Scanning the Countryside: Duos and Demos

Barry Mazor | January 18th, 2011

Some of country’s less-heralded, less-promoted releases of the past year are not only very well worth hearing, they also introduced or re-introduced ideas which this writer, for whatever it’s worth, would like to see more artists and producers take up.

Among the strongest 2010 releases was the only marginally noted Amber Digby & Justin Trevino album Keeping Up Appearances. This pair of terrifically adept Texas honky tonk/traditional country standard-bearers have worked together for a while now; he produced her first record 5 years ago. Here, they didn’t just blend their rich, vibrant vocals and knowing singing into a one-off “event” stunt, which has become the norm for pairings, but produced this varied, full album’s worth of duets, on some very familiar tunes-for-two (“After the Fire is Gone”), and for those who like their covers more obscure, many less so. They can and do explore a rich variety of moods, in keeping with assorted relationships between the man and the woman in the 14 stories so ably sung–happy in perfect two-step, going through the motions, faking it, sick to death of each other, breaking up, sadly separated, blaming each other, wondering about each other, missing each other, and not necessarily in that order, either. It’s fun folks, shows depth musically and emotionally, and is a welcome, surprise break from repetition.

The male-female duet used to be a great mainstay of country music, actively encouraged by major label powers-that-be, and reached a height in that mid-1960s to mid-1970s period when–in a not very well-kept secret–a new Loretta-Conway duet, for instance, was likely to outsell the new Loretta solo record. It mattered not just that George & Tammy, Porter & Dolly, Johnny & June, Merle and Bonnie and so on were great teams, but that they had musical relationships that were ongoing, because it meant that over time and multiple records, these duos that appealed so together could explore so much. The more you’d already heard, the more anticipated their next turn became, yet every one of those pairs found identities of their own; you could not mistake one coupling for the next.

In more recent decades, the major labels have apparently viewed duet side acts or even projects as distractions from their marketing plans for soloist’s albums and singles, but under today’s changing music business conditions, they’ve been willing to agree to deals with separately-handled side projects such as the Crackerbarrel (or Starbucks) CDs. Well, how about an ongoing line of side duet teams like that? I’d venture that everyone reading this has heard boy-meets-girl pairings in recent years treated as a one-shot “event,” that they wish would be expanded on, whether that would mean, in today’s terms, an album, ongoing downloads of the month–or even a continuing act (feel free to nominate some.) As I see it, the question should not just be “Can you duet?,” but “Can you keep on dueting?” Joey + Rory have begun exploring possibilities like that; let’s see more of it.

Also welcome was the general music industry turn towards unveiling unheard quality legacy material, from people who are, in Bruce Springsteen’s words (appropriate since one such album was his) “not even dead,” an idea which now appears to be coming to country, too.

Case in point: the brand new buried treasure Shawn Camp album recently released as 1994. Shawn, writer or co-writer of such memorable contemporary songs as “Two Pina Coladas,” “My Love Will Not Change,” “Would You Go With Me,” and “Sis Draper,” is simply one of Nashville’s finest writers today, and an ace multi-instrumentalist musician. It’s sometimes forgotten that he had the beginnings of a major label career as a potential singing star in the early ‘90s, at Reprise Records, with a funky vocal presence which might have been comparable to, say, John Anderson’s. After one CD, he essentially chose to walk away from the sort of music modification and life involved in pursuing that. (Instead, as a less spotlighted performer, he’s only had to endure such “horrors” as being in the great Cowboy Jack Clement’s band, doing turns on Presley in “The Bluegrass Elvises,” and playing ace bluegrass fiddle and guitar where and when he chooses, releasing startling good solo albums now and again.)

1994 was the year his never-released second album was due out, and, as we can now hear, it held unheard gems such as the memorable closer “The Grandpa That I Know.” For every artist who simply reuses such “lost” material when possible, there are others who don’t look back, so the decision by Warners (and specifically, the adventurous Warner Nashville CEO John Esposito) to bring this album out now, with talk of the release of other lost legacy releases, is an exciting development. The caveat, of course, is that selecting material of this sort will have to be made with care, with the music in mind. We’ve certainly seen more than enough “bonus cuts” let loose, on all sorts of artists’ CDs, online versions and box sets, that turn out to have been rejected for good reason. There’s the potential for digging up gems here–and in the digital age, it should be getting easier to make those gems available.

The same goes for the notable stepped up interest in letting us hear original songwriter demos on songs we care about. There have been recent releases of early Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (and Bob Dylan) demos that have been welcomed by their fans for their own sake, releases downright educational for showing the songwriters’ original intentions, clarifying the potentials they saw in their creations themselves–for those who don’t mind a little education.

In country, where writing for others is still so much a norm, hearing the songwriters–who are sometimes excellent, or at least very interesting singers–behind the likes of everything from “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” to “The House That Built Me” lay out how they saw the songs being done was the stuff of two recent CDs: Original Songwriter Demos Volumes One and Two. You don’t just hear the ideas for singing the songs in these demos, in some cases, with fuller, unmitigated twang then in the hit versions, but often, the seeds of the eventual hit arrangement ideas as well.

Look, demos are, virtually by definition, not material intended for everyone, and they won’t be now. But for many serious country devotees and for aspiring songwriters (which are never in short supply), this is rich stuff to have available. I’m told that a new Bear Family box set due later this year on one of Nashville’s all time great songwriters who sings, Bill Anderson, is going to be fleshed out with his unheard original demos of the massive hits he’s been writing for, well, over 50 years now. And a new Johnny Cash legacy twofer will feature demos of songs he brought to Sun Records in the ‘50s. I like this idea. More of that, please, with discretion.

To finish, I’d like to just give a thumbs up to a few more 2010 releases, some a little around the corner, that seem to me deserve additional attention. If Junior Sisk and band provided this years most striking hard-driving, traditional bluegrass, noteworthy also, from the opposite end of that spectrum, was the young Farewell Drifters’ Yellow Tag Mondays–bright, pop-influenced, original acoustic music which would likely have yielded pop hits in a different era. John Carter Cash may have over time come to be thought of more as a keeper of Cash and Carter family legacies than a performer, and as a capable producer, but I’d suggest you might find a listen to his own album The Family Secret, stocked with compositions of his own and some strong, clean vocals that will surprise people, gratifying. For those who’ve found they like modern but Old Timey and vaudeville-influenced acts such as The Old Crow Medicine Show and Justin Townes Earle, might I suggest a listen to St. Louis-based Pokey LaFarge’s Riverboat Soul, and Home Sweet Home from The South Memphis String Band, which includes Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and Jimbo Mathis. Finally, my nominee for best new raspy singer-songwriter with great promise, for songs in whichever genres pick up on his work–Joe Pug, as experienced live or on his album Messenger.

  1. Jon
    January 18, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Nice to see a shout-out to the Farewell Drifters.

  2. TXmusicjim
    January 18, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I’ve seen Justin play live and vocally he is amazing. I have heard Amber on Willie’s place on XM and like what I heard, hearing them live together would be great. I’m glad there is still a market albeit a small one for hardcore tonk.

  3. Leeann Ward
    January 18, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Really like the Joe Pug album.

  4. Rick
    January 18, 2011 at 11:06 am

    I just love male-female traditional country duet acts but have shied away from the Justin Trevino-Amber Digby album due to Justin’s vocals, which I usually find lacking. At least Justin can sing far better than Jesse Dayton, who torpedoed his duets album with Brennen Leigh a couple years back.

    My current male-female duet team favorites include Adam and Shannon Wright (their 2010 release “Red and Yellow, Blue and Green” fell completely under the radar), the married team of Tom and Tara Dunphy in Canada (The Rizdales), the brother-sister act of Lee and Elaine Roy (The Roy’s), brother-sister team Brad & Shelly Brinkley (Mustang Creek), husband & wife team Michael & Dyann Woody (The Woody’s), and of course Joey+Rory. Can’t say I get too excited about the pop-rock country of either Steel Magnolia or Thompson Square in comparison.

    Amber Digby’s “Heart of Texas” label mate Kimberly Murray tours around Texas with Jake Hooker and does a fine duet with him titled “Living & Learning” on her “Once Upon A Time In A Honky Tonk” album. I would just love to hear those two do a full album filled with classic country songs in the same vein as “Keeping Up Appearances”.

  5. Jordan Stacey
    January 18, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Hey Rick thanks for pointing out The Wright’s had another album out, when I met them at fan fair they mentioned a new one was coming, but I hadn’t heard about it, now I know to order it.

  6. Barry Mazor
    January 18, 2011 at 11:54 am

    I’m a fan of the Wrights myself. Just ran into Adam at lunch yesterday..

  7. Leeann Ward
    January 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    I totally missed the new Wrights’ album too. I’ll look for it now. Thanks.

  8. Rick
    January 18, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    I’m glad to help promote The Wright’s in any way I can! The Rizdales are a much harder sell since their CD’s aren’t for sale in the US. Hey, maybe I can get Carrie Underwood involved since she’s promoting all things Canadian these days! (lol)

  9. Steve Harvey
    January 18, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    I’d like to see Ronnie Dunn and Reba McEntire tackle a duets album.

  10. Greg
    January 18, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Re the Justin/Amber duets; the two sound great together,live or recorded, but Justin’s range sometimes has him sounding fantastic, with other songs a bit challenging. But that’s not uncommon for some singers.
    Amber also sings with Jake Hooker, Darrel McCall, Mark Chestnut, and others. Great traditional music. The more the better!

  11. luckyoldsun
    January 19, 2011 at 12:23 am

    How about celebrating some duets that don’t work at all. I nominate Patty Loveless/Vince Gill “You’re My Kind of Woman/ My Kind of Man,” Joe Diffie/Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Not Too Much to Ask”; and George Jones/Tammy Wynette, “One”.

  12. TXmusicjim
    January 19, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I heard Justin play acoustic with Johnny Bush and even with Johnny’s vocal problems these last several years the both sounded great.

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