Country Music

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Professor Knowall

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Love your work, Prof. Thanks for continuing my education, and expanding my musical boundaries.
For something that started as a way of occupying myself when I unexpectedly found too much spare time when the first 2020 covid lockdown commenced, it's really has gone way beyond what I originally imagined. It's been both a pleasure and an addiction - and don't worry, I've also learnt a lot along the way. Though I'm busier now than in those lockdowns, I've committed myself to seeing this through to the end of the seventies - including the "Outlaws", after which I'll reassess whenever that time comes - and I still haven't forgotten Fred Eaglesmith.
 

Professor Knowall

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You'all most probably never heard of the next artist in this history, who had his first hit in 1972, who was never a major star - he only had a handful of top 10 hits, none charted above # 5 - and by 1978 he was finished. So why is he here? Two reasons - his very first song has lived on through many covers to become one of the greatest honky tonk songs of them all. The second is - I'm making a subjective "authors discretion" call here - though relatively obscure, he was one
of the very best in my favourite country genre - honky tonk. He was a talented, uncompromisingly hardcore traditional country singer whose emotional style harked back to the honky tonk of 1950's. So be ready for (to once again again repeat the old clique) 3 chords and the truth - this time in spades, best consumed kicking back with a generous serve
of smooth Tennessee whiskey or maybe a some Kentucky bourbon. This is going to be country music pretty much as
pure as it gets. And if you know the words (you may at least know of the first song), don't hesitate to sing along.

Born King Malachi Street (gotta love those wired biblically inspired Appalachian names) in an Appalachian valley town
in western Virginia, even his date of birth is uncertain - most sources list it as 1933, his gravestone has 1936 but his family claims 1935, which is more probable. The son of a coal miner, Street was brought up in a musical family (seems every Appalachian family was musical back then) and first performed publicly on a radio show at age 15. He married,
had a family, and moved around Ohio for a few years working as an electrician on radio transmission towers and also as
a honky tonk singer. For 4 years Street was a jack-of-all-trades worker by day and an entertainer by night. He started performing in Niagara Falls clubs and bars in 1960 and simultaneously learned auto repair (being from the rural south,
he no doubt had a fairly good knowledge on auto maintenance from childhood).

Mel Steet (why he didn't stick to his more interesting original first and middle names I don't know) built his savings up sufficiently to move to West Virginia, just across the border from his old Virginian hometown and opened up his own automobile paint and body work shop in 1963. He also continued singing in local bars and honky tonks and by word of mouth, he eventually landed his own Saturday night show on a local TV station (when local TV stations which had their own shows still existed) which ran from 1968 to 1972. This led to him becoming well known - but only in the remote rural West Virginian mountain communities covered by the local TV station, nowhere else.

In 1970, Street wrote what would - eventually - be recognised as an absolute classic honky tonk standard, and he even recorded and released it as his first single - but it was on the obscure Tandem label, which had no publicity or distribution network. Therefore, although 'Borrowed Angel' sold well around his local Appalachian area where Sreet was a small town celebrity thanks to his TV show and live performances, no-one else got to hear this classic hit until 2 years later when it began catching on in an ever widening area. The tiny Tandem label found that they couldn’t keep pace with the sales so they sold the master to Royal American Records, who quickly arranged for radio airplay and national release, becoming a # 7 hit in 1972.

The song itself, with its beautiful melody and aching lyrics of desire and peaceful ecstasy mixed with sharp regret and unfulfillment, almost gives cheating a sacrimonious status. Surely this would've been a runaway # 1 hit if it had been released by established country music icons like Merle Haggard or George Jones, instead of an unknown newcomer -
"... I wish that I could have her more than just tonight / We can't go on like this it isn't right /
When that lonesome feeling comes knocking on my door / I'll call my borrowed angel to ease the pain once more
..." -
.
Naturally, this song has been covered by heaps of artists since - two that stand out for me is a studio version by Ricky Van Shelton in 1997 and a live TV (now on Youtube) performance by Mo Pitney just a few years back.

Street signed to Metromedia and had his first and only Top 5 hit with the follow-up, 'Lovin' on the Back Streets', in 1973. The back streets referred to in the song refer to those ultra quiet country lanes where liaisons may be had unobserved by nosey townsfolk (or even worse - family members). A simple enough, unsophisticated recording - just the way a good honky tonk song should be done - the lyrics exploring and contrasting the fleeting pleasures of an affair against the consequences of guilt, suspicion and strain. Real life stuff here. Notice how the first verse concludes -
"... And for a while we shared the sweet affection / That makes it worth the sorrow and the shame ..."
contrast with (or outright contradicts) the end of the second verse verse -
"... Then once again I hate myself for living / And wonder just how long my mind can stand this strain ..."



Street's next single 'Walk Softly On The Bridges' reached # 11 in 1973. Here we have more traditional honky tonk, with it's crying steel guitar by the master, Lloyd Green and it's floating fiddle with a song where the singer gives some sage advice of someone who has experienced a bit about life - and the message here is basically about foregivness - for you never know what may lay ahead, as the very last line indicates -
"... Walk softly on the bridges / You may want to knock upon her door again ..."



'The Town Where You Lived' is a song for broken hearted truck drivers. Another fine honky tonk song with the aching steel of Lloyd Green. Perhaps the fact this sound was like a throwback to the 1950's and certainly not what was in fashion in the early seventies - no Nashville Sound, no Countrypolitan, no Outlaw here, just straight out traditional honky tonk -
may explain why this only got to # 38 in 1973



Haven't heard enough cheating songs today? Well you're in luck - here's another! 'Lovin' On Borrowed Time' went to #11 in 1974. So top up your whiskey again, sit back, relax and think about old memories of lost loves as you're soothed by more cathartic honky tonk, more pedal steel, more floating fiddle, what's not to love? -


Tomorrow will have more from the enigmatic Mel Street, who with his longish hair (for a traditional country singer of the time) and seventies fashion, looked more like a pop star than country singer. But he was as country as they come.
 
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Toump Ass

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Sorry to interrupt your class,

Here's a little history lesson some might like:


It's a really nice series.

As an aside, Dolly Parton is really good live, still. I've seen her last two tours.
For those that don't know, she's also covered in tattoos. Not a lot of things I wouldn't do to get a nice view of those!
 

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Professor Knowall

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A few years back, I was at a bar - it was in Austin I recall and must've been relatively early in the night - maybe it
was the afternoon - and having a discussion about country music with a few others when I was asked what I thought constituted "real" country music. Straight away I answered "Mel Steet, look him up". Well he went and took my advice and thanked me for it later. But time to get back to the honky tonk and on with his music, starting with a couple of
singles from his 1975 Album "Smokey Mountain Memories". Make sure your glass is full and drink along -

'Pass Me By (If You're Only Passing Through)', written by H.B. Hall, has been recorded by multiple artists but was originally released by Johnny Rodriguez and became a top 10 hit. Street recorded it for his second album in 1973
and I just thought it too good a version not to include here -


'Forbidden Angel' tells about a not uncommon honky tonk hazard - those hot and willing pieces of jailbait with fake i.d.
out for a good time. Here, despite admitting the temptation, the singer does the right thing - but he's also willing to
wait. (FTR, I've reached beyond the age now where this secenario could play out for me). This reached #16 in 1975 -



The title track from Street's "Smoky Mountain Memories" album is a bit different from the normal honky tonk song for Street (though no less traditional). Released a couple of years after Loretta Lynn's autobiographical 'Coal Miners Daughter' and Dolly Parton's 'My Tennessee Mountain Home', Street, though Appalachian, wasn't from the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee (Dolly was), but here, in another beautiful song, he laments the girl he left behind there -



"Pour me another, barman while I put another coin in the jukebox" is the mood here, as we have another 1975 single from the album "Smokey Mountain Memories", '(This Ain't Just Another) Lust Affair'. It's just another great Mel Street honky tonk cheating song -



Street's music invokes memories of old jukebox tunes playing in a small town dimly lit, smokey filled honky tonk beer-joint, while ceiling fans whirl above and everyone knows everyone (except for me). The songs may be called simplistic
but they beautiful melodies heartfelt lyrics about (for many) true life experiences - and then theirs the extra beauty of
the pedal steel and floating fiddle. So to round up today's session, here's, yes, yet another cheating song - but this one has a twist as the singer isn't the cheater, but the cheated. Three (easy) chords and the truth, that's all you need for a good song, as 'I Met A Friend Of Yours Today'. Released in 1975, this was Street's third top 10 hit (or fifth top 11) -


George Strait did a really good cover of this one in 1994.

By the end of 1975, Street, despite sticking true to a traditional country style that wasn't really the fashion of the day, being neither countrypolitan on one side or outlaw / country rock on the other, had built up a loyal and expanding fan base through his frequent touring. At least one country superstar, George Jones, had become an admirer of his hard country sound and talent. Street, at age 40, seemed destined for better things (remember this was an era when country veteran "journeymen" like Conway Twitty, Tom T Hall and Freddie Hart finally broke through to major stardom around this age). But for Mel Street, a darkness started to derail his life - which only worsened the more he toured and his popularity increased. His life was taking on the aspect of a honky tonk song - and the outcome will be seen - tomorrow.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Sorry to interrupt your class,

Here's a little history lesson some might like:

It's a really nice series. ...
No need to be sorry - Interruptions like this are welcomed. That looks well worth checking out.
There's also the great Ken Burns Burns Country Music history doco that's still available (for free) on SBS catch-up - though the 8 one hour episodes is only half the length of the original 2 hour episodes shown in the U.S., hence the
edited SBS series omits many of the greats.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Though never becoming a major stat, Mel Street had enough hits to afford his own band and he adopted a rigorous touring schedule, spending much of his time, when he wasn't recording, on the road and very little with his wife and kids. It seems he increasingly really did live a sort of lonely honky tonk life that his songs were often about - romanticised in his songs but unhealthy in real life. What I noted from videos from his emergance in 1972 to 1978 was that he seemed
to age 20 years in that time.

Getting reasonably assured facts on Green's personal life was difficult and he remains an elusive figure. According to multiple sources, Street was diagnosed with clinical depression, but none had any details of who made the diagnosis,
what triggered the diagnosis, when was he diagnosed or what treatment he received - which makes me doubt it ever happened. What I don't doubt was he started drinking more and more heavily. Time to look at the last stage of his career.

The 1976 'Looking Out The Window Through The Pain', (notice what he did there) is one about the time honoured honky tonk theme of losing the love of one's life to another - and the hope she'll come back -


George Strait, who covered several of Street's songs, had the most popular cover of 'Looking Out The Window Through The Pain' in 1994.

With all his great cheating songs, examining both the circumstances of meeting up and the conflicting feelings of ecstatic pleasure rolled in with the guilt and anxiety, one can't help but wonder how much, given he spent so long away from his wife on the road touring (with all its well known temptations and opportunities), Street sang from first hand experience. I'm pretty sure it's a lot, even though, unlike so many other travelling country musicians, I've found no actual info about him philandering on the road. 'Guilty As Sin', from the 1976 album "Country Colors", is another song that really nails those conflicts one feels within when in this situation -
Yes the devil knows my weakness / On the other side of town /
When temptation gets the upper hand / My resistance tumble's down /
My conscience tells me treat her right / But I lose control again
Lord she loves me like a saint / But I'm as guilty as sin
-



Street signed on to major label Polydor at the end of 1976 and 2 albums followed in 1977 and 1978, and had 3 more hits with 'Barbara, Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know' reaching # 19, 'Nothing More Lonesome' at # 15 and the # 9 'If I Had a Cheating Heart'. But while both were good songs, I find this one, 'Never Been To Heaven', from his 1978 album "Country Soul" even better and too good to omit from here. The theme of this song is simple enough and evokes good memories - that heavenly feeling when one gets to attract the attention of the hottest chick in the bar (not always easy and can be dangerous) to talk, buy a drink or more, dance, talk some more and take her back to the room -



With his latest top 10 hit in 1978, Street was rewarded with a lucrative new contract with major label Mercury, and serious stardom appeared to be just around the corner. However, Street had been battling depression and alcohol problems and as his touring schedule took more and more of a toll on his family life, he became increasingly unable to cope. 'Just Hangin On', seemingly reflecting Street's real feelings, was released in October 1978 on his 43rd birthday



On the day of the release of 'Just Hangin On', October 21, 1978 - Street's 43rd birthday - there was some sort of dispute (never made public though some unverified rumours are found on the web about an affair with his sister-in-law) while having a family dinner at home. He excused himself from the table, went upstairs to his bedroom and shot himself in
the head, dead. His family were devestated, as was his fan base. Country legend and admirer, George Jones, sang at
his funeral.

After his tragic death, Street still had some more hits with the #17 ‘The One Thing My Lady Never Puts In Words’ in
1979 and in 1980 came the top 30 hit, 'Tonight Let's Sleep On It Baby' then this Street's final top 40 hit (#36), the appropriately titled 'Who'll Turn Out The Lights', another real nice honky tonk tune, tinged with sadness and regret -



In 1981, the TV-advertised album "Mel Street’s Greatest Hits" sold a remarkable 400,000 copies. But sadly, his tremendous potential was never fully tapped and over the years since, he has slipped into relative obscurity - except
to lovers of traditional honky tonk, where he remains on the pantheon of honky tonk heroes that we drink and sing
along with. He also won't be the last honky tonk hero in this history.

Now I'm about to head off to beautiful Hobart for a few days, so there'll be another break in the history, but I should resume it sometime late in the week or next weekend.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Here's one for you Prof, Wanita Bahtiyar. She has a documentary out, with an amazing storyline. Hard to know what to believe when you hear it. Great voice though.





Thanks for that, Cliff. I haven't yet seen the Wanita doco but hope to. She sure has a strong voice and an original take to some old classics - e.g. the New Orleans Jazz style accompiament to the Hank Williams 'You Win Again' (the first song), and the blues bordering on soul treatment (she has the voice for it) on the Sanford Clark rockabilly standout 'Tne Fool'. While I think mainstream success will elude her for several reasons, despite her voice, at least she has the documentary and she's cut a whole album of her music at the renowned Beaird Studios in Nashville. Apparently she also has a lifetime ambition to sing at the Opry - but I doubt they'd be brave enough to allow her.

Meanwhile, just back to Mel Street, his signature song was 'Borrowed Angel', but it was cut by a minor label right at the very start of his recording career and perhaps would've been done better a few years later with a few years of recording experience behind him. Nevertheless, after so many others like George Jones, Mel Tillis and especially Ricky Van Shelton recorded it to make it a honky tonk standard (and also thinking of the covers posted here of Tom T Hall's 'That's Why
I Went to Memphis', I thought I'd post my favourite version (and with over 7 million downloads and still growing with 319,000 over the last 3 months, others seem to agree), the live Mo Pitney version from 6 years ago - not flawless (as is usually the case for live acts) but Pitney, from a bluegrass background, nails the vowel bending and extending technique that the Texan legend, Lefty Frizzell, introduced to country music in c1950/51 and was taken up by other legends like George Jones and Merle Haggard amongst others.

This clip features a who's who of Nashville music veterans in both the band and the audience, who would know the difference between talent and mere pretence. Three members of the band had actually played at one stage or another
for Mel Street, including the great pedal steel master, Mike Johnson, whose performance here is another reason I love
this performance (though Mel Street's original cut featured the great Lloyd Green on the pedal steel). Anyway, honky tonk is no longer (for now) mainstream, but's it's not yet dead and showing signs of revival. Look at Linda Davis' reaction to Pitney's expression at c1.11 in, Junior Brown totally into it at 2.25 and at 3.15 they just can't help themselves ... to sing along, which is the essence of baroom honky tonk -
 

Professor Knowall

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Having just returned from Hobart, I was to continue the history this weekend but now I have to scoot off to Adelaide for some days (not that I would ever complain about travel after those long lockdowns we endured in Melbourne). Anyway it means no more history for another week.
 

Professor Knowall

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Not sure, perhaps I posted him before. Great stuff.

He was only 17 when he wrote and sang that (he's now 18)! Another Appalachian musical product (where people are still poor and isolated). This kid seems beyond his years. Here's an interview of him -
 

CliffMcTainshaw

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This has plenty of my favourites. For a start it has the amazing Bela Fleck, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull and Billy Strings along with a bunch of seriously good musicians.


 
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CliffMcTainshaw

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And this is the Man behind the iconic suits of so many Country and Western musicians..........and Elvis..........and so many others.


 

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