Here You Come Again: Noteworthy Reissues and Box Sets
The idea for “Here You Come Again” came to me late last year as I was completing my ballot for the Nashville Scene’s annual Country Music Critics Poll. One of the categories that poll runner Geoffrey Himes always asks for is the year’s “Top Five Country Reissues,” and as I pulled together my picks, it struck me how little had been written in 2013 about each of my selections. In fact, I couldn’t recall a single review devoted to any of them.
Not a word for my number one—Jerry Lee Lewis’ Southern Roots: The Original Sessions (Bear Family), a reissue of the Killer’s alternately raging and weeping country-rock/country-soul that paired that 1973 release with an entire extra album’s worth of tracks from the same Huey Meaux-produced sessions, plus alternate takes and studio chatter. And not a word for my #3 and #5 picks either: the Mac Davis anthology A Little More Action Please, 1970-1985 (Raven) and The Buckaroos Play Buck & Merle (Omnivore).
Working from the assumption that I can’t possibly be the only person interested in such things, I hope this and future installments of “Here You Come Again” will be a way to better spread the word about significant back-catalog rescue projects. I’ll reserve for myself the right to tackle reissues already receiving a good deal of attention when I think I might have something to add (see below) to the conversation. Mostly, though, I want the column to shine a light on deserving roots music reissues that we could still stand to hear and learn from but that otherwise might go unnoticed.
Reissue collections, for example, such as my #2 reissue pick in that same poll, Jeannie C. Riley’s Harper Valley P.T.A.: The Plantation Recordings, 1968-70 (Charly). Riley’s catalogue has always been worth hearing but was newly relevant in a country music year dominated, if only critically speaking, by strong women. Kacey Musgraves, for instance, and her hit “Merry Go ‘Round,” would seem to seem to have a great deal in common with Riley and her signature “Harper Valley P.T.A.”: both records take aim at the ways small town society often enforces individual misery and both singers remain primarily known, frustratingly, as the singer of that one radio success.
Written by Tom T. Hall, riding a country soul rhythm track punctuated by Jerry Kennedy’s whiplash Dobro licks, and indelibly delivered by the husky-voiced Riley—her singing reminds me a of a louder, sassier Sammi Smith—“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was a monstrously big hit: The single climbed to #1 on both Billboard’s country survey, succeeding “Mama Tried,” and its pop chart, preceding “Hey Jude.” Like those other records, it was era-defining.
It also kicked off a pretty swell theme LP of the same name. Several additional tracks on the album allowed Hall to flesh out backstories for characters told off by the single’s miniskirt-wearing mother: “Widow Jones,” for instance, needs “to keep her window shades all pulled completely down” because she’s a former go-go girl who’s in the habit of running around the house in her birthday suit, and she’s a widow because her husband drowned under circumstances that, uh, require “the good discretion of the law.” And even when not so explicitly identified, all of the tracks on Riley’s debut—“The Cotton Patch” and “The Ballad of Louise” are particularly sizzling standouts—are about men and women who sure sound like fellow Harper Valley residents.
Harper Valley P.T.A., the 2013 collection, features Harper Valley P.T.A., the 1968 album, of course. It includes, as well, Riley’s ensuing four albums for Plantation Records. [Speaking of Plantation, my #4 reissue pick last year was Truckstop Sweethearts & C.B. Savages: the Plantation Records Story (Charly), a 50-track, two-disc various artist collection that, it will perhaps be helpful to know, duplicates only 11 of the tracks available on the also two-disc but 58-track set, Plantation Gold: The Mad Genius of Shelby S. Singleton Jr. and Plantation/SSS Records, 1967-1976 (Omni), a much more novelty-oriented set from 2009.] Those Riley follow-ups: Yearbooks and Yesterday and Things Go Better with Love, both from 1969, and Country Girl and Generation Gap, in 1970.
Each of them was nearly as good as her famous debut, and, except Country Girl, were all theme albums, too. Yearbooks…, including that amazing slice of class warfare “Girl Most Likely,” is full of stories of high school memory. Things Go Better… is full of old-fashioned ideas about women (titles tell the tale: “I’m the Woman Who Belongs to Her Man,” “The Rib”) and is pretty hard to take. It’s redeemed, and then some, though, by concluding with an amazing series of songs (“Thin Ribbon of Smoke,” “Backside of Dallas”) detailing just how bad love can go too.
Like “Harper Valley” itself, all of these albums tackle traditional themes like that but from a critical sixties perspective. The title track to Generation Gap blames that social problem not on young people but on hypocritical oldsters, and the album includes strong versions of not only “Okie from Muskogee” but Joe South’s “Games People Play.” Really, you know “Harper Valley,” but this entire two-disc set proves there’s a lot more Jeannie C. worth knowing.
Maria McKee has been one of my very favorite singers since I first saw her on MTV sometime in the summer of 1985, fronting the band Lone Justice and sneering and strutting her way through “Ways to Be Wicked”—one of the best singles, maybe the best, to emerge from the Great Roots Music Scare of the 1980s: Think of John Fogerty’s “Old Man Down the Road” getting spins on Top 40 radio alongside pretty much every one of John Cougar Mellencamp’s greatest hits; think, too, of all those twang-favoring rock and rollers, often signed to major labels, who were championed at college radio throughout much of the decade. Indeed, McKee is still categorized most often these days as an arena-voiced roots rocker, a country-meets-blues hybrid of Dolly Parton and Janis Joplin.
On the one hand, that standard-issue characterization of McKee and her talents is far too limiting. In a post-Lone Justice career that’s been going for nearly thirty years now, McKee has proven she can sing, write and record just about anything, from swoony songbird synth-pop like “Show Me Heaven” (a good-sized European hit in 1990) to the neo-glam of her Life Is Sweet (Geffen, 2003) to the Broadway-stage-styled dramas of High Dive (Viewfinder, 2003), and so much more. Then again, there’s no denying McKee really is a roots-pop vocalist of the highest order. Just check out You Gotta Sin to Get Saved (Geffen, 1993), a collaboration with the Jayhawks and producer George Drakoulias, that deserves recognition as an alt.country-soul masterpiece. The mercurial McKee has a back catalog of worthy titles more people need to hear.
Add the just-released This Is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes, 1983 (Omnivore) to the list. McKee and the rest of the band’s classic-era lineup—guitarist Ryan Hedgecock, bassist Marvin Etzioni, and powerhouse drummer Don Heffington, formerly of Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band—cut these sides nearly two years before the release of what would become their self-titled debut and (save four numbers from the 1999 anthology This World Is Not My Home, now out of print) it was all previously unavailable.
Be warned: These sides are nowhere near as radio ready as the Jimmy Iovine-produced Lone Justice or, for that matter, so many other early ‘80s releases from cow-punks and assorted proto-Americana kin. The music here was recorded by David Vaught (who passed away last year), live and straight to two-track, fast and dirty. Next to fondly remembered albums that worked similar fields from around the same time—The Blasters, Rank & File’s Sundown, the Beat Farmers’ Tales of the New West, or either of Jason and the Scorchers first two EPs—This Is Lone Justice sounds like the extremely strong demo recording it was. But so what? Lo-fi or not, it manages to be a more fully realized, more consistent, more thrilling and original album than any of those other mostly strong efforts.
That’s because what it lacks in polish, it more than makes up for in energy, drive, and hard-twangin’ fun. The covers are well-done and well chosen: Band and singer speed through the George Jones hit “Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” like they’re being chased on foot by someone wishing to do them great harm; Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” is soldered to a band-invented instrumental, “Vigilante,” and the result is a surf-punk hybrid of the Bakersfield sound; McKee and Hedgecock also duet entertainingly on “Jackson”—at a time when covering the song was revelatory rather than clichéd.
But it’s the originals that make the best case for the disc. McKee’s “Soap, Soup and Salvation” is stripped bare here compared to the fussed-over version on their later debut, yet somehow that only heightens this earlier take’s nakedly emotional theatricality, a McKee trademark. McKee and Etzioni’s “The Grapes of Wrath” has rough harmonies that out-X John and Exene. And her own “Dustbowl Depression Time,” which begins idealizing Okie life, then realizes that life is just hard no matter when or where you do that living. That’s a point a fair number of retro music folk could still stand to hear.
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