Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, and Marty Robbins
Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, Fri., Dec. 10, 1999
Big City (Columbia/Legacy)
Live at Folsom Prison (Columbia/Legacy)
Stand by Your Man (Columbia/Legacy)
Gunfighter Ballads (Columbia/Legacy)With Columbia/Legacy reissuing these five classic country albums by five of the genre's biggest names, they trace the arc of the music's acceptance into the mainstream. Produced by Booker T. Jones, Willie Nelson's 1978 Stardust album is a subtle masterpiece that finds the Austin icon giving voice to Tin Pan Alley classics. Though it seemed like an unlikely undertaking at the time, Stardust was a huge smash, Nelson's delivery perfectly suited to the album's delicate arrangements and familiar melodies. It's a reference point of Americana and one of the Red Headed Stranger's landmark albums, taking "crossover country" in a whole new direction. Merle Haggard's Big City album from 1981 finds the Hag pondering middle-age worries and early Eighties uncertainties. Having toned down his politics a bit since "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me," this is one of Haggard's more thoughtful moments. His baritone sounds even more mature and world-weary than usual, and his plainspoken songs are a reminder of his sweaty "blue-collar poet" credentials. The bonus track, "I Won't Give Up My Train," is a stubborn-but-sad and lonely-sounding declaration. The Strangers play tough and restrained at the same time, even giving a nod to Bob Wills with "Texas Fiddle Song." Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison is nothing short of astonishing, with Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and the Carter Family sitting in. The band sounds incredibly jumpy and tense (little wonder), as if they're about to jump out of their skins, but the audience was certainly enthusiastic. Johnny Cash albums just don't come any better than this, hard-nosed and muscular, with 2,000 convicts in rapt attention (listen to the nervous laughter whenever Cash cracks a joke). Steve Earle contributes some great liner notes on the insert. Tammy Wynette sings of womanizing men, broken marriages, and illicit loves on 1968's Stand by Your Man. Her voice is powerful and heartbreaking on every song, while Billy Sherrill's production is lush without being overbearing. The title track was Wynette's first No.1 hit, introducing the public to the singer's signature "teardrop" at the end of each phrase, and nearly all the rest of the songs are just as strong. "I'm Only a Woman" is a fine bonus track. Marty Robbins enjoyed a few hits during his career-defining "gunfighter" phase, such as "El Paso" and "Big Iron" from Gunfighter Ballads. This 1959 release is crisp and pristine in its production and playing, with Robbins' country croon and driving rhythm guitar riding high on a collection of round-the-campfire cowpoke ballads. All in all, Columbia Legacy's well-chosen re-releases capture each of these artists at the top of their form, with interesting bonus tracks and great graphics and liner notes.
(Stand by Your Man)