There’s an old story that’s been around for years that Elvis Presley and his ilk ruined country music by capturing the hearts and minds of formerly country record buying youth, probably propagated by fading country singers, and so they had to invent the Nashville Sound to compete for those record and live appearance dollars. David Cantwell, in Heartaches by the Number, puts forth an intriguing counter argument: That Elvis, in a way, actually invented the Nashville Sound via some of his early RCA singles. “Don’t Be Cruel” . . . “included all of the defining characteristics of the Nashville Sound. The spare instrumentation and restrained playing that left lots of open spaces; the at-ease yet crisply defined production with just a touch of echo; the singer’s voice (and the bass) way out front in the mix; the backing bop-bop-bop vocals by the Jordanaires, the ‘head’ arrangements devised on the spot by the musicians; and, of course, no fiddle and no pedal steel. . . . the result was a new kind of rock & roll, a new kind of pop, and the beginnings of what would be a new kind of country music.” I kind of like that.
Elvis Presley, vocal/guitar; Scotty Moore, guitar; Bill Black, bass; D. J. Fontana, drums; Shorty Long, piano; The Jordanaires, vocals. New York City, 2 July 1956 “Don’t Be Cruel” is on the Elvis Presley collection Artist of the Century. Italian picture sleeve: eil.com
B. B. King, vocal/guitar; Floyd Jones, trumpet; George Coleman, alto sax/tenor sax; Bill Harvey, tenor sax; Connie Mack Booker, piano; James Walker, bass; Ted Curry, drums. Houston, late 1952 Get it: The Vintage Years
By the time we get to position number 4 in HBTN with the Carter Family’s 1935 remake of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” authors Cantwell and Friskics-Warren will have taken us through four decades in country music history, the forties through the seventies, although the entries are not and won’t be chronological. Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the circle appears to be very broken judged by much of the scheiße coming out of Nashville these days. But this is a jigsaw puzzle we’re workin’ on here, remember? So the end product remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we might take comfort in the Carters’ assertion that “there’s a better home a-waiting . . . bye and bye.” (No quotes from HBTN today, just a little opining by your host, Frank Jive.)
Here are the sixteen Top Ten hits of 1960 made famous and broken nationwide by station XBAK in sunny Lompoc, California, one-time home of H. R. Haldeman, and nearby to Surf Beach which was featured in the much lauded 1959 documentary film Surf Safari. XBAK’s original disc jockey Fats Terminal began at the station sometime in the 1950s but later gave up his spot to other record spinners such as Irving Snurd and Melvin “Kukai” Cowsnofski after he became station manager. Mr. Cowsnofski originally hailed from Smackover, Arkansas where he became enamored of the rockabilly stylings so prevalent at the time and which influenced his programming of some of the great hits purveyed by XBAK under his song selecting genius as evidenced by our new series of selections presented here on Blues All Kinds. We feel tremendously honored to be able to present this Wonderful top ten representing all modes and genres of American popular music from the very beginning of that eventful decade known in the present day as The Sixties. After listening to these dozen records you will easily understand how this period became better known as “the swinging sixties.” And it all started right here, or there, in Lompoc, California, in a little town in 1960. “Sixteen Reasons” indeed.
—Irving Snurd, disc jockey emeritus, radio station XBAK, Lompoc, CA
For our first selection we have chosen Ray Charles’ early ABC single of “Worried Life Blues.” Ray plays Big Maceo and his producer Sid Feller plays the fool; still and all, if you can get through the first minute with Uncle Sid, you’ll probably enjoy Ray’s faithful take on “Worried Life Blues” right down to his quoting Maceo’s aside, “Naw, boy, I ain’t gonna worry my life no more.” And then Fathead’s sax comes in. . . .
Ray Charles, vocals/electric piano; David Newman, alto saxophone (solo); Edgar Willis, bass; Milton Turner, drums; Sid Feller, spoken vocal intro. New York City, 27 April 1960 Find “Worried Life Blues” on the Ray Charles collection Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles. Photo: Nicky & The Khrushchevs play “Jimmy Crack Corn” at the Iowa State Fair in September 1959. Photo source: Bolshevik Mean Girls
Howlin’ Wolf, vocal/harmonica; Hosea Lee Kennard, piano; Willie Johnson, Otis “Smokey” Smothers, guitars; Willie Dixon, bass; Earl Phillips, drums. Chicago, 19 July 1956 Get it: The Real Folk Blues / More Real Folk Blues
Jimmy Reed, vocal/harmonica/guitar; prob. Lefty Bates, guitar; Jimmy Reed Jr., bass; Al Duncan, drums; overdubbed trumpets, tenor sax, organ. Chicago, 1962 This LP version of “I’ll Change My Style” is on the LP/CD Just Jimmy Reed, out of print but still available if you look for it.
Of “Crazy,” David Cantwell writes in HBTN, “. . . Patsy Cline . . . express[es] the misery and confusion in Willie Nelson’s lyric by making her voice break and sob. . . . Every element is calculated for effect, yet nothing in the effect feels calculated—there’s just a woman in pain. . . . Forty years later, ‘Crazy’ unexpectedly comes on the radio or jukebox and conversations just stop.”
Patsy Cline, vocal; session personnel: Harold Bradley, electric bass; Floyd Cramer, organ/piano; Walter Haynes, steel guitar; Buddy Harman, drums; Randy Hughes, acoustic guitar; Grady Martin, electric guitar; Bob Moore, electric bass. Nashville, 21 August 1961 “Crazy” is on the Patsy Cline collection Sweet Dreams : The Complete Decca Studio Masters, 1960–1963.
It wasn’t until 1980 and human jukebox extraordinaire Sleepy LaBeef’s foot-to-the-accelerator version of today’s song that I really connected with it. Heresy though it might be to admit, I’ve always preferred covers of Hank Williams songs to the original recordings. Part of that, I think, is because ol’ Hank is just too scary for me; he conjures up feelings that I generally like to stay far from for my everyday safety and sanity. As Bill Friskics-Warren writes in his essay for the “Lost Highway” entry in Heartaches by the Number, “‘Lost Highway’ [is] one of the eeriest records ever made. But what’s unsettling here isn’t so much that Hank sees himself as bound for hell as that he sounds like he’s already there, which in a very real sense he was.”
2. Lost Highway • Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys • 1949
“Alegrías” can be found on the Yazoo collection The Secret Museum of Mankind, Vol. 1. Photo of Pastora Pavón (La Niña de Los Peines) from booklet to Niña de Los Peines: Cante Flamenco (Fandango
We’re gonna interrupt our “Girl Groups” series here for a few weeks to make way for the return of a special edition of “Dinosauric Preception Roadmap Blues.” “Girl Groups Down for the Count” will resume after this scheduled interruption.
In 2003 David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren published a book on country music with an intriguing premise: instead of being just another compendium of top country singles or buying guide, they talked—and argued—about the country records that were important to them, and why they were, wrote insightful and provocative essays for each record entry and gave us music fans Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles. In the book’s introduction, titled “Don’t Fence Me In,” the authors went into depth on the how and why of the book, why they limited it to singles as opposed to albums or live performances, and told us, “This is a book about listening . . . an argument for a sensibility, a way of hearing.” They continue, “. . . rarely does anyone write about what would seem to be the point of listening to the music in the first place—how it feels to hear a great record or why you might decide it’s great to begin with. . . .”So Heartaches is a book and not a list; it’s anattempt to tell the story of country music through 500 singles. The reader will note that one record brings to mind another record and so the rankings flow into one another. As the authors write in “How to Use the Book,” “Connections between singles usually mattered more to us than any claim of one record’s superiority to another.”
We here at Blues All Kinds have been a fan of Heartaches by the Number for several years now and continue to return to it for inspiration and new ways of listening to a music that’s been a big part our lives for many, many years, even before we knew the difference between country and rock’n’roll and R&B and plain ole pop music. If it hit us in the stomach and that sweet pain remained, we figured it was a good piece of music. A good record, as Messrs Cantwell and Friskics-Warren would say. We’ve also discovered some great music and artists we barely knew existed and most likely never would have listened to (Sammi Smith and Gene Watson come to mind) had it not been for this excellent book. So, have a listen over the next several Thursdays (Sundays starting June 14), hear the records, and if you enjoy them, get your own copies of these records in whatever form you listen to ’em in, and by all means, find your way to a copy of Heartaches by the Number. You will be rewarded for your time in it over and over again. And feel free to agree or disagree with the authors’ observations and choices. That’s what it’s for.
For this new BAK series, we’ll post the first 10 entries from Heartaches, then branch out randomly to some of our own favorites from throughout the main 500 as well as the authors’ “Alternate 100.” So . . . to today’s “record.” The book’s authors’ number one pick is Sammi Smith’s recording of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It through the Night.” Cantwell and Friskics-Warren open with a long essay on the Music City scene of the late sixties and early seventies, Smith’s record, and the effect her re-visioning of Kristofferson’s lyric had on listeners and critics (including both the CMA and Bible thumping preachers). The authors write, “‘Help Me Make It through the Night’ begins like the releasing of a breath. . . . Kristofferson’s sensual imagery . . . sets us up for a seduction. Instead it embraces a deeper feeling, the fear that one cannot make it alone.”
Lucinda Williams, vocal; Gurf Morlix, electric guitar/acoustic guitar/mandolin/harmony vocal. Nashville, c. 1994 “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” is on Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard.