Recent releases from the reissue arm of Columbia Records (a.k.a. Sony BMG Music), that being the Legacy Records imprint, are the focus of this installment of Compact Capsules. What with recent releases focusing on the works of Bob Wills, Waylon Jennings, and a DVD of a 1971 concert in Denmark by Johnny Cash, country & western heavyweights are well represents. Add to that a few Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members in The Byrds and Roy Orbison and the reissue pickings are pretty sweet where Legacy are concerned. Let’s dig in.
There’s only three artists who have dual membership in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two of them are Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Here’s thinking folks would be hard pressed to name the third member of that esteemed group. How about Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys? Yessirree Bob, the legendary swing king and his mighty Texas Playboys band gained entry into the Cleveland-based shrine in 2000. If you are at all familiar with Wills’ music, his trailblazing tunes truly did rock and roll blurring any and all lines between hillbilly, boogie, C&W, jazz and blues. The common denominator across nearly all of it was it swung like the dickens. The newly released collection titled simply Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys (Columbia/Legacy 93858) is a stern reminder of what a force this outfit was regardless of the genre. Prior to its release, one had to go the import route for a comprehensive collection of Wills’ music with the exhaustive and high-priced 10-CD box set Germany’s Bear Family Records and the discount priced multi-disc set from Proper Records of England (with suspect sound, I might add) your only bets. As domestic Wills collections go, consider Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys the mother lode of releases on these shores. The first release in Legacy’s newly hatched Legends of Country Music series, the multi-disc retrospective grabs recordings from some 43 different sessions over a 41 year period. The sum total is 105 tracks spread chronologically over four CDs, including nine previously unreleased recordings. It all begins in 1932 with two tracks from the Fort Worth Doughboys, a band which featured Wills and early swing trailblazer Milton Brown who many will argue would have been considered the father of Western Swing had an auto accident not taken him out several years later in 1936. From there it is onto a 1935 session in Dallas and the first incarnation of the Texas Playboys with legendary vocalist Tommy Duncan doing the singing and Wills, of course, leading the band in all it’s early roughhewn, swing glory. The mixture of jazz and blues all oozing with swagger was staggering for the time period. Always featuring top flight musicians, Wills would continue to hone his band’s sound while always seeming to maintain a free and easy approach to music making. With his constant egging-on of his players and the infamous “Ah-hah’s”, he was a pepper pot of activity which this collection displays in all its flying colors. Beautifully packaged in a display-book box loaded with pictures and featuring a 3500-word liner note essay to go with session-by-session annotation all courtesy of writer Richard Kienzle, all phases of the Wills legacy are represented. Perhaps what truly sets this collection apart is the superb remastering job given these artifacts. It is nothing short of breathtaking.
“You can’t write a song of love in a committee of three / And great tunes ain’t made by the guys in the T-I-E-S” sings Texas singer/songwriter Chris Wall in his tribute song to Waylon Jennings called “An Outlaw’s Blues”. It was that non-conformist attitude that Jennings carried into his work and that made his music such a thing to behold. From the chicken pickin’ on his Fender to the bravado in his voice to his kick-ass band, Jennings was consummate honky tonk outlaw. The second release in Legacy’s Legends of Country Music series is almost as much of a knockout as the first. While not necessarily the mother lode, per say, the newly released Nashville Rebel (RCA Nashville/Legacy 89640) profiling the career of the late Waylon Jennings represents the most comprehensive domestic release of his work to date. Calling Mr. Jennings a Nashville rebel is playing it safe. For a good chunk of his career Jennings pretty much let the middle finger fly in the face of Nashville suit types when it came to country music making. A fierce independent, Nashville Rebel gathers some 92 tracks from the Jennings archives. It begins with a 1958 recording of a cover of the Cajun classic “Jole Blon” produced by Buddy Holly and ends with a 1995 recording of the supergroup The Highwaymen which teamed Jennings with compadres Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. Spread over four discs and leaning heavily on his many years with RCA Records, Nashville Rebel offers much of the cream of the crop from Jennings’ lengthy career. Probably most remembered for the hard-edge he injected into his progressive style of country music, Jennings for the first dozen years of his career dabbled in everything from West Texas rock ‘n’ roll in the style of his early mentor Holly to folk to countrypolitan pop. Disc one of Nashville Rebel concentrates on this phase of Jennings’ career. From there it is into the true meat of the Jennings legacy, namely the 1970s during which time he gained hsi greatest notoriety. Two entire discs, or 45 tracks, are dedicated to his 1970s output. In the Jennings scheme of things, this is the stuff that truly etched him into the Mount Rushmore of C&W greats. We’re talking tree-top stuff like “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”, “I’m a Ramblin Man”, “Rainy Day Woman”, “Bob Wills is Still the King”, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”, and on and on. It was a period during which Jennings’ band, featuring the great steel player Ralph Mooney delivering the goods in jaw-dropping fashion, rivaled any in the business, be it country or rock, resulting in western electric C&W that is as good as it gets. Featuring a 140-page booklet with essays by both Jennings biographer Lenny Kaye and writer Richard Kienzle to go with a bounty of wonderful of photos, Legacy Recordings truly rolls out the red carpet with Nashville Rebel.
The late Johnny Cash comes to DVD thanks to the release of Man In Black: Live In Denmark 1971 (Columbia/Legacy). First broadcast on Danish television, it captures an hour-long TV studio concert by the Johnny Cash Revue which in addition to the Man in Black featured wife June Carter Cash, the Tennessee Three, Carl Perkins, the Carter Family, and the Statler Brothers. The program captures multiple sides of the Cash repertoire moving from 1950s Sun-era nuggets like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” to covers of classics like “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” and “Me and Bobby McGee” to his spiritual side.
In celebration of what would have been his 70th birthday in 2006, Legacy Recording continues it Roy Orbison celebration with the reissue of his first three albums made for the Monument label: Roy Orbison Sings Lonely & Blue (Monument/Legacy 85572) from 1961, Crying (Monument/Legacy 85574) from 1962, and In Dreams (Monument/Legacy 85573) from 1963. Each reissue contains four bonus tracks and all are remastered from the original master tapes. Following on the heals of its Essential Roy Orbison (Epic/Legacy 90696) retrospective collection from this past Spring, these expanded reissues begin a restoration project by Legacy Records of Orbison’s years with Monument. Containing some of Orbison’s greatest pop moments (“Only the Lonely”, “Blue Angel”, “Crying”, “In Dreams”), it was these albums that took the West Texas native’s career to another level. Here’s looking forward to the next batch of reissues.
The year was 1990 when Legacy Recordings released the four-disc box set The Byrds. Released at the dawning of the box set era, it featured some 90 tracks in chronological order spanning 1965 -1990. For many the real draw of the collection was the inclusion of tracks from the groundbreaking Sweetheart of the Rodeo sessions with Gram Parsons’ vocals restored. Due to legal problems, Parsons’ vocals had been scratched from much of the original issue of Sweetheart. For Byrds fans, it was only icing on the cake. Now some 16 years later, the Legacy folks have another go at The Byrds thanks to the newly released The Byrds: There is a Season (Columbia/Legacy). Consisting of five discs that combine 99 audio tracks with 10 rare television clips contained on a bonus DVD, this big gulp of Byrds culls material from sources ranging from original LPs and singles to the 1990 box set to previously released expanded edition CDs. Featuring a deluxe booklet with appreciations from Tom Petty and Gary Louris (Jayhawks) to go with a lengthy essay by Rolling Stone Magazine scribe David Fricke, the end result is a bounty of Byrds that no true fan should be without. (Legacy Recordings, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022, or www.legacyrecordings.com)
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)