Louis Armstrong: Louis Armstrong: Louis 'Country and Western' Armstrong

Trevor MacLaren BY

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Louis Armstrong
Louis "Country & Western" Armstrong
Avco Embassy

Many jazzites make the mistake of dismissing country and Americana as simpleton music made by and for simpletons. Fortunately there have been musicians in both jazz and country who have embraced each other's genres to create some beautiful and eclectic American music. Two of the most notable jazz musicians to enjoy country were none other than Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong.

According to Ken Burns' jazz documentary, Bird was a huge fan of Hank Williams. Since the bebop pioneer died much too young, we will never know if he would have explored this avenue, but Louis Armstrong went all the way and released an often-forgotten record completely devoted to country music.

Although jazz had flirted with country long before Satchmo released Louis "Country & Western" Armstrong, this recording is essential. It stands in the middle somewhere between Bob Wills' legendary country swing (aka Texas swing) of the thirties and the forties and Willie Nelson's country-jazz crossover records in the early eighties. C&W Armstrong has been virtually ignored, now out of print and and never even available on CD.

The record itself is nowhere near as groundbreaking as the work released by Wills, Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Bill Frisell or bluegrass-jazz innovators Bela Fleck and Alison Brown. In fact, Armstrong doesn't even play his trumpet on the record, but his trademark raspy vocal chops are at work. The record is filled out with Nashville's session men Jack Eubanks (lead guitar), Stu Basore (steel guitar), Willie Ackerman (skins), Hank Strzelecki (bass), Larry Butler (piano) and Billie Grammer (rhythm guitar).

What is rather strange to lying on the side one is his contemporary pop take on hippie folk-rockers The Youngbloods's "Get Together." Yet hearing Satchmo laying his legendary chops over country classics such as 'Miller's Cave' (a hit for Hank Snow), 'Almost Persuaded' (David Houston), and 'Crazy Arms' (Ray Price) makes this worth seeking out.

The record has much in common with Ray Charles' legendary Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. New Sounds was the definitive crossover album by Charles that helped to create the sub-genre known as country soul. Ray built a section of his career on this sound without ever taking on the full extent of country music. Yet Charles's cover of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Johnny Cash's "Busted" are R&B classics. Yet no one in the jazz community ever tackled Country with such zeal. While some may cast this record as a novelty, one play of this record proves that certainly isn't so. While contemporaries such as Miles was fusing rock and funk into jazz, Louis took on a music he enjoyed as well.

With this record Louis proved that country was an original American icon that deserved the same amount of fervor given to jazz. His amazing phrasing and tenderness on the ballads proved he loved this music. It's unfortunate that the record hasn't gotten that much attention. At least when Coltrane released Ballads or Bird put out Charlie Parker with Strings there was controversy about "selling out.' There is no sell out here, either. Why would there be? This is a record that captures a man singing songs he truly liked for an audience that was rather fickle about the chosen genre.

Of course unlike jazz or bluegrass there isn't any ripping solos to showcase off the musician's ability. Still his band plays great arrangements at the hands of engineers Bob Lifton and Charlie Tallent. Louis presents a record that mainly contains pure unadulterated country, although "Take Her Away" gets some classic New Orleans style jazz laid onto its groove.

This record may not win over new fans to country or to jazz. In fact my favorite jazz/country record remains Lyle Lovett's Lyle Lovett and his Large Band, which opens with a must hear cover of Clifford Brown's "Blues Walk." Still, this record stands as an essential document of Louis Armstrong and his amazing musical insight. It still boggles the mind how Louis can pull off pretty much anything he tried his hand at. Listeners who have not heard this album will be pleasantly surprised by how well Armstrong pulls off his ode to country.

Suggested Listening

  • Asleep at the Wheel - Comin' Right At Ya (1970 EMI) Country-Swing
  • Alison Brown Quartet - Replay (2002 Compass) Progressive Bluegrass/Jazz
  • Ray Charles - Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962
  • ABC-Paramount/Reissued by Rhino) R&B Country hybrid
  • Bela Fleck and The Flecktones - Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (1991 Warner) Progressive Bluegrass/ Avant-garde Jazz
  • Bill Frisell - Nashville (1997 Nonesuch/Elektra) Country Jazz hybrid
  • Lyle Lovett - Lyle Lovett and His Large Band (1989 Curb/MCA) Country Jazz hybrid
  • Willie Nelson - Stardust (1978 Columbia) Country Jazz hybrid
  • Willie Nelson - Teatro (1998 Island) Country with Willie's unique Django style guitar
  • Bob Wills - The Essential Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys (1992 Legacy/Columbia) Reigning King of Country-Swing

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