with the addition of Charlie Chalmers, used their country ‘sibling harmonies’ to back up countless Memphis soul cuts like Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of A Preacher Man’. The music on this album comes from a golden era of southern song populated by legendary personalities. Combine Music in Nashville (the publishing arm of Fred Foster¹s Monument Records) was a hotbed of writers in the early seventies. “They used to kid about the old Monument building being a funeral home or something,” remembers Larry Jon Wilson. “It was southern antebellum mansion with a $100,000 Viennese chandelier in the front room. Fred Foster had Napoleon Bonaparte’s harp sitting there - it was the damnedest thing you ever saw.” Tony Joe White, who recorded early hits like Polk Salad Annie and Rainy Night In Georgia for Monument, recalls “This was a late night bunch - Larry Jon, (Donnie) Fritts, me, Kris Kristofferson, Eddie Hinton, Billy Swan, Denis Linde, Spooner Oldham he was hanging too, Dan Penn. Three or four in the morning Combine was still open, you’d go in there and somebody would have a guitar out or a tape to listen to. It was our refuge.” Through the fifteen cuts on this album we’re allowed to eavesdrop on the world where these incredible sounds were made and the people and personalities that created them. Their songs document heartache and confinement but also escape. Ties are never severed and the figures in these southern tales always, on whatever bruised level, return home.
The opening track is Tony Joe White’s High Sheriff of Calhoun Parish from his third Monument album recorded in 1970 at Lyn-Lou Studio in Memphis. The song is the tale of a man thrown in jail after paying the Sheriff’s daughter too much attention. “I was born and raised in Oak Grove, Louisiana. Over in another Parish - Calhoun Parish - there was a Sheriff. He was higher than the judge. Anybody that came in that country was under his power,” says Tony Joe in a voice pitched somewhere between a sigh and growl. “I based it kinda on the girl, his daughter. I didn’t get him after me so bad but I did know a coupla boys had tried it and ended up in the ole jailhouse. I got in and got out OK,” laughed Tony Joe. Like many great southern songs the story is left open-ended. “The songs I’ve always held the closest to my heart were the ones that let the people listening to ‘em make up their own endings. Those are the lucky ones that come out like that. You kinda get the impression at the end of the song he probably went back to the swamp and he’s probably back in there fishin’ somewhere and he did OK. The Sheriff didn’t get ‘im and he’s alright.”
Sandra Rhodes’ Sowed Love And Reaped The Heartache was first released in 1973 on her album Where’s Your Love Been. The album was produced by her husband Charlie Chalmers who as well as being a member of the Rhodes Chalmers & Rhodes background singers was a prolific session sax player and string arranger. He played the sax break on Wilson Pickett’s Funky Broadway and wrote the horn charts for Aretha Franklin’s I’ve Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. The ‘Sowed Love’ sessions took place at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios in Memphis, 1972. “She’s a great guitar player, you know,” remembered Charlie from his home in Branson, Missouri. “Oh incredible, sounds a lot like Reggie Young. She grew up around Reggie and that’s where it kinda rubbed off on her, I guess. Chet Atkins recorded her before I met her and he said she was the greatest woman guitar player he’d ever met.”
The song Sowed Love and Reaped A Heartache originally appeared on James Carr’s A Man Needs a Woman album in 1969. This rendering not only showcases Sandra Rhodes soulful voice but also her funky guitar work.
Wayne Carson is one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville. His songs have sold in excess of 75 million records with hits like Always On My Mind cut by Elvis and Willie Nelson and The Letter by The Boxtops. His story is another classic demonstration of the contact zone between soul and country. His father, Shorty Thompson, hosted a TV show called Shorty, Sue & Sally, and led a 17-piece western swing band that included his mother and the rest of his family. Wayne spent his childhood following his father and his band around the south. In the late sixties he met Chips Moman in Memphis and became a regular at American studios. “I loved Memphis and Memphis got along good with me. American Studios was my second home.” He became close friends with songwriter and producer Dan Penn. “I was sitting in Bob Beckham’s office over in Memphis and we’d been up about three days, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham and I. I started singing this thing and Bob Beckham came in, and he had a little four track demo studio there in his office, he said
“why don’t you go in there and put that down before you forget it”. He said ‘that’s a hit’ and that’s how it happened. I gave it to Dan and that was about the time that Dan quit producing the Boxtops so Tommy Cogbill the great bass player produced it on the Boxtops.’ The song was Soul Deep and The Boxtops had a hit with it in 1968. Wayne’s version, grittier and funkier, was included on his Life Lines album made for Monument Records in 1972. Recorded with Chips Moman in Memphis, the arrangement showcases Reggie Young’s unmistakable guitar playing.
Black Widow Blues is taken from Townes Van Zant’s first sessions in 1966 under the direction of Jack Clement who, at Sun, had produced Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison. The Texan songwriter, urged by Mickey Newbury to move from Houston, was a recent recruit to Nashville. The tapes, recorded two years before the release of his first album, were lost until recently found by Clement. This cut is funkier and more R&B influenced then much of his later work and tells the tale of a rambling badman with ‘blues sown into my jacket got a goat skin full of wine’ with ‘mornings full of make believe and evenings full of time’. The song could have been prophecy. Townes had a troubled life and his premature death in 1997 robbed American song of one of its greatest talents. Larry Jon Wilson toured with him for the best part of a decade and lived with Townes for a while in a farmhouse just outside of Nashville. “I don’t make more of ‘im in death than he was in life. Journalism and biography tends to do that. You don’t have to. I knew what he was. I knew how good he was and I know he knew how good he was.”
Next is Larry Jon Wilson’s magical Ohoopee River Bottom Land. Larry Jon is a true southerner but no barefoot caricature. Lifetime friend Wayne Carson recalls “I tell you what, he’s The True Poet. He’s truly a troubadour. It’s not like he has to do that - he wants to do that. He’s one of those guys who travels all the time and plays for people and makes up songs and puts poetry into words and communicates it. He has a brilliant mind.” It’s all there in the smooth tones of Larry Jon’s deep languid voice. Ohoopee River Bottomland is the story of his own family; a tale of rural hardship and the urge to leave the country in search of a better life. The song’s protagonist however, is lost in the city and yearns to return to his south Georgia roots, but homecoming is never easy. This song is taken from his first album, New Beginnings, released in 1975 and produced by Rob Galbraith and Bruce Dees.
Shirl Milete’s track Big Country Blues was written by Townes Van Zant and recorded by Van Zant in the Jack Clement ‘lost sessions’. Shirl Milete was on the Poppy label, the same independent that released Townes Van Zant’s early albums and included non-mainstream artists like the Dillards, Doc Watson and comedian/political activist Dick Gregory. This track is from his first and only album, released in 1969. Big Country Blues is the story of a hobo worker who collects images of a forgotten America of poverty and destitution from the Texas sugar fields to the Minnesota mines. It’s a harrowing hardship ballad of dried out prostitutes and men in the gutter who’ll give their life away for a ‘bottle of gut rot wine.’
Milete has had success as a songwriter with songs recorded by Dolly Parton (Baby Sister), Elvis Presley (My Little Friend and Life), and George Strait (I’ve Seen That Look On Me (A Thousand Times).
Jim Ford’s Harlan County is an enigmatic and mysterious gem of a record. The title track from his one and only album (released on the California-based Sundown Records) it’s a defiant song of escape from the hard time coalmines and black hills of Harlan County where “man’s tired of livin’ when he’s twenty.” The rhythm track cooks like a car speeding across the county line and there’s definitely no looking back.
Originally from New Orleans, Jim Ford moved to California in the mid-sixties where he began a songwriting partnership with Bobby Womack (he wrote Harry Hippie in 1970), and spent time living the good life with Sly Stone. He also met Pat and Lolly Vegas - two native American rockers - who provided backing and arrangements for Harlan Country. “Jim Ford was a charismatic, enthusiastic, full of energy, wild-eye kind of guy. It wasn't all natural. It was still the sixties, but he was fun to work with and be around. The music was heartfelt, believable and entertaining,” remembered Rik Pekkonen who engineered the album. “The sessions were fun, and when you listen to the album today you can still hear that excitement. One memory that stands out was when we were mixing a song and Jim got so excited after we were through, he said something like, “I've gotta get you something in appreciation for that mix.” So, we left the session, walked up the street to Hollywood Boulevard and into a clothing store where he bought me a shirt. Not any shirt, but this very 60's number in velour with bright stripes. Needless to say, I stood out. That just doesn't happen everyday. Jim loved to party and you were always invited.”
Bobbie Gentry’s Fancy is another song about escaping rural hardship. This time it’s from the point of view of a young woman whose mother spends her last pennies on a red satin dancing dress. She curls her eighteen-year old daughter’s hair, paints her eyes and dabs perfume on her neck. ‘Here’s your one chance, Fancy don’t let me down’ she says with a tear in her eye as she hands her a locket that says ‘To thy own self be true’. It’s a fantastic song and shows why Bobbie Gentry inspired writers like Tony Joe White to write stories of southern life. It was recorded at Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in 1970. “I played guitar on Fancy” remembers Travis Wammack. “I played her little guitar on that. Rick asked her, he said “Bobbie would you mind if Travis played your little bitty Martin. I’d like to try and duplicate the ‘Ode to Billy Joe Sound’ She said ‘sure’. It took me awhile because it was a little bitty small scale double eighteen Martin guitar.” The rhythm track is actually very complicated and Rick Hall had only just recently upgraded his studio from 4 to 8 track recording and hadn’t quite mastered the technique of ‘punching in’. “That was one of the longest sessions I can remember,” says Travis. “When it started out Fancy was about six minutes long. We’d get right in the middle of that track and somebody would mess up and we’d have to re-do the whole thing. We had a black drummer - Freeman Brown - and Jessie Boyce was on bass. It had a lot of syncopated licks and stuff and it was tough. We worked on that song for three days and we finally got it the way Rick wanted it.”
Eddie Hinton’s It Can’t be Me is from the posthumous Hard Luck Guy album released by Zane in 1999. Hinton had recorded the song with just guitar in 1980. Peter Thompson of Zane Records sifted through the unfinished demos and brought them back to life with the assistance of former Capricorn Records wizard Johnny Sandlin. It Can’t Be Me features Hinton’s old studio collaborators the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on Guitar and Clayton Ivy on keyboards). Hinton was a regular fixture at their 3614 Jackson Highway Studio from the late sixties onwards. As a writer Hinton gave Percy Sledge hits with ‘Cover Me’ and with his friend Donnie Fritts wrote the timeless ‘Breakfast in Bed’ for Dusty Springfield. Jerry Wexler, driving force behind Altantic records, was a frequent visitor to Muscle Shoals. “Eddie Hinton was a star-crossed genius. He played very good guitar but it was idiosyncratic. He could play things that nobody else could play. He injected his own fantastic personality into the rhythm track. When people came to Muscle Shoals they would find Eddie. Aretha [Franklin] loved him.”
Dan Penn remembers his friend with a sad shake of the head. “Course we all played around and indulged too much, but most of us made it back. Eddie never did.” His wife drowned in a tragic boating accident and plagued by his own demons he died of a heart attack in 1995 aged 51. Jerry Wexler was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. “With Eddie it wasn’t imitation. It was totally created, the fire and fury that was as real as Otis Redding’s and Wilson Pickett’s. But he was always the boy genius who was about to happen next year.”
Travis Wammack’s Easy Evil is from his 1975 Not For Sale album on the Capricorn label, produced by Rick Hall. “It was a song that Rick had found when he was out in California.
Alan Oday had written it. And I don’t know what it was all about because I didn’t speak Spanish but there was a verse in Spanish. So Rick called Alan up and he taught me to sing it over the phone the Spanish verse. I still don¹t know what I was singing. Maybe it wasn’t too bad.” Travis grew up in Memphis and spent his early days playing frat houses with rhythm and blues bands. Master of the Gibson 335 he is an accomplished session player with a distinctive style. “I was a drummer too and a lot of my guitar playin’ is kind of drum licks. Being a drummer I guess it was just the timing and things.” His talents were a mainstay of Fame Recording Studios. In the last ten years he’s been putting all his energies to his own career as an artist.
In Muscle Shoals Donnie Fritts - the legendary Alabama Leaning Man – tells the whole story in one song. “It’s about the little Drug Store Recording Studio in Florence and how Arthur Alexander got things started down here. Actually, “You’d Better Move On’ started it all. I travelled with him and I had part publishing on ‘You’d Better Move On’ at the time. He was just one of my best friends. We met in about 1958 probably.” Fritts immersed himself in rhythm and blues and the early Atlantic records particularly Ray Charles. Along with collaborators like Dan Penn and Eddie Hinton he wrote prolifically. In the seventies he too was signed to Combine Music in Nashville and through his long association with Kris Kristofferson he tilted towards country music. “It was a new music for me and I slowly got into it but even the country songs I wrote mostly had a blues feel to it.” This recent song is written with Scott Boyer and features Wayne Perkins on slide guitar.
Eric Quincy Tate’s Stone Head Blues Band is taken from their first album produced by Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Tony Joe White. The band was formed by drummer and lead singer Donnie McCormick and Tommy Carlisle in 1966 while they were in the Navy. “Eric Quincy Tate was just a name I made up”, remembers Donnie McCormick. “It was the British Invasion that was happening then and The Beatles were coming out so I decided to change the name to something that sounded a little more British and it stuck. Eric came from Eric Burdon of The Animals, Quincy came from Quincy Massachusetts where we were stationed and Tate was a shipmate of ours. I just threw that together.” McCormick had met Tony Joe White in Kingsville, Texas in the early sixties. “I was playing in the same town, you know like Corpus Christi and Kingsville, Texas,” remembers Tony Joe. “A real good band, man, a good drummer. Always, really liked the groove.” This track bears the trace of Donnie McCormick’s love of James Brown and it also features the trademark work of the Memphis Horns. “I don’t really remember what inspired the song - I don’t have an excuse for it” laughs Donnie.
Rob Galbraith’s Corner of Spit and Whittle is a neglected rare gem taken from his Nashville Dirt album recorded in 1970. “I kinda cut an album every thirty years” Rob jokes. Billy Sherrill, Nashville legend and producer of Tammy Wynette, signed him to Columbia in 1969. “He was a big Mose Allison fan of all people”, remembers Rob. You can hear why the association is significant as there is something of Mose Allison in Galbraith’s voice. “It’s probably true of a lot small towns in the south that some of the old guys who retire just sit around whittling and telling tall tales. In the little town where my former wife’s from they used to call it the corner of spit and whittle.” The song is written from the standpoint of a young guy who chooses to hang with the old timers. The music has a deep rural flavour that’s impossible to categorise. The publicity for the album proclaimed that “If William Falkner had married Bessie Smith the son would have been Rob Galbraith!” The meter of the song is set by the ‘second line’ groove provided by Arvin Scott.
The drummer’s catchphrase was “everything is Fred” meaning “everything’s cool” and explains why Rob uses it at the opening of the track.
Bonnie Bramlett’s Your Kind of Kindness is taken from her first album on Capricorn Records called It’s Time and was recorded in Macon Georgia. Although made while still suffering from a painful divorce from her musical partner Delaney Bramlett, it is one of her very best. “Muhammad Ali was fighting George Foreman and I was going to go to that but I got the chance to cut down in Macon with legendary Johnny Sandlin who had produced the Allman Brothers. They were fighting in Zaire when we were in the studio cutting ‘Your Kinda Kindness’. The song is an indictment against race in America and the kind of ‘kindness’ that keeps people divided and segregated. Bonnie had grown up in East St Louis, performed with Albert King and Fontella Bass and was the first white Ikette for the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. It not only challenges white racism but also interrogates black prejudice. “Hey brother don’t you think its time you were calling me sister,’ sings Bonnie. Then turning to the other side, she calls ‘Hey brother I understand your head and I see your neck is red and it¹s scaring me half to death’. “It was a really racial song and I don’t think anybody to this day has gotten that. It was really a balls out song, I had a lot of nerve to talk like that in those days,” reflects Bonnie.
The final cut on the album is appropriately the most recent. Dan Penn’s Heavy Duty is not even a year old. It’s an indication of how many of the people included in this collection are still active in their craft. This tune was recorded at Penn’s home studio in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Chuck Prophet and I write about a couple of times a year, two or three times whenever we can get together.” Chuck Prophet is an artist in his own right and came to prominence as the front man and singer for alt.country band Green On Red. Penn and Prophet wrote this lilting swamp groove with Solomon Burke in mind (Dan Penn wrote the title track on Burke’s 2002 Don’t Give Up On Me album). “Solomon was coming back up to cut, at least we thought he was. And so we semi wrote it for him. Of course you know, I never write completely for one person.” Solomon’s loss is our gain and this song is evidence that there is simply more great music to come. Sandra Rhodes probably speaks for everyone. “All we’ve really done is sing and play and write and travel. If we didn’t do that we’d be flippin’ hamburgers somewhere. We don’t know how to do anything else.”