How can you resist. As anyone with a passing interest in folk music knows, there are certain gloomy staples in the tradition, primarily maidens being misled – and usually murdered – by feckless nobles/sailors/soldiers, dispossession, and death (drowning, disease, war), but it’s positively happy clappy compared to country music where you can’t go past a honky tonk jukebox without hearing songs about cheating/being cheated on, unrequited love, economic devastation, highway wrecks and the deaths of assorted parents and, of course, the pet dog.
Now comes this fabulous collection of 30 tear-jerking tales of despair, divorce, desertion and death by some of the genre’s great names alongside a few lesser known artists. One such gets the ball rolling in the form of Goldie Hill, born Argolda Voncile Hill in Kansas City and one of the first women to reach the top of the country music charts. Here, from her 1954 album Don’t Send Me No More Roses, opening with church organ playing ‘Here Comes The Bride’ and the pastor asking if there’s any reason for the marriage to not take place, she waltzes through the Tom Glazer-penned ‘Call Off The Wedding’, a fine example of the it should have been me jilted lover tradition. She returns later, with a 78 from the previous year on which, proving her romantic luck was never good, she declares ‘I’m The Loneliest Girl In Town’ to a backdrop of acoustic strum and weeping pedal steel.
The first in a run of country superstars comes from 1960 with Don Gibson looking to find a place to go and weep on ‘Lonely Street’ while the backing singers croon in the background, followed by the legend that is George Jones in more uptempo musical mood with ‘There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight’ from his 1960 Hank Williams tribute album, and then Hank Snow teamed with Anita Carter on 1962’s ‘I Dreamed Of An Old Love Affair’, the first batch of the great and good being rounded off with one of the biggest female singers in the genre, Kitty Wells and, from Heartbreak U.S.A., the jaunty jealousy-themed 1961 recording ‘Heart To Heart Talk’.
Although credited to the Carlisle Brothers, ‘Tramp On The Street’, a cover of the Hank Williams waltzing country gospel song about Lazarus and Jesus, was in fact a 1948 solo hit by Bill Carlisle without brother Cliff. Having got into the death mood, Hank Snow puts in a second appearance with the wonderfully miserable ‘Letter Edged In Black’, written and originally recorded by Hattie Nevada in 1897, in which smiling postman delivers the news that Jack’s mother’s dead but wrote a letter begging his forgiveness before she popped her clogs.
Also putting in repeat performances on the compilation, Hank Snow and Anita Carter swap forsaken suicide sorrows on AP Carter’s ‘I Never Will Marry’, while he has a solo spotlight on ‘There’s A Little Box Of Pine on the 7.29’, a true sobfest in which a prison warden sends a mother a letter saying he’s sending her lost sheep son back home for his last ride on a train of sorrow to be buried.
Kitty Wells gets a further three credits with ‘I’ve Got A New Heartache’ (also from Heartache U.S.A.), ‘Lonely Side Of Town’ from 1959’s After Dark and, from the following year’s country gospel Dust On The Bible, the wonderfully maudlin ‘We Buried Her beneath The Willows’.
George Jones gets two more nods, his 1956 fiddle-led recording of the self-penned ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ and a rumbustious cover of Don Gibson’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me’ and, in turn, Gibson is back again with the tears in the beer ‘It Only Hurts For A Little While’, a song also covered by Eddy Arnold (mistakenly credited as Eddie here) who himself turns up with ‘Bouquet Of Roses’ sporting the wry line “I know that I should hate you after all you’ve put me through/But how can I be bitter when I’m still in love with you? So I’m sending you a big bouquet of roses/One for every time you broke my heart”.
It wouldn’t be a proper country compilation without Patsy Cline, here in splendid form on the pedal steel weepie ‘The Heart You Break May Be Your Own’ from 1962’s Encore and, providing the road to divorce track, ‘A Church, A Courtroom, Then Goodbye’, her debut single from 1955.
Save or one, the remaining tracks are all by fairly obscure names. A honky tonk and rockabilly singer, Skeets McDonald sings the bittersweet memories of ‘My Room Is Crowded’, while, dubbed “radio’s original cowgirl”, the deep-voiced Texas Ruby (aka Ruby Agnes Owens, sister of ‘Cattle Call’ writer Tex) contributes ‘Teardrops And Empty Arms’. Alabama-born and former singer with The Maddox Brothers and Rose, Roselea Arbana “Rose” Maddox, apparently a “lusty firebrand”, is here with a solo recording of Bill Monroe’s cautionary gospel warning about sinning and the Devil, ‘The Old Crossroad Is Waitin’’. Then, from Tennessee but raised in Georgia, hillbilly singer Ray Pressley wallows in regret on ‘Living, Learning Trying To Forget’ and, pioneers of the Bakersfield song, Maryland husband and wife duo Joe Maphis & Rose Lee have two tracks to their name, ‘I’m A Stranger In My Home’ – a thematic and lyrical influence perhaps on Elvis Costello’s ‘Stranger In The House’.
The last of the lesser known names are West Virginia’s Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper with Roy Acuff’s ‘This World Can’t Stand Long’, a 1948 78 rpm single, the B-side of which, for trivia buffs, featured their version of ‘A Tramp On The Street’.
The two remaining numbers are iconic names from the golden age of sacred bluegrass, first up being The Stanley Brothers with their 1959 recordings of ‘Are You Afraid To Die?’ written of course by Charles and Ira Louvin who fittingly bring it all to a close as The Louvin Brothers with the going back to ‘Jesus I’m Ready To Go Home’.
Cheesy, corny, sentimental, maudlin and more this may be, but it’s truly glorious wallow in broken hearts and falling teardrops from the vintage days of country music. My only complaint, there’s no song about an empty kennel – surely there could have been room for Red Foley and ‘Old Shep’!
‘Call Off The Wedding’ – Goldie Hill: