In "Living for a Song," Hank Cochran, one of the most prominent and prolific songsmiths in country music, writes: "I have slept on life's highway / Muddy tears staining my face / A rhyme or two was a big payday / Living for a song." These lines get to the very essence of country music. Country music is about living life the hard way and writing about it. The mood is often blue, the drink is whiskey, wine or beer and the topic mostly love and the loss of it.
Country music can be filled with swagger, but the greatest quality of the music is its emotionality and realization that life doesn't always turn out the way we plan it. A selfie with a big smile is very far from the genre. Tears flow easily and the heart aches. The cure that the songs recommend for heartache is definitely not the doctor's orders, but listening to country songs give access to an emotional space where it's okay to be sad. The best country singers and songwriters write about the scenes of everyday life in a way that captures both the ups and downs of life. Here are five of them, all released on the British reissue label BGO.
Ray Price The Lonesomest Lonesome / She's Got To Be A Saint / You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me / If You Ever Change Your Mind
2019 Ray Price
(1926-2013) is a true legend of country. He and honky tonk pioneer Hank Williams were good friends and Price even took over Williams' backing group, the Drifting Cowboys. However, Price wasn't satisfied emulating Williams' sound and so he eventually formed his own backing group, the Cherokee Cowboys. While he stayed true to the honky tonk sound, he also added new things. He was one of the first country artists to use drums and he had a signature 4/4 "Ray Price Shuffle" that can be heard on his famous hit "Crazy Arms."
Later, Price moved into Nashville-sound territory and reinvented himself as a country crooner (about this genre see the article "Blue Side of Lonesome: Country Crooners on BGO"). The present collection released on BGO includes four Columbia albums from the seventies: The Lonesomest Lonesome
(1972), She's Got To Be A Saint
(1973), You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me
(1974) and If You Ever Change Your Mind
The albums find Price navigating the space between the yearning country-pop of Glen Campbell
and sophisticated crooning in the style of Frank Sinatra
. Price's beautiful baritone can be heard in strong interpretations of songs that he makes his own with deep emotion and musicality. Price's qualities shouldn't be down-played. He deserves to be considered among the best crooners, country or not. Two full albums of songs by J. Weatherly and three songs by Kris Kristofferson are among the many highlights of this highly recommendable set that also includes a career-spanning essay by John O'Regan. Price would later return to his honky tonk-roots, but here he is in a grand setting with strings. His voice is just as lush as the orchestral backing and amazingly just as intimate as a sparse country song.
Mickey Gilley The Songs We Made Love To / That's All That Matters To Me / You Don't Know Me / Put Your Dreams Away
Country singer and pianist Mickey Gilley can sing a ballad with strings just as sweet and deep as Ray Price, but on the four albums collected here, he also stretches out and does so much more. Released between 1978 and 1982, The Songs We Made Love To
(1979), That's All That Matters To Me
(1980), You Don't Know Me
(1981) and Put Your Dreams Away
(1982) all find Gilley in excellent form and together they give a nuanced portrait of the artist.
Gilley grew up with Jerry Lee Lewis
and got his big breakthrough with a Lewis-inspired interpretation of the song "Room Full of Roses." For a long time, Gilley was worried about being seen as a Lewis-imitator, but these four albums show that he has found his own niche where he jumps easily between honky tonk music, sweet love songs with strings, zestful rock 'n' roll like "Bye Bye" and the bluesy ballad "The Blues Don't Care Who's Got Them."
As usual with BGO, the release includes detailed notes with information about Gilley and the records, but a deeper story can be found in Peter Guralnick's book Lost Highway
where he draws a sketch of a sympathetic and hard-working musician who broke free of Lewis' shadow. Gilley plays country music his own way.
Don Williams Especially For You / Listen To The Radio / Yellow Moon
2019 Don Williams
(1939-2017) was called "the Gentle Giant" of country music and his soft baritone can be heard in a BGO-package with three albums from the eighties: Especially For You
(1981), Listen To The Radio
(1982) and Yellow Moon
It says a lot about Williams that when he entered the stage in his later years it was with a cup of coffee and eagerness to get a good chat with the audience. The self- destructive spirit that is sometimes found in country music is rarely present on these good-natured albums where Williams instead sings about being grateful for life on "Miracles": "Miracles, miracles, that's what life about / Most of you agree if you've thought it out." Even when he sings a classic bleak country lyric like "Standin' in a Sea of Teardrops," he does so with a feeling that does not convey any deep despair, but the great thing about Williams is that the lightness does not mean that he is shallow. His nostalgia is sincere and his softness real and there's also something wistful about it, as evidenced by his beautiful reading of the ballad "Wrong End of the Rainbow."
While clearly in the country mold, the songs Williams sings on these albums are often close to sophisticated pop. The steel guitar and dobro are there, but the use is subtle and many of the songs are wrapped in warm string arrangements. It's a superb collection from "the Gentle Giant."
Alan Jackson Here In The Real World / Don't Rock The Jukebox / A Lot About Livin' (And A Little 'Bout Love) / Who I Am
There are no elaborate string sections on Alan Jackson's four early albums on Arista: Here in the Real World
(1989), Don't Rock the Jukebox
(1991), A Lot about Living
(1992) and Who I Am
(1994). Instead, there is plenty of fiddle and pedal steel. Jackson is a good old country traditionalist that shuns the silky sheen of pop. There is a touch of Bakersfield-modernism that can be heard in the use of drums, but otherwise Jackson goes back to the great tradition of country. This is especially clear on Don't Rock the Jukebox
where he sings a song about country legend Hank Williams, references another honky tonk-luminary, Ernest Tubb, with the song "Walkin' the Floor over Me" and sings with George Jones
on "Just Playin' Possum."
Jackson clearly wears his inspiration on his sleeve, but he also got his own things to say. He is the writer or co-writer on most of the songs on the albums and shows himself as a worthy heir of Merle Haggard
, writing the poetry of the working man with titles such as "Home," a song about his own upbringing, and "Working Class Hero." He is, to quote another title, an "All American Country Boy."
The songs are gritty and swinging and the ballads emotionally poignant. Jackson gets help from the best Nashville session musicians like pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins and achieves a sound that is not too rough or smooth. It is easy to understand Jackson's mainstream appeal. He simply delivers good, personal songs with respect for the great country tradition.
Joe Diffie A Thousand Winding Roads / Regular Joe / Honky Tonk Attitude / Third Rock From The Sun
Joe Diffie is another country singer and songwriter who salutes the working man. Like Alan Jackson, he also sings a song called "Home," but unlike Jackson's song, it isn't penned by himself. However, Diffie gets credit as a co-writer on all four of his early Epic albums collected in a BGO-package.
The title of Diffie's second album, Regular Joe
(1992), with a humorous cover of Diffie with a cup of coffee, clearly plays on the image of Diffie as the working man's poet. The title is co-written by Diffie and tells of his way to the top, as he sings: "Well ever since I was a little bitty boy just listenin' to my heroes sing / I knew someday if I could find a way I'd be doin' the very same thing. / Well dreams come true, Lord I know they do / And I can feel it down in my soul / You better make a little room at the top for a regular Joe."
Diffie's sound is a mixture of honky tonk music and modern rock 'n' roll swagger. The rock-influence is especially felt on Honky Tonk Attitude
(1993) and Third Rock Rock from The Sun
(1994). Diffie is also an excellent balladeer and this is shown in songs like "The Coolest Fool in Town" and "From Here On Out."
Overall, the songs in these five collections span a development in country from the seventies to the nineties where different singers and songwriters negotiate the sound of country from bare-boned and traditional to sophisticated orchestral arrangements. What remains as the leitmotif is the focus on the feeling of love and loss and the chronicles of everyday-life with all its ups and downs. These albums are filled with songs about a lived life sung with conviction.
Tracks and Personnel The Lonesomest Lonesome / She's Got To Be A Saint / You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me / If You Ever Change Your Mind
Tracks: CD1: The Lonesomest Lonesome; But I Was Lying; One Night To Remember; Just The Other Side Of Nowhere; Empty Chairs; Time (Old Faithful Friend Of Mine); That's What Leaving's About; Wake Up Yesterday; Over; This House; Oh, Lonesome Me; She's Got To Be A Saint; Turn Around, Look At Me; Sunday; Nobody Wins; Everything That's Beautiful (Reminds Me Of You); Goin' Away; Help Me; My Baby's Gone; Enough For You; The Sweetest Tie; I Keep Looking Back. CD2: The Need To Be; You Are A Song; It Must Be Love This Time; Where Peaceful Waters Flow; To A Gentler Time; You're The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me; Some Things Never Change; Storms Of Troubled Times; Like A First Time Thing; Jesus Is My Kind Of; If You Ever Change Your Mind; Same Old Song And Dance; Between His Goodbye And My Hello; Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye); Sometime In Early August; Everything Reminds Me Of You; Just Enough To Make Me Stay; Loving You Is Just An Old Habit; Seeing You Again; Until Your Ship Comes In; People.
Personnel: Ray Price: vocal + various session musicians. The Songs We Made Love To / That's All That Matters To Me / You Don't Know Me / Put Your Dreams Away
Tracks: CD1: The Song We Made Love To; Bye Bye Baby; Jr. P. Jones; Lonely Wine; I Don't Feel Like No Hero Tonight; Just Long Enough To Say Goodbye; Tonight I'll Help You Say Goodbye Again; Tying One On (To Take One Off My Mind); Even The Good Can Go Bad; When I Lose You Anna; The Blues Don't Care Who's Got 'Em; The More I Turn The Bottle Up; Jukebox Argument; Million Dollar Memories; The Blame Lies With Me; That's All That Matters; True Love Ways; Lyin' Again; So Easy To Begin; A Headache Tomorrow (Or A Heartache Tonight). CD2: Ladies Night; My Affection; Drinking Old Memories Down; She Left You (A Long Time Ago); Tears Of The Lonely; You Don't Know Me; We've Watched Another Evening Waste Away; Learning To Live Without You; Lonely Nights; Clinging To A Memory; Talk To Me; Don't You Be Foolin' With A Fool; I Really Don't Want To Know; If I Can't Hold Her On The Outside; Put Your Dreams Away; Texas Heartache Number One; She Beats All I've Ever Seen; The Beginning Of The End; Honky Tonkin' (I Guess I Done Me Some); Rocky Road To Romance.
Personnel: Mickey Gilley: vocal, piano + various session musicians. Especially For You / Listen To The Radio / Yellow Moon
Tracks: CD1: Fairweather Friends; I Don't Want To Love You; Years From Now; Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good; Especially You; If I Needed You; Now And Then; Smooth Talking Baby; I've Got You To Thank For That; Miracles; Listen To The Radio; If Hollywood Don't Need You; Don't Stop Loving Me Now; Only Love; Fool, Fool Heart; Mistakes; I Can't Get To You From Here; Standin' In A Sea Of Teardrops; If She Just Helps Me Get Over You; Help Yourselves To Each Other. CD2: Stay Young; I'm Still Looking For You; The Story Of My Life; Wrong End Of The Rainbow; Yellow Moon; Love Is On A Roll; Pressure Makes Diamonds; If Love Gets There Before I Do; I'll Take Your Love Anytime; Nobody But You.
Personnel: Don Williams: vocal, guitar + various session musicians. Here In The Real World / Don't Rock The Jukebox / A Lot About Livin' (And A Little 'Bout Love) / Who I Am
Tracks: CD1: Ace Of Hearts; Here In The Real World; Blue Blooded Woman; Wanted Chasin' That Neon Rainbow; She Don't Get The Blues; I'd Love You All Over Again; Dog River Blues; Home; Short Sweet Ride; Don't Rock The Jukebox; That's All I Need To Know, Dallas; Midnight In Montgomery; Love's Got A Hold On You; Someday; Just Playin' Possum; From A Distance; Walkin' The Floor Over Me; Working Class Hero. CD2: Chattahoochee; She's Got The Rhythm (And I Got The Blues); Tonight I Climbed The Wall; I Don't Need The Booze (To Get A Buzz On); (Who Says) You Can't Have It All; Up To My Ears In Tears; Tropical Depression; She Likes It Too; If It Ain't One Thing (It's You); Mercury Blues; Summertime Blues; Livin' On Love; Hole In The Wall; Gone Country; Who I Am; You Can't Give Up On Love; I Don't Even Know Your Name; Song For The Life; Thank God For The Radio; All American Country Boy; Job Description; If I Had You; Let's Get Back To Me And You; Chattahoochee (extended remix).
Personnel: Alan Jackson: vocal, guitar + various session musicians. A Thousand Winding Roads / Regular Joe / Honky Tonk Attitude / Third Rock From The Sun
Tracks: CD1: Home; If The Devil Danced (In Empty Pockets); If You Want Me To; New Way (To Light Up An Old Flame); There Goes The Neighborhood; Almost Home; I Ain't Leavin' 'Til She's Gone; Coolest Fool In Town; Liquid Heartache; Stranger In Your Eyes; Startin' Over Blues; I Just Don't Know; Next Thing Smokin'; Ain't That Bad Enough; Ships That Don't Come In; Just A Regular Joe; Is It Cold In Here; Back To Back Heartaches; You Made Me What I Am; Goodnight Sweetheart. CD2: Honky Tonk Attitude; I'm Not Through Losin' You; Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox (If I Die); If I Had Any Pride Left At All; I Can Walk The Line (If It Ain't Too Straight); Somewhere Under The Rainbow; John Deere Green; In My Own Backyard; Here Comes That Train; And That Was The Easy Part; Cold Budweiser And A Sweet Tater; Third Rock From The Sun; I'm In Love With A Capital "U"; That Road Not Taken; Pickup Man; So Help Me Girl; Wild Blue Yonder; I'd Like To Have A Problem Like That; Junior's In Love; From Here On Out; Good Brown Gravy; The Cows Came Home.
Personnel: Joe Diffie: vocal, guitar + various session musicians.