(This rant was originally written for organissimo jazz forums several years ago when I was an active member. This piece was subsequently discovered by L-P Anderson of Bear Family. It was used in the label’s 35th anniversary box set, of which I was presented with a complementary copy. But that was nothing compared to the thrill of having my writing taking up space in a classic, hardcover Bear Family book! I also got the hank Snow Thesaurus Transciptions box set out of the deal. L-P has become a Facebook friend and through that contact I have hooked up with a number of music types around the world. My Bear Family collection has grown since this was first published in 2010.)
Not for the first time in my life Bear Family is taking a big whack of my time in terms of listening, money, online browsing, researching and pulling of triggers.
The outfit is so broad and diverse that there’s no way I could claim to be holus bolus in love with all of it, as opposed to maybe Mosaic or Jazz Oracle.
Nope, not interested in Doris Day or Bonanza box sets, or even Nat King Cole.
There’s a few rockabilly releases I’d like get familiar with again – Johnny Brunette Trio, Sid King maybe – but by and large I find straight-out rockabilly near unlistenable these days.
But for my areas of interest – honky tonk, western wing, hillbilly boogie and so on, with a nod to old-timey and bluegrass – it sometimes seems that there’s not a Bear Family release out there that will not provide at the very least some interest and at best jump-for-joy delirium.
And unlike, say, Ace (who have also been getting a fair whack of my custom), BF always has full recording/personnel details.
And with BF there’s always the thrill of knowing the next revelation is just around the corner!
Here’s what I picked up in the run-up to Christmas …
The Texas Troubadours – Almost To Tulsa: The Instrumentals
Simply incredible! Backin’ the boss, Ernest Tubb, these guys were kept on a pretty tight – if very tasty – leash. Here they sizzle. Smokin’ pedal steel and lead guitar, particularly from Buddy Charleton and Leon Rhodes. There’s a whole CD at the rear end of the third final Hag BF box of the Strangers doing the same sort of stuff – but nowhere near as compellingly as this. IMO. On a couple of tracks the Troubadours veer towards bachelor pad/lounge territory, but that’s cool with me, too. Unreservedly recommended to diggers of Hank Garland, Speedy West/Jimmy Bryant and so on, but also fans of Hank Roberts and Tal Farlow, and anyone interested in checking out the roots of Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry.
Ernest Tubb – Thirty Days
Picked this up at the same time after a year or so of prevarication. The Bear Family Tubb boxes stretch to five, comprising 30 discs. So it was time get real and admit I was never going to go that far, even had I the money! There’s a Proper box, but that would’ve restricted me the early stuff only. Thus it seems clear this is the best single-disc available – and it sounds great. Like all in the BF Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series, it puts the emphasis on uptempos, rockers and groovers. But not exclusively.
(Arguing the toss on country music at the weekend with a buddy, he admitted that when it comes to country he prefers, erm, Gillian Welch, John Prine and even Neil Young, and that what he called that “catch” or “cry” in the voice of Hag and his ilk was always going to be a deal-breaker for him. My response was that if you don’t dig that kind of voice – God knows what he’d have thought if I’d spun some Tubb for him – and if you have a problem with novelty tunes, drinking songs, cowboy tunes, Bible-thumping gospel outings, sickly sweet sentimentality as found on Wayne Raney’s The Child’s Side Of Life or Fuzzy-Wuzzy Teddy Bear by Hal “Lone” Pine/Betty Cody (see below), wailing steel guitars (pedal and otherwise), endless tributes to southern culture, well … you may be loving some fine artists, but you sure as hell ain’t digging country. IMO. Take all that stuff away and it’s no longer country.)
(In some ways I feel lucky to be free of all the baggage that seems to accompany country for many people, including it seems many Americans … Another mutual friend of ours once confessed that the sound of bluegrass made her feel ill.)
But back to specifics …
Leon McAuliffe – Tulsa Straight Ahead (Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series)
Wow, wow, wow! This has blown me away. Capitol ’50s recordings from Bob Wills’ steel man. Nothing all that original here, but it all swings and rocks. More slick than the Wills recordings on which Leon performed – and more in line with the R&B-tinged cuts available by Billy Jack Wills. Great and hot fiddle, steel guitar and vocals.
Leon Payne – I Love You Because
This one had been calling to me for a while, so it’s sad to report I’ve been a little underwhelmed. A hugely successful songwriter (viz the title track right through to Jim Reeves), Payne turns in a mixed bag of honky tonk and related stuff. One for the true believers (which is me), but not essential.
Other goodies in my Bear Family collection …
Hank Snow – The Goldrush Is Over (Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight series)
Ah, yes, bliss, another blind spot eradicated. I don’t know why I spent four decades of country fandom without ever really checking out Snow – maybe (shamefully) because in my mind’s eye there was some sort of connection between Snow and the likes of the aforementioned Jim Reeves. Silly! Anyways, this does the job – rocking, wailing brilliance from beginning to end. Especially surprising are Snow’s own acoustic guitar breaks. He ain’t no virtuoso, but perfection doesn’t always require that level of genius. Which is no doubt genius of a kind, too. Like Tubb, Snow is covered by multiple box sets – a whole lot too much for me, although the set showcasing the Thesaurus transcriptions of Snow doing his own material and covers with his own band has profound appeal. I’m more likely to spring for one or two of the recent releases that are thematically presented – railroad tunes, cowboy songs, Hawaian stuff.
Hal Lone Pine/Betty Cody – On The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine
More from Canada. Straight-up mixed bag but almost always with a twist that contrats it from the mainstream US product of the times. Lovely!
Montana Slim/Wilf Carter – The Dynamite Trail
Another Canadian! My country adventures of recent years could well be sub-titled “How Kenny Learned To Chill Out And Love The Yodel”. But that might be going a bit too far. More like “Kenny Learns To Live With The Yodel”. In any case, there’s wall-to-wall yodelling here, a single disc I chose to get to grips with this particular artist. I dunno – maybe some earlier stuff might be more my go, but this is too slick/formulaic for me, yodelling aside.
Frankie Miller – Blackland Farmer (The Complete Starday Recordings and More …)
Whooeeee – three discs of unrepentant honky tonk brilliance. Many of these sides are, I’m guessing, among the last with Nashville fire before countrypolitan doused the flames. Like fellow Starday artist George Jones, Miller writes little but has a genius for making other’s lyrics his own and so believable one simply falls into the song. A prime example: Baby Rocked Her Dolly – in which an old codger in a rest home looks back on his life – is pure dynamite. There’s a single BF release of Miller’s earlier recs for Columbia, more in the Hank mould.
(Hey, hey – the magic of subliminal listening! As I’m bashing this out, Leon Payne is sounding better by the minute! Similarly, I find that when doing such a banal time-wasting thing as playing computer solitaire, I often pick up details in the music that have previously passed me by.)
Benny Barnes – Poor Man’s Riches (The Complete 1950s Recordings)
More Texas honky tonk schtick a la Miller/Jones. Some great, some good, some pretty awful really. Not essential.
Jess Willard – Honk Tonk Hardwood Floor
One of those BF releases on which I simply took a punt, with spectacularly enjoyable results. Lisping former sidekick of Jack Guthrie doing one-of-a-kind west coast honk tonk/hillbilly. Weird, surreal, essential. And absolutely one of THOSE voices seemingly calculated to give the screaming shits to those who dig, say, the likes of Shania “Ball Of Twine”.
Gene O’Quin – Boogie Woogie Fever
Ah, re-acquainted with another old friend. And another one of THOSE voices. Irresistibly enjoyable west coast jive with beaucoup Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, Merle Travis and so on. The musical equivalent of a shit-eating grin.
Jimmy Swan – Honky Tonkin’ In Mississippi
The liners notes make quite a bit of Swan’s campaign for the Miss. Governorship on a segregationist platform. So what? Heaven forbid we stop listening to music for such reasons. Real, real hardcore honky tonk in the Hank Williams mould.
Jack Guthrie – Milk Cow Blues
One of three BF Guthrie releases, this features him and his band doing covers such as Muleskinner Blues, San Antonio Rose, Peach Picking Time In Georgia and so on. Really fine, but the Oklahoma Hills CD is probably the better pick in terms of Guthrie’s individual talent/voice. That’s on my wishlist.
Jimmy Murphy – Electricity
Brilliant beyond words. Right up there with the likes of Monk, Longhair, Howlin’ Wolf, Roger Miller in terms of one-off American genius.
Roger Miller – Kings Of The Road
Speaking of which … quite an old release by now (1990), but still the best single disc comp as far as I know.
Skeets McDonald – Heart Breakin’ Mama
Jimmie Skinner – One Dead Man Ago
As with the Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb single-disc comps, these gonna Shake This Shack releases cherry pick in sublime fashion multi-disc box sets. These’ll do me for these two fine artists. More essential stuff. Jimmie Skinner has the laudable knack of doing a relatively modern honky tonk style with a real old-timey feel. A fair bet, too, he’s an influence on Bob Dylan. Skeets is simply classic and about as hard as country gets – mostly a mix of Nashville cats and pre-Hag Bakersfield.
Hawkshaw Hawkins – Car Hoppin’ Mama
Eddie Hill – The Hot Guitar
Two more Gonna Shake This Shack release. The Hawkins is genial, rocking and pure ambrosia, with the vocals more in the Merle Travis/Johnny Mercer vein. The Eddie Hill is good fun along the Hot Rod Lincoln lines, but not essential.
Harry Choates – Devil In The Bayou (The Gold Star Recordings) 2 cds
Link Davis – Big Mamou
Two more American heroes, sort-of Cajuns both. Essential, both of ’em – heaps of wailing fiddles, swing, cajun, rockabilly and much more.
And, of course, Kenny has boxes …
Merle Travis – Guitars Rags And A Too Fast Past
His Capitol classics – couldn’t live without it. Genius/loon/jiver all in one.
Bob Wills – San Antonio Rose
Various – A Shot In The Dark/Tennessee Jive
Heavyweight comp of early Nashville labels. Fabulous.
The Blue Sky Boys – The Sunny Side Of Life
Far and away my fave sibling harmony outfit. And, yes, couldn’t live without it. But … there is an undeniable sameness about the tempos, keys, lyric content and so on. Would make me hesitant about picking the Carter Family, Uncle Dave Macon and Louvin Bros sets, even if I could afford them.
Merle Haggard – Untamed Hawk/Hag
Another blind spot joyfully banished. I’m a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to Hag, but with these two boxes I’ve become a zealot. Why are Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons, just for example, so revered in rock circles when Hag’s associated with Okie From Muskogee and not much else?
Merle Haggard – Hag: Concepts, Live & The Strangers
Not nearly as compelling as the Capitol studio tracks covered in the first two boxes, but has its moments. But not the gospel stuff, which is frankly bloody awful.
Floyd Tillman – I Love You So Much It Hurts
Founding father of honky tonk along with Tubb and Williams. Unsung giant/genius. And another one-of-a-kind a la Longhair and Monk and so on.
Jimmie Davis – Nobody’s Darlin’ But Mine
Louisiana Governor-to-be does much country smut and hard-grinding blues with Oscar Woods on steel.
Cliff Bruner And His Texas Wanderers
This was pretty much the beginning of my born-again interest in this area. But despite having large amounts of Bob Dunn and Moon Mullican, I find there is something ho-hum about this as a whole. Geez, that sound sacreligious even to me!
Bill Monroe – Blue Moon Of Kentucky
Has the duets with Charlie, the tremendous proto-bluegrass with accordian and classic early cuts with Flatt & Scruggs. As well as two discs of alternate takes. But it is the earlier four-disc box of the ’50s Decca stuff with Jimmy Martin that I really covet.
Maddox Brothers & Rose – The Most Colourful Hillbilly Band In America
Slightly silly impulse buy, as it has plenty of the band’s whacko rocking stuff, but also unfortunately also plenty of Rose’s routine but still enjoyable Nashville cuts.
I even have non-country boxes …
Duke Ellington – Live From The Cotton Club
Smiley Lewis – Shame Shame Shame
I got this 2nd hand here in Melbourne. As I walked to the counter, a smartass quipped: “I always wanted to see what someone who wanted four discs by Smiley Lewis looked like.” Idiot! Four discs, sure, but larded with not just one of great blues singers but also plenty of other Crescent City greats such as Tuts Washington and many more. Basically replaces the stuff I used to own on vinyl in another time, if not another place.
Kenny’s wishlist …
Gonna Shake This Shack tonight series: Johnny Horton, Faron Young, Cowboy Copas and many more.
Multi-disc boxes: Marty Robbins western/cowboy set, Speedy West Jimmy Bryant, Darby & Tarlton.
Plenty curious about: Tex Ritter, Gene Autry and literally dozens more.
Bear Family – the fun way to poverty.