A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Novemebr 18, 2004
In recent days a couple of albums full of cover songs by a couple of great country singers have graced my CD player. The artists are very different and the albums they’ve released probably are even more different.
But both Come on Back by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Moon Was Blue by Bobby Bare are simple but extremely enjoyable works that reveal the foundations of these artists’ respective work. They’re both short -- each less than 40 minutes -- but very satisfying.
Gilmore’s album is a memorial to his late father Brian Gilmore, who was a part-time country musician -- a guitarist whose most prized possession was his old Fender “Nocaster” electric guitar. Gilmore in the liner notes tells of a newspaper clipping from The Tulia Herald from the early ‘50s. It’s an ad for a dance at the VFW Hall starring “The Swingaroos featuring Brian Gilmore and his Electric Guitar!”
You can see that very guitar on the CD cover and hear it on this album, played by Robbie Gjersoe, who also plays lap steel and other stringed instruments.
Come on Back consists of Brian Gilmore’s favorite country classics. There are loving renditions of tunes from the songbooks of Hank Williams (“I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”); Lefty Frizzell (“Saginaw, Michigan”); Jimmie Rodgers (“Standin’ On the Corner”); Ernest Tubb (“I’m Walkin’ the Floor Over You”); Hank Snow (“I’m Movin’ On”); Johnny Cash (“Train of Love”); and The Carter Family (“Jimmy Brown the Newsboy”).
There are some songs here that just seem to be part of the honky tonk astral plane: “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” for instance, and “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes.” They were hits by Charlie Walker and Slim Willett respectively. These singers have largely been forgotten, but the songs live on in renditions by untold numbers of country bands in untold numbers of Saturday night barrooms.
All the tracks are played by Gilmore and a basic guitars/bass/drums combo (some feature fiddler Eamon McLoughlin). The whole shebang was produced and arranged by Jimmie Dale’s fellow Flatlander Joe Ely.
Only one song here is a little jarring. That’s “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” a Marty Robbins song. Gilmore notes that Robbins’ original was the first commercial recording to employ a distorted guitar. Here the guitar solo almost sounds like Mudhoney, the Seattle grunge warriors with whom Gilmore recorded in the mid ’90s. I’m not complaining. The arrangement just seems a little out of context here.
Come On Back ends with a classic gospel tune that has been a longtime favorite of singers both Black and white -- Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley.” A few days before he died, Brian Gilmore told his granddaughter that this was his favorite song of all time.
I bet the old man would have loved this album.
And I bet he would have liked Bobby Bare’s new one too.
The Moon Was Blue is a collection of standards from the worlds of jazz, pop and (gulp!) easy listening done in a “countrypolitan“ style. The most obvious comparison would be to Willie Nelson’s Stardust.
Bare does versions of “Love Letters in the Sand,” “Yesterday When I Was Young” and even “Shine on Harvest Moon.”
It’s produced by Bare’s son, Bobby Jr., a musician in his own right who is perfectly capable of getting just as grungy as Mudhoney. That makes the mainly straightforward MOR arrangement here -- some songs even feature The Nashville String Machine -- even more surprising.
To be sure, there are a few moments of subversive sonic weirdness here -- most notably a growing guitar balancing the sweet female choral of “Am I That easy To Forget” and some strange electronic atmospherics on “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Fellow Travelers.”
This is the first album in umpteen years for Bare, who first starting cranking out hits in the late 1950s. In the early 1960s he had a string of records that would become Nashville classics, most notably “Detroit City,” “Miller’s Cave” and “500 Miles Away from Home.” Then in the ‘70s, he teamed up with songwriter Shel Silverstein to create some of the greatest country novelty songs of The Outlaw Era -- “Marie Lavaux,” “The Winner,” “Warm and Free” and “Tequila Sheila.”
Surprisingly, the only disappointing song here is Bare’s version of a Silverstein song, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” It’s not bad, but it just can’t compare with Marianne Faithful, who applied her crone croak to the tune on her album Broken English and rendered any future versions irrelevant.
The late Roger Miller, who was a Nashville regular during the same era when Bare first made it big, once told me that when country musicians got together for after-hours jam sessions, it’s the old standards they mainly liked to do.
Hearing Bare’s husky croon on songs like “Are You Sincere” and “It’s All in The Game” I can envision Bare in the backroom of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, strumming and singing with Roger and Willie and Ray Price and Faron Young.
And speaking of Ms. LaVaux … You can find Bare’s “Marie Lavaux” on the recent Columbia Legacy compilation The Best of Shel Silverstein. There’s also the ultra sappy “Daddy What If,” featuring a very young Bare Jr. (I would have preferred “Warm and Free” but nobody asked me.)
This collection features songs performed not only by Silverstein, but by the original performers who made his tunes famous.
There’s “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash; “The Taker” by Kris Kristofferson”; “The Unicorn” by The Irish Rovers; “A Couple More Years” by Willie & Waylon and some hits by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, notably “Silvia’s Mother,” “Cover of The Rolling Stone” and “Freaking at the Freakers’ Ball.”
My main complaint here is that there’s too much Dr. Hook here. Emmylou Harris’ “Queen of the Silver Dollar” is a hundred times stronger than Hook’s version.
Missing from the collection is “Lucy Jordan,” one of Silverstein‘s greatest tunes. I wish it had Faithful’s rendition. At least they didn’t use Dr. Hook’s.
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