Saturday, March 14, 2009

Oh, What Harmony Can Do

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: I Want a Home in Dixie
ARTIST: Wayne Raney
ALBUM: none, B-side of "I Had My Five"
YEAR/LABEL: 1951; King

Having no money with which to buy guitars and fiddles, I decided to become a harmonica player.
(Wayne Raney)

In the years immediately following World War II, "music city" was not Nashville, Tennessee. It was Cincinnati, Ohio. King Records was headquartered there. Their arsenal of performers included future Hall of Famers Grandpa Jones, Homer & Jethro, Bill Carlisle, and the Delmore Brothers, along with should-be Hall of Famers Al Dexter, Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, and Cowboy Copas. Several of these artists, along with a young guitar player by the name of Chester Atkins, could be heard over Cincinnati's WLW radio station.

Another Cincinnati station, WCKY, was the home of Wayne Raney, who was also on King. Raney's initial claim to fame was his wizardry on the harmonica (and it is his lasting legacy: Bob Dylan considers Raney a major influence). While a number of other artists hawked songbooks on their radio shows, Raney was selling harmonicas at a brisk pace.

Raney was also a good singer and songwriter. He had a number of regional hits on King Records before 1948's massive #1 hit "Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me," a song that has been covered by the likes of Pat Boone, Rosemary Clooney, Les Paul, and Little Willie John. None of his subsequent releases matched the popularity of that song, and it became his only charted hit.

The quality of his music, however, was far from limited to that one song. In 1951 a session with his label mates, friends, and co-writing partners Alton and Rabon Delmore (Raney co-wrote and played one of the two killer harmonicas on the Delmore Brothers' biggest charted hit, "Blues, Stay Away From Me") yielded one of his greatest songs: "I Want a Home in Dixie."

The lyrical content of the song is homesick for the south blues ("I'm riding my last train tonight...and there's just one thing can set me right") delivered with beautiful harmonies from Raney and the Delmores on the chorus ("I want a home in Dixie, for that's where I belong in this world") that show just why the Louvin Brothers considered the Delmores their biggest influence. Raney did not provide any harmonica for the song, but what he did provide was an excellent performance that was elevated to greatness by the backing vocals of his friends.

Raney eventually retired from full-time performing and turned to another method of performing on the radio: disc jockey. Shortly after his death from cancer in 1993 he was inducted into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame.

Although Raney passed away in 1993, fans are discovering his music through reissues of his recordings. He frequently pops up on compilations chronicaling the roots of rock and roll or rockabilly (as do the Delmores). He left a discography mixed with serious, novelty, and gospel songs (he really did write and record a song called "We Need a Lot More of Jesus [And a Lot Less Rock and Roll]") as well as his performances on others' recordings. Among the best in that discography is this simple but lovely tribute to the south.


"I've Gone and Sold My Soul" (from Songs From the Hills) -- this song is a must-have, if for no other reason than the line "she drinks carbolic acid and she totes a Gatling gun."
"I Want to Know" (from Gospel Favorites) -- one of Raney's finest gospel tunes, complete with his harmonica playing.
"Lonesome Wind Blues" (available on More Hot Boogie) -- another vocal collaboration between Raney and the Delmores, this shows they should have recorded together much more than they did.
"Freight Train Boogie" (the Delmore Brothers, available on Freight Train Boogie by the Delmores as well as the box set Roots of Rock and Roll 1946-1954) -- one of the Delmores' best and most influential songs with Raney on harmonica. An additional treat: Homer and Jethro play on this session as well, with mandolin wizard Jethro Burns playing lead guitar.

I Lost Today
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

Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home
Entella Hotel
Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

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