Saturday, February 28, 2009

Philosophy in 3/4 Time

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: I Lost Today
ARTIST: Rose Maddox
ALBUM: None (B-side of "I'm Happy Every Day I Live")
YEAR/LABEL: 1959; Capitol

We were always ten years ahead of our time.
(Rose Maddox)

TWENTY years!
(Fred Maddox)

Calling all voters for the Hall of Fame: next year, please induct the Maddox Brothers and Rose. If you need to know why they should be inducted, Jonny Whiteside wrote the explanation in 1997 in his biography, Ramblin' Rose: The Life and Career of Rose Maddox. The Maddox Brothers and Rose were the first act to wear the fancy "Nudie" suits (in the mid-1940s, long before anyone in Nashville discovered them), and their unconventional (for the time) use of electric guitars paved the way for the rockabilly movement that would come some ten years after their career took off. Sadly, they were a "west coast" country band, and the bias against west coast country performers (why do you think it took people like Owens and Haggard so long to be inducted?) may keep the Nashville-based voters from recognizing the importance of the Maddox family to the history of country music -- or even investigating it. That's their loss, but ultimately it's also the loss of country music fans who are missing out on one of the best acts of the 1940s and 50s.

In the late 1950s Rose was signed to Capitol Records as a solo artist. One of her first releases was a 1959 happy, upbeat singled called "I'm Happy Every Day I Live." The B-side, however, is a buried gem: "I Lost Today."

The song is a short (2:20) ballad that speaks of the pain that can (and does) result from not taking time to (as Jerry Reed sang in one of his songs) smell the flowers while the roses bloom. The focus of the song is summed up in the tag line: "As I waited for tomorrow, I lost today." Maddox tells the story that the "fame and glory" she sought came at a high price. "All the coin that I have gained," she sang in the second verse, "is just a weight that keeps me chained." The warning, delivered with Maddox's wonderful country voice (that woman could've sang an AC/DC song and made it sound country!), serves as philosophical advice for those who have not ventured down that path, and a "been there, done that" reminder for those who know the feelings conveyed in the song.

Rose Maddox was, and remains, one of the most underrated female singers in the history of country music. She passed away in 1998 at the age of 72 after years of poor health. She left a great legacy of music with her brothers, a duet partner with Buck Owens, and as a solo artist. If you have not discovered this "rose" of country music, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to pure country talent.


The entire $35 And a Dream album -- a Grammy-nominated 1994 release on the independent Arhoolie label that showcased Maddox's still exceptional voice through a mixture of old ("I Wonder Where You Are Tonight"), new (three autobiographical tunes, "Tonight I'm On Stage," the title song, and "Dusty Memories" that featured brother Fred), and interesting (a cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sin City"). Johnny Cash (who, according to the Maddox biography, was trying to land Rose as a bride before he turned his attention to June Carter) provided a commentary at the end of the CD.
"Mental Cruelty" (with Buck Owens, available on Owens' The Buck Owens Collection box set) -- this was a hit, but it has largely been forgotten because of the dated nature of the song's subject matter in the era of "no-fault divorce." It does not matter that trials and claims of "mental cruelty" are no longer required to obtain a dissolution of a marriage -- this is a FABULOUS song.
"Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down" (with the Maddox Brothers, available on America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band Vol. 1) -- a song that would hardly raise an eyebrow today was positively scandalous in the 1940s with its implications of a peeping Tom ("I saw Sally changing clothes....she caught me a-peepin' in") and prostitution (the spoken commentary "That's friendly Henry, the working girl's friend, I wonder if Sally is a workin' girl?"). Regardless of whether it was too risque for its time, it's a great, fun song.

Down to the River to Pray
Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dates of Note in Country Music, March 1-15

Category: News

(Hall of Fame members in bold)

March 1:

Janis Oliver of Sweethearts of the Rodeo born in Manhattan Beach, California, 1954 (now 55)
Sara Hickman born in Jacksonville, North Carolina, 1963 (now 46)
Clinton Gregory born in Martinsville, Virginia, 1966 (now 43)
Cliffie Stone born in Stockton, California, 1917 (died 1998)
Pearl Butler died (unknown cause), 198 (was 61)
Johnny Cash wed June Carter Smith Nix in Franklin, Kentucky, 1968
California governor Ronald Reagan issues a full pardon to Merle Haggard, 1972

March 2:

Doc Watson born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, 1923 (now 86)
Larry Stewart born in Paducah, Kentucky, 1959 (now 50)
Lonnie Glosson died (natural causes), 2001 (was 93)

March 3:

John Carter Cash born in Madison, Tennessee, 1970 (now 39)
Jimmy Heap born in Taylor, Texas, 1922 (died 1977)
Kyle Bailes died (unknown cause), 1996 (was 80)
Harlan Howard died (heart attack), 2002 (was 74)
Benefit concert for DJ "Cactus" Jack Call held in Kansas City, Missouri, 1963. Among those performing: Patsy Cline, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, George Jones, and Billy Walker.

March 4:

Betty Jack Davis born in Corbin, Kentucky, 1932 (died 1953)
John Duffey of the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene born in Washington, DC, 1934 (died 1996)
Scotty Stoneman died (overdose of prescription medication), 1973 (was 40)
Minnie Pearl died (complications from stroke), 1996 (was 83)
Eddie Dean died (emphysema), 1999 (was 91)

March 5:

Raymond Fairchild born in Cherokee, North Carolina, 1939 (now 70)
Jimmy Bryant born in Moultrie, Georgia, 1925 (died 1980)
Patsy Cline died (plane crash), 1963 (was 30)
Cowboy Copas died (plane crash), 1963 (was 59)
Hawkshaw Hawkins died (plane crash), 1963 (was 41)
Randy Hughes died (plane crash), 1963 (was 34). Hughes was Patsy Cline's manager and Cowboy Copas' son-in-law as well as the pilot of the ill-fated plane.
Anna Carter Davis, original member of the Chuck Wagon Gang and widow of Jimmie Davis, died (complications following a fall), 2004 (was 87)

March 6:

Red Simpson born in Higley, Arizona, 1934 (now 75)
Doug Dillard of the Dillards born in East St. Louis, Missouri, 1937 (now 72)
Skip Ewing born in Red Lands, California, 1964 (now 45)
Cliff Carlisle born in Mount Eden, Kentucky, 1904 (died 1983)
Bob Wills born in Turkey, Texas, 1905 (died 1975)
Jean Chapel of the Coon Creek Girls born in Neon, Kentucky, 1925 (died 1995)
George Jones critically injured in single-vehicle accident, 1999
The siege of the Alamo ended, 1836. Davy Crockett, subject of legendary song, was among those who died during the battle. Johnny Cash would memorialize the fight in his song "Remember the Alamo."

March 7:

Townes Van Zandt born in Fort Worth Texas, 1944 (died 1997)
Jack Anglin died (car wreck), 1963 (was 46)
Pee Wee King died (heart attack), 2000 (was 86)

March 8:

Jimmy Dormire of Confederate Railroad born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1960 (now 49)
Randy Meisner of Poco and the Eagles born in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, 1946 (now 63)
Johnny Dollar born in Kilgore, Texas, 1933 (died 1986)
Jimmy Stoneman born of the Stoneman Family born in Washington, DC, 1937 (died 2002)
Lew DeWitt of the Statler Brothers born in Roanoke, Virginia, 1939 (died 1990)
Stuart Hamblen died (brain tumor), 1989 (was 80)

March 9:

Mickey Gilley born in Natchez, Mississippi, 1936 (now 73)
Jimmy Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band born in Long Beach, California, 1948 (now 61)
Ralph Sloan of the Ralph Sloan Dancers born in Wilson County, Tennessee, 1925 (died 1980)
George Burns died (natural causes), 1996 (was 100). The legendary actor had a country hit with "I Wish I Was Eighteen Again."
Chris LeDoux died (bile duct cancer), 2005 (was 56)
Final Saturday night Opry at the Ryman before the opening of the new Opry House, 1974

March 10:

Ralph Emery born in McEwen, Tennessee, 1933 (now 76)
Norman Blake born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1938 (now 71)
Johnnie Allan born in Rayne, Louisiana, 1938 (now 71)
Daryl Singletary born in Wigham, Georgia, 1971 (now 38)
Kenneth "Jethro" Burns born in Conasauga, Tennessee, 1920 (died 1989)
Soul singer James Brown guests on the Grand Ole Opry at the request of Porter Wagoner, 1979

March 11:

Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers born in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1955 (now 54)
W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel of the Light Crust Doughboys born in Malta, Ohio, 1890 (died 1969)
Jim Boyd of the Cowboy Ramblers died (unknown cause), 1993 (was 78)

March 12:

Marshall Wilborn of the Johnson Mountain Boys and the Lynn Morris Band born in Austin, Texas, 1952 (now 57)
James Taylor born in Belmont, Massachusetts, 1948 (now 61). The legendary pop/folk superstar wrote "Bartender's Blues" and sang with George Jones on Jones' recording of the tune.
Ralph Sloan died (unknown illness), 1980 (was 55)

March 13:

Liz Anderson born in Roseau, Minnesota, 1930 (now 79)
Jan Howard born in West Plains, Missouri, 1930 (now 79)
Benny Martin died (nerve disorder/illness), 2001 (was 72)
Ezra Carter marries Maybelle Addington, 1926

March 14:

Michael Martin Murphy born in Oak Cliff, Texas, 1945 (now 64)
Doc Pomus died (lung cancer), 1991 (was 65)
Dale Potter died (cancer), 1996 (was 66)
Tommy Collins died (emphysema), 2000 (was 69)
Jimmy Martin died (cancer), 2005 (was 77)

March 15:

Carl Smith born in Maynardville, Tennessee, 1927 (now 82)
D.J. Fontana born in Shreveport, Louisiana, 1931 (now 78)
Gunilla Hutton of Hee Haw born in Goteborg, Sweden, 1946 (now 63)
Ry Cooder born in Los Angeles, California, 1947 (now 62)
The final Friday night Opry at the Ryman, 1974. The final song was the Opry cast singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Being Broken-Hearted Never Sounded So Good

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Fingerprints
Patsy Cline
Don Hecht, W.O. Fleener, and W.S. Stevenson
ALBUM: Encores
YEAR/LABEL: 1959; Everest (originally Four Star)

I sing just like I hurt inside.
(Patsy Cline)

I've earful of Patsy Cline, there is just no one who can touch her.
(Jimmy Buffett, "Miss You So Badly")

It's hard to believe, but Patsy Cline's status as a legend has only come about since the movies Coal Miner's Daughter and Sweet Dreams. Indeed, Buffett was one of the earliest people to acknowledge the power of a good Patsy Cline tune in his 1977 song from Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. It took Cline ten years after her tragic death in a 1963 plane crash to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; and the other two star victims of the crash (Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins) were also considered greats and not, as they are sadly dismissed today, "the people who died in the plane crash with Patsy Cline."

One of the drawbacks to Cline's elevation to icon status is that most of her music didn't come with her. When asked their favorite songs of hers, most people name the "obvious" songs ("Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces," or "Sweet Dreams [of You]"). While most artists have one or two songs they are "best-known" for, the material that is overlooked at the expense of those three songs is mind-boggling.

Exhibit "A" in that argument is "Fingerprints," a song Cline recorded in her days on Four Star Records before her days on Decca where her successful hits were recorded. While most Four Star artists were cheated out of their money (Hank Locklin once told me he never saw a penny for his #1 hit "Let Me Be the One," and Rose Maddox's biography contains tales of the mistreatment of the Maddox Brothers and Rose from Four Star that borders on criminal), the music that was produced in many cases outshined the major label recordings.

In the days before the heavily orchestrated, overproduced "Nashville sound" days that muddied recordings of Cline and others (especially Jim Reeves), the simpler, sparse accompaniment allowed for the song and the star of the recordings -- Cline's singularly unique voice -- to shine.

One of the most amazing things about Patsy Cline was her ability to put a vice grip on every syllable in a song and squeeze all the emotion out. The simple instrumental backing on "Fingerprints" allow Cline to stamp those "fingerprints of sorrow" all over the listener. When she sang, "Now I am all alone and as the teardrops start," you know tears were streaming down her cheek -- even if she was laughing during the session.

In short, this is the perfect marriage of a broken-hearted song and a singer who knew exactly what to do with those lyrics. If you want "an earful of Patsy Cline," skip the obvious songs and head straight for this gem.


"That Wonderful Someone" (from Encores) -- Patsy had a reputation of being able to cuss a sailor under the table, so it might sound peculiar (at the very least) to hear her do a gospel song. She delivered this great tune with the conviction of a church choir member, indicating that when it came to her music she never went halfway.
"Tra Le La Triangle" (available on The Patsy Cline Story) -- a lighthearted song about a woman with two boyfriends highlighted by her delivery of the line "My life's in such a tangle."

Down to the River to Pray
Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dates of Note in Country Music, February 16-28

Category: News

(Hall of Fame members in bold)

February 16:

Ronnie Milsap born in Robbinsville, North Carolina, 1944 (now 65)
Jo-Walker Meador born in Orlinda, Tennessee, 1924 (now 85)
Jimmy Wakely born in Mineola, Arkansas, 1914 (died 1982)
Smiley Burnette died (leukemia), 1967 (was 55)

February 17:

Buck Trent born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1938 (now 71)
Johnny Bush born in Houston, Texas, 1935 (now 74)
Jon Randall born in Dallas, Texas, 1969 (now 40)
Bryan White born in Shellman, Georgia, 1974 (now 35)
Billy Byrd born in Nashville, Tennessee, 1920 (died 2001)
Gene Pitney born in Hartford, Connecticut, 1940 (died 2006). The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recorded two albums of duets with George Jones.
Uncle Jimmy Thompson died (natural causes), 1931 (was 82)
Eck Robertson died (natural causes), 1975 (was 87)
Gus Hardin died (car wreck), 1996 (was 50)

February 18:

Juice Newton born in Lakehurst Naval Station, New Jersey, 1952 (now 57)
Dudley Connell of the Johnson Mountain Boys born in Scheer, West Virginia, 1956 (now 53)
Pee Wee King born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1914 (died 2000)
Tootsie Bess, owner of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, died (cancer), 1978 (was 61)
Johnny Paycheck died (emphysema), 2003 (was 64)

February 19:

Lorianne Crook born in Wichita, Kansas, 1957 (now 52)
Cedric Rainwater (real name: Howard Watts) born in Monticello, Florida, 1913 (died 1970)
Grandpa Jones died (stroke), 1998 (was 84)
Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton officially break up their act, 1974

February 20:

Kathie Baillie of Baillie & the Boys born in Morristown, New Jersey, 1951 (now 58)
Claire Lynch born in Albany, New York, 1954 (now 55)

February 21:

Mary-Chapin Carpenter born in Princeton, New Jersey, 1958 (now 51)
Don Reno born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1926 (died 1984)

February 22:

Del Wood born in Nashville, Tennessee, 1920 (died 1989)
During a concert in London, Ontario, Johnny Cash asked June Carter to marry him, 1968

February 23:

Buck Griffin born in Corsicana, Texas, 1923 (now 86)
Rusty Young of Poco born in Long Beach, California, 1946 (now 63)
Minnie Pearl married Henry Cannon, 1947

February 24:

Little Roy Lewis of the Lewis Family born in Lincoln County, Georgia, 1942 (now 67)
Don Law born in London, England, 1902 (died 1982)
Webb Pierce died (cancer), 1991 (was 69)
Goldie Hill Smith died (cancer), 2005 (was 72)
Dinah Shore died (cancer), 1994 (was 77). The legendary pop singer and TV hostess was part of the family of live performers on WSM radio.

February 25:

Dr. Ralph Stanley born in Stratton, Virginia, 1927 (now 82)
Faron Young born in Shreveport, Louisiana, 1932 (died 1996)

February 26:

Jan Crutchfield born in Paducah, Kentucky, 1936 (now 73)
Billy Jack Wills born in Hall County, Texas, 1926 (died 1991)
Johnny Cash born in Kingsland, Arkansas, 1932 (died 2003)

February 27:

Chuck Glaser of the Glaser Brothers born in Spalding, Nebraska, 1936 (now 73)
Walter Bailes died (various health problems), 2000 (was 80)

February 28:

Don Helms born in New Brockton, Alabama, 1927 (died 2008)
Joe South born in Atlanta, Georgia, 1940 (now 69)
Jim Denny born in Silver Point, Tennessee, 1911 (died 1963)
Audrey Williams born in Banks, Alabama, 1923 (died 1975)
Bunny Biggs of Jamup & Honey died (unknown causes), 1948 (was 52)
Fiddlin' Arthur Smith died (unknown causes), 1971 (was 72)

And a leap baby:
February 29:

Dinah Shore born in Winchester, Tennessee, 1916 (died 1994)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

An A Cappella Beauty

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

Honestly, this list was comprised three months ago. The fact that the artist featured here just cleaned up at the Grammy awards is purely coincidental -- not that I object to the cleaning up she did!

SONG: Down to the River to Pray
Alison Krauss
SONGWRITER: traditional
ALBUM: O Brother, Where Art Thou (soundtrack)
YEAR/LABEL: 2000; Lost Highway

Alison's one of the most beautiful singers I've ever heard.
(O Brother soundtrack and Raising Sand producer T-Bone Burnett)

The worst thing that can be said about this song is that the lyrics say "down in the river to pray" instead of "down TO the river to pray." The best things that can be said about this song are almost limitless.

Without question, the soundtrack to the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou was one of the surprise hits of not only the year but the decade. In an era of over-commercialized pop and rock being sold under the label "country," the O Brother soundtrack combined old recordings (Harry McClintock's 1928 recording of "Big Rock Candy Mountain") and new recordings of old songs (such as the Whites' great read of "Keep on the Sunny Side") and sold a whopping eight million copies.

Although the good parts of the album are plentiful, the absolute gem of the soundtrack comes from Alison Krauss. Her a cappella rendering of the traditional song "Down to the River to Pray" is spine-tingling. Krauss recorded the song with a backing group that included the choir of White House, Tennessee's First Baptist Church, Gillian Welch, Tim O'Brien, and producer T-Bone Burnett's wife Sam Phillips. Krauss's voice is the star, however, carrying the simple lyrics through the verses imploring various family members to "come on down, down in the river to pray."

Alison Krauss has one of the purest, most beautiful voices in modern music, and this exceptional, sparse production of
an old-time camp meeting song (also known as "Down in the Valley to Pray") shows not only how lovley her voice is, but how wonderful an instrument the human voice can be, if used correctly. T-Bone Burnett definitely used it correctly.


"Steel Rails" (from I've Got That Old Feeling) -- Alison's first "hit" (it peaked at #73 on the Billboard charts) introduced the world (those who got to hear it, anyway) to this woman's marvelous voice. It's still one of her best tunes.
"I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" (from Now That I've Found You, originally on Jerry Douglas' Slide Rule) -- if you're used to the bouncy, upbeat Louvin Brothers original, this ballad may take some getting used to, but it's more than worth the effort.
"Oh, Atlanta" (from Now That I've Found You) -- originally a song by the rock band Bad Company (not the Little Feat song with the same title), Alison turns it into a great country/bluegrass number.
"Far Side Bank of Jordan" (with the Cox Family, from I Know Who Holds Tomorrow) -- one of the best songs to mix gospel faith and a love song that is done quite well with this teaming up of two great acts. May they make more music together!
"Shield of Faith" (from Every Time You Say Goodbye) -- another great gospel song, this one written by banjo player Ron Block, who sings lead on the song.
"Rich Woman" (with Robert Plant, from Raising Sand) -- if your impression of the Led Zeppelin front man is "Black Dog" or "Livin' Lovin' Maid," be prepared to be impressed and surprised at just how well he can sing harmony along with Alison. There's a reason this album won so many Grammy awards this year.

Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

If Jethro Were Here

Category: Tribute

This is the greatest mandolin player in captivity.
(Chet Atkins)

It's time to have a few laughs with Jethro.

Jethro and his "anemic little partner" Homer,
from the 1964 Corn-Fucius Say Joke Book

The history of the mandolin was forever changed on March 10, 1920, the day Kenneth Charles Burns was born. In fact, Jethro Burns' talent was so immense that today, twenty years after his death, he still occupies three of the top five spots on the list of "best mandolin players ever" -- including number one.

We are Homer and Jethro, the Everly Brothers of the Stone Age. This little fella is Homer. My name is...Jethro. And, we're not brothers. My brother is living.
(Jethro Burns)

It's sad to say that this incredibly gifted man seldom got the respect due him during his lifetime. Certainly very few musical accolades came from country music, where he made his best-known impact. It's even sadder to say that since his death Jethro has, by and large, been cast aside to the scrapheap of forgotten country performers of the past. And the man is a Grammy-winning Hall of Famer!

For a Hall of Fame duo, Homer and Jethro are horribly under-represented with commercially available material. Only one Bear Family CD (Homer & Jethro Assault the Rock 'n' Roll Era) and a Razor & Tie compilation are available from an act that released nearly three dozen albums. Nothing looks to change, either. In 2007, Bear Family founder Richard Weize received an award at the International Country Music Conference. After the luncheon I asked him if he had ever considered putting out a box set on Homer and Jethro. I did not even get "and Jethro" out of my mouth before he began shaking his head. "No," he replied. "I'd lose money."

Her teeth were like the stars above because they come out every night
(Homer & Jethro, "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs")

Why should there be a box set on Homer and Jethro? First, they were hilarious. It is amazing how well their humor holds up. While they wrote original songs, it is their slew of "#2" songs that Homer and Jethro are best remembered for. They did not invent the parody, but they certainly perfected it. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine modern acts like Weird Al Yankovic, Pinkard & Bowden, and Cledus T. Judd or older acts like Don Bowman and Ben Colder (the alter ego of Sheb Wooley) having careers (as opposed to being one-hit novelty knock-offs) without Homer and Jethro paving the way for them. Therein lies the second reason for putting their material out: in terms of comedy acts, there's Homer and Jethro, and then there's the people who copied them. Richard Bowden said that he considered it "quite the compliment" when Pinkard & Bowden were labeled "the Homer & Jethro of the 80s" upon release of their first album.

You look clean, but you laugh dirty.
(Jethro Burns)

While Homer and Jethro's influential comedy is generally ignored today, the thing that is even less discussed anymore is the musicianship of these two men. Therein lies the truly criminal part of forgetting Homer and Jethro's legacy. As difficult as it might be to superficially accept, those two men could sing. They certainly never intended to sound good as part of their comedy act; however, when people can sing well they cannot hide it forever. Listen closely (such as on "Human Cannonball," their parody of "Wabash Cannonball"), and you will hear some very good harmonies. Beyond their singing, they were not just comedy cornballs, they were masters of their instruments. They did a number of instrumental albums under their own names, as the "Country All Stars," and with Jethro's brother-in-law Chet Atkins as the Nashville String Band. They put down their jokes and picked up their instruments, and the results were astounding. With the mandolin stereotyped as an instrument for bluegrass or comedy, people either forgot or ignored the fact that Jethro could play anything on that instrument: blues, rock, jazz, pop standards, country, or classical. The duo launched into a great version of "C-Jam Blues" on At the Country Club and provided marvelous renditions of classics such as "Tico Tico" and "Take the 'A' Train" on Playing It Straight and It Ain't Necessarily Square, respectively.

You may have gathered by now that we are the juvenile delinquents who grew up to be dirty old men. We don't apologize for it, we just enjoy it.
(Jethro Burns)

Jethro was partnered with Henry "Homer" Haynes for 39 years. When Homer suffered a fatal heart attack on August 7, 1971 before a scheduled performance in Hammond, Indiana, it left Jethro in a deep funk. Jethro stayed near his suburban Chicago home and gave mandolin lessons. However, he would soon find a new partner in a longtime fan. While visiting his son John, a guitarist in the Chicago folk and rock scene, backstage after a show, the 6'1" Jethro found himself cornered by a 5'2" folk singer who was alternatively quoting Homer and Jethro songs and saying how he could not believe he was in the presence of the great Jethro Burns. The singer was Steve Goodman, who had been performing Homer and Jethro songs onstage before he had written one of his own. He asked Jethro to join him on tour dates. Jethro suddenly had
a new career and -- finally -- the respect he was due for the musician he was.

We've done just about everything that two itinerant musicians can do without getting put in jail. And we didn't miss that too far!
(Jethro Burns)

Jethro found Chicago Shorty to be an equal in humor and musicianship (although Goodman frequently denied the latter when introducing Jethro to the crowd, once being booed by his own fans because he differentiated between himself as a "songwriter and banger" and Jethro as a "legitimate musician"). Stevie and Jethro delighted Goodman's audiences and record buyers for a dozen years. Conventional wisdom would have kept a man striving for commercial success in pop music from recording and touring with a "country" musician old enough to be not only his father but the father of most of the people in the audience. However, much like Jethro there was nothing conventional about Steve Goodman. He never failed to acknowledge his musical heroes, and Jethro Burns was certainly at the top of his list.

Jethro and Steve Goodman sharing
a laugh on
Jethro & Friends, 1984

Jethro again found himself without a musical partner when Goodman lost his 16-year battle with leukemia on September 20, 1984. At Goodman's tribute concert Jethro said the time he spent working with Steve had proved to be more enjoyable than his time with Homer. Choosing an era of his career that lasted just twelve years over a far more commercially successful one that spanned four decades might seem odd, but Jethro had a good reason. In the time they had spent together, Goodman had succeeded in presenting Jethro to the world not merely as half of a country cornball act but as Jethro Burns, "the premiere mandolin player in the world" who "also happens to have Jack Benny's comic timing." The audience Goodman attracted -- people near his own age (20s and 30s) -- may have had little to no knowledge of Homer and Jethro's career, so they had to accept what they saw, and what they saw was a man who could make a mandolin talk, sing, scream, and jump through hoops.
There is nothing egotistical about wanting to be recognized as "good" on one's chosen instrument, and Goodman made certain that Jethro's mandolin playing was squarely in the spotlight.

After Goodman's death Jethro continued making albums on his own and with others as well as performing with his Jethro Burns Quartet. He also ventured to Nashville occasionally to play in Hee Haw's "Million Dollar Band." In his 60s, at a time when most performers are forgotten or retired, Jethro Burns was a hot ticket, even as cancer slowly deteriorated his health.

Jethro passed away from prostate cancer on February 4, 1989, just over a month shy of what would have been his 69th birthday. Over his 56-year career he made a tremendous amount of incredible music, most of which inexplicably sits gathering dust in RCA's vaults somewhere.

One thing this world could use right now is a good laugh. NOBODY in country music provided more of them than Homer and Jethro. These men should not be forgotten, which is why I've started writing a biography on them. The tentative title is We Can't Sing and We Ain't Funny: The World of Homer and Jethro.

And if I ever win the lottery you'll know it immediately: Homer and Jethro's discography will no longer be out of print.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A College Course in How to Do a Parody

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
ARTIST: Homer & Jethro
SONGWRITERS: Slim Willet / Henry Haynes / Kenneth Burns
ALBUM: At the Country Club
YEAR/LABEL: 1960, RCA Victor

How do you like that? Twenty eight years I've been working with an idiot!

Aw, that's all right. You'll get used to it. I did.

There are novelty acts and there are parody singers. Then there's Homer and Jethro. They were not the first act to do a parody (Oscar Sullivan told me that distinction went to Lonzo and Oscar, although I have yet to find independent confirmation of that), but they perfected the art. In fact, they set the bar so high that no one since has come close to matching them for musicianship and witty, intelligent parodies. Anyone can re-write the lyrics to a song, but Homer and Jethro went far beyond that. Richard Bowden of Pinkard & Bowden (the only act who has come close to understanding Homer & Jethro) pointed out in an interview that what set Homer and Jethro apart was the fact that they managed to do two seemingly contradictory things simultaneously: they used a good deal of the original song they were lampooning, and they created a song with comedy that stood on its own without the listener having to know the original song getting raked over the coals.

Nowhere is that more obvious that in Homer and Jethro's skewering of "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes." The original song, written by Slim Willet, enjoyed massive success in both country (Skeets McDonald and Ray Price) and pop (Perry Como) and spawned an answer song (Goldie Hill's "I Let the Stars Get in My Eyes"). But, as they said, no song was complete until Homer and Jethro did a parody of it -- then it was finished. What they did to this song stands head and shoulders above any comedy record of its time -- or any time.

While the studio version of "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs" contains some great moments (such as Jethro, at the beginning of his mandolin break, asking Homer, "How do you like that strain, Homer?" and Homer's dry reply, "Boy, that sounds more like a compound fracture to me!"), it is the version from 1960's brilliant live album At the Country Club that shows the true genius of the song. The verses are reversed from the studio version (with the "don't let the stars get in your eyes if you've got water on the brain" opening the song instead of being the second verse), which compounds the hilarity of the song by saving the best lines for last. The introduction is Jethro stating the song they are about to do is "a little thing called 'The Shades of Night Were Falling Fast, But I Got a Pretty Good Look Anyway." They then launched into the parody. When they reached the bridge of "too many fights, too many scars, too many knots upon my head," Homer began counting softly, "One, two, three, five...", a joke brought over from the studio version where counting runs throughout the song (leading to a shout of "Bingo!" at the conclusion of the song).

After Jethro's mandolin break the duo delivered two of the greatest lines they ever wrote. The second verse begins, "Her teeth were like the stars above because they come out every night." After dealing with her wig they conclude the verse with, "I cocked an eye at her, she cocked an eye at me, and we just sat there cockeyed as could be." It was funny then, and it's funny now.

The partnership between Homer and Jethro began in a radio station in Knoxville when they were teenagers and lasted for nearly 40 years until Homer suffered a fatal heart attack while preparing for a show in 1971. Jethro continued a prolific career until he lost his battle with prostate cancer 20 years ago this week.

Homer and Jethro were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, a long overdue honor. They were -- and remain -- the standard bearers for comedy duos in any genre of music.


The entire At the Country Club album -- not only their parodies but their comedic interaction are on display in this classic album that is one of the funniest albums ever created. Their smoking version of "C-Jam Blues" in the middle of side one also shows off their musicianship.
The entire Homer & Jethro At the Convention album -- more live joy and hilarity, highlighted by "San Antonio Rose #2" with another of their greatest lines ever ("then that cotton-pickin' chicken plucker came across") and featuring an absolutely mesmerizing display of Homer's singing ability -- deliberately singing in a different key than the band was playing during the last verse of "Sink the Bismarck." If you think that's easy to do, try it sometime.
"Human Cannonball"
(available on Country Their Way) -- a parody of Roy Acuff's "Wabash Cannonball" with plenty of puns ("we'll make a big shot out of you," "you'll go over with a bang") but noteworthy for the harmonies that prove they could sing very well.

"You Belong to Me #2" (available on America's Song Butchers) -- a lovely ballad turned upside down with marvelous results, including the great conclusion of "now I've got a wife and 13 kids, they belong to me -- me and Jethro."
"Tico Tico" (from Playing It Straight) -- an old organ instrumental becomes a shining moment for the musician prowess of Homer and Jethro.
(from Zany Songs of the 30s) -- a song that was a lighthearted number given more comedy by overdubbed commentary (such as Homer asking, after saying "S.O.S.," "That spells 'sos,' don't it?"). Best part: "If you ever lose your teeth and you're out to dine, borrow mine," with Jethro adding a gleeful, "All right" to the conclusion of the line.