These songs and the original singers made significant impacts on me over the years, so this collection is a sort of double tribute, both to the singers and to the writers.
I wanted to reach back into my own history for my earliest musical influences, and of course, the list got pretty long really quickly. Doing songs made famous by others is a dangerous game, since it’s as likely you’ll come off poorly by comparison as not.
Great songs stand the test of time though, and some really ought to be re-made now and again. We’ve deliberately tried to put our own touch on these, in some cases, a decidedly more country flavor than the popular original, something that might actually be more true to the original writer’s vision.
Here we’re having a bit of fun with some, but all of these have had a personal impact for me, and while they come from different genres we’re putting a country spin on them.
Notably, there’s a mix of purely country, some rock and roll, some that move between. The common thread is also found in the R&B kind of blues, a mournfulness over love gone wrong, what might have been, or even what might be, yet to come. Sometimes the “system” is the villain, and the poor and downtrodden are speaking their piece, and keeping their spirits up with the music. The old spirituals are certainly in this vein, and so is 16 Tons.
The first song I can remember singing in the mid-50s (and I’m not deliberately ignoring all the gospel music I was exposed to, just can’t recall any in particular) was in “Sugar in the Morning” (Sugartime, McGuire Sisters), but I just couldn’t do that one. Too sweet I guess.
Next to Tom Dooley, but Steve Earle just put out an interesting version, so we’ll let that one age a bit more.
In 1955, “16 Tons” became both a pop favorite as well as a country hit. Having the same name, I was a big fan of Tennessee Ernie Ford, and having adopted his practice of finishing up with a gospel song.
My first actual record was an Elvis record, (1957 I think), a 45, “Hound Dog”, but instead of “Hound Dog” (which made a lot more sense as sung by a woman, such as its original singer, Big Momma Thornton), I choose one of the few that he (co-)wrote (lyrics), “Love Me Tender”. I learned it in Junior High choir as “Aura Lee”, so we (Susan and I) do the first verse from Aura Lee. Interestingly, Elvis used the great Harlan Howard’s beginner songwriter technique: take a song you know, change the words and presto! a new song.
Similarly, my first Marty Robbins recollection was “white Sports Coat”, but instead, I chose “Don’t Worry ’bout Me” since it resonates for me personally. Unlike Elvis and Conway, Marty Robbins wrote most of his hits, and they’re a testament to his craft.
From Conway Twitty, his first big hit as a pop, from 1958, we have “It’s Only Make Beleive”, back when he was one of the original Rock and Roll innovators. Later he went on to have an incredibly long string of number one hits (55) on the country side.
Hank Williams was such a seminal source for so many familiar songs, such as “Cheating Heart” and “Lovesick Blues” that we often lose sight of some of his more obscure song. “Lonesome Whistle” struck me as one that deserved a re-hearing, and in some ways, it’s an indirect tribute to Jimmy Rodgers as well.
One of Buddy Holly’s last big hits, “True Love Ways” seems by now to have been over-orchestrated, so we’ve produced a simpler , ore country style version.
The Everly Brothers had so many great hits, doing such wonderful harmonies, that it was hard to decide which to do. The interesting thing about “Let It Be Me” is that it’s a French transplant, one of a number that were re-made in the American pop mold. Our twist is to make it a boy-girl duet, which on the surface of it, seems to make more sense.
“For the Good Times” expresses so well that bittersweet heartache that comes with a breakup, that it hits many of us “right where we live”. One of Kris Kristofferson’s greatest songs, the familiar version was done by Ray Price with an orchestral sound; here we put a more country spin on the proceedings.
“Amanda” was a hit for both Don Williams and Waylon Jennings, so like a couple of others here, it’s a double tribute of sorts. Written by the great Bob McDill, it says the kind of things we men often feel in a simple but articulate way.
The Beatles became a giant influence on me an all of pop music as we moved into the ’60’s; rather than doing one of their very popular hits, we chose to do one that’s not so over-exposed, “Hide Your Love Away”, with a little country flavoring!
The Bee Gees first big hit “To Love Somebody” was one of the iconic songs of the late ’60’s, and set the stage for their long career as pop hitmakers. Not too many times will you hear steel guitar on their songs though.
A Merle Haggard song (though written by Liz Anderson) “Lonesome Fugitive” was a personal theme song for a while, during a difficult time for me. We’re doing a little bluegrass number on it this time, just to make it a fresh contribution.
Jumping way up into the ’70’s, the Eagles made their brand of country-rock super popular, and like many another, their song affected me. I chose “Peaceful Easy Feeling” because it had a few lines that really “spoke to me” personally, starkly saying how I felt about someone, back when.
Rounding out the list is “Canaan’s Land”, which we did on the Gospel Favorites series also. This time, we are doing a bluegrass take on it, with a four part vocal approach. It’s a family favorite at funerals, and to me expresses a vital belief that “it’s going to be all right” since “the soul never dies”. So rather than a sad or mournful take, this is a joyous declaration. The writer, William M. Golden is also notable for being the grandfather of Oak Ridge Boy William Lee Golden.