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Review: Real Gone Goes Country with Eddie Rabbitt, Mel McDaniel, Cowboy Copas

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What defines country music?  The answer isn’t an easy one.  Dolly Parton is undoubtedly singing a country-and-western song when she reminisces about “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” but how about when she’s warbling “Here You Come Again” by the Brill Building team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil?  Are Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift country artists as pop stars, or pop stars as country artists?  Billboard recently described none other than Bruce Springsteen as “a symbolic fencepost in modern country.”  Clearly, country music comes in all varieties.  This hasn’t been lost on the fine folks at Real Gone Music, who have recently issued a group of country-themed collections that are about as different as different can be.  The artists are three late troubadours: Cowboy Copas (1913-1963), Eddie Rabbitt (1941-1998) and Mel McDaniel (1942-2011).  Real Gone’s three new compilations prove that these singers were able to carve out their own niches in the overall country-and-western landscape.

The Taylor Swifts of the world might be most indebted to Eddie Rabbitt, whose music practically defines “crossover country.”  Perhaps this was due to his upbringing; Rabbitt was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised across the Hudson in East Orange, New Jersey, a highly unlikely breeding ground for a country music superstar.  Rabbitt’s 13 Original # 1 Hits (Real Gone Music RGM-0047, 2012) is not one of Real Gone’s more comprehensive collections, but despite its brief running time, it nonetheless traces Rabbitt’s ascendancy from rising country star to pop crossover success.

Though Rabbitt made his debut on record in 1964, this collection of his thirteen No. 1s (on various charts) picks up in 1976.  That was six years after Elvis Presley made the world take notice of Rabbitt when he recorded the songwriter’s “Kentucky Rain,” still a perennial favorite of the late King’s fans.    Rabbitt remained a consistent hitmaker until 1986, and Real Gone has gone the extra mile in licensing these tracks from labels including Capitol, Warner Bros. and RCA.  Rabbitt was equally comfortable as a songwriter and interpreter of others’ material, and was quite adaptable in musical styles.

The earliest track here is pure honky-tonk country, musically and lyrically (“Drinkin’ My Baby (Off My Mind),” co-written with Even Stevens) but by the second song, from 1978, the change in Rabbitt’s style is pronounced.  The piano is no longer rollicking but plaintive for the Alan Ray/Jeff Raymond composition “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” a big, sumptuous pop ballad with not a twangy guitar in sight.  Soon enough, strings and backing vocalists were added to the radio-ready equation (“I Just Want to Love You,” written by Rabbitt, Stevens and David Malloy) in a sound that was more AM pop than countrypolitan.  The change paid off, with both songs hitting pole position on the C&W chart.

Rabbitt continued his climb atop the charts, bringing a light country flavor to pop tunes (the movie theme “Every Which Way But Loose”) or abandoning the Nashville overtones altogether (the slick, blue-eyed soul song “Suspicions”).  His crossover gambits worked beautifully, as the endurance of smash hits like jukebox sing-along “I Love a Rainy Night” (No. 1 Pop, C&W and AC in 1980) and Crystal Gayle duet “You and I” (No. 1 C&W, No. 2 AC and No. 7 Pop) proves.   The collection concludes with the romantic “Both to Each Other (Friends and Lovers)” which found Rabbitt joining Juice Newton in an attempt to recapture some of the magic of his Crystal Gayle duet.  Bill Dahl offers a solid and informative essay to accompany 13 Original # 1 Hits, but unfortunately the booklet contains no discographical information to the original issue number of each single and chart positions.

The next release in Real Gone’s country trio comes from a contemporary of Rabbitt’s, Mel McDaniel.  Hit the jump where you’ll find baby with her blue jeans on! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

May 14, 2012 at 13:46