Stax Country Various Artists Craft Recordings/Concord Music
The early 1970s were pivotal in the evolution of country music. Preceding the populist explosions of both “Outlaw Country” and the resulting, reactive “Urban Cowboy” phases, in the early years of the 1970s country music ties to “& Western” had been significantly severed while the influence of “Countrypolitan” sounds were beginning to wane.
It was in these years that the charts included the emerging legends—Tammy Wynette, Lynn Anderson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride—as well as singers of significance—Susan Raye, Mel Street, Tony Booth, “Crash” Craddock, and Tommy Overstreet—for those of us who have dived deeply at garage sales and thrift shops. There was a certain ‘sound’ associated with the country music of the day, an abundance of pedal steel, florid choruses, and silky background singing, that hasn’t necessarily aged particularly well, but which feels positively rootsy compared to today’s over-the-top, unrepentant, and decidedly manufactured country hit-making.
Venerable Stax Records, celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this year with a series of reissues and compilations, also released select country singles and albums on associated labels. Jim Stewart, Stax founder, came from country and the label produced, leased, and otherwise acquired a significant number of artists and masters and—as this single-disc compilation reveals—released several top-touch but ultimately doomed songs from 1969-1975.
Nothing within Stax Country, as far as I can determined, charted nationally: if you want to give your Google a workout, try some research into the recording careers of Paige O’Brian, Danny Bryan, and Dale Yard, all included herein with tracks culled from the Enterprise label. Here, then, are fairly obscure, seldom heard, and in select cases unreleased recordings, several of which are absolute gems: every track, even the most contrived and dated, offers insight into country music’s less familiar trajectory.
The most familiar artists, I’m guessing, included in the set are O. B. McClinton, Connie Eaton, Paul Craft, and Eddie Bond, not a household name among them.
“The Chocolate Cowboy,” O. B. McClinton is typically included whenever the history of African-American country music is discussed, and his “The Finer Things in Life” certainly has everything a soulful country song should include: tick-tack guitar, a compelling ‘crossing the tracks’ narrative of a woman who had everything “until I came along,” and an exceptional vocal take. Like most things McClinton touched, it wasn’t quite enough, but as part of this interesting set one considers ‘what could have been.’
A compelling singer, Connie Eaton was destined to achieve a mere footnote in country music history. She brushed the country charts a number of times in the early 70s, never breaking through despite hitting as high as #23 in 1975 with “Lonely Men, Lonely Women.” The catchy “I Wanna Be Wrong Right Now” didn’t stand a chance in 1974, released as it was as everything Stax was beginning to fail. But hearing it from 40+ years distance, one can hear echoes of Olivia Newton-John, Donna Fargo, and other popular singers of the day: it is a great performance. Eaton’s daughter, Cortney Tidwell, recorded as KORT with Kurt Wagner, recording the excellent Invariable Heartache a few years back, a reminder to re-discover both Eaton’s and Tidwell’s music on the shelves.
Bluegrassers are familiar with the name Paul Craft, if only for writing the standards “Keep Me From Blowing Away” and “Midnight Flyer,” but this member of the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame also had a brief recording career including time spent on the Stax Truth-imprint. “For Linda (Child in the Cradle”) was the b-side of his unforgiveable “It’s Me Again, Margaret” single: sorry, the novelty song is unlistenable. “For Linda” (Child in the Cradle)” is vastly superior, a well-executed country nativity of confusion and poor decisions.
Eddie Bond’s album about Buford Pusser ranks as one of my favourite discoveries of the YouTube/grey-shade download era, and the Memphis rockabilly legend has more recordings floating around than likely anyone on this 16-track set. What his rockabilly recordings may lack in substance they compensate for in verve, but “That Glass” is pure honky-tonk country, an over-looked classic of the type George Jones recorded for United Artists and Musicor.
From the first track, Becki Bluefield’s “Sweet Country Music,” through to the final tracks (Dale Yard’s, A.K.A. Stax guitarist Bobby Manuel, instrumental “Purple Cow” and Lee Denson’s sentimental “A Mom and Dad for Christmas,”) Stax Country is an incredible overview of country music most of us have never encountered. Joyce Cobb’s “Your Love” should have charted amongst all those Lynn Anderson hits, while Cliff Cochran’s “All the Love You’ll Ever Need” is a Jeannie Seely song that had everything going for it, excepting label support.
Safe to say, those looking for fairly traditional, throwback country music will be well-served by Stax Country, and I haven’t never mentioned the album’s best song, Daaron Lee’s “Long Black Train,” a lonesome, Lee Hazlewood song. Recording as Daaron Lee, Billy Lee Riley—a Sun rockabilly artist—here sounds ideally suited to the type of country blues singing that made a star of Charlie Rich.
Colin Escott’s notes are much appreciated, although a bit more detail on how several of the songs came under the Stax umbrella and photos would have been appreciated. A terrific stocking-stuffer for the old school crowd. In my ‘top ten’ country albums of the year, guaranteed.