Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave

Well, to some of you who may have read my entry on the “final” Johnny Cash album toward the end of the 2009 project, you may remember me saying something that “that closes the book on Johnny Cash”, but it looks like I was wrong! American Recordings put out an album for Cash’s 78th birthday this last February, and wow did they ever save the best for last. Think “Hurt” is the best he could do*? Think “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now” was the best “farewell” song to a performer’s life since “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile”? Well think again, because American VI: Ain’t No Grave blows all of those out of the water!

And if you believe that, I’ve got some swamp land in Florida I’d be interested in showing you, to borrow an old idiom.

Speaking of borrowing something old:

Man he wasn't looking half-bad for a man in his 70's.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, American VI is a fantastic album, and one of the highlights of 2010 for me. I can’t knock this album on any level, but there’s no use trying to hide the fact that it’s an album for a certain kind of Johnny Cash fan, which is what I would consider myself. I’ll explain.

There is this company called Bear Family out in Germany who, for folks like me, are a God-send; their main thing is to collect every Cash studio tape they can get their hands on, and come out with these amazingly comprehensive (and equally expensive) box sets of everything Johnny Cash recorded in a certain time period. Are you the kind of person who would purchase such a set and revel in the lost studio recordings that never made it onto the properly planned albums, just because it’s Johnny Cash singing a song you hadn’t heard him sing yet?

If so, congratulations! You owe it to yourself and your creepy obsession with The Man In Black to buy American VI, so go do it. 

For the rest of you weirdos, I’ll explain what there is to like about the album, and I’ll try my best to empathize with those of you who aren’t totally into everything Johnny Cash ever did as best I can, and tell you what you might NOT like about the album.

As you turn the album on and the acoustic guitars gently weep out some sad minor chords, you may be struck with a sort of sense that you have heard this before, and indeed, as soon as the 2/4 stomp comes in (complete with chain rattling foley!), you realize that “Ain’t No Grave” is basically the same structure and mood as the single off his previous album, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (only thankfully without the modern pop stars and celebrities goofing up the thing with their stupid mugs). Not only do those songs sound pretty close, but you may notice the video, a smattering of old archival videos and photographs, seems pretty similar to the video for “Hurt“, only without the emotional appeal and the subtle story being told by the mix of old imagery with new.

That video and song pretty much represents what you might not like about this album. It’s less of a cohesive story or collection of songs meant to convey Cash’s emotional state, but really more of a collection of stuff put together in such a way as to pass the requisite time and give people who want to hear Cash a little something more to hear. Now, since the man has been dead for almost 10 years, having any new content is something to be thankful for (and trust me I am thankful), but if you are expecting the same tear-inducing melancholy from any of the other American albums (especially IV and V), this album may come up a bit short at best and, at worst, derivative of Rick Rubin’s much better production work on the other albums.

Man, even WRITING that seems harsh to me, so I am going to cut that out and talk about the good stuff on this album, as there is plenty of that.

For one, the minor chord weepy guitars don’t end at “Ain’t No Grave”, in fact they continue right on into one of the stand-out tracks, “Redemption Day“, which is one of those kind of songs I probably would not like if it wasn’t Cash singing it, since it’s actually a Sheryl Crow song and is by far the “youngest” song that Cash covers in this set of songs.  As it stands, it’s a very good song, and conveys very well Johnny’s life-long message of sin vs. redemption, plus the instrumentation that accompanies the song is quite appropriate, as it is for the rest of the songs, really, so you’re off the hook this time, Rubin.

Another essential part of this album is in its lone original track, which Cash penned based on the Bible verse “Corinthians 15:55“. While it’s not nearly as original as “Like The 309”, in some ways I like it better. I think the main reason is because it sounds like an authentic old Baptist hymn, and I love those songs a lot. As the verse goes, Cash begs the question “O Death, where is thy sting?” which is his old-religion way of fearlessly recognizing the end of his life, and to those of us who may have a ways to go, it’s quite an inspirational number.

Speaking of inspiration, I was happy that the formerly-Kill-Bill-exclusive “A Satisfied Mind” wound up on this release, because I quite enjoyed that song but don’t dig those kinds of films.

Something interesting about that song (originally a Porter Wagoner song) and indeed the rest of the album is that it’s actually the most “Country” of the later American albums, which is something I definitely count as a positive in this album. Although I definitely concede that Cash could make his own any song he was interested in, but his love for Country music was quite obvious, and definitely comes out in the performance.

One thing that kind of surprised me, however, was that Cash re-worked an old classic he had taken on years ago with “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream“, which serves as the penultimate song on the album. It’s a rather cute folk-ish song about the author dreaming that war had ended, and it’s quite the classic (according to my SECRET internet sources, it’s been translated to over 70 languages around the world). The interesting thing about the song’s inclusion is that, despite it being written in 1950 (possibly in response to the Korean War), Cash covered it in the early 70’s while he was protesting the Vietnam War, and indeed using it in 2002 (when he recorded it) can be seen as a response to the “War on Terror” or war in Iraq or whatever you want to call it (“Overseas Contingiency Operation”? Anyone?), and indeed, when the album came out in 2010 and even as I write this, that war is STILL going on, and the song takes on a new meaning and urgency with every moment that passes. Just think, if the war had ended, it’s possible that song might not have been included on the album, which would be a shame because it’s such a beautiful song.

Speaking of, the album ends with a song that is equal parts beautiful and mystifying. “Aloha Oe“, also known as “The only song from Hawaii that anyone knows”, finishes out the album in a sweet but rather puzzling way. It’s kind of interesting, when one looks at “We’ll Meet Again” or “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now“, the closing numbers on the previous American albums, both songs are eloquent and meaningful in their own little ways, but then you get to the final Final album and Cash sends himself off as if he was going home from a cruise or something. In a way, it almost seems fitting, especially when one considers that he spent most of his later years in a home in Jamaica, and thus was rather used to island living by that point, but it’s still something I’m trying to wrap my head around.

I guess, despite how seriously one can take life, it’s almost never worth it to do so. Indeed, as seriously as someone can take Johnny Cash, some people (myself included) should more fully realize that the man was an entertainer, and despite being a fantastic American hero, was really just a guy who really loved songs. Why should we be all morose when thinking about Johnny Cash, just because he’s gone? His music is still here, and will always be here, and we should be thankful to everyone involved that it happened that way.

For that reason and more, American VI is a fantastic album and you should definitely pick it up. It may not be a Bear Family Box Set’s worth of lost treasures, but at least it wasn’t lost.

*Apparently, NME thinks so; they voted it the number 1 best music video of all time. Not too bad!

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Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special

I hesitated at first to write much about Johnny Cash on this blog, mainly because I didn’t want to reveal just how obsessed with the Man In Black I really am. Fact is, there’s not much else I can do to deny it. According to my zune.net profile, since October 4th when I got my Zune, I have listened to Johnny Cash over 713 times, which averages out to about 6 songs every single day. Also, since I have about 30 albums of his (if you count the box sets for The Complete Sun Recordings, Unearthed, At Folsom Prison, and At San Quentin as one album each), it’s a matter of course that I should write about them here.

Today’s album is actually one of the first I ever obtained, the 2002 re-issue of Orange Blossom Special:

Gol'dern it, where DID I put them keys?

Orange Blossom Special fits into the whole Johnny Cash legacy as being one of the string of really successful mid-60’s albums he did for Columbia, when he was essentially on fire, starting right around the album Ring Of Fire: The Best Of Johnny Cash and ending up somewhere in the 70’s. Speaking of fire, the year of this album’s release, 1965, was also the year when Cash’s truck accidentally caused a forest fire, for which Cash was sued by the government, making him the first and possibly only person to be sued for started a forest fire.

All right, on to the album. It starts with the title track, which would become a hit that Johnny would use for most of the rest of his career, and as I mentioned in the At San Quentin album, it features a two-harmonica solo that is really fun to watch (not so bad to listen to as well). It also features a bit of dialogue between Johnny and some really old guy which, according to my dad, was quite the catch-phrase:

Man: Say man, when you goin’ back to Florida?
Cash: When am I going to Florida? I don’t know, don’t reckon I ever will
Man: Ain’t you worried about getting your nourishment in New York?
Cash: Weeelll I don’t care if I do-da-do-da-do-da-do-da-do-da-do

I really like it myself.

The next song is one of my absolute favorites of Cash, a cover of “Long Black Veil”, written by people I have no idea about and am too lazy to research. It’s about a man who is hung for a crime he didn’t commit, but wouldn’t give an alibi at the trial because he’d “Been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”, and the chorus goes:

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me

It’s a great song and typically Johnny performed it by himself in concerts, which added to the isolated feel of the song. Quite a stunning effect.

The first of three Bob Dylan-penned songs on the album is “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, which is one of the more popular duets Johnny did with future wife June Carter. One thing Johnny Cash always did well was songs about disenchanted lovers, and he’s in top form on this particular track. The song also features mariachi horns, so beware if you have allergies.

The next song is “The Wall”, which is one that probably became more popular after At Folsom Prison, since it’s a prison song. It’s a great song about a prisoner who tries to escape from jail, with consequences strikingly consistent with Johnny Cash songs of this nature.

Then we have another Bob Dylan song, probably one of his most famous since it’s one of the very few I actually know, “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”. In fact, Johnny’s version is better than Dylan’s, but this is one of the very few times when I feel like it’s not really Johnny’s song, which is probably why he later took the same melody and wrote a much better song called “Understand Your Man”. Such a move might be considered illegal these days, but Johnny Cash was very upfront about whatever music he stole from, heck even “Folsom Prison Blues” isn’t an original tune.

One thing that’s noticeably slim on Orange Blossom Special would be actual Johnny Cash-penned songs. The middle of the album contains 1 of the 2 original songs, “You Wild Colorado”, which is kind of a tribute to one of America’s greatest rivers which doubles as a love-lost song. It doesn’t stick around long, at 1 minute and 50 seconds, but it’s a nice song either way.

Then the third of the Dylan songs (also covered by Jeff Buckley many decades later) comes up, “Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind”, which is a pretty good song, and kind of echoes the previously-mentioned disenchanted feel of the previous songs. This one feels much more genuine I think, but that might be because I have never heard the original. The song also features a bouncy saxophone solo, so again people with allergic reactions to horns may take caution and the proper medication.

The next song is what I would consider kind of bizarre. It’s called “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s 40 Below)”, and is another duet with June Carter. It’s kind of a love song that ends badly, as he dances with “red headed Lil” in a saloon in Alaska, but then founds out that she’s “Big Ed’s wife to be” and he kills the singer with a knife, the thing that weirds me out about this song is that June sings the character of Lil and is just completely unaffected by any of it. I dunno, maybe you’ll just have to give it a listen. It makes a lot more sense when Johnny sings it by himself, which I’ve only ever heard on his Personal File compilation.

We then come to the second Johnny Cash original, “All Of God’s Children Ain’t Free”, which is a good semi-political song which serves as one of the many explanations as to why Johnny Cash never adopted the glitzy honky-tonk country singer image, so in essence it’s one of the songs about why Johnny Cash is way better than all other country singers. He’d later drive this point home with the song Man In Black, the album for which I don’t even think has ever come out on CD. Tragic waste, that.

The only track I’m not crazy about any time that Cash or anyone else sings it is “Danny Boy”, which is at the tail-end of the album and is preceded by about a 2 minute spoken intro, which is kind of odd for a 3 minute song. The spoken word part is great though because Johnny does an irish accent for it, and well he’s not known for his accent work. I will say I am a bit more fond of the version of Danny Boy that appears on American IV: The Man Comes Around, not least for the reason that there is a beautiful church organ in that version.

The next song is a cover of Maybelle Carter’s “Wildwood Flower”, which is nice because it’s probably the first “hit” country song ever, but it’s kind of weird to hear Johnny Cash singing it, since it was written by a woman from the viewpoint of a woman, and that’s always awkward to hear when it’s been turned around to be about a man, no matter how expertly. In this particular version Johnny Cash’s woman calls him her flower, see what I mean?

Finally, we come to a traditional gospel song called “Amen”, and it’s a good song, but probably better suited for live shows, as it is kind of stilted for the recorded version, but then again, a lot of Cash’s earliest gospel songs seemed that way. I guess it’s because he got so dang good at them after he kicked the drug habit, that it overshadows his previous efforts. Maybe I’m just too picky about my gospel music? Either way, it’s a good song.

There are some bonuses on the 2001 re-issue, most importantly “Engine 143” which is a Carter Family song about a train-wreck. It’s significant mostly for the reason that, in 2003 when Johnny Cash played his final show, it was at the Carter Family Fold and he ended with this song. Johnny Cash loved train songs, as his song “Like The 309” is the last song he ever wrote. The ending of the song, and thus the last words that Johnny sang in public was “Nearer, my God, to Thee”.

Now please excuse me as I wipe away a single tear.

 

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Johnny Cash – At San Quentin

For some reason, when I started this blog, I told myself I wouldn’t talk about any live albums. Just today I asked myself why not? After all, they’re still albums, and I’ve been listening to a particular one all day to get me through a 13 hour day at work:

Johnny hears the train a-comin', but if he'd just look to his left he'd SEE it comin' too.

This is the second live album Johnny Cash recorded in a prison, 2 years after his most famous album At Folsom Prison, and I quite prefer At San Quentin for a few reasons. For one, the instruments are in tune most of the time, which was a big problem with At Folsom Prison. For two, the songs are much tighter and performed better, and for three, the dialogue and audience response is much better. This is possibly because the act for Folsom was a bit more rehearsed (the Legacy Edition box set of At Folsom Prison contains the concerts done on both days and there are a lot of lines repeated from the first show in the second), and even the set-list for San Quentin was barely written, in fact Johnny says at one point,

I tell you what, the show is being recorded and televised for England, and they told me you gotta do this song, you gotta do that song, you gotta stand like this and walk like this, and I don’t get it man. I’m here to do what I wanna do and what you want me to do. So whaddya wanna hear?!

Really, all of the dialogue has a more loose, rebellious and even mischievous feel to it, and that conveys in the album really well. Not to take anything away from At Folsom Prison, it’s just a personal preference of mine. Truthfully, the song “Folsom Prison Blues” sounds better to me on At Folsom Prison.

So, how could it possibly take all day to listen to a live album, you ask? Well, I recently purchased the Legacy Edition box set, which contains the entire concert. There is a slimmer edition that is called rather erroneously “At San Quentin: The Complete Concert”, since it adds 8 more tracks to the original 10 song release, but that edition leaves out 4 songs, and the Legacy Edition even contains the 3 opening acts, so yes… it’s long.

In fact, the album starts with Carl Perkins playing his song that made Elvis famous, “Blue Suede Shoes”, and then vocal quartet The Statler Brothers come out and sing a pretty good song. Then June Carter Cash, who had just recently married Johnny Cash, came out and did a song with The Carter Family (their most famous, “Wildwood Flower”) and recited a poem she wrote. It’s probably about 25 minutes or so before Johnny even takes the stage with his signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

He opens with one of my favorite train songs, “The Wreck Of The Old 97” where he does this “woo woo” thing with his voice that actually sounds like a train whistle. I have no idea how he does that, but it’s great nonetheless.

It would really be useless to talk about how well he does each song, because it would probably take several thousand more words than I’ve limited myself to, but some particular highlights include the following:

Folsom Prison Blues” is the only song I ever knew by Johnny Cash before I took an active interest in him, so it remains my favorite song he does. This particular version is notable because it’s the first time he played it on a recording with then-new guitarist Bob Wootton, who was a life-long fan of Cash’s and when the original guitarist Luther Perkins died in a fire only 7 months before At San Quentin, it turned out that Bob Wootton knew every single note of the lead guitar parts of the Tennessee Three, so he was a shoe-in. He’s a great guitarist, despite his tendency to play a distinct extra note in the minimalist lead guitar part of “Folsom Prison Blues” that I kind of have mixed feelings about.

One highlight of course is the string of hits that are Johnny Cash staples, “I Walk The Line”, “Long Black Veil”, “Give My Love To Rose”, and “Orange Blossom Special”, all of which sound excellent. One particular thing about “Orange Blossom Special” that might not be apparent from simply listening to it is that Johnny plays a pair of “Harmonicae” for the lines between verses, and switches them with the chord changes, which is fairly amusing to see.

Johnny also sings a couple of duets with June Carter, “Darlin’ Companion” and “Jackson“, and he sings with the whole Carter family on a song called “Break My Mind” which was one of the songs that was cut from every version except the Legacy Edition. It’s too bad because that’s a really good song. I think the sound might have been a little off so perhaps that’s the reason.

The middle of the album, which contains the “prison songs”, is probably the best part of the album. It starts with a prisoner-penned song called “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” which is a very spiritual number, followed up by Johnny’s own “Starkville County Jail”, which is an account of an actual night Johnny spent in prison for picking flowers in Starkville City, Mississippi. He talks about it before playing the actual song, and after that song he plays a tune he had written specifically for San Quentin. The excitement of the prisoners to be hearing this wonderfully spiteful song is crazy to listen to, I actually don’t think I’ve heard as much earnest and loud applause as when he finished that song. He did it so well he played it again immediately afterwards! The interesting thing there is that the crowd is practically silent for the second run, not because the novelty wore off that quickly, I think they just wanted to hear every single word and make damn sure it stuck in their heads so they’d be singing it for the next few years.

There’s really no way you can top a song like that in a place like that, so Johnny presses on with a tune he wrote with Bob Dylan called “Wanted Man” (which would years later be re-done on a Mercury Records album called, well, Wanted Man), and then takes a break while Carl Perkins plays a really hot instrumental called “On The Outside Looking In” which was cut out of the non-expensive versions).

The next song is the debut of one of the few “joke” songs Johnny ever did, but it’s such an absorbing story that you hardly think of it as such. “A Boy Named Sue” is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs because it’s put together so well, lyrically speaking. The crowd really loves the song, too, even though they seemed to not take Johnny seriously when he announced earlier in the show that he’d be doing a song called “A Boy Named Sue”.

After that song and another cut song called “Blistered”, the show slows down with several gospel numbers such as “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley”, “Less Of Me” performed by the Statler Brothers, “He Turned The Water Into Wine”, “Daddy Sang Bass” (which Carl Perkins also wrote), and “The Old Account Was Settled”, pausing briefly to play a really good rendition of “Ring Of Fire”.

The album closes out with a Medley where each of the performers sing a line or two from the “hit” songs, and Johnny himself closes with some lines from “The Rebel Johnny Yuma”. I actually really dig the ending to this album, I guess after listening to the thing for nearly 2 hours it’s kind of nostalgic in a way.

It took Johnny Cash years to convince the record company that recording an album live inside of a prison would be a great idea, and I am glad his message got through. I really do love At Folsom Prison and I’m sure will be talking about that one later on, but At San Quentin is the live album I tend to listen to whenever I feel like hearing the quintessential “live” Cash. Though I really love the “Legacy Edition” box set of the performance (it includes the DVD of the English documentary they mention from which the Youtube videos were extracted), I’d say if you pay a fraction of the cost to get “The Complete Concert” edition, you won’t be missing out on too much. As for me, I am an absolute sucker for special-edition anything, and I love all the extra banter included with the cut songs, so I am very happy with this version of the album.

I’m not happy, however, with how late it took me to write this entry. I had to work from 7am until 8pm so that’s why it’s late. Oh well, until tomorrow!

 

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Billy Joe Shaver – Everybody’s Brother

When it comes to country music, I used to think that I was a “very picky” fan. I think it’s more accurate to say that I am a very picky fan, but of music in general. When it comes to things like rock music, there’s a lot of it I like because I know it well enough to know what to avoid, but with country (and, to a similar extent, rap and hip-hop), there is definitely a sound I like, but I don’t know enough about the genre as a whole to be able to find what I like in the glut of horrible songs about how much we love fightin’ terrorists and songs about women getting revenge on their cheating boyfriends by vandalizing their property.

For a long time I just had a list of country singers I do like, and it went like this:

1. Johnny Cash

But I just recently picked up, of course without listening to any of it first, Billy Joe Shaver’s new album, entitled Everybody’s Brother:

Goll-dern'd it, where'd I put my keys?Now the list goes as follows:

1. Johnny Cash
2. Billy Joe Shaver

Of course, this wasn’t as much a blind run as my previous purchases, as Billy Joe’s reputation certainly precedes him. For one, Johnny Cash has said before that Billy Joe Shaver is his favorite songwriter, and that’s quite an endorsement. One-time Texas Governer Contestant and part-time novelty act Kinky Freidman had him as a spiritual advisor on his campaign, as well. He seems to have found his niche among the “outlaw” country musicians, which is a much more fun place to be than the law-abiding country musicians, I can tell you.

Unfortunately, I had never heard of Billy Joe Shaver until I started collecting Johnny Cash albums. One of my more recent acquisitions was the collection of Cash’s American Records outtakes entitled Unearthed (Perhaps tastelessly named since it came out 2 months after the man’s death), in that compilation, on the first disc, was a song that completely blew my mind. It was a song called “If I Give My Soul” which was an alcoholic musician’s plea to the Lord that, if he gives his soul, will he get his wife back, new clothes, etc. The song broke my heart as it touches on some very personal details of someone very dear to me, and is otherwise a really great song. That’s when I found out who Billy Joe Shaver was, as he had written that song and Cash covered it, despite the beardy protests from Cash’s then-producer Rick Rubin, who considered the song too “theatrical”, whatever that means.

Turns out, Billy Joe Shaver has written a lot of songs for a lot of people, and the ones that he wrote for himself on Everybody’s Brother are top-notch. It should also be said that, excepting Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book, this is probably the most religious country music recording I have heard; 10 out of the album’s 15 songs (I quite enjoy long albums) have to do with God directly. I am pretty sure there’s not even a song on the album that doesn’t reference some kind of religious activity. I do have to say, as someone who doesn’t normally enjoy religious music unless done exactly right, I didn’t have to compromise for this one, as it had no problem doing everything exactly right. From the hopeful spiritual ballad of the album’s title track (which opens up with traditional American Indian tribal music):

We must stop the bleeding and bring peace upon this earth
The first will be the first, and the last will be the first
Even greater miracles than Jesus Christ performed
Can be performed by all of us, no-one will come to harm

To the defiant, as in songs like “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” and “No Earthly Good”, to the genuinely moving songs like “Jesus Is The Only One That Loves Us”, and even to the downright evangelical:

If you don’t love Jesus, go to Hell

I love that. The up-tempo beat and attitude of “If You Don’t Love Jesus” really brings that play on words home. There is quite a lot of attitude on this album, considering the writer is now 69 years old. From “When I Get My Wings”:

Gonna die with my boots on, gonna go out in style
With a free-wheelin’ feelin’, and a honky-tonk smile
And if the Devil don’t dodge me, gonna spit in his eye
When I get my wings, I’m gonna fly

At which point an angelic-sounding chorus of backup singers helps his tired vocals through the chorus.

Besides the superior songwriting, the thing that really kept me going with this album is the production, courtesy of John Carter Cash. The whole album has a warm and old-fashioned feel to it, like the entire thing was made of wood and was built in a farm. There’s no twang to speak of, and though country staples like a fiddle are present, they are played by real professionals and never get in the way of what’s really going on. It’s a very warm and cheery sound, against which all kinds of ideas can take shape, and often do.

One third and final indication that I could do no wrong picking up this album is the closing track, “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ”, which is a duet with the Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash. I listened to the album all in order, and wound up having to listen to it a second time before writing this, because it turned out I missed most of it because I was anticipating the song with Johnny Cash so hard. When it finally came on, it brought a loving tear to my eye…. ok not really, but it is an amazing track, as Johnny’s singing is at its peak of power in this track, and the two singers work really well together, not to mention it’s a fantastic song.

There are other celebrated country singers on the album too: Tanya Tucker, Kris Kristofferson, John Anderson, Bill Miller, and Marty Stuart all share duets with Billy Joe, but I haven’t heard much of what they’ve done outside of that, but now that my list of country singers I like has doubled, I guess it’s about time I got to checking out some of their catalogues, too!

 

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