("Exploring the Classics" (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music's past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I'll be revisiting albums with which I've long been familiar, in others I'll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as "noteworthy" is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I'm not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
Charlie and Ira Louvin might not enjoy the same level of name recognition as some other legends, but a familiarity with their work is absolutely essential if you wish to have a full understanding of the history of country music. Building on the tradition of close harmony duet singing, the combination of Ira's tenor and Charlie's baritone took the country music world by storm in the 1950s and 1960s. The duo recorded numerous songs that would go on to become country standards and had an impact that was deep and wide, directly influencing musical giants like the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. While the brothers' discography is thoroughly excellent (the career-spanning Bear Family box set Close Harmony is as good of a compilation there is), two albums in particular are widely celebrated: 1959's gospel Satan is Real (which I will undoubtedly also cover at some point), and their 1956 debut LP, the secular Tragic Songs of Life.
Welcome to today's edition of Country Music Minds' Tracks of the Day feature! This is where we bring to you two songs will feel are worthy of your attention.
There are very few vocalists in country music history who can match Ray Price, and very few writers who are as intelligent as Roger Miller. So when Ray Price sings a song by Roger Miller, you know it's going to be great. The narrator of "Invitation to the Blues" has been left by his lover and his world has turned into a living hell. It's country music all right! This classic went to #3 in 1958, and has been covered numerous times, perhaps most recently by Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. Of course, the version by Roger Miller, no slouch of a performer himself, is also well-worth hearing.
When we think of where country music originates, we generally think of the American South. But of course, great country music can originate from anywhere in the world. Ags Connolly is from England, but lives and breathes country music. From his stellar 2014 debut How About Now, which I can't recommend enough, "When Country Was Proud" is something of a protest song, but instead of engaging in pop-country bashing (all right, maybe a little), it's more of a celebration of country music's storied history and the legendary artists of the past. Check it out!
Alt-country legend Steve Earle famously dealt with a bevy of personal problems in the late '80s and early '90s, not least among them a heroin addiction and a short stint in prison. Thankfully, he managed to achieve sobriety and put his life back on track, and it was living through those experiences that brought about the most creatively fertile portion of his career. He released the excellent acoustic record Train a Comin' in 1994, followed it up with the masterful I Feel Alright in 1996, and continued the winning streak with 1997's El Corazón ("The Heart" in English), which I'll be reviewing today.
Steve Earle is one of those artists whose sound is impossible to pigeonhole. He can pull off country-folk, hard rock, and traditional bluegrass, often all on the same album, and El Corazón is a great example of his versatility. Successful stabs are taken at bluegrass ("I Still Carry You Around" with the Del McCoury Band, foreshadowing their later collaborative album), pure country ("The Other Side of Town"), and hard rock (the outstanding "N.Y.C.", in which Earle is accompanied by the alternative rock band the Supersuckers). While the production of "N.Y.C." is laid on thick, specifically in an apparent vocal distortion in the chorus, it completely works in the context of the song's narrative of a young man visiting the Big Apple for the first time. Other strong tracks include the alt-country/rock humdinger "If You Fall", the confident mission statement "Here I Am", and "Poison Lovers", a well-crafted duet with English pop singer-songwriter Siobhan Kennedy.
In 1975, Emmylou Harris released her first major album, Pieces of the Sky, to great acclaim. Largely conceived and recorded while Harris was mourning the sudden death of her close friend and mentor, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, it remains one of the finest entries in her legendary catalogue. While Harris had already gained some recognition as a duet partner and bandmate of Parsons, whether she could succeed as a solo artist was an open question. Needless to say, Harris passed the test with flying colors.
Produced by Brian Ahern (whom Harris would marry and later divorce), the album enlisted the aid of many top musicians, some already legends and others who were then just starting out but would go on to be superstars. Credited on the album are (you might want to pull up a chair for this) are rock guitar legend James Burton, fiddle virtuoso Richard Greene, Billy Payne of Little Feat, Bernie Leadon of the Eagles, former Crickets member Glen D. Hardin, ex-Dillards member Herb Pedersen, Linda Ronstadt as a backing vocalist, and even future Entertainer of the Year-winner Ricky Skaggs playing fiddle on a couple of tracks. Needless to say, there aren't a lot of albums with this much star power, especially from so many diverse areas of music.