Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By David D. Duncan

OCTOBER 4, 1999: 

Willie Nelson, Stardust
Merle Haggard, Big City
Marty Robbins, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison
Tammy Wynette, Stand By Your Man (Sony/Columbia/Epic/Legacy)

A noticeable side effect resulting from the upcoming end of the century finds record companies scrambling to reissue "millennium" collections of their top-selling artists. Most of these have been rehashed over and over again and rarely add anything to an artist's repertoire, other than yet another version of a greatest-hits album.

A refreshing change from this trend of shameless recycling emerges from an unlikely place -- Sony Music Nashville and Legacy Recordings. With the initial five CD re-releases in the "American Heritage" series, a step is made in the right direction to restore significant country albums through 20-bit digital remastering. When the first five titles in this series were originally issued on CD, the masters used were likely secondhand source material, and the packaging left much to be desired. This grievous oversight has finally been corrected, and now these classic recordings are being made available in definitive editions for the digital age.

Upon re-examination, two of the five reissues don't really stand the test of time, a true hallmark of a classic album. At the risk of outraging Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard fans, Stardust (from 1978) and Big City (from 1981) emerge as overrated efforts. Although these two artists' contributions to country music are significant, these two particular examples, while beloved by fans, play today as lesser works.

Stardust took the popular music world by storm when it was released (over two decades ago) and sold in copious numbers. And although Willie Nelson is a true American treasure and an excellent singer/songwriter/performer in his own right, he is not the vocalist to do justice to the Great American Songbook (Frank Sinatra being the front-runner favorite). My vote for the ultimate Willie Nelson CD would be Red-Headed Stranger (also on Sony/Columbia).

Merle Haggard's Big City is another fine record, but marred somewhat by the heavier production sound that emerged in the post-"Urban Cowboy" era. Big City was Haggard's first for Epic, hence its inclusion in this series. However, Haggard's true classic period happened while he was signed to Capitol, and Big City just doesn't measure up to those previous efforts. Two additional bonus tracks, "Call Me" and a duet with the late Roger Miller, "I Won't Give Up My Train," fail to add any real value to Big City, a good record by any artist's standards but not a true classic.

The remaining recordings in the initial round of "American Heritage" releases fully live up to their status as bona fide classics.

Stand By Your Man was Tammy Wynette's defining moment in her career as the "First Lady of Country Music." Released at the end of 1968, Stand By Your Man still packs a hefty punch today, with its songs of troubled relationships, absent fathers, and adolescent yearnings for a nuclear family. Wynette never sounded better under the auspices of producer Billy Sherrill, and the two previously unreleased bonus tracks ("I'm Only a Woman" and "There's Quite A Difference") are definitely worthy of inclusion.

Johnny Cash was riding high in the '60s, and At Folsom Prison captures him (and the Tennessee Three, along with June Carter and the Statler Brothers) live, playing to a truly captive audience. This historic 1968 show has been restored to its original running order, and all the censor bleeps have been removed at last. Three unreleased tracks ("Busted," "Joe Bean," and "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer") round out the show, an essential document in Johnny Cash's storied career.

The late, great Marty Robbins was the Renaissance man of country music, recording everything from Hawaiian tunes to rockabilly and appearing in television, movies, and on the race track. (For an excellent example of "country lounge" as attempted by Willie Nelson on Stardust, check out Robbins' Marty After Midnight.)

Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs is Robbins' touchstone of greatness, wherein he effortlessly proves his versatility and gentle power. Everybody knows "El Paso," but they may not realize that it was the first country record to receive a Grammy Award. Still mesmerizing after four decades, Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs is a milestone in American music.

This series is much welcome, but where are the pioneers of country music who have been woefully overlooked on CD? Other Columbia/Sony artists who are not fully represented include Ray Price, Carl Smith, Bob Wills, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Hoosier Hot Shots, while a wealth of lesser-known Western swing and hillbilly boogie musicians and pivotal figures like Patsy Montana, Leon McAuliffe, and the Maddox Brothers & Rose remain in limbo as far as domestic releases are concerned.

The European record companies (particularly Germany's Bear Family) appear to have a better understanding of American popular music history than we do ourselves. That's one area we can reclaim with the advent of the 21st century. Hopefully, future releases in the "American Heritage" series will make up for lost time.

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