First Australian country singer on the Moon

Reg Lindsay was one of the giants of Australian country music. Unlike a great many country singers, in his day, he was a real stockman (which is what we call a cowboy, in these here parts). He only thought about a musical career after being injured while riding a bull at a rodeo. While convalescing, he spent a lot of time listening to country music on the radio, and was inspired to enter a talent contest. Some successful recordings won him a radio show, and later a television program, and in the 1950s and 1960s he became the face of country in Australia.

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Image: Curly Fraser (State Library of New South Wales), via Wikimedia Commons

In my country, “country” means, first and foremost, Slim Dusty. Reg Lindsay was his contemporary, semi-rival, and brother-in-law (their wives were sisters). Reg was, no getting around it, by far the better singer of the two. Yet Slim’s Aussie twang and his songs of the outback are remembered and loved, while Reg’s smoother baritone is increasingly forgotten.

This should not diminish Reg Lindsay’s achievement. His best-known song was “Armstrong”, about the Lunar landings. Not the most obvious theme for a country singer, but appropriate in a way. Reg Lindsay was the first Australian artist to perform at the Grand Ol’ Oprey, in 1968, and is now honoured with a plaque on Nashville’s “Walkway of Stars”. Such recognition, to a stockman listening to country radio while recovering from a rodeo accident, would have been unimaginable.

Lindsay was a pioneer, first Australian country singer on the Moon.

Here he is on a much more down-home, ordinary-life, country-music-staple theme. Hello blues!

  • Artist: Reg Lindsay
  • Album: Country Music Comes To Town
  • Track: A1 “Hello Blues”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: EMI
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: OEX-9647
  • Year: Unknown (mid-1960s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

Never shoot first

Gene Autry was the first great singing cowboy of American popular culture. Not a type of performer you see much anymore. We still have western movies, but they tend to be grim and bloody, and there is not much time for singing around the campfire, faithful horse in the background, between two cardboard boulders.

It all seems tacky now, the world of the B-movie western, but hugely popular in its day, and Autry was a colossus of that world. Born in 1907, Autry became a star of radio, the large and small screens, and one of the most successful recording artists ever. He wrote or co-wrote hundreds of songs. (His biggest success? “Here Comes Santa Claus”.) He made 640 recordings, and sold over 100 million copies of his records. The man was, in consequence, worth a mint. He owned a TV station, a baseball team, a film studio – the works.

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Gene Autry with singing group The Pinafores, 1948. Image: CBS Radio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Autry’s persona was that of the straight shooter, the cowboy as patriot and embodiment of what was good and fine in American manhood. This can grate on a modern audience. For the guidance of the boys and young men who idolised him, Autry created the ten-point Cowboy Code, which begins: The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

Just what a Boy Scout needs to know. Mind, there are some cops out there who could learn a thing or two from the Cowboy Code …

More important, the music was good. Autry’s mellow voice and easy guitar style stand up well. This is his take on “Buttons and Bows”, which was a hit for him in 1947.

  • Artist: Gene Autry
  • A side: Buttons And Bows
  • B side: Blue Shadows On The Trail
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Regal Zonophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: G25274
  • Year: 1948

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

Young Turk

Torok is an unusual name for an American country artist of the 1950s. Country is usually the domain of the Anglo name: Nelson, Cash, Jennings, Parton. Even those not born with one used to put a suitable name on with the cowboy hat. Baldemar Garza Huerta did better as “Freddy Fender”.

Torok means “Turk” in the Hungarian language, and it was a surname given to people whose forebears had migrated there from Turkey in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That empire was destroyed in the First World War, and in the wake of that defeat a Hungarian couple, Niklos and Irene Torok, migrated again, to the United States.

3331There, in Houston, they had a son in 1929. Mitchell Torok grew up listening to the music around him, took up guitar at age twelve, and by his 20s became small-big in country music. He appeared on the major country radio programs, and wrote song for many of the stars of the day, particularly Jim Reeves.

His biggest hit came in 1953 with “Caribbean”, a light-hearted stomper with a vaguely Hawaiian sound celebrating the beauty of ladies in Cuba and Haiti. It’s a fun song but I prefer the B side. One of Torok’s idols was the great Hank Williams (who died before his time earlier that year), and there is more than a hint of Hank in “Weep Away”.

Whoever bought this record loved this song – it has been played many, many times, and the shellac is battered and worn. Even through the rumble and scratch, this is a heartfelt performance.

  • Artist: Mitchell Torok
  • A side: Caribbean
  • B side: Weep Away
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: London
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: HL-1011
  • Year: 1954

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Coal miner’s daughter

Like any self-respecting country singer, Loretta Lynn was born into poverty in a colourfully named Kentucky hamlet – Butchers Hollow, in this case. The daughter of a coal miner, she was married at 13, though happily not to Jerry Lee Lewis. She does not quite complete the c.v., not having been to jail, but this is serious country cred.

Loretta_Lynn-Love_Is_the_Foundation

Image: Wikipedia

Though I knew the name and some of the hits, I had not realised how big a star Lynn was. Through the sixties and seventies she was a giant of country who also made the pop charts: “crossover” is the annoying term the marketers use. More to the point, she could really sing. She had that ability to sing sometimes maudlin material and carry it with sheer conviction. Given a half-decent song …

She also had a feisty, no-nonsense assertion on behalf of women: brave stuff in its day. Still needed, actually, judging by the news from Hollywood.

Here is one of her gutsy-sentimental songs, from the 1973 LP, Love is the Foundation, a declaration that this Southern Belle ain’t no doormat.

  • Artist: Loretta Lynn
  • Album: Love is the Foundation
  • Track: A4 “Just To Satisfy (The Weakness In A Man)”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: MCA
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: MAPS 7001
  • Year: 1973

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

The Deadly Hume

Highway 31 runs between Australia’s two biggest cities, Melbourne and Sydney. The Hume Highway, it is also called, and there is not a lot of love out there for it. It used to be both boring and dangerous, especially on the New South Wales side of the border.  There was even a rock band named after it: The Deadly Hume. These days it is well-made dual-carriageway the whole distance: still boring, but safer.

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Only 800-odd Ks to Sydney …  some locals have added welcoming bullet holes to the sign.

Back in 1969, though, it was still possible to conjure some romance from Highway 31, and this is what Johnny Chester did. I recently sold some of Chester’s records to a man in Western Australia. Not knowing much about the artist, I asked about the buyer’s interest. It was a lovely reply:

I have known him all of my life but not so much in recent years since we moved over here to WA (used to live in Vic). He’s a great guy (very modest), his career started out back in the late 50s. He sang rock & roll back then which then morphed into the pop scene in the early ’60s. He toured Oz with the Beatles when they came out. In the late 60s he got into country music. He’s in his 70s now. I picked up some of his old sheet music just for a keepsake. Then of course I started to think about getting some of his old 45’s and here we are today!

This is Johnny Chester’s take on the Deadly Hume, a sort-of up-tempo Australian version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, in which a man leaves his lover and puts miles and place names between them. No great pretension, but it rocks along, features some nice guitar, and is good fun.

  • Artist: Johnny Chester
  • Single Title: I Just Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye
  • Side B “Highway 31”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Philips
  • Catalogue: BF-456
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1969

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Sun filtering though curtains

She was a southern belle with big hair and a husky voice, and for a short time she was the biggest thing in country music. Born in Mississippi in 1944 to dirt-poor farmers, Roberta Lee Streeter managed to get to college, where she studied philosophy and music. She was good at both, and adopting the stage name Bobbie Gentry, she had a smash hit in 1967 with the swamp-gothic story song “Ode to Billie Joe”.

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Bobbie Gentry. Picture: NBC  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Later she went more mainstream, recording covers albums and duets with Glenn Campbell, hosted some fairly bland television shows, then retired from performing. But in between, she recorded an album, The Delta Sweete which was, writes Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian, “her second record and her masterpiece: a multi-faceted quasi-concept album about Gentry’s Mississippi delta roots”.

I discovered this astonishing work via one of the singles released from it. The A-side is a vivacious version of the Doug Kershaw song “Louisiana Man”: Gentry’s take leaps out at the listener, fresh as a kicking catfish. But it is the B-side, “Courtyard” which dazzles, even on the scratchy disc I found. A Scots folk ballad meets Astral Weeks in a graveyard on a sticky summer’s day: understated, lovely, chilling.

Lynskey again:

most of The Delta Sweete‘s innovative, sophisticated sound is down to Gentry herself, who played piano, guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. Swampy southern grooves mingle with the latest Nashville trends, blue-eyed soul [and] whispered intimations of psychedelia … each track blurs, dream-like, into the next … the earlier tracks chime with her public image as a husky, sensual southern belle but [elsewhere] her voice enters … like sun filtering though curtains.

And he is right. The LP sank with little trace at the time. This single peaked at 100 on the US charts, and did not even register elsewhere. The Planet Vinyl manifesto declares:

We are archaeologists of sound, at a dig. We value the pot shards and door knobs and belt buckles, and we sometimes find riches unimagined.

Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete is one of those.

“Louisiana Man”

“Courtyard”

  • Artist: Bobbie Gentry
  • Single Title: Louisiana Man
  • Tracks: A “Louisiana Man”; B “Courtyard”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Capitol Records
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: CP-8325
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

 

An insult to cheese

Oh dear. There were some unfortunate fashions in the 1980s. Maybe it’s because I was there at the time, but when I see a picture like this, I shrink inside.

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This is Ricky Skaggs, one of the greats of country music, on the back of his 1985 LP, Live in London. That’s Westminster Bridge in the background there, and Ricky looks as though he feels like the dang handsomest fella to ever pull on a pair of snakeskin books, y’all. I would have felt the same, dressed like that, only I couldn’t afford the boots and I would have drawn a line at the mustache. Oh dear.

But here on Planet Vinyl, we don’t get phased by fashion, or deterred by dud record covers. We just listen. And when it comes to live albums, we go further. I love live recordings, don’t get me wrong. But a live album should be long on music and short on stage patter, because what can be fun and part of the show when you are there, can be embarrassing committed to vinyl. This is certainly true of Ricky. Maybe it is being an American abroad, or something, but to call Skaggs’ patter cheesy would be an insult to cheese. Exhibit A.

But, it’s about the music here. Can the boy play? Yessir, he can. Skaggs and his band are hot, drawing on bluegrass and country and fusing it with rock and making it all something new. Personally, I rate his playing, on guitar and mandolin especially, more highly than his singing, but that is a matter of taste.

Ricky Skaggs has been described as the man who single-handedly rescued country music in the 1980s. That may be overstating things, but his willingness to hoot and holler and wear cowboy boots but merge styles and collaborate with unlikely partners – it did re-energise country and bring it to a new audience. He even shared the stage with … spoilers! You’ll have to listen to find out which unlikely figure joined him for the encore number at the Dominion Theatre, London, in 1985.

  • Artist: Ricky Skaggs
  • LP Title: Live in London
  • Side 2, Track 5 “Don’t Get Above Your Raising”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, stereo
  • Label: Epic
  • Catalogue number: ELPS 4525
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1985

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.