Southern Fried

Aaand we’re back!

And here we go: Way back in the first half of the ’70s, there was a great boom in what most people back then called Southern-fried rock. The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws, Marshall Tucker Band — it was a thriving sound for a few years there, and there was some great music being made. But rock cycles and trends change, and Southern rock faded into the background as slicker, arguably more accessible arena rockers came into fashion on rock radio and disco took over Top 40. There was a little resurgence in the ’80s, with the chart success of .38 Special and their Van Zant cred, but their singles were actually pretty mainstream ’80s radio rock. (Which is not to say bad; nothing wrong at all with “Hold on Loosely,” and “If I’d Been the One” is even better.)

Though I live in a southern Nevada now, I’m entirely a city creature — even little Laughlin can’t really claim to be all that rural, what with the giant neon-coated casino hotels. But I still love the Southern rock classics; “Midnight Rider” gives me chills, and I’ll crank up the radio for all nine-plus minutes of “Green Grass and High Tides.”

But southern rock isn’t likely to come back in style any time soon. The music is still out there, in a certain form — but those acts are all calling themselves country now. There’s a small army of male artists in their early to mid 30s (Jason Aldean, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan, Zac Brown, etc.) who grew up on Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band but who also claim to love Springsteen and Jimmy Buffett and John Mellencamp, and whose instincts (both artistic and commercial) led them to try their luck with country careers instead of rock ‘n’ roll. These guys are frequently credited with bringing “rock style” or a “rock approach” to country music, and I guess there’s something to it. If John Mellencamp were starting out today, he’d fit right in with these guys musically, if not politically, and there’s no doubt he’d be accepted by country radio. They wouldn’t give it a second thought.

But back in the late ’90s, there was none of that. Country had far more career female artists than it does today, and Shania Twain and Faith Hill in particular were having hit after hit. Everybody wanted to cross over to adult contemporary radio, so big-voice power ballads, sappy story songs, and bouncy girl-friendly tunes were the order of the day. Rock was still doing — I don’t know, whatever came after grunge; was it nu metal? — and country had gone girly, and the South was showing no signs of rising again.

So it’s 1999. And you’re listening to your local country station, and there’s Shania Twain and then maybe a nice Mark Wills ballad, and then Jo Dee Messina sings about how she’s going “Bye Bye.”

Then this comes screaming off the radio:

Hillbilly Shoes” link for the e-mail people.

Montgomery Gentry’s “Hillbilly Shoes” was the best piece of Southern-fried rock to come out in easily 15 years, and it came to country radio during one of the mildest-mannered times in the history of the format. Sure, the production is slicker than any ’70s Southern act would’ve done it. But the pieces are all there. Raw vocals, drums slamming front and center, rock-steady bass, and unsophisticated lyrics with unabashedly redneck themes:

You want to judge me by the whiskey on my breath
You think you know me but you ain’t seen nothing yet
Till you walk a while, a country mile
In my hillbilly shoes
In my hillbilly shoes

It had two big homely Kentucky boys to sing it, and best of all, a screaming lead guitar that was a choir of angels compared to the dull, pandering, “female-friendly” music that surrounded it. And country programmers, as bored as the rest of us, actually played it.

“Hillbilly Shoes” wasn’t a huge hit then, and it most likely wouldn’t be now. But that it got any play at all was an early sign that country, which is even more cyclical than rock, was moving toward men and a harder sound, and within a year or two male artists were back to dominating the format.

Montgomery Gentry did become quite successful after that first single and have had many hits. But they never did anything remotely like “Hillbilly Shoes” again, settling into hard-sounding but substance-free records, contrived wannabe anthems, and the occasional “inspirational” hit of the type country artists seem to love so much.

But if they were only going to rock once, at least they did it right.

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Death Valley Inspiration

Once in a while there comes along a song that refuses to go away. On occasion you don’t want anything more than that it would. Other times the song has such life to it that every time you hear it, it still sounds fresh and enjoyable.

In 1948 a Park Ranger working Death Valley, California had an inspiration while viewing the desolate but beautiful scenery of the hottest place on earth. He remembered a story he had been told as a boy about the Devil’s herd of cattle being chased across the sky by the restless souls of damned cowboys. The cowboys being forever cursed to ride and ride after that herd they will never catch seemed to make sense when looking out over the Valley.

While working in Death Valley, Stan Jones became friends with film maker John Ford which gave him his opportunity to get his songs recorded. Over the next fourteen years, Jones would have over a hundred of his songs recorded by the popular artists of the day. But there was that one song, just like Jones’ damned cowboys, that just keeps on going.

Burl Ives Ridin’ In The Sky!

Burl Ives was the first of hundreds of artists to have recorded “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend,” followed shortly, as was common in those days, less than a month later by Vaughn Monroe’s version which was also the first time “Ghost Riders” charted at the number one spot.

All in all quite a lot of success in the space of a month.

Jones’ song was far from done though. Less than two weeks after Vaughn Monroe hit the charts, Bing Crosby released his version on March 22, 1949. 1949 was a very busy year for “Ghost Riders.” In April, singer Peggy Lee released her take and once again only a month later even comedy meister Spike Jones got in the act with his send up of Vaughn Monroe’s version.

There was even a French translation version by Les Compagnons de la chanson also in 1949. From there Stan Jones’ song just kept on going. All through the 50′s and 60′ everyone from surf master Dick Dale to Elvis Presley took their turn with the cowboy classic.

In 1979 Johnny Cash finally took the plunge and recorded one of my favorite versions.

Johnny Cash Ridin’ in the Sky!

When Cash recorded his version for his Silver album, “Ghost Riders” had been a staple of country and popular music for a full thirty years. A measure of success that Stan Jones never could have imagined. (Jones himself had passed on in 1963 at only 49 years of age.) His song however, just keeps going.

When Johnny Cash took on “Ghost Riders” he also produced one of the more memorable versions. With the creepy, jangly honky-tonk piano and de-tuned guitar opening things up, Cash sets the mood right away. Then the horn section announces Cash’s arrival as the haunted storyteller. Cash’s determined but understated deliver works wonders on this story about the endlessly wandering cattle and cowboys.

The production is of course marvelous being led by Brian Ahern and engineered by music legend Billy Sherrill. The mix of Sherrill’s old school style with what was then Ahern’s cutting edge digital additions was controversial at the time but it certainly worked magic on “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

With a stable of the best musicians you could get from Bob Wootton on electric guitar, longtime Cash bassist Marshall Grant, drummer W.S. Holland and even a then mostly unknown Ricky Scaggs on fiddle, Cash had a perfect combination of the old and the new when he recorded Silver.

Just a year after Johnny Cash had his last major charting hit with “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” (it reached #2 in the US and #1 in Canada,) the next generation was ready to take Stan Jones’ story to another place.

The Outlaws Ridin’ in the Sky!

The Outlaws version has always been one of my favorites. It’s an exercise in unbridled rock n’ roll enthusiasm while still keeping that country kick. There was that period in the late 70′s and early 80′s when country mixed not just with pop, say as in The Eagles and Jackson Browne, but when bands like Molly Hatchet and The Marshall Tucker band we’re hitting the twang thing with hammers, anvils and full pyrotechnic displays at their shows. Even 38 Special could really rock the twang thing when they wanted to. (38 Special, “Chain Lightning!”)

But The Outlaws went one step further and took on “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Opening up with a simple acoustic guitar in a flamenco influenced passage so you can’t be quite sure what to expect. Then the drums come crashing in with a dual lead guitar and wicked power chords and the required thumping bass.

By the time the chorus rolls around the backing vocals are being treated to a bit of flange distortion making them delightfully creepy. The lead guitar solo is a great bit of crossover somewhere between country and hard rock. All the while the bass is running rampant in the back.

Rather than singing the final verse The Outlaws decided to simply go mad for the last nearly two minutes of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” This is also when it transitions to full blown rock n’ roll with multiple guitar leads wending their way back and forth, up and down. All in all an exercise in complete rock n’ roll enthusiasm.

“Ghost Riders in the Sky” has proven quite adaptable to almost any musical style. Keep in mind that it takes an artist of amazing talent to do this to such a great song…

Blondie Murders Ghost Riders…

Stan Jones’ song has been recorded over and over in Germany in the 64 four years since Burl Ives first hit the radio with his version. The German Metal band Dezperadoz did their cookie monster version in 2000.

Dezperadoz in the Sky!

Even the acting world is not immune to the charms of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Though perhaps someone might want to do something about that.

Chritstopher Lee does something with Ghost Riders that he shouldn’t have…

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Ruby on the Radio

As Pete said, we’re casting our musical net a little more widely these days, ranging cautiously into country new and old, and the occasional new music that catches our variable fancy. So here’s a country song that hit number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“Ruby” link for the e-mail people. Join them!

Interesting because this record hit only number 9 on the Billboard country chart. Kenny Rogers, who was in 1969 still the long-haired, earring-bedecked bass player who fronted the First Edition, wasn’t considered a country act at all. He and the band had only one big hit before “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town),” the psychedelically goofy Mickey Newbury-written “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” (Here’s KR & the FE playing it on the Smothers Brothers show, while also pretending to be Steppenwolf.)

Here’s the “Ruby” vinyl:

Vinyl link!

As pretty much everybody knows, “Ruby” is the story of a paralyzed veteran whose pretty young wife leaves him alone night after night to go out and party. He’s trying to be understanding, we think at first, and reminds her she won’t be expected to be loyal much longer:

It’s hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed
And the wants and the needs of a woman your age, Ruby, I realize,
But it won’t be long, I’ve heard them say, until I’m not around

But she is indifferent, and he burns with resentment:

If I could move, I’d get a gun and put her in the ground
Ruby, don’t take your love to town

And the famous last line:

Ruby … for God’s sake, turn around

To our ears, this could be nothing but a country record — it’s almost impossible to imagine it crossing over to pop or AC radio today. But in the free-for-all that was Top 40 in the mid to late ’60s, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place at all. It was a topical song of course at the time, and a lot of its power comes from how Kenny underplays it, creating real character through Mel Tillis*’ anguished lyrics. He sounds both exhausted and enraged, and the threat at the end is quite persuasive.

Country has changed a lot since the ’60s, of course, but one of the things that attracts people (or me, at least) to country is the songs are, on the whole, very much more driven by the words (indeed, sometimes it seems there are only about six country melodies). Even with so much country crossing over to pop, there are still plenty of hits that tell stories or have character lyrics and that will never be heard on pop radio. Right now, Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck” — another sad song about a soldier that is nevertheless not gratuitously “anti-war” — is working its way up the charts.

It’s not a first-rate song, but, like the best country music, it’s an attempt to appeal to common feelings through anecdotes and particulars, rather than the big-emotion bombast that’s more common in rock (and which I also often love). That emphasis on “real life” and evoking emotion with the everyday is one of country’s great strengths. Sometimes country artists even write songs about it:

“This Is Country Music” link.

*Country artists were and are not universally conservative politically, though that is often how they were perceived. Like “Ruby,” the superb Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell “Galveston” could be understood as having an anti-war message — although also like “Ruby,” the message is conveyed by imagining the thoughts of an individual soldier rather than by half-baked sloganeering or childish political posturing.

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