Two major players in country music passed away recently. Two key outlaw artists, and two of my favorite country artists, both of whom were involved in creating some of the finest music to come out of Nashville–or anywhere–in the last several decades.
Last week, we lost “Cowboy” Jack Clement. Recently elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Cowboy was someone who wrote songs for Johnny Cash; worked at Sun Studios and helped jumpstart the career of Jerry Lee Lewis; produced records for such artists as Townes Van Zandt, Charley Pride, and Don Williams; and was a key ‘outlaw’ innovator, producing what is arguably Waylon Jennings’ finest album, Dreaming My Dreams.
Alt-country artist Jonny Fritz (aka Jonny Corndawg) joined up with Deer Tick’s John McCauley to create a moody soundtrack for the documentary Oxyana, which is about the oxycontin epidemic in Appalachia. The film looks interesting (trailer above, or watch the whole thing here). And the soundtrack is haunting.
Three years ago I had never heard the name John Grant. But that year, Mojo named his debut solo album Queen of Denmark their favorite of the year. And like a lot of people who read that review, I was at first puzzled. Then I listened, and based on the deeply personal songs, his haunting vocals, and the warm arrangements (he was backed on the album by the band Midlake), I understood. It’s been a favorite album in regular rotation for me ever since.
It’s great news, then, that Grant finally has a followup album. Called Pale Green Ghosts, it’s already out in the U.K. and is due in stores in the U.S. on May 14.
The other day I posted the album cover for Freddie Hart’s The Neon and the Rain. The title track is credited to Gene Crysler, whom I knew little about.
Doing some digging, though, turns out he wrote some cool and unusual songs. Like this one, “I Didn’t Jump the Fence,” which has been cut by the likes of Red Sovine and Cal Smith:
On the surface it’s an oddball song about a guy who admits to eating the “fruit” from his neighbor’s “tree,” but says he wasn’t “stealing” because it just “fell” into his yard. It’s not hard, of course, to read between the lines of what he’s really talking about.
Another Crysler song was “Don’t Make Me Go To School,” cut by Tammy Wynette.
And I always loved this Crysler song cut by Billie Jo Spears, about a small-town Kansas woman who gets a big-city job as a secretary in New York, but who quickly gets fed up with the old boys’ club.
Spears’ version of the song–the title track from her second album–peaked at No. 4 on the country charts in 1969.
Spears just comes off so damn down-to-earth appealing in this video, the kind of honest country artist we could use more of these days. Sadly, she passed away in 2011.
Freddie Hart’s deeply dark “The Neon and the Rain”–the title track from his 1967 album–falls into the same homicidal category as Porter Wagoner’s classic “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.” Freddie covers the latter song on this album as well, though it’s hardly necessary. He’s already taken us down the deep hole with these opening lines:
As I sit beneath the steerin’ wheel a gun in my right hand I watch the girl I married keep a date with another man The neon sign above her head blinks motel vacancy And through the rain it’s flashin’ like the storm inside of me
The black leather gloves he’s sporting in the cover image–and what those gloves are holding–add to the menace.