What defines country music? The answer isn’t an easy one. Dolly Parton is undoubtedly singing a country-and-western song when she reminisces about “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” but how about when she’s warbling “Here You Come Again” by the Brill Building team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil? Are Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift country artists as pop stars, or pop stars as country artists? Billboard recently described none other than Bruce Springsteen as “a symbolic fencepost in modern country.” Clearly, country music comes in all varieties. This hasn’t been lost on the fine folks at Real Gone Music, who have recently issued a group of country-themed collections that are about as different as different can be. The artists are three late troubadours: Cowboy Copas (1913-1963), Eddie Rabbitt (1941-1998) and Mel McDaniel (1942-2011). Real Gone’s three new compilations prove that these singers were able to carve out their own niches in the overall country-and-western landscape.
The Taylor Swifts of the world might be most indebted to Eddie Rabbitt, whose music practically defines “crossover country.” Perhaps this was due to his upbringing; Rabbitt was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised across the Hudson in East Orange, New Jersey, a highly unlikely breeding ground for a country music superstar. Rabbitt’s 13 Original # 1 Hits (Real Gone Music RGM-0047, 2012) is not one of Real Gone’s more comprehensive collections, but despite its brief running time, it nonetheless traces Rabbitt’s ascendancy from rising country star to pop crossover success.
Though Rabbitt made his debut on record in 1964, this collection of his thirteen No. 1s (on various charts) picks up in 1976. That was six years after Elvis Presley made the world take notice of Rabbitt when he recorded the songwriter’s “Kentucky Rain,” still a perennial favorite of the late King’s fans. Rabbitt remained a consistent hitmaker until 1986, and Real Gone has gone the extra mile in licensing these tracks from labels including Capitol, Warner Bros. and RCA. Rabbitt was equally comfortable as a songwriter and interpreter of others’ material, and was quite adaptable in musical styles.
The earliest track here is pure honky-tonk country, musically and lyrically (“Drinkin’ My Baby (Off My Mind),” co-written with Even Stevens) but by the second song, from 1978, the change in Rabbitt’s style is pronounced. The piano is no longer rollicking but plaintive for the Alan Ray/Jeff Raymond composition “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” a big, sumptuous pop ballad with not a twangy guitar in sight. Soon enough, strings and backing vocalists were added to the radio-ready equation (“I Just Want to Love You,” written by Rabbitt, Stevens and David Malloy) in a sound that was more AM pop than countrypolitan. The change paid off, with both songs hitting pole position on the C&W chart.
Rabbitt continued his climb atop the charts, bringing a light country flavor to pop tunes (the movie theme “Every Which Way But Loose”) or abandoning the Nashville overtones altogether (the slick, blue-eyed soul song “Suspicions”). His crossover gambits worked beautifully, as the endurance of smash hits like jukebox sing-along “I Love a Rainy Night” (No. 1 Pop, C&W and AC in 1980) and Crystal Gayle duet “You and I” (No. 1 C&W, No. 2 AC and No. 7 Pop) proves. The collection concludes with the romantic “Both to Each Other (Friends and Lovers)” which found Rabbitt joining Juice Newton in an attempt to recapture some of the magic of his Crystal Gayle duet. Bill Dahl offers a solid and informative essay to accompany 13 Original # 1 Hits, but unfortunately the booklet contains no discographical information to the original issue number of each single and chart positions.
The next release in Real Gone’s country trio comes from a contemporary of Rabbitt’s, Mel McDaniel. Hit the jump where you’ll find baby with her blue jeans on!
Eddie Rabbitt was sharing the Capitol label roster in the late 1970s with Mel McDaniel. McDaniel embraced a more traditional country sound than Rabbitt but also created a distinct identity, not by courting the pop charts like Rabbitt but rather by recording traditional country songs with more positive themes than the genre’s frequent tropes of death and heartbreak. The results of McDaniel’s labor have been collected on Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On: His Original Capitol Hits (Real Gone Music RGM-0048, 2012). McDaniel’s very first comprehensive survey in the CD era, the 21-track set is a rip-roaring, good-time anthology from an artist who’s often overlooked due to his lack of crossover success.
In addition to the Grammy-nominated title track, penned by Bob McDill, the set offers plenty of good-natured nostalgia dating between 1977 and 1986. “Soul of a Honky Tonk Woman” is pure upbeat C&W, while “I’ll Just Take It Out In Love” (B-side of “God Made Love,” listed on the CD insert but not included here) is a twangy ballad with a message that clearly resonated with McDaniel’s core audience. His music wasn’t hip or even particularly contemporary, but McDaniel knew just what his fans wanted to hear.
It’s clear that the artist didn’t patronize his audience but played to country listeners’ soft spots with songs like the jaunty “Countrified,” in which he extols the virtues of the simple life: moonshine, campfires, fried chicken, walking barefoot through the countryside, even rolling one’s own cigarettes! This romanticized view of the country lifestyle ran through McDaniel’s work on albums with titles like Take Me to the Country, How the Hell Do You Spell Rhythum and Naturally Country! There was apparently very little artifice or pretension in McDaniel’s art. Fiddles enliven “Louisiana Saturday Night,” while McDaniel’s less boisterous side is expressed via the tender “Old Man River (I’ve Come to Talk Again),” which bears no relation to the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song. “Play Her Back to Yesterday” is another warm, reflective trip.
The compilation even includes a couple of well-chosen covers from McDaniel that asserted his rock-and-roll credentials. He scored on the C&W charts with rip-roaring takes on Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” (and Bruce Springsteen’s “Stand on It.” Even more interestingly, these rockabilly revival tracks date from 1984 and 1986, respectively, showing that McDaniel wasn’t bending his singular style to eighties production whims. Bill Dahl is on hand again to annotate Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On, but the more expansive, nicely-designed booklet includes full discographical and chart information.
Both Rabbitt and McDaniel might have owed a debt to Lloyd Estel “Cowboy” Copas, born in 1913 and most remembered for tragically perishing in the same plane crash that took the life of Patsy Cline. Call it cowboy music, call it hillbilly music, Copas’ recordings are vintage country from long before there was a “Nashville sound” or “crossover country.” Complete Hit Singles As and Bs (Real Gone Music RGM-0045, 2012) collects both sides of every one of Copas’ charting singles for a total of 30 tracks on two CDs. That this is music from a different era is immediately evident with the collection’s opening cut, “Filipino Baby,” with lyrics about “My dark-faced Filipino…my treasure and my pet.” (Also from the Politically Incorrect department: Copas took the name “Cowboy” when he teamed with a fiddler who called himself Natchee “the Indian.” It’s lost to time whether Natchee was actually Apache; he might have been Greek or Italian in fact!) “Filipino Baby” actually dated to 1898 but had resonance with the World War II servicemen and reached No. 4 on the pop chart. It launched Copas on a successful career path that would see him become a star of the Grand Ole Opry and an enduring recording artist. Mostly recorded for King Records, many of these songs are relics of an era when an artist would buy a copyright to a song for a couple of sawbucks!
Twangy guitars and fiddles usually support Copas’ modest but charming voice on these vintage slices of Americana. Perhaps the most famous song here is “Tennessee Waltz,” a No. 3 hit for Copas in 1948. Copas’ version actually predates co-writer Pee Wee King’s, but Colin Escott’s terrific liner notes reveal that King attempted to sell it to Copas and King owner Syd Nathan. Nathan balked at Pee Wee’s $25 asking price for the copyright, and though Nathan eventually went up to $35, Pee Wee asked for $50. Nathan’s reply? “Ain’t no song in the world worth that.” Obviously, Nathan was wrong. Still, Nathan and Copas attempted to make up for their missed opportunity with a number of other songs evoking the state.
“Tennessee Moon,” from later in 1948, didn’t quite match the level of success of “Waltz,” but still shot up the charts to No. 7. “Down in Nashville, Tennessee,” another Pee Wee King song, came the following year, and amazingly, Copas was still at it in 1961 with “Sunny Tennessee” for the Starday label! As for the non-Tennessee material here, the classic country theme of heartbreak colors “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” but Copas is jaunty on “Opportunity is Knocking” (“…at your door!”) and “Dolly Dear,” with its call-and-response vocals. 1949’s “Forever (You’ll Be In My Heart)” is more typical love-song fare of the time.
Some of the songwriters represented on the collection are surprising, such as James Hanley (“Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”), represented with 1919’s faux-Hawaiian “Breeze” as recorded by Copas in 1948. The same goes for Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Before they wrote “Rags to Riches,” a hit for Tony Bennett, and the Broadway musicals The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, they gave Cowboy Copas “The Strange Little Girl,” a mini-melodrama with a big chorus backing the star. Equally strange is “Hangman’s Boogie,” which is actually light on the boogie but nonetheless irresistible: “Swing high, swing low! It’s a doggone pity that I’ve gotta go!” Copas even tried to merge the Hawaiian sound of “Breeze” with three-quarter time in “The Blue Pacific Waltz” from 1949!
Complete Hit Singles As and Bs overlooks the period between 1952 and 1960 during which time Copas had no hits and attempted to record rock-and-roll for Dot Records. By 1960 he was back on Starday Records, his career revitalized by “Alabam’,” a revival of a 1927 song once titled after “Coney Isle.” After “Alabam’” scored, Copas even remade “Filipino Baby” and 1948’s No. 2 hit “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” for Starday! These later tracks are less rough-and-tumble, with sweet backing vocals and piano added into the mix, though Copas’ laconic and languid delivery remained the same until his untimely death in 1963. The compilation’s final A-side, the appropriately-titled “Goodbye Kisses,” was a posthumous success for Cowboy Copas.
Remastered by Jim Stewart, the sound on Complete As and Bs is generally good for recordings of this vintage although some tracks (such as “How Much Do I Owe You,” the B-side of “Tennessee Waltz”) are in lesser quality than others. The booklet is illustrated with an EP sleeve and a couple of advertisements featuring Copas.
Offering classic country for every taste, this trio of releases from Real Gone is a timely reminder of the great but varied lineage of American music.