Bill Phillips (1936-2010) is one of those great, now-forgotten also-rans of the 'Sixties Nashville scene... He's also one of my favorite cult artists, in part because of his innate musical appeal, and also because of his improbable charm. Blessed with a paper-thin yet oddly compelling voice, Phillips sounded a bit like Bill Anderson, though grittier and more sincerely sad sack. He's not a "great" singer, in the sense that he hardly projects at all, and doesn't have tremendous technical range, yet there's an plaintive, affecting attraction to his way of singing a song, an almost nebbishlike, everyman quality that makes him rather likeable. Also, his choice of material is quite impressive. He was a pretty successful songwriter himself, working with Mel Tillis in the late '50s and early '60s, and he placed numerous songs throughout his career with the likes of Kitty Wells and Webb Pierce. But he also had a great ear for material, and for new talent...
Bill Phillips "Bill Phillips' Best" (Columbia Harmony, 1964) (LP)
A collection of his early recordings, including a handful of singles recorded in the late 1950s, when he was getting started in show business... Nothing here clicked on the charts, and this album doesnt include the two songs that did make the Top 30, "Sawmill" and "Georgia Town Blues," which he recorded with another up-and-coming songwriter Mel Tillis. Still, if you want to check out Phillips' more rural country roots, this disc is worth tracking down.
Bill Phillips "Put It Off Until Tomorrow" (Decca, 1966) (LP)
Cool stuff. This album is perhaps most notable for its title track, the first big, Top Ten hit struggling songwriter Dolly Parton had (along with her uncle, Bill Owens)... Not only that, but Dolly sings a rather prominent harmony duet on the record itself -- a full year before her short-lived stint on Monument, and her later engagement on The Porter Wagoner Show. I'm not entirely sure, but other than her preteen pop singles, I think this might actually be her first recorded work, at least her first big success in Nashville... and it sounds mighty fine! The rest of the album is great as well; Phillips might seem like a rather subdued or thin-sounding artist, but he had a real "country" sound and these tunes are nice, straightforward country heartsongs. I also like how he recorded tunes by lesser-known writers, particularly female artists like Jeannie Pruett and Dolly... In fact, there's a certain vulnerablity, almost a sissiness, that he brings to this material that's really kinda sweet. This disc has been out of print for decades, but it's well worth looking for.
Bill Phillips "Style" (Decca, 1967) (LP)
In some ways, a rather audacious set mostly made up of cover versions of songs that were huge hits for other people -- Bill Anderson's "City Lights" and "I Love You Drops," Johnny Paycheck's "Apartment #9," the George Jones hit, "Take Me" -- as well as a couple of well-placed Phillips originals ("The Lies Just Can't Be True" and "I Didn't Forget") and two more fab songs from the Dolly Parton/Bill Owens team. What's great about Phillips tackling so many well-known songs is that it really gives you a chance to size him up as a stylist... and he rates pretty well in my book! The similarity to Anderson becomes more apparent, while his ability to tackle "Take Me" and really make it his own is pretty damn impressive, considering how sublime the George Jones original was. This album's hidden treasures is Parton's "Friends Tell Friends," one of the forgotten gems in her back catalog; other interesting choices are songs by Liz Anderson and Gordon Lightfoot... All in all, this is a really swell album, well worth tracking down.
Bill Phillips "Little Boy Sad" (Decca, 1968) (LP)
They started to get a little fancy on this one, nudging Phillips away from his bare-bones country roots towards a slightly more countrypolitan style. The changes mostly the shape of a few mildly glitzy production touches and Bill stretching out to croon a little, ala Hank Locklin, et. al., and for the most part these stabs at popping him up don't make much difference -- this may be the weakest of his four Decca LPs, but it's still pretty darn good, and has several very fine songs.
Bill Phillips "Country Action" (Decca, 1970) (LP)
Probably his best album, in terms of his singing and the strength of the arrangements... Phillips had settled into a rich, easy drawl, cloaked by playful pedal steel and a relaxed rhythmic backup... Plus, the songs are all great, too. Includes prize-winning weepers Like "I'd Be Better Off Without You," "Everything Turns Out For The Best," and his fine version of "Another Time, Another Place" (which Jerry Lee Lewis also recorded, also to great effect). There are also a few bouncy, more novelty oriented tunes, such as "Wanted," and the sunshine country-ish "Rainbows Are Back In Style," but even these are of pretty high quality. This is a really fine album, even if his career was in eclipse at the time... Worth tracking down!
Bill Phillips "When Can We Do This Again?" (Soundwaves, 1979) (LP)
(Produced by Sonny Throckmorton, Jerry Shook & Bobby Fischer)
I guess the 'Seventies were pretty rough for Phillips, at least in terms of his musicmaking career -- this low-key, indie album was his first album in nine years, and though its modern production style presaged the sound heard on his '82 comeback, it was pretty much a vanity pressing with no real hopes for chart success. The material is good, a bunch of semi-sleazy cheating and swinging songs with a distinctly '70s vibe (and a couple of songs about divorce, to balance things out...) with several songs written by producer Sonny Throckmorton and other guys working on the album. The overall feel of the record is a bit lax, like these were some Nashville old-timer buddies hanging out and having a few drinks when one day they said, dammit, we really ought to get you back in the studio, Bill! Good thing, too: this album isn't a classic, but for Phillips fans, it's bound to be pretty satisfying. Highlights include the cheating song, "Who Do You Know In Ringold, Georgia?" and "I'm Giving Her The State Of West Virginia," about a breakup so bad, he had to leave the state to keep his heart from aching. Worth tracking down, for sure.
Bill Phillips "The Bill Phillips Project" (Soundwave, 1980) (LP)
Bill Phillips "Bill Phillips" (Tanglewood, 1981)
Bill Phillips "Honky Tonkin' " (CBS/Sea Shell, 1982) (LP)
In the midst of the "urban cowboy" craze, Phillips reemerged for a fair-to-middlin' comeback album. It leans heavily on cover tunes, many of which fall flat, though several songs stand out and make this one worth tracking down. I actually prefer his forlorn rendition of "Coca Cola Cowboy" to the Mel Tillis original, and his "I Believe In You," though not as ethereal as the Don Williams version, is still pretty moving. The disc's other big gem is his lively "Fadin' In, Fadin Out," a memorable minor classic with a great novelty premise ("Your love is like a far-off radio station/Playing my favorite song... Fadin' in, fadin' out... then you're gone.") What more can I say? This isn't a stone-cold classic country album, but it's worth checking out.
Bill Phillips "Hear The Mountains Cry" (Mountain Folk, 2007)
Hick Music Index