Country Music

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Professor Knowall

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The interesting thing for me is that wave of American musicians that arrived in the wake of the British invasion, white Americans playing black American music as interpreted by skinny British kids. It took the Brits to overcome the inherent racism that existed at the time in America and get them listening to their own music. I read an interview with a Stax/Volt musician who said that when their revue first toured England he'd never been in a room with so many white people at once and the response to the music just blew them away.
I've been trying to think of a reply incorporating things like Northern Soul and how the English revived the careers of original fifties pioneers like Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins amongst others after America forgot about them - but I can't without saying far too much. This topic could form a part of a general popular music history thread one day perhaps.
 

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As advertised, I'm now resuming the history in 2021 with a legend of country - or more accurately, country & western -
music. He was one of those who wasn't afraid of trying different things and seemed to have a natural talent to succeed
in whatever he tried - even becoming an accomplished NASCAR racer in his later years, despite continuing his immensely successful music career - in time earning hall of fame inductions in both the country music HoF and the song-writers HoF.

No artist in the history of country music has had a more stylistically diverse career than Martin Robinson aka Marty Robbins. From old school honky tonk, rockabilly and rock'n'roll, blues, pop country to straight out contemporary pop to hard core western cowboy ballads and more, Robbins performed successfully in a dazzling array of styles during more than 30 years in the business. He had a knack for detecting the latest trend and taking off in a direction that stunned
both his peers and fans - and sometimes not pleasing them (e.g. hard core honky tonk fans never quite forgave him for his forays to pop and not all pop fans followed him to his western cowboy ballads). Plainly Robbins was not hemmed in by anyone's definition of country music and this is reflected in the wide range of material he recorded - even to teen angst ballads of the 1950's, Spanish love songs and Hawaiian (though he was a talented steel guitarist on top of everything else, he only sang, not play, the Hawaiian steel on his Hawaiian recordings). With his superb pop leaning vocal skills,
right up there with the very best, Robbins mastered all these styles of music (and still had enough spare time to
become good enough to race in the Daytona 500)

Born in 1925 in Glendale Arizona, he was part of a 10-child impoverished family (has anyone noticed how nearly all the artists of this era grew up dirt poor) headed by a drunken, physically father, and was amongst those with scarred hands from picking cotton as a child. His parents divorced when he was 12, his mother moving them all from their ramshackle hovel to Phoenix. His boyhood imagination was fired up by his grandfather, 'Texas Bob' Heckle, a travelling salesman
and a teller of grand old Western tales, which provided much material and inspiration for what are now Robbins' most memorable songs and arguably (some say unarguably) the greatest album in country & western music history.

As a teenager, Robbins worked on his older brother's ranch, concentrating more on his cowboy duties than his studies. He soon quit high school, and by his late teens lived off the proceeds of petty theft and burglary while living as a hobo. Once old enough to serve in WW2, in 1943 Robbins enlisted in the Navy, where he learned to play guitar and began singing and songwriting. After his days in the Pacific Theater were through, he returned home to do odd jobs, joined a local band and in 1947 was hired to sing at a radio station in Mesa, Arizona. As his fan base grew, he soon moved on to Phoenix radio, hosting a one-hour show, then venturing into TV for 15 minute shows, 4 times a week, Marty entertained on “Country Caravan". Little Jimmy Dickens, already a Nashville success and influencer, made an appearance on the show and was
so impressed that it led to Marty being signed by CBS records in 1951 and a move to Nashville.

Robbins' first hit was his third song, 'I'll Go On Alone', a honky tonk heartbreaker about a woman wanting to change
him into something he ain't (a perfect honky tonk theme) which reached # 1 in 1952, despite all the stiff honky tonk competition at that time from the immortal Hank Williams, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce and Ray Price -


Robbins joined the Grand Ol' Opry in 1953 and through that decade appeared in a handful of movies, one of which, "Buffalo Gun" also included Webb Pierce and Carl Smith. He backed up his first hit with another old school honky tonk number in early 1953. Though clearly aimed at the youth market of the time (so you may skip this if you want), this tearjerker with the Hawaiian sound of the slide steel guitar, which Robbins loved, and later recorded several albums,
reached # 4 -


By 1955, Robbins was working and touring with most of the big stars of the time and also alongside newer artists trying, like him, to get a break. In early 1955 he came under the first influence of rock’n’roll. He worked a few dates with Elvis Presley, who was just starting out his career, and creating a lot of interest and continuous headline news. Robbins was
quick to appreciate the potential that Elvis had, drawing the large crowds, the swooning young girls and creating all of
the excitement, and Marty noticed all this was happening without a hit record. Yet Elvis was basically singing a beat and bluesy form of country music. So now we have a complete new sound from Robbins, as he shows his blues credentials. This 1949 Arthur Crudup song is best known now as Elvis' first success in 1954, but the limited marketing range of Sun Records ensured the Elvis cover was only a regional hit, whereas Robbins recording, keeping the country fiddle, reached #7 on the national charts in early 1955 -


The resultant blend of country and weestern and blues into the emerging rockabilly/rock'n'roll sound became one of
the dominant sounds of the 1950's and Marty Robbins was one of the first straight country artists to turn to this. So
keeping up to date with the latest musical trends, Robbins didn't miss with this cover of Chuck Berry's 'Maybelline', reaching # 4 in late 1955 -


It's December 1956 and another new sound from Robbins, as he abandons rockabilly and rock'n'roll (but not before releasing one of the early rock'n'roll albums in 1956). This song really made Robbins' reputation and sent him to enduring country stardom, remaining at # 1 for 13 weeks from late 1956. The song was also doing well in the pop charts, however songwriter Melvin Endsley also allowed a more light hearted whistling pop version by Guy Mitchell, which smashed the pop charts, robbing Robbins of further crossover appeal. However, though the cheerful whistling Guy Mitchell version became the more popular standard outside the country heartland, I much prefer Robbins' version, which was more faithful in mood to the lyrics - i.e. it ain't meant to be cheerful -


For tomorrow, we'll see Robbins change his music direction yet again as his popularity increases and his music of that time lived on to symbolise much about the fifties
An Australian band who've put out some good country tunes are The Beasts of Bourbon.
One of their best,
"The Day Marty Robbins Died."
I saw Tex Perkins Johnny Cash tribute at the old Freo prison a few years ago.
Top show at an appropriate venue.
 

Professor Knowall

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It was with 'Singing the Blues' that Robbins developed a rivalry with pop star Guy Mitchell. Mitchell's hastily recorded cover of the song knocked Robbins' out of the top spot in the pop charts (though Robbins version still dominated the country charts). This happened yet again when Robbins released 'Knee Deep in the Blues', with Mitchell quickly putting out a cover that blocked Robbins' from entering the pop charts and became an international hit (eg #3 in the U.K.), but
Robbins still reached #3 in the country charts in early 1957 -


To head off Mitchell again "ripping off" his next release, Robbins ventured where no country singer had gone before, deciding to record in NYC with renowned easy listening pop conductor Ray Conniff for his next singles, thus giving them
a distinctive pop sound. Though upsetting the hard core honky tonk country traditionalists, it was a crafty move that paid off big time, broadening his appeal and keeping him more than commercially viable during the peak of rock & roll. The first of these collaborations, 'A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)', became a huge hit, spending 5 weeks at the
top of the country charts in late 1957 and also peaking at number 2 on the pop charts, giving Robbins his long-awaited breakthrough cross chart hit.

The appeal of the song itself is its theme of the excitement of prom night tied together with the disappointment of romantic rejection, make it an anthem of the teenage dreams and angst of the 1950's, when prom night was the social highlight of so many towns and rural areas, even getting widespread media coverage, and was also a major event in the big city schools (it still is, but not nearly to the same extent as back then). Some say no other song so simply sums up
so much of a pivotal part of the 1950's teenage experience. Robbins sang well on what was as much a pop as country song, The bo-poop-a-doop two beat fol-de-rol backing, though it made honky tonk traditionalists wilt, carried Robbins appeal way beyond his country base - and cut out Guy Mitchell doing another rip-off pop cover, being already "seasoned" with the pop overlay provided by Ray Coniff -


Another crossover # 1 hit, one of the first by emerging songwriters Hal David and Burt Bacharach with voices and whistles from the Ray Conniff Singers and orchestra -


Yet another # 1 crossover hit, 'Just Married', released in March 1958, this reinforced Marty Robbins status as now pretty much the biggest singing star of any genre in the USA, though whether he was still a country singer and not just pop was becoming debatable - but that didn't trouble Robbins. This again features the Ray Conniff trimmings and was produced by the talented, influential but rock'n'roll hating 'Sing Along with Mitch' Miller. It did well at the time, was again superbly sung by Robbins, but do all the Ray Conniff extras on what's supposed to be a heartbreak song here go too far? -


Robbin recorded more crossover hits - if you're really in the mood to hear more, you can check out the really schmaltzy 1958 hit 'She was only Seventeen' on YouTube - it's again a product of its time, when getting married young (or in the song's case, really young) was very much in vogue. With the do-wops laid on extra thick, it's heavy scmalltz with sugar
on top, not sufficiently country to include here - yet it's really 1950's and totally different from anything today.

Just when Robbins, his pop flavoured, NYC recorded, Ray Connif backed, singles topping the charts across the nation, seemed destined to be lost to his country music roots, he again did an abrupt about turn. At heart, he was always a country boy and his new album at the time, "Song of Robbins", expected to be full of pop, defied everyone by being decidedly country, with a simple, plaintive country backing of fiddles, piano, steel guitar and light drumming and a selection of sad, country tunes (whether real country or pop country, sad songs were a Robbins staple - while drinking songs never appeared, perhaps due to bad childhood memories of his violent alcoholic father.

Robbins then tried his hand at a western ballad. 'The Hanging Tree', written by himself, was featured as the theme song in the 1959 movie by the same name (and one of the best westerns ever IMO). The film stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell and George C Scott and is set in the gold fields of Montana during the gold rush of the 1860s and 1870s. This ballad also set the stage for the next phase in the ever changing course of Robbins' music - a stage that ultimately became his most enduring legacy -


For all the success Robbins had had up to this stage, his best still ahead ...
 

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Professor Knowall

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Down through the years songs that tell a story have been the most popular in country music. Whether they be true tales or a figment of the writer’s imagination, as long as they are credible and contain an easily understood philosophy, then they are guaranteed of lasting success. Marty Robbins had this natural knack for telling a story in song, a talent that came to light with his famous cowboy ballads of the late 1950's and early 1960s. It was a period in the American music business when unearthing old folk tunes was in vogue. At the tail end of the rock‘n’roll boom of the mid-1950s, songs like Johnny Horton's 'Battle Of New Orleans' and 'Springtime In Alaska' both became big pop hits (see post # 308).

Because of his background as a rancher, along with his formative years spent in New Mexico and Arizona, Robbins was able to walk into this new fad better equipped than most, with a style all of his very own. Borrowing heavily from the stylings of The Sons Of Pioneers (see posts # 123-124), but with a natural love of cowboy music and a composing ability second-to-none, he was able to come up with a series of classic cowboy ballads. The songs were written with a conscious effort to recreate the sound or style of an earlier era. Despite the stylistic excellence, these western ballads could only
be an imitation of the real thing. But Robbins, having grown up in the west, his childhood imagination fired by the old western tales of his grandfather, knew what he was singing about. This is what made them sound so convincing. The songs had strong imagery, vividness, and sense of realism or, more accurately, naturalism.

The 1959 western album, "Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs", reached #6 on the pop charts, and by the mid-'60s, it
had gone platinum. It's now regarded as the all time classic western gunslinging album that everyone with an interest
in Western music ought to have (and when I checked my local JB Hi Fi the other day, it's still selling both LP's and CD's
of the album 61 years after its release), which more than anything else cemented Robbins reputation as a music legend.
A follow-up album, "More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs", was released in 1960. In 2017, the album was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or artistically significant."

The myth of the gunfighter has fed the cinema screen with many tales, but very rarely does the excitement come alive quite the same in song. Robbins proved with 'Big Iron' that a song about a gunfight could be thrilling, exciting, and (more important to the musician) commercial. The accompaniment is simple and though the guitar work helps build the song, it is really down to the lyrics and Robbins’ expressive voice -
"... In this town there lived an outlaw by the name of Texas Red
Many men had tried to take him and that many men were dead
He was vicious and a killer, though a youth of twenty four
And the notches on his pistol numbered one and nineteen more,
..." -


Then there's 'They're Hanging me Tonight'. Moral lessons can be taken from these ballads - in this case, the
moral lesson is that if your woman leaves you for another, you really oughtn't kill 'em both, or you'll suffer the consequences -
"... That night he came and took my Flo and headed in to town
I knew I had to find this man and try to gun him down
,..." -


From the 1960 follow-up album, "More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs", you can almost feel the flames licking at
your feet as Robbins and his group with rare dramatic power build this song up to a thrilling - and chilling - climax -
"... The roarin' heat is closer ashes fallin' by our side / And every breeze is burnin' singin' with its warnin' cry /
We've got to reach the river but it's still ten miles or more / And close behind us we can hear that wild infernal roar
..." -


Written for the 1960 John Wayne film “The Alamo.”, this 3 minute and a bit history lesson (a bit like Johnny Horton's 'Battle of New Orleans but with a more serious take) about the most sacred site in Texas, a "must see" if you find yourself in San Antonio, (but as I'm not giving a whole Texas history lesson here, you'll just have to google if you don't already know the historical facts) -
"... One hundred and eighty five / Holding back five thousand /
Five days, six days, eight days, ten /Travis held and held again /
Then he sent for replacements / For his wounded and lame /
But the troops that were coming / Never came, never came, never came
..." -


In the mid-1960s Robbins produced and starred in a television series called The Drifter. Some of the songs he sang in
this series were included on the 1966 album, "The Drifter". The production and sound was very much in keeping with his previous western albums and once again, Robbins demonstrated his talent at painting portraits of the old West in song. The album standout is his 'Mr. Shorty'. A tale of a small man put down wherever he goes, but quite able to stand up for himself, Robbins brings a tension to the song and a sardonic humour that makes it one of the finest pieces he has ever written. The moral - if you're going to pick on a short guy, first make sure he ain't got a short-barreled bad .44 on his hip -
 

Professor Knowall

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In researching this, I found a detailed 3 part series of articles about the life and music of Marty Robbins written by renowned English music critic and historian Alan Cackett way back in 1975 (he's still active to this day). At the very end he sums up Robbins thus - "... singing his very own songs, he is in a class of his own. Maybe I praise Marty Robbins too highly, but for the past fifteen years he has been the greatest singer I’ve heard." He was talking about all genres. So again, don't worry about whatever uneducated opinion I might have - this is coming from a critic who has made a living from listening to all the greats in person.

Having covered his earlier work and western ballads for now, it's time to look at his work from the 1960's and '70's. In this period, Robbins continued to enjoy continual success hopping from one genre to another, recording a full on pop album in 1961, a jazz album 1962 (did I not mention jazz as part of his repertoire earlier? - well, I have now), more western ballads in 1963, then some hard core country, more Hawaiian, West Indian calypso (I kid you not - the 1963 Album "Island Woman" is all Carribean), then more gunslinging western ballads followed by country with Western swing thrown in and not to forget his Mexican themed albums - Robbins brought out albums of all genres except Bluegrass ... until 1974 when he eventually did that too! Unfortunately, there's way too many great songs for me to cover, but just a sample of some of his better known hits.

For today we start with Robbins' 7th # 1 hit and it's one of his biggest - 10 weeks at # 1 in 1961 and also reaching #3 on the pop charts. This has Robbins really letting go, showing off his vocal range as he seems to be having fun with the over emoting - and along the way he invents heavy rock! So turn the volume to the max, sit back, and enjoy - actually I first heard this song in a dingy Texan honky tonk with a fully charged crowd singing along really loud - proving it doubles up as a top rate honky tonk number! As for the heavy rock part, well you can't miss it -

Now the guitarist in question here is Grady Martin - you might recall his name as he featured prominently working with Johnny Horton (posts #303-308). The distortion effect here was an accident, caused by Grady using a faulty channel in the mixing desk for his bass. Grady wanted to re-record but Robbins wisely decided to leave it in. This decision led, through a process of reverse engineering of the fault - to the fuzz-box, its use later popularised by Keith Richards.

Released in 1962 as the first single and album title track, 'Devil Woman' was Robbins' 7th single to reach # 1, spending 8 weeks at the top spot. It also crossed over onto the pop chart and was Robbins' most successful single on the UK charts. So who hasn't had a devil woman (or two) at some stage in their life? - some are resistible but it's the ones that aren't that cause all the trouble (so yeah - it's another country song I've lived). Enhanced by the Spanish guitar, this is a simple, beautiful song, sung to perfection by Robbins -
"... Runnin' along with the seashore, Runnin' as fast as I can. /
Even the seagulls are happy, Glad I'm comin' home again. /
Never again will I ever, Cause another tear to fall. /
Down the beach I see, What belongs to me, The one I want most of all
..." -


Robbins followed 'Devil Woman' up straight away with another # 1 hit 'Ruby Ann'. The poor man getting one over the rich man was a popular theme in the early '60's (e.g. Patsy Cline's 'A Poor Man's Roses' and even the Beatles got into the act with 'Money Can't Buy Me Love'). Robbins rollicking number starts with a terrific piano intro and driving back beat, making this yet another Robbins pop charts hit as well as country # 1 -


On to 1963, 'Begging to You' was Robbins 10th # 1, spending 3 weeks at the top spot and 23 weeks on the charts. Here we have a live version from his TV show which I think has good enough audio to include here - and with Robbins again showing just what a truly great singer he was. Thankfully there were no auto-tune microphones microphones back then, because in Robbins case it would only have reduced, not enhanced, his vocal brilliance -


Another major influence on the Robbins’ career has been the people and music of Mexico. Having grown up not far from the Mexican border, the Latin melodies and exuberant people made a lasting impression on Marty. He channeled and used these influences throughout his music—most of his cowboy ballads retained a strong Mexican flavouring. Eventually the Mexican themes worked their way into one of his best and biggest selling albums "Tonight Carmen". The title track was also a successful single, and it is another demonstration of Robbins' talent for telling a story. Listen to him use his voice to paint the vivid images in his mind. A simple ballad about his wife returning home, everything is right there down to the last detail. The twist, the details, everything is placed together with immaculate precision, yet it still retains the realism that country music is noted for. So here is another big #1 hit, Robbins 12th, with its Mexican horns, Spanish guitar and happiness without heartache -


'I Walk Alone' is an old Herbert Wilson written song, which Robbins made into yet another # 1 hit, his 13th, in 1968 and yet another new music styled album. The sound is bluesy, featuring organ, electric lead guitar and Robbins himself on piano (despite what the slideshow suggests) -


Apart from his music career, Robbins other great love was racing cars. In the 1960's, he started competitive stock car racing when he could on the local Nashville Fairground track. Eventually he worked his way up to NASCAR level, making his debut in 1966 at age 41. Due to his music commitments, he was only able to compete part time, in roughly 1 in 10 meetings for a total 35 races from 1972 to 1982, his last race just a month before his death. Despite his advanced age when starting and part time status, he had 6 top 10 finishes in his 35 races, so he was a serious racer, good enough to twice race in the Daytona 500. In 1967, Robbins played himself in the car racing film Hell on Wheels. He was also the driver of the 60th Indianapalos 500 pace car in 1976.

When Robbins wasn't touring, recording, writing songs or NASCAR racing, he liked to relax by bull riding at rodeos. But apart from songwriting, recording, touring the world, NASCAR racing and rodeo bullriding, he didn't appear to do all that much - other than hunting, fishing and spending time at his ranch.
 

Schauermann

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Some contemporary ones I like include Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, Cody Jinks, Dillon Carmichael, Charley Crockett, Colter Wall, Caroline Spence, Mo Pitney, Lara Lynn, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen.
Checked out Mo Pitney, Dillon Carmichael and Charley Crockett. Good stuff, ordered stuff from all of them...

More to come.
 

blackshadow

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An Australian band who've put out some good country tunes are The Beasts of Bourbon.
One of their best,
"The Day Marty Robbins Died."
I saw Tex Perkins Johnny Cash tribute at the old Freo prison a few years ago.
Top show at an appropriate venue.
Was going to mention The Day Marty Robbins Died.
 

Professor Knowall

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Did anyone here think I'm done with Marty Robbins - while omitting his greatest, most enduring hit, a song that's a standard fixture in "top 10 greatest country songs of all time" lists - and the start of what came to be the 'El Paso
trilogy' of songs? You all knew I was holding this back for the big ending, right?

The first album of Gunfighter Ballads, released in 1959, featured two epic Robbins’ compositions - one 'Big Iron' which I already covered, but the second is simply perfection - the greatest western ballad ever written and sung and ever likely
to be written and sung, especially in present times. No wonder the album still sells well at music stores 70 years on. Any dictionary definition of the word "ballad" just needs to say 'El Paso'. With Marty Robbins, it's said that you don't listen to his ballads, you watch them, such is the vividness of his lyrics.

'El Paso' was a long song for a single release, let alone a million-seller. It told in graphic terms the story of a gunfighter and his love for Feleena. The tale unfolds to the strumming of Spanish guitars in the background, Robbins sings in an unhurried way, allowing the song to fall out slowly, making every word count. It is important with a song like this that every twist and turn is fully understood. The harmony and falsetto voices are used to perfection, keeping the listener on the edge of his seat. This is ballad songwriting at its absolute best - it's magic the way Robbins keeps one pinned down with this masterpiece. You dare not move for fear of missing any detail as the atmosphere throughout the song is chilling as it builds to a riveting climax, all told with extadinary rythmical poetry, as he subtley changes from the past to the present tense -



The massive - and enduring - success of 'El Paso' eventually led Robbins to write another ballad in 1966, but this time telling the story of Faleena (hence the title) - it's more of a prequel than a sequel. Again the melody is good, the lyrics
are brilliant, the singing superb as always - but this time Robbins seems to have had just too much inspiration, with the ballad going over 8 minutes. In this case, I think Robbins should've applied the "less is more" rule and cut to the chase a bit sooner rather than giving so much of Faleenas back story (after all, no matter how real and alive Robbins makes his characters appear with his vivid lyrics, in the end it's fiction, so we probably don't really need to know of her parents heartbreak or her sojourn in Santa Fe - no matter how well written and well sung). So, if time is pressing, you may skip on to the next number (not to be missed) or just catch the second half of this, but if you want to know the full story of the "evil" Faleena in another superb Marty Robbins ballad, here's all 8 and a bit minutes of it -

In 1976, 17 years had passed since Robbing had performed his "opus magnum", and it's reputation as a western masterpiece had only grown, so Robbins went to the well again, writing not another ballad but a song about the ballad - and it's an absolute genius piece of songwriting - in fact one of the cleverest I've ever heard. The backstory here is that Robbins wrote this on a napkin when flying over El Paso and that's how he starts this song - but some of the lyrics are mischievously ironical - "... I don't know who wrote it ...". But then his imagination wonders, and he finds himself mysteriously "being" the doomed cowboy in the song - was it in his previous life, as the song suggests, or is the traveller merely napping and dreaming on the plane? Regardless, the song leads on to its immortal last line (which I won't spoil here). It's not really a ballad (it hasn't a repeating chorus for one thing) nor a continuation of the previous 'El Paso', but it's imaginative song writing at its absolute best, the melody is beautiful and Robbins' singing and voice - well it's Marty Robbins, say no more. So 17 years after 'El Paso' went to # 1, a song about that song by Marty Robbins (who else could do that) again reached # 1 -
"... My mind is down there somewhere as I fly above the badlands of New Mexico
I can't explain why I should know the very trail he rode back to El Paso
Can it be that man can disappear from life and live another time
And does the mystery deepen 'cause you think that you yourself lived in that other tim
e..."


From 1978, the only reasons I'm showing this Robbins' cover is that it shows Him playing the piano (in addition to being an accomplished finger picking guitarist and steel guitarist, he was an very good pianist) and ... it's just class -


And for Robbins last song, I've got this # 1 hit from 1970, for which he won his second Grammy (back in the era where
a Grammy was rare (only one per year was awarded) and really meant something, unlike now when they're handed out like so many pieces of confetti that no-one really cares, nor should they, anymore. This song has a lot of symmetry with Robbins very first # 1 hit in 1952 (recall that from 3 posts back). That first hit was about a man walking away from a relationship as he objected to being changed to something he wasn't and didn't want to be.

But now here we have a much older Robbins with a song aimed not at a young male audience but an older (I'm supposed to say "more mature") audience - and with this number, mostly female. Now despite being a big # 1 and Grammy winning hit, I wasn't going to post this one as it's rather shamelessly schmaltzy, though it's one of those where Robbins can again fully show off his vocal brilliance. However, after noticing the contrast between his first honky tonk # 1 hit in 1952 and this, after 22 years of marriage at that stage, and then discovering the slideshow on this number has a very good précis of his career, I decided it was suitable enough to farewell one of the greatest (I have him in my top 5) country legends -


In 1974, Robbins, still charting hits yearly, was given the double honour of being last performer to play the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, its longtime "motherchurch" home , and was also the first to perform at the new Grand Ole Opry House. He was inducted into the Songwriters International Hall of Fame in 1975, and to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982, which he accepted in person prior to his death just months later from complications from the then still experimental quadruple bypass surgery following a massive heart attack. He had 2 top 10 hits in his final year, one posthumous. This true legend of country music over a 30 year career, he charted a massive 92 top 40 hits including
17 at # 1, and is one of the select few to top both the country and pop charts.

Now it's time for a little rest again - probably for a couple of days as Robbins was a big one (hardest part was deciding which songs to leave out) and the next one ain't exactly unheard of either.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Checked out Mo Pitney, Dillon Carmichael and Charley Crockett. Good stuff, ordered stuff from all of them... More to come.
Thank you - as posted earlier (#307), I wasn't sure how the Mo Pitney inclusion in that list would go, as he's different from the others, but I do like those real old school vowel bending covers he did on the Bill Anderson hosted TV show (including the Ray Price tribute on #277). Charley Crockett is another "throwback" artist, with his covers of old Texan honky tonk, cowboy western and Western swing with some blues and jazz thrown in.
 

Professor Knowall

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Was going to mention The Day Marty Robbins Died.
I've left this until after my "official" Marty Robbins history, but Robbins wrote this song, originally specifically for Hank Snow to record for his 1963 album "I've Been Everywhere" (highlighted by the Lucky Starr written American version of
his famous hit, which Hank Snow took to # 1 in the US).
Anyway, Robbins liked the song well enough to record it himself as the opening song on his 1964 country album "RFD" -

The Moonee Valley Drifters also recorded a cover of this about 30 years ago.
 
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Professor Knowall

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This is getting repetitive - here we have yet another born in depression era poverty and having his hands permanently scarred from having to pick cotton as a young child. Have you ever picked cotton? I got the opportunity to do so on a Mississippi delta farm for about 10 minutes, leaving my delicate hands scratched and bleeding, as the cotton balls have
to basically be extracted from a pod of sharp thorns. It must've been a hell of a job and inhumane for children. Nowadays (at least in the US and Australia) all harvesting has been done by machine since the 1960's. But the hard, painful grind of picking cotton formed the childhood experience of Carl Perkins, Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton and our next artist - not just a great but another legend.

JR Cash (initial only names weren't uncommon then in the poor rural south), born 1932 in rural Arkansas, was the 4th
of 7 children. When aged just 3, the family was granted a small parcel of land to farm under the Roosevelt depression
era 'New Deal' to survive on and from age 6 Cash helped work the cotton fields. This background of childhood work and poverty would later be reflected in his songs. Having a tough and hard father (like many of our other singers here), Cash was extremely close to his religious elder brother Jack, who died at age 15 after almost being cut in half when pulled into a rotating head saw in the mill in 1944. Jack's last words, saying he could see the angels coming to take him away, had a profound effect on the 13 year old Cash, who promised Jack he would become a gospel singer.

Mainly inspired by gospel music and country performers he listened to on the radio, including the Carter Family broadcasts from Mexico and, of course, the Grand Ole Opry, Cash began writing songs at the age of 12 and while still at school, he sang on a local radio station. After leaving school, he joined the southern migration north to Detroit in 1950 to briefly work in a car factory, but the outbreak of the Korean War saw him enlist in the Air Force. To enlist, Cash was made to use an actual name, so he chose John. He then bought his first guitar and taught himself to play and began writing
songs in earnest, including "Folsom Prison Blues" (which he mostly plaguiarised, but more on this later).

Cash left the Air Force in 1954, married the very attractive Italian-Texan, Vivian Leberto, who he met several years
prior and moved to Memphis, working as a door to door salesmen. During the evenings, he played country music in a
trio that consisted of guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant. The trio occasionally played for free on a local radio station and tried to secure gigs and an audition at Sun Records, pestering the studio with frequent visits demanding to see Phillips, until one day they did.

Cash finally landed an audition with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in 1955. Initially, he presented himself as a gospel
singer but Phillips rejected this, advising him gospel doesn't sell. Cash returned with 'Hey Porter' which caught Phillips' ear. But still unconvinced Cash had composed a hit, Phillips charged him to write "an uptempo weeper love song", which Cash fulfilled, so 'Cry Cry Cry'/'Hey Porter' was released as his debut single. On it, Phillips billed Cash as "Johnny Cash", (which upset Cash at first as he thought it juvenile) and also dubbed Perkins and Grant as the Tennessee Two. 'Cry Cry Cry', reached # 14 and led to Cash getting a spot on The Louisiana Hayride, where he stayed for nearly a year, touring around the South with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Horton, developing close friendships with the latter two due to their scarred hands from the shared childhood experiences of picking cotton.

Right from the very start, his very first 1955 hit, we have that totally distinctive Johnny Cash sound - and that includes the backing from the 'Tennessee Two' with its very simple but distinctively effective "boom-China-boom" rythym that
Cash employed for decades to come. Musicians scoffed at it's simplicity (some still do) but Cash and the Tennessee
Two possessed a quality lacking in country music since Hank Williams died: originality. Their sound was propulsive yet distinctly Southern and set them apart. Cash sometimes compensated for the lack of a drummer by threading wax paper through guitar strings, and Luther Perkins' spare electric lead guitar work was basic, even crude but it somehow worked. In his first autobiography, Cash wrote "... Marshall Grant was mostly right when in later years he said that we didn't work to get that boom-chicka-boom sound ... it's all we could play. But it served us well, and it was ours..." -


His follow up hit in 1955, 'Folsom Prison Blues', which he wrote two years earlier when still a no-name, but he actually mostly plagiarised it from jazz composer Gordon Jenkin's 1953 composition, 'Crescent City Blues', including not only
the melody but many of the lyrics (Cash was later sued when his 1968 live version recorded at Folsom Prison became
an even bigger hit, and he settled, paying up a fairly modest $75,000). The song combines elements from two popular country themes (especially so for Cash over his whole career), trains and prisons. Long before Cash famously performed at Folsom Prison, and before he had ever been locked up for anything - in fact, Cash was never in his life sentenced to a new actual prison, though he did have a number of overnight stays in police lockups due to various but usually not major drug and alcohol related indiscretions. Yet the lyrics about the sound of the train just outside in the distance makes one think he had himself been sentenced, rather than just feeling considerable empathy for those who had. This is the original 1955 version -


The B-side was another hit and this also gives me the opportunity to show a live version, which like many Cash numbers, is more dynamic and interesting than any recorded version, even if the sound ain't as pure. Introduced by Tex Ritter (see posts # 179-180), Cash was a great admirer of the hard-core Texan honky tonk star, Ernest Tubb (see posts # 161-165), and wrote 'So Doggone Lonesome' with him in mind. Tubb then heard the song on radio and as it suited his style and voice, recorded his own version of the song and performed it on the Grand Ole Opry. Cash said he only believed he had truly "made it" as an artist when he heard Tubb singing one of his songs. Watch here how guitarist Luther Perkins goes absolutely wild, Angus Young style, when Cash throws to him for the solo -


In January 1956, Cash, following the footsteps of Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, joined the Louisiana Hayride and six months later, he was given a slot on the Grand Ole Opry. Opry star Carl Smith (see posts #233-234) introduced Cash by calling him "the brightest rising star in the country music of America."

And now the song that established Cash as a major star, his first # 1 and a song unintentionally laced with irony as he sings of fidelity and faithfulness, a song intended to reassure his wife that he would stay true and not give in to all the temptations encountered on the road - at the same time acquiring a reputation amongst his fellow peers of doing the exact opposite! This is, however, one of the most well-written and enduring of Cash's self-penned songs, and it has since become inextricably interlinked with Cash and his legacy. The song was so powerful it inspired two movies – a 1970 film starring Gregory Peck, and the 2005 biopic that starred Joaquin Phoenix, and also earned a spot in the Grammy Song
Hall of Fame with its unique sound, becoming a Cash signature - from late 1956 -


Furthermore, Cash had a B-side beauty, with a song he originally wrote for Elvis Presley, that summed up 1956 - the
year where rythym, be it from Elvis, Carl Perkins, Sanford Clark, Marty Robbins and even Ray Price's new 4x4 shuffle beat, ruled the airwaves -


Stay tuned for more Cash delivery.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Cash had quickly established himself as a major star, the Memphis rockabilly-like backing from the Tennessee Two,
in addition to his powerful baritone/bass voice both being points of difference from the Nashville mainstream. The combination of Cash's country vocals to the what was then considered as a rock'n'roll like backing cut through to
both young audiences while still appealing to older traditionalists. No doubt influenced by tour partner, Elvis Presley,
who Cash enjoyed doing mock imitations of during his act, he also got a reputation as one of the very best live on
stage entertainers. Of course we now though it was about this stage or soon thereafter in his career that Cash was introduced to the world of amphetamines and barbiturates in order to "fire up" for his dynamic stage performances straight after spending long hours on the road.

Cash scored another # 1 again in March 1957 for 5 weeks with 'There You Go', fusing the adult honky tonk infidelity
and heartbreak theme with the youthful driving rockabilly beat -
"... Well, here I am and there you go, you're gone again /. I know you're gonna be the way you've always been. /
Breakin' hearts and tellin' lies is all you know. /. Another guy gives you the eye and there you go
..." -


Still in 1957 and another hit. Though only peaking at # 3, this is one that has endured to now being regarded as one of Cash's classics. Cash didn't sound like Nashville, nor like honky tonk or rock'n'roll. He basically created his own subgenre, falling halfway between the blunt adult emotional honesty and world weariness of country and the youthful rebelliousness of rock'n'roll. But in this number, Cash veers mighty close to a pure honky tonk sound (so of course I've included it - no bias at all here) -
"... So if you've just lost your sweetheart / And it seem there's no good way to choose /
Come along with me, misery loves company / You're welcome at the home of the blues
..."


Cash's next big hit was in 1958 with another well written number, this time incorporating two other favourite country music themes - the Mississippi River and the pursuit of an errant woman - "... I taught the weeping willow how to cry/ And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky..." A young man named Robert Zimmerman from Minnesota heard this song on the radio. Years later, when he was known as Bob Dylan and a good friend of Cash, he said the lines
of 'Big River' struck him as "just words that turned into bone."

Though I normally post contemporary examples, in this case I've chosen this much later live recording of Cash performing it at the motherchurch Ryman Auditorium for his TV show (thus dating this sometime from 1969 to 1971), firstly because Cash often had better, more dynamic live than recorded performances and the sound on this is quite good, but the main reason is explained by Cash himself when he interrupts his song -

Incidentally, it's actually the second verse, not the third, that was omitted from the original Sun recording.

The B-side of 'Big River', 'Ballad of a Teenage Queen' is a cute ballad written by Sun producer Jack Clement - and amazingly was the actually the bigger - and much bigger - hit of the two at the time, but it hasn't aged as well, having 'doobidoo' background vocals and even a high female voice in the background - being the Sun Records version of the newly established Nashville Sound. It's basically a nice but corny number about a hot girl who prefers the boy in the
small town lolly shop to all the riches Hollywood has to offer (yeah right). Still, it was a # 1 hit in 1957, Cash's third highest selling single ever and it still has a certain odd charm about it, not your usual sort of Cash ballad, being clearly aimed at a young audience in contrast to his other more adult themed hits -


For most of 1958, Cash attempted to record a gospel album, but Sun refused. The label was also unwilling to increase Cash's record royalties. Both of these were deciding factors in Cash's decision to sign with Columbia Records in 1958, where he soon fulfilled his promise to his deceased brother Jack by recording his first of many gospel albums. Cash at
this stage in his career had quite the way with a ballad, and with western ballads and saga songs in particular becoming popular, this heartbreaking western became Cash's first # 1 with Columbia Records. Cash’s close relationship with his mother Carrie no doubt inspired the song, which in 1959 became one of his biggest ever hits. The moral of the ballad seems to be - "listen to your mother" -


More Cash tomorrow as he oscillates between distinct career highs and low crisis points.
 

Professor Knowall

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In the 3 years from bursting to the top end of the country music scene in 1956, Cash amassed 5 # 1 hits and 9 others in the top 10, while also getting a reputation as pretty much the hardest working and best live entertainer going around. He seemed on top of everything. But trouble - serious trouble - was brewing. As Cash wrote in his second autobiography - "My affair with pills had already begun", and despite this early success, by 1963 having gone 5 years without any # 1 hit, he'd "destroyed his family and was working hard on doing the same to [himself]". By 1959 his pill addiction was out of control, affecting his songwriting, his recordings and even his live performances, his behaviour becoming manic. Despite moving to LA in 1959 and now being with a major record company, Columbia, Cash's output soon became 2nd rate and then, despite frequent recordings through 1961/62, even worse and he deservedly disappeared from the charts and seemed destined to become just another burnt out fifties relic as music adapted to the changing times of the sixties.

Cash had four daughters with his long suffering yet surprisingly loyal first wife Vivian, including later star, Rosanne Cash who has spoken about how her mother wanted Cash to settle down, spend more time at home with her and the family and perform mainly around Southern California. But Cash was having none of that, he was never home more than a few days at a time then off he'd go again, driving hundreds of miles at a time and playing sometimes two gigs a day. Years later, his guilt about this period played heavily on him. He wrote - "... Often I wasn't in my best voice, because the amphetamines dried my throat and reduced me, at times, to croaks and whispers, ...".

Cash's drug use escalated. He destroyed hotel rooms, canceled shows, started a serious bush fire (for which he was sued by the California Forest Dept), wrecked cars, was busted for illegal acquisition of pills, bashed out the Grand Ole Opry footlights (and was banned thus from the Opry) and alienated himself from his wife and 4 daughters. "I'd begin to feel good after two or three days without drugs," he wrote. "Then, though, I'd get home, usually on a Monday, and I'd find
the stress of my marriage so hard that I'd drive to that druggist, get two or three hundred pills, head out into the desert in my camper, and stay out there, high, for as long as I could."

Then Cash, his career at a low ebb, got the luckiest break of his life when in 1962, June Carter joined the Johnny Cash road show. The daughter of acoustic guitar great Mother Maybelle Carter (posts #117-118) and member of the Carter clan, a group known as "The First Family of Country Music" (post #222) and were regarded as music royalty across the broad spectrum of country music. For some time Cash had been enthralled by her beauty, humor and talent, and she very quickly recognized both Cash's magnetism and apparent need for a caretaker. In addition to flushing pills and soothing nerves, she wrote a song that described anxious feelings about their escalating relationship. Now we've already seen this song before - sort of, when first sung by June's sister, the extremely talented but shy, unambitious sister, Anita, as 'Loves Ring of Fire' (post #232). The following is mostly a repeat of what I wrote back then.

It all started with AP Carter having a book of Elizabethan poetry, which June Carter read and noticed a line "love's ring
of fire" underlined in one of the poems. This stuck in her mind. In 1963, June used this line to write the lyrics of a song about falling into a dangerous, but impossible to resist, love affair. When she wrote this, with Cash's friend Merle Kilgore doing the score, both June and Johnny were married, but had become singing partners and close - let's just say very close - friends. Cash was involved in drugs and had a very volatile, "dangerous" lifestyle at that time.

The song was written specifically for Anita and they liked it so much it was released as a single - but it didn't do much on the charts. In hindsight, the accomplishment is a bit feeble, and Anita's voice probably too sweet and innocent sounding for a song of dangerous, but irresistible, love. Meanwhile, Cash had a dream of singing it with Mexican Mariachi horns, and his version, with a couple of lyric changes and with the Carter Sisters providing the backing, is the one we all know now. He was better able to convey the danger and love - or lust - implicit in the song and the rest is history. The track was an anomaly at country radio, with a trumpet fanfare as one of its main production elements. That didn't stop it hitting # 1 hit in 1963. It was later included in the Grammy Song Hall of Fame -


Finally back at the top, Cash quickly backed up with another # 1, its melody for the next instantly recognisable to any
Bob Dylan fan, being one of his biggest hits 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright'. Dylan was an expert student of traditional American folk and country music and (quite openly) used old traditional melodies (many taken from the original Carter Family) for his lyricical compositions. In this case, the melody is based on the traditional song 'Who's Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I'm Gone', which was taught to Dylan by folksinger Paul Clayton, who had used it in his song 'Who's Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I'm Gone?'. When Cash was stuck for a melody, he rang Dylan, having already struck
up a friendship, based on their mutual interest in and knowledge of traditional folk and country music and asked him
if he'd be OK with using "his" melody and Dylan instantly replied "sure, go right ahead".

Ironically, the song was the last that Cash would ever perform in public in July 2003 – just a few weeks after the passing of his beloved June. The lyrics were perhaps Cash at his most cocky or belligerent, being the story of a man telling his significant other how things were going to be, or he was going to be hitting the road. Cash approached the song with dead-on swagger. Was it aimed at his recently divorced ex Vivian, for whom Cash later in life, wracked with guilt,
admitted he treated rather badly? -
"...I'm tired of your badmouthing ..." -


Now we've moved on to 1967. Cash had rarely hit the charts much for a few years, again due to his now chronic alcohol and pill problems. His most famous arrest occurred in El Paso, Texas, in 1965. Cash crossed over the border into Juarez
to buy cheap amphetamines. He was found with 668 Dexadrine and 475 Equanil tablets in his luggage and was lucky to receive a suspended sentence and a small fine. The image of Cash being led away in handcuffs was not a hit with Cash’s conservative audience, though edgy to others. Cash was banned from the Grand Ole Opry for a year after he bashed out the stage footlights with his mic stand in a drug fuelled performance. His marriage finally came to an end, his wife citing his now constant absence, alcohol and drug abuse and infidelity

By 1967, Cash and Carter were both single again and they got married in 1968 - but not before June, with the help of family matriarch Maybelle and sister Anita, really got Cash through this dark period alive - as depicted in the 2005 movie. Cash later credited June with saving his life by helping him get off drugs. In truth they helped each other, as June also battled pill addiction, albeit to a lesser extent than Cash's prodigious intake - later writing that at his worse he was taking up to 30 pills daily. The love story of John R. Cash and June Carter was one that took a while to develop and the secret of just when they crossed the line from just close friends to something more is a secret they took to their graves, but this 1967 performance of 'Jackson' was proof of the obvious spark between them. This reached # 2 -


As we've seen, Cash originally recorded 'Folsom Prison Blues' in 1956. It was released as his third single on Sun Records, where it reached No. 4. But it is the live recording from 1968's seminal At Folsom Prison album that has become iconic, with the palpable energy of Cash performing the track to an audience of inmates at the prison it made famous - and propelled Cash back to the peak of popularity, helped now by his association by marriage to country music royalty,
The Carter Family. On the other hand, the success of 'Folsom Prison Blues Live' reaching # 1, led to Cash being sued
by Gordon Jenkins, composer of 'Crescent City Blues' from whom Cash had plagiarised much of the song, leading to a $75,000 payout. The line, "But I shot man in Reno just to watch him die" is one of the most instantly recognizable in popular music -


At first casual hearing, this 1968 number may be mistaken for just a novelty song. It isn't. This is a song reminescing about growing up in a musical household, and for Cash, who grew up working on a small, poor cotton farm, this was a song about his childhood and a history lesson of sorts on how these poor rural areas produced so many great musicians (as we have seen on this thread), yet the song wasn't actually written by Cash but his old long time friend and Sun Records rock'n'roll pioneer Carl Perkins, now lead guitarist for Cash's band and who had a shared experience of a child doing hard labour on the cotton fields but also growing up in a family making their own music. The Statler Brothers, also shown here were a country and gospel group who opened and sang back-up for Cash from 1964 to 1972. So here's 'Daddy Sang Bass', written by Carl Perkins, from 1968 -


So we leave Cash once again back at the top after a couple of plunges down to the bottom. Back tomorrow to continue the Johnny Cash roller coaster.
 
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Professor Knowall

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We've left off Cash with Cash on a high - no, not that type of high, but a career high, his amphetamine and barbiturate addiction, if not totally eliminated (he admitted years later he continued some usage after his 1968 detox - the one depicted in the 2009 biographical movie - in order to combat his depressive episodes), but at least for now, it was controlled and not used to get high or artificially energised.

Following the success of the "Folsom Prison Live" album, it was decided to go to the well again and record another live album at San Quentin Prison (also in California) in February 1969. This wasn't Cash's first San Quentin visit; back in 1959 he did his first (unrecorded) concert there - and amongst the audience was a troubled petty thief and constant escapee (hence why he ended up in a high security prison), Merle Haggard, who ran a gambling and brewing racket with his cellmate but after watching Cash, decided that being a singer might be an easier, more rewarding career than crime. Anyway, once again, Cash put in a dynamic performance, the album "Live at San Quentin" was another smash and
Cash's profile and popularity crossed boundaries, having a 'cool factor' that attracted a younger audience that otherwise only followed rock music in that era.

This success and crossover appeal ultimately led to Cash having his own prime time national TV show from mid 1969 to mid 1971, which featured not just country music stars but also guests such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and had atypical blend of country, rock, folk and jazz, with Cash, by now very much an expert on American music history, spoke often about the strong links between these genres. The show itself was mostly broadcast from country music's motherchurch Ryman Auditorium, and it was a lavish production with not only a band and backing singers but an orchestra and choir.

Eventually, disputes over Cash's demands for more artistic control, very high production costs and good, but not great, ratings led to its cancellation in 1971. After this, Cash's career went into decline. He now rarely wrote but mostly relied
on leading songwriters such as Kris Kristoffosen for his material, and he no longer seemed to have his energy of old. By the end of 1971, he traveled to Israel, to film "The Gospel Road", a movie about the life of Jesus Christ. Cash was now a filmmaker, a father, a husband, a songwriter, a touring attraction, a celebrity and many other things. His recording career was stretched thin by his other interests, and he would not notch another # 1 hit until 1976.

Unlike 'Daddy Sang Bass', this can't be mistaken for a novelty song - because it basically is. But it's the best one ever! Cash was intrigued by the humorous lyrics of the song Shel Silverstein first performed at a songwriters’ getogether at the Cash homestead. In fact, he was so much a fan of the song he decided to take the lyric sheet with him to San Quentin, where he performed in February 1969. Having only just learned and never performed the song, Cash, set the lyrics on a stand in front of him, sang it for the captive audience and the results were legendary. Some have said - including Cash himself - that he could have inspired a revolt that night had he wanted to, and this performance was pure electricity!
Also note at the start when Cash introduced "... the great songwriter and guitarist ...", it was Carl Perkins -
"... Some gal would giggle and I'd turn red / And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head ..."
"... I made me a vow to the moon and stars / I'd search the honky-tonks and bars /
And kill that man that gave me that awful name
..."
"... My name is Sue, How do you do? NOW YOU'RE GONNA DIE!! ..."
Just like the Folsom Live Album, this album and single went # 1, cementing Cash's hold at the top -


Whether the legend that Kris Kristofferson landed his helicopter at Cash’s mansion to play him this song was true or not (it almost certainly ain't, just a good story), it doesn’t take anything away from the fact that this is amongst the most potent bit of Nashville songwriting ever. To perform the song on his ABC TV show, Cash was told he would have to drop the reference to “wishing Lord that I was stoned.” It might have been a suggestion to satisfy conservative censors, but can you imagine how different the song and the performance would have been without it? Nearly 5 decades later, this song about a massive hangover - or the effects of drug addiction - or is it the weariness, loneliness or helplessness some suffer from just living life? - it's a great example of a singer (and a songwriter) at their best. Here is Cash performing it at the Ryman for his TV show in 1970 with such Gravitas -


One of the most realistic love songs of any artists’ catalog, this 1970 # 1 could be used as an example for professors if they were to teach the art of love songwriting. Just like Shakespeare's love sonnets, you won't find any cliches on this one, which was undoubtedly inspired by his new-found happiness with June. The song was featured in the 1971 movie,
"I Walk the Line" starring Gregory Peck. Once again, we have Cash performing it live at the Ryman for his TV show -


Cash had a penchant for dressing in black, enough to be nicknamed "the man in black", although he did also appear
in other colours as various videos, photos and even some album covers also show him in colours other than black. If
any country artist was the original "man in black" it should be Slim Whitman! Still, Cash wore black often enough to eventually earn the nickname, later writing that he preferred black as it was easier to appear clean with it on the road.
But Cash also used the term metaphorically (though most took him literally) for this philosophical song. It wasn’t his biggest hit, but it's is one of the most important as Cash identifies with the poor, the voiceless, the outcasts and also against the then current Vietnam War. The lyrics of this 1971 # 4 hit thus reveals much of the social activism that was
so much a part of Cash’s career. He was a voice for the oppressed, and this song detailed that about as good as any.
Once again, this is from his TV show at the motherchurch of country music, the Ryman, and, as he explains, it's Cash's first ever public performance of the just written song -


By 1976, Cash’s fortunes as a recording artist were very much hit or miss and his songwriting had about dried up -
except for one last gem. He made his final trip to the top of the charts with this humorous song that made an impact on many listeners with its lyrics of the ultimate dream machine. So much so, in fact, that a fan actually made a car based
on the song for Cash that is on display at the Storyteller’s Museum, a building devoted to Cash in rural Hickman County, Tennessee where the singer lived part-time (and well worth a visit by anyone driving by on their great American road trip, following the music trail). It's a welcome return to a stripped-down sound reminiscent of Cash's 1950s work. The song became his final # 1 hit as a solo artist.


Now we've followed the highs and lows of Cash's turbulent career, full of triumphs mixed with some tragedies, and there ain't no more # 1 hits as his career seemingly winds down. But for tomorrow I've got something just a little different planned, as I'm not yet ready to say farewell to this great American icon.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Why is Johnny cash so popular still today, 17 years after his death? In part it can be put down to his totally unexpected late career revival, - but more of that next time - and the highly successful 2005 movie starring Joakim Phoenix, these not only keeping Cash's memory alive, but introducing him to another youth generation that otherwise would have never got to know about much about him or his music legacy - whereas other legends of that era like Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Ray Price and, of course, Marty Robbins, just aren't even known to so many now, even though during their lifetimes they actually outsold Cash and were stylistically seen by many music critics as better vocalists and (certainly in the case of Robbins) having more technically complex songs.

But that doesn't explain all - Cash at least, if not before, the late 1960's, already had a greater public persona than all other country singers and in 1969 was even described as "being bigger than the Beatles" as his celebrity status was reaching its peak. One this was sure - this exalted status went far beyond his music. In fact, for some perspective here, during Marty Robbins lifetime (to 1982), he comfortably outsold Cash, as also did Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. Music critics often sniff at the simplicity of Cash's music and his relatively impure and limited vocal range (compared say to Marty Robbins, who wrote more stylistically difficult songs and sang them better). But Cash was certainly more a force
of nature, given the events of his life.

Johnny Cash’s life was a country song lived out in the public glare, full of love and loss, passion and heartbreak, grief, loneliness, guilt, faith, melodrama and striving for redemption. His rough childhood and youth and turbulent struggles with addiction and family tumult gave him empathy for sinners in search of salvation and all those who had done hard time or known hard times. His plain-spoken writing and gritty, soul-deep singing transcended musical genres and gave voice to ordinary Americans’ experience of adversity. He was that rare outlaw beloved by soldiers (he performed often for troops in Vietnam) and student protesters alike (he spoke out publicly against the war), by rock ’n’ rollers (he became friends with not a few and defended the music of youth), country music traditionalists (he constantly acknowledged past greats and had albums of old country standards), convicts and conservative devotees of Billy Graham’s crusades.

Furthermore, especially from the early 1970's onwards, Cash carried a humble demeanour and, wracked with guilt over his absence and neglect of his daughters, began a decades-long re-examination of his life. After nearly 3 years of study
in the late '70s, he received a degree in theology, becoming a minister and close friend of Rev. Billy Graham. However,
he never actually acted as a church minister apart from presiding over his daughter, Karen's wedding all this while still, having an on-going battle against his addictions. As good friend, Bob Dylan said of Cash (and America) - “He is what the land and the country are all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here, and he said it all in plain English”; if “we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black.” In other words he was great, flaws and all - and he publicly owned his flaws.

Enough of musing about Cash's iconic status, and back to his music. Today's offering is a bit different from normal. First is his last solo top 10 hit in 1979, then a selection of train songs - Cash loved trains and singing about them - well that's my excuse - followed by one more song just because I wanted to include it. So here we go again, starting with a song we've seen a couple of times before - first by the Sons of the Pioneers (post # 123) who first popularised the song in 1949, making it a western standard and a 1963 version by Frankie Lane (post # 256). It was written by western songwriter
and actor, Stan Jones in 1948, apparently based on a native myth story told to him by a Native American (though I'm
not so sure as it was the Spanish that introduced both horses and cattle to America). The Western Writers of America chose it as the greatest Western song of all time. Cash had a # 2 hit with it - his last solo top 10. This shows a live
version of Cash in 1987, still able to deliver a fine performance -


Now for his train songs. Cash loved trains and in 1974 even recorded a whole album of train songs (just like Hank Snow had). I'm starting with a live 1980 version from the '25 Years of Johnny Cash' special of his very first 1955 song (the B-side of Cry, Cry, Cry) that started Cash on his way to stardom. Though only the B-side of Cash's first Sun single, 'Hey, Porter!' was cut months earlier, in March 1955. Cash wrote the song while travelling home from Landsberg, Germany
after serving 4years in the US Air Force. The song is an expression of His joy and exhilaration at his freedom and his
long-awaited return at the age of 22 to his family, music and especially his Southern roots - as Cash tells the story
himself here -


Although we've already seen this twice before - by Roy Acuff (post # 148) and fellowship train lover Hank Snow (post
# 203), this has to be included, first because Cash became a great promoter of traditional folk and country and western music, second, the original Carter Family covered this folk standard about a mythical train that comes to carry away the souls of departed railway hobos (which were frequent at that time) to hobo heaven, back in 1929, and third ... this video has steam engines.

The tune is the oldest song on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of "500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll." This Cash version is from 1966 -


The next train song is essentially a fiddle tune about a train, written in 1938. It was first popularised by the founder
of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe and long ago became a bluegrass fiddle standard, usually always performed at any Bluegrass
event as a straight out instrumental and played at an ever increasing tempo. Cash named his 1965 'Orange Blossom Special' album after the song. Cash (obviously) sang the lyrics, and replaced the fiddle parts with two harmonicas and
a saxophone. Cash played both harmonicas himself and in 1965, during one of those troubled periods when Cash was having trouble hitting the charts, this reached # 3 ... and the video features more steam engines -


And finally today I'm including this number just because I want to. Part of the live recorded concert at Folsom Prison in 1968, it's a cover of a Western swing song written by Red Arnall in 1947, though he changed the prison from San Quentin to Folsom (for obvious reasons) and altered the last line to "Lay off the whiskey..." instead of "Drink all you want...". By this stage in the concert Cash, who still performed despite having a cold, had basically blown his voice hoarse but still gave a riveting performance, better than any future gangsta rap -
"... Early one mornin' while makin' the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down ..."
"... Shot her down because she made me slow / I thought I was her daddy but she had five more ..."
"... I can't forget the day I shot that bad b*tch down ..." -


Tomorrow will be our farewell to the legend, but not before Cash had another surprise twist or two in his ever changing career.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Moving on to the 1980's and with his songwriting ability no longer apparent, his songs not charting well, drugs have resumed their pull on Johnny Cash. One early 1980's downturn occurred after one of his ostriches attacked him on
his property. Cash suffered 5 broken ribs, painkillers were prescribed and the cycle of addiction began yet again. Cash later surmised that self-loathing was involved in all his substance abuse. Even as fans and fellow musicians lauded his accomplishments, even with unending devotion from his wife, he was unable to make peace with himself. In 1984, he entered the Betty Ford Center and was treated for morphine addiction.

The lowest point in Cash's career came in 1984 when he failed to make the country Top 40 with a putrid novelty song called 'Chicken in Black', which he later called "an embarrassment." Even while his smart, sultry, cutting-edge recordings of his singing, songwriting daughter, Rosanne Cash was cutting through to a new audience, Cash was not only no longer bigger than The Beatles, he just wasn't even charting at all. Finally, Columbia dropped Cash from the label in 1986 after 28 years, creating an uproar among Cash devotees such as young gun Dwight Yoakam. With the dawn of the 1990's, he was considering an exodus from recording. "Saying goodbye to that game and just working the road, playing with my friends and family for people who really wanted to hear us, seemed very much like the thing to do," he wrote in "Cash".

However, a positive of the 1980's was teaming up with old friends, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson to form the successful recording and touring outfit, the Highwaymen. While the other 3 were all key members of the "outlaw" movement in the 1970's - Waylon and Willie being the prime instigators of it all - Cash wasn't (contrary to what some have mistakenly written since) actually part of it - ironically the whole "outlaw" thing broke out the one time when Cash was most tied to the Nashville "establishment" with his TV show and other ventures. Then again, as we've seen, he was always basically something of an "outlaw" the whole way through. Anyway, the Highwaymen were successful (how could they not), recording several albums and touring extensively. This clip shows them performing Cash's early hit 'Big River' in 1990 -


In 1992 Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor that reminded many of his spare rockabilly
work on Sun Records. However, although he still performed and cut another album with The Highwaymen, he was now considered a star of the past, no longer a hit maker. A year later, another music maverick, Rick Rubin, known for his work with rap and hard rock acts, signed Cash to a deal with American Recordings, setting into motion a totally unexpected, unforseen rise back to contemporary viability. Here was the so-simple-it's-brilliant idea by the man who had produced
the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy - record Johnny Cash unadorned, just strumming an acoustic guitar and singing.

Even before the world at large was able to hear the solo/acoustic album called American Recordings, Cash's credibility
was rising, phoenix like, from the ashes. In 1988, Cash underwent double heart bypass surgery in Nashville, a warning bell which triggered a re-evaluation of his remarkable career by younger generations of listeners. That year, the British Red Rhino label issued "Til Things Are Brighter", featuring young artists covering Cash songs to raise money for Aids research, and he was greatly touched by it. In 1992, after was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, he and
June performed 'It Ain't Me Babe' at the Madison Square Garden concert commemorating Dylan's 30 years in the music business. In 1993, Cash's gravelly baritone featured on The Wanderer, from U2's Zooropa album ("I was thrilled to death, because I love that song," Cash said), and in 1994 the American Recordings album amounted to a complete reappraisal
of the legend of Johnny Cash, and one which found a whole new audience and winning a Grammy. An appearance at the Glastonbury Festival boosted his burgeoning new profile.

After years of creative and commercial decline, Cash was cool again. He appeared on a show celebrating the opening
of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recorded Willie Nelson's 'Time of the Preacher' with a backing band that included members of Nirvana and Alice in Chains, and played a House of Blues set in LA with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty and the Heartbreakers also were featured prominently on Cash's second Rubin-produced album, "Unchained", released in 1996. This album abandoned the all-acoustic approach, even using distorted, post-punk electric guitars
for a cover of alternative rock band Soundgarden's 'Rusty Cage'. But Rubin and Cash also included rockabilly songs, vintage country tunes by Jimmie Rodgers, the Louvin Brothers and Hank Snow, gospel material and a take on Petty's ballad Southern Accents along with the "alternative rock" songs from Soundgarden and Beck.

Cash was honored in December 1996 as an enthusiastic and even emotional President Clinton (next to his stone faced wife) and others applauded him receiving a Kennedy Center award. Cash was recommended on the grounds his music examined "the entire range of existence, failure and recovery, entrapment and escape, weakness and strength, loss and redemption, life and death." Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and others joined daughter Rosanne Cash in the televised Kennedy Center tribute, and Cash wiped tears during his daughter's performance - especially the second song
in this performance, the old African-American spiritual 'Fly Away', that Cash used to sing as a kid with other, mostly black, labourers in the field picking cotton. Even Clinton (Bill, not Hillary, of course) teared up -


In "Cash", he later wrote the attention was flattering but there was a flip side. "The day after the Kennedy Center show,
I came further down to earth when my daughters got together with me and voiced some very deep feelings they'd had
for a very long time - told me things, that is, about the lives of girls whose daddy abandoned them for a drug," he wrote. "That was very hard." Cash was quite correctly viewed in the public as a crusader for righteous things: for tolerance, spirituality and good music. But Rosanne's song 'My Old Man' artfully rectified the heroic myth with the virtuous, honorable but blemished man: "He believes what he says he believes," she sang. "But that don't make him a saint."

Cash announced he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease in 1997, and was hospitalized with double pneumonia soon afterwards. Later he claimed he had Shy-Drager syndrome, but he was actually suffering from autonomic neuropathy, a group of symptoms affecting the central nervous system which made him particularly prone to contracting pneumonia. Nevertheless, he was able to return to the studio to record the 3rd and 4th instalments in Rubin’s American Recordings series, "Solitary Man" (2000) and "The Man Comes Around" (2002). While the American albums were filled with good material, one thing Cash hadn't done in a long time was to pen a song that stood on equal footing with classics such as Big River or Flesh and Blood. He rectified that with his new album's title song. "I worked harder and longer on that song than on anything I've ever written," Cash said. If you were in any doubt about Cash having strong religious views, especially from the latter 1970's onwards, just listen to this -


The latter featured a bleak reading of Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Hurt’ which was promoted by a stunning video in which the
camera lingered unflinchingly on the Cash's weathered face. He looked 85 going on 90 - but he was just 70 years old. This song, on it's surface an anti-drug song, was made for Cash. It was his most public, and final, confessional, of the hurt he caused to himself and to others, and the hurt he still carried with him. It wasn't written by Cash, or for him, it's "only" a cover. But Cash, his voice now a feeble shadow of its former strength, his face a reflection of his life and a life lived to the full and now ebbing away, gives this song a poignancy and extra meaning beyond words -
"... I wear this crown of thorns / Upon my liar's chair / Full of broken thoughts / I cannot repair ..."


"American IV" sold more than 200,000 copies. His new version of Sun recording 'Give My Love to Rose' won Cash his 11th Grammy for best male country vocal. In May 2003, Cash, lost his wife of 35 years, June Carter Cash. But in the following weeks, Cash returned to recording and addressed concerns about his health with stubborn wit, saying, "I plan to outlive all my children. I'm not going anywhere." In June, Cash appeared in Maces Springs at the venue known as the Carter Family Fold. He was hoarse and weak, but he sang several songs and spoke to the crowd: "I don't know hardly what to say tonight about being up here without her. The pain is so severe there is no way of describing it."

Music was Cash's primary balm in attempting to quell that pain. He was often at his studio, working on tracks for an "American V" album with musicians including Marty Stuart and Jack Clement, and as part of this, recorded a traditional folk song, 'God's Gonna Cut You Down', the lyrics warning wrongdoers can't avoid God's eventual judgment (a favourite theme of the Louvin Brothers). This was not released until 2006, along with a music video, directed by Tony Kaye, was made for this version in late 2006, 3 years after Cash's death. The video was shot entirely in black and white and features a line-up of (wrongdoing?) celebrities. To date, it has sold over 700,000, a posthumous hit -


While still recording for "American V", Cash was hospitalised for 3 weeks with a stomach ailment. He was released but
fell ill again almost straight away and died in September 2003, just 4 months after June Carter Cash. He was aged 71. During his lifetime, Cash was made a member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the Country Music Hall Of Fame, and
the Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame. He was also the recipient of 11 Grammy Awards. Cash’s gigantic contribution to country music’s history is inestimable. As he truly said - "They can get all the synthesizers they want, but nothing will ever take the place of the human heart".
 
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Professor Knowall

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Just a bit today, starting with a story from Roseanne Cash, who after leaving school decided to go on the road with her dad (in 1973) for just a couple of weeks, with the intention of giving him a hard time for his years of previous absence and neglect. She ended up staying on the road with him for 2 and a half years, first as a wardrobe assistant, then as a background vocalist and occasional soloist. By her own admission, her musical knowledge at the start was extremely limited - just the all pervasive but all too narrow world of contemporary pop/rock that she grew up with in LA. She got
the perfect music education over the next 30 months that shaped her future.

From Roseanne's own words - "When I was 18 years old, I went on the road with my dad after I graduated from high school. And we were riding on the tour bus one day, kind of rolling through the South, and he mentioned a song," Cash says. "We started talking about songs, and he mentioned one, and I said I don't know that one. And he mentioned another. I said, 'I don't know that one either, Dad,' and he became very alarmed that I didn't know what he considered
my own musical genealogy. So he spent the rest of the afternoon making a list for me, and at the end of the day, he said, 'This is your education.' And across the top of the page, he wrote '100 Essential Country Songs.'"

Despite his own label, Johnny Cash didn't limit his choices with a strict definition of "country" music. "The list might have been better titled '100 Essential American Songs,' because it was very comprehensive. He covered every critical point in Southern and American music: early folk songs, protest songs, Delta blues, Southern gospel, early country music, Appalachian. Everything that fed into modern country music was on that list."

Cash says there is a legacy to preserve — and it isn't just her father's. "You know, people who weren't around to hear Patsy Cline's version of 'She's Got You,' or a song like Hank Williams' 'Take These Chains,' or never heard Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" or Hank Snow or any of these people. So, I always felt like, you can't imagine the Scots or the Irish without Celtic music," she says. "You can't imagine us, the Americans, without these songs. They are so important to us. You know, it would be a tragedy if they were just, you know - if they were just in a museum, or if they were just archived somewhere; if they weren't still being performed."

After reading about Johnny Cash's 100 song list and the importance of keeping the legacy of all that has gone before
alive (how often are we bound to merely our own lifetime?) I felt good. Roseanne Cash released an album of 13 songs from that list in 2009 - the album is titled "The List". The rest of the songs on Cash's list still remains a secret.

At Johnny Cash's memorial service, held at the Ryman Auditorium (where else?), Roseanne Cash sang an old Cash song from 1956. It was never a hit, but always remained a favourite of Cash, who performed it most every concert. It seems a fitting way to farewell him -



Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (who famously, as an inmate, watched Cash perform at San Cuentin in 1959) both toured and recorded albums with Cash. This is their tribute, in their own slightly irreverent way, written by Haggard for their joint album "Django and Jimmie", released 2015, 12 years after Cash's departure -


After covering the great music legends Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash so far in 2021, when I return (which won't be tomorrow) I'll again go back to the epic year of 1956 - but it'll be about person who never had a single hit in his whole
life and was largely ignored and forgotten (but is recognised now as an influential music pioneer and remembered, if only in one specific country music sub-genre that still has its own distinctive sub-culture.
 

Professor Knowall

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Just a bit today, starting with a story from Roseanne Cash, who after leaving school decided to go on the road with her dad (in 1973) for just a couple of weeks, with the intention of giving him a hard time for his years of previous absence and neglect. She ended up staying on the road with him for 2 and a half years, first as a wardrobe assistant, then as a background vocalist and occasional soloist. By her own admission, her musical knowledge at the start was extremely limited - just the all pervasive but all too narrow world of contemporary pop/rock that she grew up with in LA. She got
the perfect music education over the next 30 months that shaped her future.

From Roseanne's own words - "When I was 18 years old, I went on the road with my dad after I graduated from high school. And we were riding on the tour bus one day, kind of rolling through the South, and he mentioned a song," Cash says. "We started talking about songs, and he mentioned one, and I said I don't know that one. And he mentioned another. I said, 'I don't know that one either, Dad,' and he became very alarmed that I didn't know what he considered
my own musical genealogy. So he spent the rest of the afternoon making a list for me, and at the end of the day, he said, 'This is your education.' And across the top of the page, he wrote '100 Essential Country Songs.'"

Despite his own label, Johnny Cash didn't limit his choices with a strict definition of "country" music. "The list might have been better titled '100 Essential American Songs,' because it was very comprehensive. He covered every critical point in Southern and American music: early folk songs, protest songs, Delta blues, Southern gospel, early country music, Appalachian. Everything that fed into modern country music was on that list."

Cash says there is a legacy to preserve — and it isn't just her father's. "You know, people who weren't around to hear Patsy Cline's version of 'She's Got You,' or a song like Hank Williams' 'Take These Chains,' or never heard Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" or Hank Snow or any of these people. So, I always felt like, you can't imagine the Scots or the Irish without Celtic music," she says. "You can't imagine us, the Americans, without these songs. They are so important to us. You know, it would be a tragedy if they were just, you know - if they were just in a museum, or if they were just archived somewhere; if they weren't still being performed."

After reading about Johnny Cash's 100 song list and the importance of keeping the legacy of all that has gone before
alive (how often are we bound to merely our own lifetime?) I felt good. Roseanne Cash released an album of 13 songs from that list in 2009 - the album is titled "The List". The rest of the songs on Cash's list still remains a secret.

At Johnny Cash's memorial service, held at the Ryman Auditorium (where else?), Roseanne Cash sang an old Cash song from 1956. It was never a hit, but always remained a favourite of Cash, who performed it most every concert. It seems a fitting way to farewell him -



Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (who famously, as an inmate, watched Cash perform at San Cuentin in 1959) both toured and recorded albums with Cash. This is their tribute, in their own slightly irreverent way, written by Haggard for their joint album "Django and Jimmie", released 2015, 12 years after Cash's departure -


After covering the great music legends Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash so far in 2021, when I return (which won't be tomorrow) I'll again go back to the epic year of 1956 - but it'll be about person who never had a single hit in his whole
life and was largely ignored and forgotten (but is recognised now as an influential music pioneer and remembered, if only in one specific country music sub-genre that still has its own distinctive sub-culture).
 
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Professor Knowall

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Now for a musician that's been variously dubbed "The King of Rockabilly", "Mr Rockabilly" and "A No Hit Wonder"!
Charlie Feathers was many things to many fans of rock and country music. To some, he was a superb country stylist
who could take almost any piece of material and stamp it with the full force of his personality. To others, he was one
of rockabilly's great pioneering innovators. Feathers wasn't the first to record rockabilly but his stubborn insistence on combining elements of country, raw blues and bluegrass to make his own version of the rockabilly experience showed
him to be one of the genre's most original and enduring artists - but one destined never to have a hit.

If you think I'm about to introduce yet another musician born in the rural south and raised dirt poor on a cotton farm - you'd be right. Like the army of poor Southern boys that revolutionized American music in the 1950's, Charlie Feathers
was born into a world of poverty so severe that it made little differentiation between white and black. Born in the rural
far north of Mississippi, not all that far from Memphis, Feathers was one of 8 children raised on a share-cropper farm (hence the poorest of the poor) until he left school at the age of 10 to work in cotton fields and at other hard labor.

Feather's first musical hero was bluegrass founder, Bill Monroe, followed soon by Hank Williams, but he learned to
play guitar from a field hand and childhood friend - and not just any friend but cotton-picking black bluesman, Junior Kimbrough (when Kimbrough, after a distinguished career, died in 1998, Feathers called him "the beginning and end
of all music" - this tribute is written on Kimbrough's tombstone). All of these influences (bluegrass, honky tonk and
delta blues) and others eventually shaped Feathers' style.

Having left home at age 15 with his father to work on the notoriously tough Texan and Illinois oilfields, Feathers finally settled in Memphis in 1950, getting married and working in a local box factory. After spending several months in hospital due to spinal meningitis listening to the emerging new music on Memphis radio, he decided to turn to the music business, having played regularly during his time in Texas and, like numerous other southern boys with limited education (Feathers was basically illiterate) liked the way music could provide a salary without all the sweat and toil of a regular job.

In 1954, Feathers began hanging around the Sun Studio - working his way into the getting something released on Sun Records, filling in whenever and wherever he could, recording demos, working on arrangements, and co-writing songs, including Elvis' last Sun single and his most 'pure' country song 'I Forgot to Remember to Forget' (see post # 278). In 1954 and 1955, Feathers recorded a handful of powerful country songs for Sun - songs that caused Sam Phillips to refer to him as "the first great country singer I ever cut and probably the best".

Phillips arranged for Feathers to work with two veterans of the country scene, Bill Cantrell and Quinton Claunch. The first single released of Feathers was 'I've Been Deceived/Peepin' Eyes' on the country flavoured Flip label in February 1955.
By May, the single had entered the Memphis country charts, but like Elvis' Sun Studio 1955 releases, it was hampered by the studio's then local reach. 'I've Been Deceived' is now considered a honky tonk classic of the era with a distinct pure southern country vocal, emotion dripping from every word coupled with lyrics comparable to the best country songs -
"... But the Good Book tells us, you'll reap what you sow / And your harvest, darlin', will be bitter tears I know /
Oh, I've been deceived
..." -


The B-side 'Peepin' Eyes', written (or rather composed, as Feathers was illiterate) was, by contrast, an up-tempo honky tonker, catchy enough to deserve better at the time and like much of Feathers early work, now very highly regarded. For all its bounciness, it's a sinister piece, hinting at voyeurism and guilty little secrets. Reviewing it in April 1955, Billboard magazine stated - ''Indie Flip label has found itself a major piece of talent in Feathers. This is one of the few distinctive voices to emerge ..." -


Owing more than a bit to the tune of Hank Williams' 'I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow' and sharing its bleak intensity, 'Defrost Your Heart' struck Phillips as ideal when this was finished in 1955. This was another stellar outing by Feathers. The song is truly beautiful and is matched by Feathers' masterful phrasing. He extends and bends a word or syllable
in the same way as Lefty Frizzell but, at the same time, has the Hank Williams desperation in his voice. Sam Phillips
could never understand why this single was not a hit, and it's a mystery still - though I suspect the timing was just
wrong, being released just as Elvis and Perkins were topping the charts. The flipside 'Wedding Gown Of White' also
has its merits. If this had've been released just 12 months earlier, or even just been released in Nashville instead of by now the new music obsessed city of Memphis, who knows how this might've gone. Alas it was released only in Memphis, up against the nationally charting 'Heartbreak Hotel' and 'Blue Suede Shoes' and never became the hit it should've been -


Sam Phillips saw Feathers as a budding star of traditional country, rather than of the new music of Presley and Perkins and later insisted he could've been as big as George Jones had he stuck with traditional country. While this, in hindsight, was a big misjudgement, when listening to the Sun Feathers country releases I can see Phillips point. But Feathers' heart, it seemed, lay in rockabilly. In 1956, the singer had two rockabilly songs he was just itching to record. But Phillips, with Presley and Perkins already filling the Rockabilly market, refused to release any rockabilly sides by Feathers.

When there was no sign of a further release, Feather's patience expired and he headed across town to Les Biharis' Meteor label in April 1956 and recorded 2 new songs, the classic 'Tongue Tied Jill' and 'Get With It' using only one microphone then returned to Phillips with the tape. Again, Phillips showed little interest in the rockabilly recordings and a disillusioned Feather's returned the tapes to Bihari who, on asking Feathers what he intended to do, was told he no longer had plans and Bihari could do what he liked with the songs. Bihari was impressed enough to release the songs in June 1956. The single did good local business and furthered Feather's fame around the Memphis area, resulting in a TV appearance singing 'Tongue Tied Jill' and a one-off appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York. 'Tongue-Tied Jill' was probably the biggest records Meteor ever had, reaching # 1 in Memphis for a week, but that was it, and, having naively, or stupidly, relinquished all his rights to Bihari for nothing, Feathers never got a cent out of the record.

'Tongue Tied Jill' was actually only the B-side, the A-side Get With It was the first disc Feathers cut in the style for which he would become legendary, his energetic vocals whipping up a storm to the country-rock backing of henchmen Jerry Huffman and Jody Chastain on guitar and bass, having a self-descriptive commentary of the band starting the song,
then rocking oright on -
"Well, you pick a tune / And you slap the bass / I'll play the rhythm in a pepped up pace ..." -

But the greater triumph was Tongue Tied Jill, a racy rockabilly story featuring the stuttering vocal idiosyncracy for
which Feathers would become famous. The song, about a ''real gone chick'' with a speech impediment (I've read
several accounts stating Phillips refused to record the song for this reason, but I don't at all believe that), which
Feathers demonstrates in its babbling chorus, was born from his conversation with a stammering telephone operator.
Not a subject anyone would touch these days, but back then, perfectly OK! The sound is something else, combining country, blues and bluegrass, creating a sound of his own (just as Sanford Clark had also created his own unique rockabilly sound about the same time in Phoenix), from 1956 -


'Tongue Tied Jill' was a regional hit (#1 in Memphis for a week) but Meteor simply didn't have the distribution network
or it's owner the drive and ambition necessary to produce a national hit. Feather's, having been frustrated by Phillips at Sun, and allowing himself to be ripped off by Meteor, next went to another local Memphis studio, King Records - where he proceeded to knock out about the most rip roaring, highest quality rockabilly ever recorded - but that all comes tomorrow.
 
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Professor Knowall

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In the Johnny Cash instalment, I asked the question - why is (and was) Johnny Cash so popular? - and concluded the reasons went beyond just his music. For Charlie Feathers, the question is reversed - why, with all his obvious talent, did Feathers not attain any of the fame of Sun records label-mates like Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (let alone Presley and Cash)? Again, the answer goes beyond his music, as his music is now very highly regarded - so much so that I soon found on the internet I was about the thousandth person (so it seemed) to pose this question. And with this question so often asked on the net, there's almost as many opinions as to why his records didn't sell back then when it seems now they should've charted strongly. But after sifting through the reasons, ones that struck me were -

Poor timing (involving sheer bad luck) - had his first honky tonk Sun recordings come out just 6 months earlier, before the rock and rockabilly fever swept through Memphis - or had he recorded these in country music central Nashville instead of Memphis (assuming he got a recording deal), then who knows?... , and then had his first rockabilly recording in 1956 had been 6 months earlier .... who knows?

His character was often described as brash and aggressive, self opiniated and unwilling to listen to opinions that differed to his (several articles refer to this and two obituaries I read - from the Guardian and The Independent, were both rather unusually cynical and narky in parts - it seems Feathers upset some journos at interviews). Yesterday, I quoted Sam Phillips saying that Feathers could've been a great country artist. But actually the full quote was - "Charlie Feathers was always difficult to work with and that's why we never got the best out of him. That's too bad because he could have been a superb top country artist, the George Jones of his day."

It could have been his voice, which was slightly too hiccupingly and shriekingly radical for mass consumption, especially back in the 1950's. The world wasn't ready for punk rock. And when rockabilly went out of vogue and almost forgotten
for 20 years - Feathers was the one artist who stuck with it the whole way through, refusing to bend to the latest music trends.

It could have been his rudimentary education; he was barely literate and, it seems, hopeless when it came to business, making almost nothing from the records he did sell, due to the bad deals he signed - and it seems he never bothered
to hire a manager, which given his self-opiniated character, is unsurprising, but given his lack of business nouse and education, an unwise choice.

Lack of ambition - it was late in life (covered tomorrow), before a major record company signed him. Before the late revival of his career, he was content just to record with minor Memphis companies and tour locally at small venues. When Feathers, in the 1970's rockabilly revival, got to play at large English concert halls, he seemed uncomfortable, only really still killing it at the small smoky bars he was used to and felt comfortable. He also seemed happy enough living a regular life with his tight knit family in Memphis, driving an old pick- up truck and enjoying visits from fans just dropping in.
Feathers always insisted, contrary to other accounts, that he was intimately involved in many of Presley's early songs, as arranger and sometimes as writer, including claiming to arrange Presley's cover of 'That's Alright Mama'. Many of these claims, lacking supporting evidence, are disbelieved by most. Then again, they haven't actually been disproved and he does have a shared writing credit for the Presley song 'I Forgot to Remember to Forget', whose success persuaded RCA to buy out Elvis' Sun Records' contract.

There was no question, however, of Feathers' talent. The Meteor record led to an offer for Charlie's services from the successful independent label King Records. Featherd, who would still have rather been with Sun Records, signed for King in the summer of 1956 in a deal that virtually signed away any songwriter royalties. It was another bad move financially but it provided the world with some of the greatest rockabilly music ever committed to wax.

Enter the hiccup, mixed with country, blues and perhaps some early doom rock, this song became re-popularised over the last 20 years or so by being on the "Kill Bill 2" track list and also Grand Theft Auto's Rebel Radio -


The B-side backed up with 'Everybody's Lovin' My Baby -


Then came what many in rockabilly consider the best two sided single in rockabilly history. the A-side 'One Hand Loose' -


The B-side features a song apparently about having to give the baby a bottle before being able to hit the town hard (something Feathers, with a young family, might've related to), but really, who cares? This is just something to get
to the dance floor - I think the technical term is "kick ass rockabilly" -


Sales were sufficiently encouraging for King to schedule another session in January 1957, in Nashville. Once more the standard was high, if a little more commercial, with the band laying down 'Too Much Alike', 'When You Come Around', 'When You Decide' and 'Nobody's Woman'. For the session a vocal group led by Prisonnaire Johnny Bragg was added. Again the four tracks were issued over two singles. Despite public appearances all over the south, including the legendary Big'D' Jamboree in Dallas, the two singles culled from the Nashville session again failed to register a hit. -



For four such high quality singles to fail to register, the temptation to jack it in must have been a serious consideration
for Feathers, trying to support a young family. But the music bug had bitten deep and he toured constantly. A typical
show from this time would have Feathers supported by Chastain and Huffman and an occasional third Musical Warrior, drummers' Billy Adams or Ramon Maupin. As well as playing the southern honky tonk beer joints with Sun artists like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, gigs also included drive-in movie theatres. But, despite their defining rockabilly sound, the records sold poorly and Feathers’ talent remained unrecognised. Forty years later he was still recording, still ever loyal to rockabilly, still looking for that one elusive hit!
 

Professor Knowall

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We left of Feathers without a hit as rockabilly faded away in the 1950's, despite Feathers recording more quality offerings like 'Junge Fever' in 1958 -


The 1960's was a tough time generally for country and rockabilly singers as the US was being taken by storm by the British pop beat groups, as well as the sounds of the Monkies and Jimi Hendrix. Some tried to change with the times, normally with disastrous results; others just crawled under the woodwork until the rockabilly revival of the 1970's (ironically also started in the UK). To his credit, Feathers never strayed from his beloved rockabilly in his honky tonk shows and the tracks he recorded up to 1969 at Select-O-Hits Studio in Memphis. These songs were eventually issued in 1979 on the Barrelhouse album "That Rockabilly Cat". One of the greatest, most authentic releases from the period came by the 2-sided 1968 single, with 'Tear It Up', sounding like it's just rocketed straight outta the 1950's on the A-side -


The B-side had 'Stutterin' Cindy', a sequel of sorts to 'Tongue Tied Jill' of 12 years earlier -


More superb rockabilly, released on Rollin Rock Records in 1974. Here Feathers does the upright bass with his son Bubba on lead guitar. It was recorded in his friend's living room, and for years I assumed it was a 1950s track, it is that good. It became well known when it was used in the soundtrack to the 2003 Quentin Tarantino film "Kill Bill" -


Riding the great 1970's rockabilly revival, as the godfather who stayed true and never deserted it, Feathers made his debut UK appearance in 1977 at the Rainbow Theatre in London together with Jack Scott, Buddy Knox and Warren Smith. An album from the show was issued on EMI Harvest. Just a couple of weeks after the Rainbow show, he recorded an album with his son, guitarist Bubba Feathers which was a triumph with top notch performances. He toured the U.K. Several times more through the 1980's and toured Australia.

From 1980 to 1983, Feathers privately released his own 45's, which he sold at his concerts. Though he had originally recorded a tamer version of 'Folsom Prison Blues' in 1973, this rip-roaring version from one of those private 45 releases
is downright mean -

Feathers continued to record until 1991, including on the major level, Electra, in 1990. Despite suffering much ill-health rhrough the 1990's, including having a cancerous lung removed in 1990 and triple-bypass surgery in 1995, he continued to perform, mainly around Memphis with his son and daughter and record until in 1998 he died following a massive stroke, aged 66.

Feathers influential but spartan, full of whoops and growls, but ultimately, irresistible country rock was an invisible influence over several decades, from the Big Bopper in the 1950's to Hank Wangford in the 1980s. He performed with
his son and daughter on guitar and vocals, respectively. A remarkable crop of unissued demos appeared in 1995 as "Tip Top Daddy" and further highlighted the originality of the man who defined country rockabilly and yet never received widespread recognition for his contribution until late in life.

Next time I return, I will complete the Sun set.
 

Professor Knowall

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And now we welcome our second living artist (after Sandford Clark) and, after Elvis, Perkins, Cash and Feathers, the last of our Sun Studio set - one who's been rightly crowned a 'rock'n'roll legend - but sometimes now overlooked is that he's also a country music great (however I won't ignore his earliest rock'n'roll as it's so much part of his story).

In 1956, Sam Phillips recorded a jamming session with Lewis, Elvis, Cash and Perkins that was given the name
"The Million Dollar Quartet" in a feature newspaper article (though Cash only hung around for the photos before
deciding to go shopping and missed the actual jam session). The moment the “Million Dollar Quartet” came together
is now considered one of the seminal events in country and rock history. Each of them went on to international fame
and fortune, but today, Lewis is the sole living member. All four were hard-drinking, hard living pill-poppers - that was how they all kept up with what now seems an impossible schedule of over 300 gigs per year and traveling countless hours by road: amphetamines to speed them up, opiates to slow them down. Astonishingly, given his well deserved reputation as the "wild boy of rock'n'roll", Lewis outlived them all and so many others of that era. In 1984, doctors cut away a third of his stomach, after he was diagnosed with perforated ulcers, caused by his drug abuse over the years. He was given a 50% chance of survival, but he did and last October celebrated his 85th birthday with a virtual all-star concert.

Always called Jerry Lee to distinguish him from the pop-singer/comedian/film star Jerry Lewis, he was born in 1935 in the tiny town of Ferriday in NE Louisiana and, of course, his parents were dirt poor cotton farmers. Like Feathers, Lewis grew up in an area which was overwhelmingly black and thus dominated by the blues, traditional spirituals, gospel and rythmic field chants (when cotton was still hand picked). Now Ferriday is an interesting little place - still full of churches, still dirt poor and still a Delta Blues centre. But Lewis also listened to the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride on the radio. One of his earliest heroes was the East Texas singer-pianist Moon Mullican (posts # 198-199), one of his key influences
on piano. His other country heroes were Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers.

By the time he was just nine, little Jerry Lee had taught himself how to play piano and was belting out songs emulating the Delta musicians who played around their town. His parents knew their kid had talent, and, seeing it as their only way out of poverty, they bet the farm on it - literally. They mortgaged the farm to buy a $450 piano. Lewis was surrounded by budding musical talent. Sharing piano lessons with his 2 cousins, Mickey Gilltey and Jimmy Lee Swaggart, a 10 year old Lewis showed remarkable aptitude. A visit from older cousin Carl McVoy unlocked the secrets to the boogie-woogie styles he was hearing on the radio and across the rail tracks, he was allowed into Haney's Big House, owned by his uncle and catering to blacks exclusively - an important delta blues venue. Lewis hid under a table and listened, mesmerised, to some of the best delta blues musicians anywhere. He mixed that up with gospel and country and started coming up
with his own style.

But his mother had other plans for the young family prodigy, enrolling him in a bible college. But when 'Killer' (a nickname he earned at high school when he put his teacher in a strangling headlock) tore into a boogie-woogie rendition of 'My God Is Real' at a church assembly that resulted in instant expulsion. By the time 21-year-old Lewis showed up at Sun Studio in Memphis, he had been thrown out of bible college; been a complete failure as a sewing-machine salesman; been spurned by the Nashville record companies (resulting in him bearing a life long grudge against Nashville) and even rejected by the more progressive Louisiana Hayride, been married twice - the first time at age 15, been in jail and convinced that he truly was the next big thing.

A Sun Studio assistant put Roland Janes on guitar and J.M. Van Eaton on drums behind Lewis, whose fluid left hand
made a bass player superfluous. This little unit would become the core of Lewis' recording band for the entire 7 years
he recorded at Sun. The first single was a hopped-up rendition 'Crazy Arms', which had just made famous by Ray Price, was the biggest country hit in the mega year 1956, and which in turn made Ray Price famous (posts # 290-295). Lewis' cover, using Price's new 4/4 shuffle beat, was a regional hit in the mid-south where Sun records were sold, selling over 300,000 and getting him noticed and setting him up for the raging success to come. So Elvis' rival for the title "king of rock'n'roll" started his serious commercial career with a straight out country classic - featuring his piano flourishes -


A staple of the Jerry Lee Lewis song catalog, this seminal rock'n'roll tune was recorded at his second session for Sun Records in 1957. Believe it or not, though it remains one of his signature tunes, Lewis was not the first to cut the song -
2 years earlier, it was recorded by R&B performer Big Maybelle. The song became Lewis’s breakthrough hit, topping the country charts, and # 3 on the pop charts. And as his dynamic live performance of his country rock songs were so much part of the Jerry Lee Lewis legend, I've chosen to show some early live performances, even at the cost of some sound quality -


Lewis followed up with another classic, Lewis’ ultimate calling card. The song was a showcase for the up-tempo fervor that seemed to define the music of the time, and “The Killer” approached the song with full steam, showing his remarkable piano skills, making for his second straight country chart-topper the first week of 1958, # 1 country & # 2 pop. However, this ain't the Brooklyn performance when he literally set the piano on fire at the end with a coke bottle of fuel, after Chuck Berry was given the coveted closing spot. Lewis walked off-stage, the audience in absolute delirium, and sarcastically told Berry "follow that" -


Just like his Sun stablemates Elvis, Perkins, Cash and Feathers, Lewis recorded a mix of rock/rockabilly and traditional country. Jerry Lee cited Moon Mullican, Jimmie Rodgers and, of course, Hank Williams as key influencers on his music and here deftly handles Hank Williams’ tears-in-your-beer number in true honky tonk ballad style. Note the echo in his vocal, the Jordanaires-style backing vocals and brushwork on the drums, all making for a change of pace for the Killer and fully establishing early his country credentials for the next decade, as this straight out country cover hit # 4 in early 1958 -


Though not quite to the same success as his previous 2 million selling hits, 'Breathless' (shown here on the top rating and long running 'American Bandstand' TV show only a week the song was released), from 1958 got to # 4 on the country chart and in time and became one of Lewis' classic songs -


Having repeated chart toppers right across the country, pop and R&B charts, and also internationally, Jerry Lee Lewis set off triumphantly on a UK tour (still a big step back in those days, not routine like now) only to fly into a cross cultural storm that cut short his tour, stalled his career and nearly ruined him for 10 years - but more on this tomorrow.
 

Professor Knowall

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In 1958, at 22, Lewis became one of America’s first rock’n’rollers to tour Britain. He had made it his ambition to overtake Elvis, and it certainly was a possibility – not least because of Presley’s supposed fear of flying (though we now know it was it his dodgy manager, Dutchman "Colonel" Tom Parker, being an illegal immigrant, couldn't leave the US). Anyway, when arrived at Heathrow, and gave a now infamous interview alongside his latest wife Myra, to the British press seeking to tear down their next visiting American victim celebrity.

Lewis was warned about the press and against taking his new wife - but he ignored the advice as he flew into a very different culture from Louisiana. In post-war 1950's America, teenage weddings were common - and even promoted in popular culture (e.g. the big Marty Robbins hit 'Only Seventeen'). And in the Deep South, including the swamp lands of Louisiana, well it was perfectly normal to get married real young - puberty was basically the 'legal age'. Lewis was told, but couldn't comprehend that marrying a 13-year-old was taboo in the U.K. so he had no qualms about showing his new bride (and the daughter of his bassist), Myra off to the press. A shocked journalist asked how old she was and Lewis thought 15 was plenty old enough to avoid any problems and answered thus.

The next day’s newspapers splashed with headlines about Lewis and his child bride - and further digging revealed Myra was actually 13, his (second) cousin, and, to really top it off, Lewis had failed to get divorced before remarrying. Nor did
it help when Lewis tried to explain that he didn't need to wait for the divorce from his second wife because at the time he married her, he hadn't yet been divorced from his first wife, therefore it wasn't a valid marriage!

The British press was vicious, ticket sales come to a halt, he was heckled at the 3 half-full concerts he performed at (though most who went said they were the greatest concerts they ever went to), he was ejected from his posh London Hotel, threatened with criminal prosecution for child abuse and, hastily cancelling the rest of the tour, a stunned and bewildered Lewis fled the country

Unfortunately, returning stateside did nothing to stop the flood of vitriol that was spewing about Lewis, with the American press stating he had brought shame on the nation, not only criticizing her age, they also highlighted the fact Lewis had yet again married before his divorce was finalized. Additionally, his latest single was called 'High School Confidential', which, though totally unrelated to his relationship, just didn't help his PR case. Before he knew it, his ticket prices had dropped astronomically, from $10,000 a night to a mere $250. Despite re-marrying Brown, this time in a legal ceremony after his divorce, the public remained firmly anti-Lewis. As a rock’n’roll star, he was all but destroyed. And to make it all the more galling, the same press kept quiet on the "all-American hero" Elvis Presley being shacked up at his home with
14 year old Priscilla.

Lewis’ career as a rock'n'roll artist stagnated for a decade - although he never actually ceased performing and recording. He signed with Smash Records in 1964 when genuine rock'n'roll music was at a low ebb in the U.S., dominated by the prim teeny-bop of "Beatlemania" pop. However, his rock'n'roll concerts - especially when he toured a still appreciative Europe and the U.K. in 1964 with his hard core rock, are the stuff of legend now - his Hamburg concert at the famous
Star Club, recorded for a live album released in Europe, has since become a testimony to Lewis' true greatness and widely acclaimed as the greatest live rock'n'roll album in history (and there's also fantastic video on YouTube of a Manchester TV performance). But alas, I must skip that as this is a country music history and Lewis' return to the top was destined to be as a return to his country music roots.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that he started making a comeback, trading his high energy 'rock'n'roll for traditional honky tonk ballads he grew up with, but with an updated sound, thus reviving honky tonk at a time when the Nashville Sound and 'countrypolitan' style ruled. Today, Lewis’ honky tonk recordings, such as 'Another Place, Another Time' are considered some of his best work. This broke on the country charts, effectively ending his decade long commercial
slump, peaking at # 4 in 1968 -


Jerry Lee followed up with one of the great drinking songs, praising the effects that a certain kind of brew could have on a man’s outlook on life and love - though it might also have a detrimental effect on his actions. So before you listen, have a beer, then another while you listen. And as this also has a second live version (which I enjoyed even more), have another for that as well. This hot # 2 in 1968, cementing Lewis' career revival -


While you're in a drinking mood ... this honky tonk number,'To Make Love Sweeter For You' also from 1968, was Lewis'
3rd # 1 and his first since 'Great Balls of Fire' in 1958. Lewis proved he can sing a great ballad - he has just the voice
for them -


This number 'She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye' served as the title cut for his 1969 album. It hit # 2, but was proof that just like with his Sun output being a primary piece of the rock'n'roll puzzle, he was on the way to creating something equally legendary with his Smash-era honky tonk recordings -


And the success just kept on rolling with 'There must be more to Love Than This' from the album of the same name which featured not a few honky tonk "cheatin" songs - and a good reason to have another beer. Yet another # 1, his 4th, from 1970 -


So with Jerry Lee Lewis now back at the top - but this time as a mature, seasoned and chart topping country star rather than as the young rock'n'roll tearaway, more is coming
 
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