FORGOTTEN ARTIST – WYNN STEWART

FORGOTTEN ARTIST: Wynn Stewart (1934-1985)
From the www.9513.com

Mention Bakersfield to a country music fan and the names Buck Owens and Merle Haggard immediately come to mind. That’s to be expected considering Buck and the Hag were the two most successful practitioners of the “Bakersfield Sound,” but there are several other artists just as important to the evolution of the sound. Chief among these is Wynn Stewart, a hard-core honky-tonk singer who arrived at a time when Nashville was distancing itself from the hard-core sounds.

Country music rapidly lost its audience after the arrival of Elvis Presley in 1956. In order to retain viability in the marketplace, Nashville producers attempted to broaden the appeal of the music by adding strings and background voices. As time went by, the background voices became choruses, the strings became entire string sections and (worst of all) fiddle and steel guitar became noticeably absent in the recordings of the likes of Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. Plus, the vocals themselves often became bland.

Wynn Stewart arrived in 1954 with his hard-core sound and distinctive tenor and phrasing, recording for a minor label out in California. He signed to major label Capitol in 1956 and had one hit, “Waltz of the Angels,” which reached #14, but he was unable to duplicate that success and was soon released.

He then signed to Jackpot / Challenge Records in 1958 where, after dabbling with a few rock and roll songs on the Jackpot label, he recorded a number of classic country songs, including “Wishful Thinking,” which hit #5 (Ralph Mooney on steel and Gordon Terry on fiddle), and several duets with Jan Howard, including “Wrong Company” and “Big, Big Love.” These records featured fiddle and steel guitar in a way that Nashville recordings of that era wouldn’t touch. My personal favorite of Stewart’s songs, “Playboy,” was recorded during this period. As was often the case for Stewart, some of his strongest material did not chart–this song being one of those cases.

While Stewart was signed to Challenge, one of his songs, “Above and Beyond,” was recorded by Buck Owens who took it to #3 in early 1960 (Buck’s second big hit). Years later Rodney Crowell finally got the song to #1. Before Buck formed the Buckaroos, you could clearly hear the Wynn Stewart influence in his vocals and sound.

In late 1963, Stewart’s bass player, a young ex-con named Merle Haggard, asked for his permission to record “Sing A Sad Song.” Always willing to help a fellow artist, Wynn gave the song to Merle who had his first chart record with the song (it reached #19).

Stewart re-signed with Capitol Records in 1964 but had little success until 1967 when his fifth single for the label, “It’s Such A Pretty World Today,” topped the charts. The recording found the classic Wynn Stewart sound softened with vocal choruses and string accompaniment. Three more top ten records (“‘Cause I Have You,” “Love’s Gonna Happen To Me” and “Something Pretty”) followed, but the hits became smaller and smaller and after 1971 Stewart was dropped by Capitol. A stint with RCA produced no hits, although he did score one more top ten with “After The Storm” in 1976 on the Playboy label where he returned to his hard-core sound. Stewart’s last top 20 hit came in 1977 with “Sing A Sad Song,” which, ironically, was the song that launched Merle Haggard’s career; it too, got to #19.

Stewart formed his own label, Pretty World Records, named for his biggest hit, and seemed to be ready to get his career back into high gear when he was felled by a heart attack on July 17, 1985.

Both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard have cited Wynn Stewart as a major influence on their careers, yet somehow, he was never able to translate his enormous talent into extended and consistent success for himself. Possible reasons are several:

Poor timing. He was a hard country artist at a time when Nashville was going soft and attempting to co-opt the easy listening market.

A lack of self-discipline and some bouts with the bottle.

Lack of visual appeal. Like Haggard, Wynn Stewart was short in stature, probably shorter than Haggard. Unlike Haggard, who was very handsome and photogenic in his younger days, Wynn Stewart was just another guy a bit below average in appearance (his daughters are all quite pretty, however).

Wynn Stewart inspired tremendous loyalty among his fellow musicians and artists. For years after Wynn’s death, legendary steel guitar player Ralph Mooney would identify himself as “Wynn Stewart’s steel player”. Roy Nichols, Haggard’s long-time guitar player, played for Wynn Stewart, and before that, for Lefty Frizzell. Roy regarded Stewart as a giant of the music.

Unfortunately not much of Stewart’s material has made it onto CD. Several of his Capitol hits are on multi-artist anthologies, but otherwise none of his Capitol material is available except for a ten CD box set of all 279 of his Capitol Recordings, available, of course, from German label Bear Family and selling for $150+.

There is a BEST OF WYNN STEWART 1958-1962 CD available covering his years with Challenge Records. While this set misses his big hits on Capitol, it does include what I feel to be his best recordings: hard-core honky-tonk classics.

Stewart’s daughter, Wren Stewart Tidwell, runs a very informative website and has some of Stewart’s vinyl LPs for sale. While I have hopes that someday Capitol / EMI releases some of the songs on CD, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to happen. The LPs are all worth owning and I’ve been buying them whenever I can find them. The official Wynn Stewart website is at www.wynnstewart.com

Wynn Stewart recorded at least 58 of the 45 rpm singles–of which 31 charted. Used record stores may carry some of these records. Happy hunting!

There is also a tribute album available, recorded by Billy Keeble. This CD features 15 of Billy’s favorite Wynn Stewart songs, including a duet with Wren Stewart Tidwell on one of the selections. Billy isn’t Wynn Stewart, but his CD shows the breadth of the Wynn Stewart repertoire. This disc is available from CD Baby or www.billykeeble.com

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In the years since this article originally was written:
1- Volkswagen feature Wynn’s recording of “Another Day Another Dollar in one of its advertising campaigns

2- Texan Johnny Lyons issued three CDs of Wynn Stewart songs

3- Microwerks issued a single CD of Wynn’s Capitol recordings in 2009.

FORGOTTEN ARTIST – JEANNIE C RILEY

FORGOTTEN ARTIST – JEANNIE C RILEY from www.the9513,com 16 October 2008

I want to tell you all a story about a Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well, her daughter came home one afternoon and didn’t even stop to play
She said mom I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA

– Tom T. Hall – 1967

Starting out at the top may not be a good thing. After all, there is no place to go but down. For 23 year-old Jeannie C. Riley, the top of the mountain was reached in August 1968, when “Harper Valley PTA” jumped from No. 81 to No. 1 on the Billboard (all-genres) Singles Chart. It subsequently reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart and charted in a number of countries around the world (reaching No. 12 in the UK). Jeannie became the first female country singer to simultaneously top the pop and country charts and she won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance and the CMA Single of the Year award.

Born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson in Stamford, Texas to Oscar Stephenson, an auto mechanic, and Nora Stephenson, a nurse, and raised in Anson, Texas, Jeannie developed a strong love for country music as a young girl. As a teenager, she made her first public performances, appearing with her uncle Johnny Moore at Jones County Jamboree in nearby Truby, Texas. On December 20, 1962, shortly after high school graduation, she married childhood sweetheart Mickey Riley. Uncle Johnny took Jeannie and Mickey with him on one of his trips to Nashville, which intensified her desire to be a star in Nashville. Along the way she received encouragement from Weldon Myrick, a one-time member of the Jones County Jamboree, who had since become one of the Nashville’s leading steel guitar players.

Mickey and Jeannie had their first child, Kim Michelle Riley, on January 11, 1966. In August of that year, she and Mickey packed their belongings and moved to Nashville, where she worked as a secretary at Passkey Music. She made a few demo records along the way (under the name Jean Riley) and issued a single, “What About Them,” which failed to chart. Among the then-unreleased recordings were some demos that were recorded for Aubrey Mayhew’s Little Darlin’ records.

Enter Harper Valley PTA. Veteran country singer Margie Singleton, ex-wife of Shelby Singleton (previously associated with Mercury Records), asked Tom T. Hall to write her a song similar to “Ode To Billie Joe,” which she had recorded the previous year. Ever observant, Tom T. noted the name of Harpeth Valley Elementary School while driving through Bellevue, TN. In short order, he wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.” about a fictional confrontation between a young widow, Stella Johnson, and a local PTA group who objected to her clothing, social drinking and friendliness with the town’s gentlemen. Tom T. Hall’s “talking blues man” demo was not quite geared to Margie Singleton’s style, but what Shelby Singleton saw in the song wasn’t quite up Margie’s alley, either. Meanwhile, Jeannie had cut a demo of a song written by Royce Clark called “The Old Town Drunk” about a town drunk whose coat had washed up on the banks of the river and watched his own funeral service, then mocked the townsfolk at the end of the service. Remembering the demo and the singer, Shelby rushed the apprehensive Jeannie into the studio. Jeannie had significant misgivings about recording the song, which she felt was not country enough to establish her as a country singer. She also had misgivings about being paraded about in miniskirts and apparently hasn’t worn one since leaving Plantation.

Jeannie continued to have success after “Harper Valley PTA,” although nothing ever approached the heights of Tom T. Hall’s classic song. Jeannie made her Opry debut later in 1968 and the immediate follow up, “The Girl Most Likely,” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Country charts (it reached No. 1 on the Cashbox Country chart). Virtually all of her Plantation recordings attempted to capitalize on the feisty Harper Valley PTA persona–a persona which was actually alien to her true personality. Through 1971, she continued to record for Plantation records, scoring a number of minor hits, as well as five other Top Ten singles, including “Country Girl,” “Oh, Singer” and “Good Enough to Be Your Wife.” The sudden fame took a toll on her marriage and she and Mickey Riley divorced in 1970.

She left Plantation in 1971 to record for MGM where she was promised more artistic freedom. The four albums she recorded for MGM found her cast as a more traditional country singer. While her chart success was minimal, much of this material was excellent. The two biggest hits at MGM, both from 1972, were “Give Myself A Party” at No. 12 (No. 5 Cashbox) and Good Morning Country Rain” at No. 30, the latter of which was her last top 40 single.

In 1974, Jeannie found religion and turned her attention more toward gospel music, although she recorded some secular music for MCA/Dot thereafter. Jeannie and Mickey remarried and Jeannie’s autobiography, From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top was published in 1980, with a gospel album of the same name issued at that time.

The years after 1980 were difficult for Ms Riley, who was reported as possibly suffering from bipolar disorder or long-term clinical depression. In 1994, Jeannie’s family had her committed to a hospital for evaluation after she fell into a deep depression. She and husband Mickey again divorced. At some point she received the appropriate treatment and pulled her life back together.

There is an active website for Jeannie C. Riley but it does not list any tour dates so I am not sure if she is actively performing. Her daughter, Kim Michelle Riley, recorded an album under the name Riley Coyle in 1993 which featured the song “Country In My Genes,” which Loretta Lynn had some success with a few years later. Jeannie sang with her daughter on one of the tracks on the album. Jeannie also appeared as a guest on the Tommy Cash album LET AN OLD RACEHORSE RUN in 1994. Both albums were on the Playback label.

Unfortunately, none of Jeannie’s MGM or MCA material has made it to CD. Her now defunct website had some of it available in the CD-R format in the past.

The demos that Jeannie recorded for Little Darlin’ have been issued on CD and are available at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Other sources may also have this album. The Little Darlin’ demos were released on LP in the wake of “Harper Valley PTA”> and also were leased to Capitol Records which released the album under the title of THE PRICE I PAY TO STAY. Usually recordings released under these circumstances are not good, but these demos were recorded less than a year before her Harper Valley stardom and are surprisingly good.

There are several good collections of Plantation era material available. Collections on the Collectibles and Varese Sarabande labels have been available and other albums issued abroad may be available as well. If you can find it, the Collectibles disc is the better value with 23 songs on it.

Her last album of secular material appeared in 1991 on the Playback label. This CD has been reissued on a number of discount labels over the years, most recently on the St. Clair/Good Old Country label out of Canada. It is worth picking up just to hear her take on the old Huey Smith song “Rockin’ Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu.”

Jeannie C. Riley may not have had a lasting career as a country music star but she remains one of my personal favorites.

JOHNNY CASH – AN APPRECIATION

Johnny Cash – An Appreciation from the 9513 blog – 27 Oct 2008

The recent release of the complete JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON seems an ideal time to assess Johnny Cash’s importance to the world of Country Music.

Make no mistake about it: Johnny Cash was a huge commercial success, despite his own apparent lack of concern about how commercial his music was at any given moment–Cash’s inquisitive artistry meant that he flitted from realm to realm, sometimes touching down in areas with limited commercial appeal.

Cash had 24 songs reach #1 on the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World country charts (often all three), but unlike more chart-oriented artists including Webb Pierce, Buck Owens, Sonny James, Alabama, Conway Twitty or George Strait, Cash never ran off a long string of consecutive #1s, with his longest streak being four during 1968 when “Roseanna’s Going Wild,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and his iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” all reached the top of one of the charts.

The Early Years (1955-1958)

As a young artist needing to establish himself, Cash was definitely looking for hit records. The story of his years at Sun Records has been retold many times, including various disputes over Sam Phillips’ refusal to allow him to record more gospel music, and Sam’s insistence on Cash staying with the primitive boom-chicka-boom quasi-rockabilly sound that made him famous.

What is often overlooked, however, is just how incredibly successful Cash was in those early days. From November 1955 through the end of 1958, he charted 16 singles for Sun Records, including his most successful chart records (according to Billboard). “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” stayed at #1 for 10 weeks, “Guess Things Happen That Way” for 8 weeks, “I Walk The Line” for 6 weeks and “There You Go” for 5 weeks. Over the course of his career, Cash’s records stayed at #1 for a total of 69 weeks—with those four singles representing 29 of those 69.

Early Columbia Years (1958-1967)

There was a lack of variety to the sound of most of Cash’s recordings for Sun. In the years after Cash left Sun Records, Sam Phillips (and later Shelby Singleton) would reissue some of his recordings with considerable overdubbing which disguised this; however, the overdubbing also blurred some of the essence of Johnny Cash.

With Columbia, Cash started spreading his wings. While some of the recordings had a glossier veneer than had been utilized at Sun, his first major hit on the new label, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” (6 weeks at #1), made the Sun recordings seem overproduced in comparison. From October 1958 to February 1961, Columbia issued seven Johnny Cash singles–six of them went top 20 (the seventh was a Christmas record, “The Little Drummer Boy”) but only the aforementioned reached #1.

It didn’t help, of course, that Sam Phillips concurrently issued seven singles of older Cash material. This meant that Cash always had two singles competing for (and splitting) airplay during this period. Six of the seven Sun singles went top 20, with the seventh reaching #30. In early 1961 Sun quit issuing Johnny Cash singles, having exhausted its catalog. Meanwhile Cash’s Columbia singles began to feature more interesting material. Songs such as “The Rebel – Johnny Yuma,” “Tennessee Flattop Box,” “The Big Battle” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” really weren’t commercially viable material but they told terrific stories and remain as interesting today as there were when originally issued.

Cash was still entirely capable of generating big hits, however. In 1963, the Merle Kilgore/June Carter-penned “Ring of Fire” reached #1 for 7 weeks, and also soared high on the pop charts. It was during this period that Cash started focusing on his albums. While RING OF FIRE: THE BEST OF JOHNNY CASH (1963) did not have a discernible central theme, BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS (1963), BITTER TEARS: BALLADS OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN (1964), JOHNNY CASH SINGS BALLADS OF THE TRUE WEST (1965) and FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA (1968) all revolved around certain core concepts.

During this period Cash was expanding the pool of songwriters from whom he was drawing material. In addition to self-penned songs and songs from Nashville writers such as Harlan Howard and George Jones, Cash was recording songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and Peter LaFarge. Unfortunately, it was at this time that Cash was deteriorating into a morass of pills and booze, with his voice reaching its nadir with From Sea to Shining Sea. Moreover, Cash seemed to be losing interest in his own career—his three 1966 singles, “The One On The Right Is On The Left,” “Everybody Loves A Nut,” and “The Boa Constrictor,” were essentially throwaways–the sort of songs that might have been expected from Homer & Jethro or Little Jimmy Dickens.

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)

If the recent film I WALK THE LINE accomplished anything, it was in the retelling of the story of how Johnny Cash pulled his act together, cleaned up, and re-focused his life and music.

Cash had previously performed at Folsom and other prisons—indeed, “Folsom Prison Blues” was inspired by an old (and rather gloomy) black and white movie Cash had seen (Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison) and was his third Sun single, reaching #4 and charting for 20 weeks in 1956. While Cash had mulled over the idea for some time, cleaned up and healthy again he prodded his new Columbia producer, Bob Johnston, into letting him record an album in a prison setting. Johnston, who normally did not produce country acts, acquiesced. The resulting album was an unqualified success, with the electricity and tension of the setting shining through every note of the album. Although Cash had never been imprisoned (except overnight for pill possession), he and the inmates had an affinity for each other that could never be manufactured or faked.

The album, as originally released, was a revelation; the recently released set with both complete shows (including the songs from the Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins and Carter Family) and a bonus DVD elevates the experience to an ever greater level.

JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON was the midpoint of Cash’s thematic albums. While not his most significant or poignant album (BITTER TEARS, about the plight of the American Indian, surely filled that role), it broke Cash into the national conscience like never before. Cash followed up with THE HOLY LAND, a travel narrative about his pilgrimage to Israel, and his AT SAN QUENTIN album, which continued the theme about inmates and produced his biggest pop hit, “A Boy Named Sue.”

The later Columbia Years (1969-1986)

In the aftermath of AT FOLSOM PRISON, many good things would happen to Johnny Cash, including marriage to June Carter, the birth of his son John Carter Cash, an ABC Network television show, formation of The Highwaymen (with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson), induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and, eventually, venerated elder statesman status.

Strangely enough, though, after the San Quentin album, with the exception of a pair of patriotic albums (AMERICA: A 200-YEAR SALUTE IN STORY AND SONG (1972), and RAGGED OLD FLAG (1974)), Cash was largely through with thematic albums, reverting to the more normal formula of a couple of singles and some other material–although with much more interesting filler than was normally the case, as Cash sampled writers even including Bruce Springsteen.

And, of course, even mundane material could stand out with the most recognizable voice on the planet behind it.

The hit singles still came, with songs such as “One Piece at a Time” in 1976, but as the 70s trailed off, Cash’s records were only occasionally charting near the top. As in the early Columbia years, old Sun material began being reissued, this time by Shelby Singleton, who had purchased Sun Records from Sam Phillips. For a few years in the early 70s, the market was saturated with old Johnny Cash product as Singleton issued numerous combinations of old Sun material, often with applause overdubbed. Out of approximately 65 songs in the Sun catalog, Singleton managed to issue in excess of 15 Johnny Cash LPs and cassettes.

After Columbia (1986-2003)

Cash left Columbia in 1986 and signed with Mercury. While few hits followed, the Mercury albums were full of interesting songs and interesting guests. During his stint on Mercury, Cash followed his muse with little focus on hit records. WATER FROM THE WELLS OF HOME featured many guest vocalists, including Emmylou Harris, Paul McCartney, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams Jr., Tom T. Hall, and his daughter, country singer Rosanne Cash (who was responsible for eleven #1 singles in the 80s).

After his five years with Mercury were over, Cash went without a recording label for a spell before being lured back into the recording studio by Rick Rubin of American Recordings. Unlike his Mercury output, these albums sold very well as the Rick Rubin name helped introduce a new generation of listeners to the magic of Johnny Cash, and reintroduced older generations to the Man in Black.

Grammy awards followed as Cash simultaneously went back to the past and jumped forward into the future, recording a combination of old folk and country songs as well as material from non-country artists such as Trent Reznor, Tom Petty and Joni Mitchell. Even after his death in 2003, new Johnny Cash product has emerged as previously unreleased material (both studio recordings and live performances) flooded the market

While not every Cash album is an immortal classic, they all have their moments–usually many good moments. So sit back, kick off your shoes and listen to AT FOLSOM PRISON (or any other Cash album, for that matter). You’ll be glad that you did.

After all, everyone could use a little more Cash.

An expanded version of the iconic album JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON, dubbed the Legacy Edition, was released by Sony on October 14th, 2008. It includes two CDs and a DVD documenting Cash’s legendary performance for the prisoners.