’s Record Store Day event, all vinyl EPs with rare and unreleased tracks from the periods covered on these CDs.  (Perhaps more rarities collections will be forthcoming on CD?)  Omnivore’s collections, all produced by Patrick Milligan, have been newly and sparklingly remastered by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen at Lurssen Mastering.  Each booklet contains recording and chart information, label scans, artwork, photographs and more.  The prominence of session personnel is a particularly welcome inclusion.  Taken together or individually, these titles should serve as perfect introductions to these artists, all of whom prove the depth and durability of the Great American (Country-and-Western) Songbook.

You can order any of the above-mentioned titles by clicking on the cover images!

Written by Joe Marchese

February 12, 2013 at 13:12

One Response

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  1. I’d be interested in an audio sound quality comparison with these tracks from the Bear Family label boxsets (the definitive complete recordings). When they say “remastered” it does not necessarily mean “improved”. Many times it can be worse.


    February 15, 2013 at 08:15

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