RCA Records was the birthplace of "The Nashville Sound." Perhaps more than anyone else, RCA's A&R head Chet Atkins is responsible for making string sections, cornball pop backup singers and generalized schmaltz part of the mainstream of country music. It was a freaky Frankenstein style which started in the 1950s and '60s as a reaction to plummeting sales figures in the face of rock'n'roll. Also maybe because the studio heads were bored and wanted to play around with all the new recording techniques the hi-fi age brought in. Unfortunately, it worked so well that it almost completely killed off hardcore country. A handful of artists such as Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb were able to stay the course, but mostly cheese was the dish of the day.
Remember, though, the transition started at RCA. That's why it's kind of heartening that their "Essential" series (1995-1997) does such a good job bridging both worlds, hard country along with the tacky crap which superceded it. Some discs go more one way than another, but the balance is refreshingly honest. I haven't heard them all, but here are some of my favorites in this series. (NOTE: This series has been updated with the Buddah label's RCA Country Legends collection (2001). )
Eddy Arnold "The Essential" (RCA-Nashville, 1996)
No two ways around it, Eddy Arnold was one of the cheesiest of the cheesy, but he had some great early hits. Not only does this have his big smashes, "Cattle Call," "Bouquet of Roses" and "Make The World Go Away," but the producers of this disc had the remarkable good taste to include several of his early songs from the 1940s, when he was a real country artist. If only RCA would put out a whole disc of these songs! Inevitably, the rest of this CD charts his rapid plunge into cheesy countrypolitan -- but it's well worth checking out for the good stuff. (By the way, if you like what you hear, there are some great collector-nerd imports which have early Eddy Arnold material on them, particularly on the German Binge Disc label...)
Chet Atkins "The Essential"
Pretty cheesy. Yeah, he's a guitar god and easy listening pioneer and all, but still... this is pretty damn cheesy. Doesn't do much for me.
Bobby Bare "The Essential" (1997)
This is one of the discs I wish could have been better. It's okay, but leans pretty heavily on Bare's early career as a folk-Nashville crossover, and doesn't make it into his more obnoxious but more enjoyable 'Seventies spree as a crude honkytonk humorist on the Columbia label. Sure, it's got "Dropkick Me, Jesus," but no "Tequila Sheila"... or any of his classic Shel Silverstein covers... or any of the stuff he did later on Columbia... alas!
Guy Clark "The Essential" (1997)
This... is such a great record. Distills the nuggets from Texas songwriter Guy Clark's first two albums, cutting out some of the so-so tracks, and leaving plenty of room for gems such as "Texas, 1947," "Let Him Roll," and "Anyhow I Love You." Maybe someday Rhino Records or somebody will get the liscencing deal together to combine Clark's work on Warner, Sugar Hill and Elektra into one big (and well-deserved) retrospective... but in the meantime, kudos to BMG for having the smarts to put this disc out.
Patsy Cline "The Essential" (1996)
Pretty hard to go wrong here. Country pop in the best sense of the words, along with some tentative but awesome stabs at rock-flavored material, such as "Love Me Honey Do." Doesn't have everything, of course, but that's what boxsets are for. If I can pop this in and hear her snarl out "Hungry For Love," or bop along to "Gotta Lotta Rhythm In My Soul," then I'm happy.
Floyd Cramer "The Essential" (1995)
Cramer was the house pianist at RCA's Nashville studios, with his patent-pending "dripping note" style... These instrumental tracks are for hardcore easy-listening fans only.
Skeeter Davis "The Essential" (1996)
A disappointment. There's a smidge of the Davis Sisters, and one or two tracks by Skeeter proper that you can appreciate if you strain yourself a bit, but that's about it. Musically, her career suffered at the hands of the Nashville studio system, though they could have done lots better with this disc, especially considering all that great girl-groupish stuff she did in the Sixties. Her day will come.
Waylon Jennings "The Essential" (1996)
Oh, baby! I used to love all those boozy, weatherbitten raggedyass self-mythologizing songs he made during the glory days of the Waylon and Willie "outlaw" era in the 1970s... and this CD brings it all back home beautifully. This is one of the most rockin' of the Essential collections, completely omitting his years as a '60s folkie, and just piling on hit after country hit. Highly recommended.
Bill Monroe and the Monroe Brothers "The Essential" (1997)
A goldmine for fans of old-timey and bluegrass music. Along with some 1940-41 tracks by the newly formed Blue Grass Boys, this disc includes several late '30s old-timey tracks by Bill and his brother Charlie, recording as the Monroe Brothers, in the days before Bill jacked up the tempo and called it bluegrass. The Monroe Brothers were very similar in style and repertoire to other "brother acts" such as the Blue Sky Boys, concentrating on sentimental weepers and moralistic gospel tunes. Sadly, this disc is light on the pre-bluegrass material (which is really what makes it unique), and for the most part leaves out their gospel side. Diehard fans may wish to search high and low for the 2-LP Monroe Brothers set which came out in the '70s on the Bluebird imprint. If you like what you hear on this disc, that twofer is well worth looking for.
Dolly Parton "The Essential, Volume One" (1996)
Dolly Parton "The Essential, Volume Two" (1997)
Ah, Dolly. The first volume is really godawful, heavy on the 1980s, which were not her best years. There's only one great song one here ("I Will Always Love You"), and it doesn't outweight the drek. But volume two is tasty, with all kinds of stuff from the '60s and '70s which is much more representative of Dolly as we'd like to remember her. The updated, single-volume RCA Country Legends collection is a big, big improvement.
Jerry Reed "The Essential" (1995)
Reed was an RCA protege of Chet Atkins, or at least one of the more notable hotshot pickers to fill his shoes as the studio's house guitarist. His exaggeratedly plunky, cheerfully aggressive style complimented plenty of RCA's early '70s albums, and his solo records often had a lot more grit than the countrypolitan of the time. His hits tended towards half-recited novelty songs, and there are plenty of them on this disc. It's not earthshaking art, but it's kinda fun.
Jim Reeves "The Essential" (1995)
Whew! Gettin' mighty cheesy in here! Reeves was one of RCA's biggest artists, but he was at heart a slushy pop singer, and that truth is adequately proven on this disc. Still, this has his great hit weeper, "He'll Have To Go," which all by itself makes it worth picking up this collection.
Connie Smith "The Essential" (1996)
Ouch! Now, I'm a big fan of Connie Smith, so any best-of of hers is welcome, but what a missed opportunity! It has several of her great early tracks on it, like the girl-groupish "Then And Only Then" or "Cry Cry Cry", but goes way too quickly into goopy countrypolitan territory, and stays there a bit too long. Smith was the discovery and protege of songwriter Bill Anderson, who couldn't emote his way out of a paper bag, and his cheesy influence is too heavily felt on this collection. A pity, because Connie's original "best-of" albums from the mid-'60s are such great combinations of a truly rural voice with potent, bright, Brill Building-ish pop. She'll have her day, though-- I'm certain someday a retrospective will come out which will do her more justice. Meanwhile, I'd certainly recommend this one to anyone looking for a "new" country "girl singer" to glom onto.
Hank Snow "The Essential" (1996)
Wahoo! A top-flight collection of hits by this Canadian country superstar. A lively picker and a charmingly croaky singer who wrote fabulously catchy and tearful classic country songs. The old stuff from the early 1950s -- "Movin' On," "Rhumba Boogie", etc. sound as great as ever. And actually, this is one of the few times I appreciate the inclusion of the cheesy countrypolitan stuff (a few tracks at the end of the disc)... not because I like them, but just because it really is an honest representation of Snow's career: he made tons of drek from the mid-1960s on. Don't get me wrong, though: this CD is packed full of great music. Check it out.
Gary Stewart "The Essential" (1997)
Wahoo! This is an awesome collection of one of honkytonk's great white hopes of the 1970s. Stewart came out of nowhere with a series of thunderously fun albums. While it's a pity none of his early stuff on MCA can be on here, it's okay, since it was on RCA that he really hit his stride. A skillful singer who masterfully combines complicated ironies with rednecky rowdiness, and the perfect voice to make you buy it every time. Plus he's a pretty good songwriter, too. His current label, Hightone Records, put out a similar best-of several years earlier, but I think its a safe bet to assume it's gone out of print. Both are highly recommended.
Porter Wagoner "The Essential" (1997)
Wahoo! Nashville has GOT to start putting out more reissues that are as good as this one! Wagoner was the last of the unreformable hicks, gloriously corny, yet country to the bone. This disc covers a lot of his best material, including the absurdly maudlin recitations such as "Skid Row Joe" and "What Would You Do If Jesus Came To Your House?" People eat those novelty tracks up with a spoon, but you should also check out his awesome weepers, such as "I'll Go Down Swinging" and "Satisfied Mind". One of the best CDs in this series -- highly recommended.
Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton "The Essential" (1997)
Dolly started off her career as the "girl singer" on the Porter Wagoner show, and he certainly helped her find her voice as a traditonally-oriented artist in a countrypolitan town. The duets they recorded when they were still musical partners are often pretty good, a lot better than you might think... and the song selection on this collection (culled from zillions of duet albums they put out together) is great. Well worth checking out, especially since it isn't likely to stay in print forever.
Dottie West "The Essential" (1997)
May seem sappy and wimpy to us now, but this disc is packed with songs that hit the Top Ten, back in the day... West was sort of an emotional-doormat type of gal singer, but she still hit the mark sometimes.
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