Here You Come Again: Morello Records, Part 1

David Cantwell | August 7th, 2014

Marty Robbins Phoenix coverAnyone interested in the breadth of the country music tradition can these days get their hands on more of that history than ever before. Much of the genre’s back catalogue, whether of the absolutely essential or the just fun or revealing variety, is increasingly available on compact discs (well, for the time being it is…) as well as via download and online streaming. This is great news for country fans. At the same time, we always need to keep in mind that the bulk of the country tradition has yet to make the analog-to-digital leap. What’s more, at least commercially speaking (online fan sharing is another matter), we know it probably never will.

There remain gaping holes in the catalogues of even the most beloved and widely known country Hall of Famers. Way more Loretta Lynn and Hank Thompson and Eddy Arnold albums are out of print than in, just for instances, and even when it comes to the likes of George Jones or Waylon Jennings the ratios don’t improve to much more than sixty-forty. Not that all of these out-of-print albums are lost masterpieces, understand, though some of them are. More to the point, the also-rans and the long forgotten comprise a lost history of individual artists and of the genre as a whole that helps clarify what country music has meant for fans and radio listeners, in the main, and how it’s been embraced and used, across the decades.

By definition, “Here You Come Again” is keen on those music labels, whether indie or corporate, U.S. or international, that are doing something to fill in some of the blanks. One of these labels whose work I’ve come to value is Morello Records (a country reissue imprint of Brit label Cherry Red), which for the past few years has been specializing in the “2 Classic Albums on 1 CD” thing. I appreciate the niche they’re working for a couple of reasons (the second of which I’ll get to in my next column). First off, when the label tours the catalogue of major country artists, they tend to pause at the least frequented parts of their legends—that is, on the star’s solid-to great albums that were never all that popular to begin with (or even widely known) or on records that were once very popular but that’ve been forgotten.

Drawing from that latter category, last summer, Morello released, on one disc, a pair of strong Marty Robbins albums: 1967’s Tonight Carmen and 1968’s By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Both of these albums went Top Ten and produced at least one Top Ten single, and they’re both exemplary, in their very different ways, of what made Robbins such a beloved and distinctive artist. Carmen includes eleven first-rate examples of Marty working his South-of-the-Border (or nearabouts) persona, not via a format transcendent “El Paso” but as a limited little genre world unto itself. These include, of course, the country chart-topping—and oft anthologized—title track. But the album also includes, just for starters, the haunting “Gardenias in Her Hair,” a #9 hit, for goodness sake, that somehow hasn’t made the cut on any of the several Robbins anthologies currently available on compact disc. Similarly, the even better By the Time I Get to Phoenix album—this is orchestrated Marty, pop Marty, Marty the interpreter—includes another regularly overlooked Robbins hit, the catchy and lovely but deeply paranoid Top Ten single, “Love Is in the Air.” (It opens with the sound of a jet taking off, and Robbins wishing his stewardess lover didn’t ask flyers, “Coffee, tea or me.”)

This phenomenon—major hits from major stars that have failed to make it into the country canon as it’s come down to us on vinyl or compact disc—is frustratingly common. Then again, while hit singles are essential to understanding country music and the careers of its biggest stars, they’re not the whole story at all, as other recent reissues from Morello have reminded.

Take two little-known 1980s albums from the George Jones discography: 1987’s Two Wild Too Long and 1990’s You Oughta Be Here with Me. These albums, which Morello released on a twofer disc about a year ago, produced no big hits and didn’t sell all that well, but that hardly means it’s not important or entertaining to hear them. Why? Truth be told, Too Wild… is one of the weaker albums of Jones’s entire Epic catalog but one that also exemplifies where Jones’ career was at just then. Its string of flop singles—the generically self-referencing “I’m a Survivor,” the almost-but-not-quite-social-relevance of “The USA Today” and the unfunny double entendre of “The Bird” charted at Numbers 26, 52 and 63, respectively—illustrate how desperately Jones and producer Billy Sherrill were grasping for hits in these last days of Jones’ mainstream prime. So you probably don’t need to hear these albums, but… you very well might want to.  Plus, the album includes a stripped-down, flooring-it-to-highway-speed take on Hank Williams’ “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” which, to my ears, is probably the best Hank cover George ever did, which considering he earlier cut two album-length Williams tributes is really saying something. You need to hear it. George Jones Too Wild Cover

You Oughta Be Here with Me was even less successful commercially, but I’d say that all past, present and future Jones fans are going to need to hear it, too. The single was “Hell Stays Open (All Night Long)”—I first bought it as a cassingle in 1990—and it didn’t chart at all, presumably due to due to lack of promotion as much as anything else. (Jones had already signed with MCA at this point, making You Oughta… the unheralded final solo album of Jones nearly two-decade Epic Records tenure.) Yet I am here to tell you that “Hell Stays Open” is a great George Jones single nonetheless, an angry ruthless kiss off to a man dying for one more kiss. Jones sings the appropriately miserable hell out of it, and the Bobby Harden-penned lyric provides a master class in how to write a country break-up song. First line of the first verse: “She said Hello—and I said Hon, it’s me.” First line of the final verse: “She said Goodbye—and don’t call me anymore.”

Much of the rest of the album—the loser’s lament “Somebody Always Paints the Walls,” the Roger Miller-penned title track, the definitive version of the prison escape story song “Ol’ Red” (sorry Blake Shelton)—is nearly as strong. In fact, if it weren’t for the earlier-in-the-decade releases I Am What I Am and (with Merle Haggard) A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine, I’d be calling You Ought Be Here with Me Jones’ finest album of the 1980s and a highlight of his entire catalog—albeit one that has been long out of print and hardly anyone has ever heard. It’s frustrating to know that we could make similar claims about some album or other in the catalogs of just about any Hall of Fame career you care to cite.

And that’s the big names. As for all of those important, talented country stars who’re only getting into the Hall of Fame with a ticket…well, the catalogs of these second and third-tier stars, who are the exemplary majority of country music at any given moment, don’t possess glaring holes so much as they just seem to have been swallowed by a black hole altogether. Entire noteworthy careers, sometimes decades long, have been reduced to just ten or a dozen “Best Of” tracks or Greatest Hits. If that.

I’ll take a look at some of Morello’s reissuing of those artists in my next column.

 

  1. Barry Mazor
    August 7, 2014 at 11:35 am

    One of the interesting aspects of reissue labels like this one is that they still often manage to stay out ahead of legit digital download reissues—when one benefit of the brave new digital world was supposed to be the relative ease and inexpensive of reissuing music attractive only to limited audiences..One format or another, it still takes people making decisions who care and have some taste..

  2. luckyoldsun
    August 7, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    and the unfunny double entendre of “The Bird” …

    I defy anyone who has not heard it to listen to George Jones’ “The Bird” and keep from laughing.

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