In the mid-1990s, almost unnoticed by the world at large, Capitol Nashville put out one of the highest-quality series of country reissues ever released in the States. Album reissues and retrospectives from top-flight country stars such as Hank Thompson, Merle Travis, the Louvin Brothers and (of course) Merle Haggard came out one after another. The fabulous Vintage Collection is easily recognized by its sepia-toned black-and-white CD covers... and by its potent high quality musical selection.
The project was spearheaded by series producer John Johnson, and Bear Family head Rich Kienzle, who lovingly combed through the Capitol vaults and put these artist retrospectives together. Johnson's phenomenal ability to unearth lesser-known tracks by big-time country stars helps present a fuller, warmer picture of these artists than many of the repetitious same-old-hits best-ofs that have been floating around for years. The series also highlighted some once-famous figures such as Jimmy Wakely and Melba Montgomery, whose acclaim has died down to almost nil over the years. There was talk of an 8-CD box set of classic Capitol Nashville material, which would have been astounding. Sadly, higher-ups nixed that project, and Johnson has since moved on from the Capitol's A&R department. We can only hope the label will wise up and get back to more of this high-quality archival work. (Could a long-overdue Wynn Stewart CD could be in the offing? Please tell me yes!!)
Tennessee Ernie Ford "Vintage Collections" (1995)
Once the Nashville Sound came into vogue, Ford lapsed into an almost endless string of bland pop vocals and gospel albums. But he started off as a hillbilly singer, and this collection includes a bunch of his bouncy, rowdy early recordings. Yeah, there's always a hint of the pop vocal thrift store quarter-bin shibboleth to come, but that's only if you listen for it. But if you want to give the guy a break and check out his good stuff, this is a enjoyable album.
Merle Haggard "Vintage Collections" (1995)
Certainly no disappointment as far as a Merle best-of goes, but it's one of the least adventurous or enlightening discs in the Vintage series. It's basically interchangable with any other collection of Haggard's hits on Capitol.
Ferlin Husky "Vintage Collections" (1996)
I haven't actually listened to this one, but I'm sure its pretty corny and pop-oriented, like most of Husky's records were once he had his first real hits. He does have his good moments, though, some of which are included here.
Wanda Jackson "Vintage Collections" (1996)
If I had to recommend only one Wanda Jackson CD to anybody, this would be it. Jackson was, of course, the original ripsnortin' rockabilly filly, but what makes this disc such a treasure are the ultra-tasty country tracks which are packed in next to the usual pick of awesome rockabilly blowouts. Anyone who has tried to follow Wanda Jackson's career past her late-'50s heyday into her Nashville years has probably run into the same disappointment as I have: one mooshy, almost-but-not-quite album after another, with the occasional good weeper or two. However, this CD assembles several outstanding tracks, such as her bluesy version of "This Should Go On Forever", or Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," which make a powerful case for Jackson as a first-rate country vocalist whose talents were criminally squandered by 1960s Nashville. Be nice to see if somene could compile an equally compelling retrospective from the rest of her '60s and early '70s Capitol catalog.
(LINK: The Bakersfield Sound site is very cool and includes a profile of Jackson, as well as several more obscure artists.)
George Jones/Melba Montgomery "Vintage Collections" (1995)
Although I'm a huge, gigantic fan of both George and Melba, I have to confess that their duet recordings do little for me. Still, since this is the only work of Montgomery's that I know of that's in print, and since she is an artist who is seriously in need of being rediscovered, I'll recommend it on that basis alone. Montgomery was signed to the United and Musicor labels in 1962, when Jones was their biggest artist, and was always seen as sort of a "female George Jones". Sadly, the two are so similar in style and tone that they tend to cancel each other out, at least in my opinion. Also, they did a lot of schticks, like a "bluegrass" album, which were part of the mid-60s Nashville attempt at co-opting the folk boom of the time. At any rate, if you're interested in discovering cool country women, check this out, or look for her old Melba Montgomery LPs. (Also, check out my Melba Montgomery website.)
Tex Ritter "Vintage Collections" (1996)
A little too pop and cornball for my tastes, though it does have "Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle," which is pretty damn catchy.
Hank Thompson "Vintage Collections" (1996)
Twenty tracks of solid, stomping fun, showcasing Thompson's bouncy, jovial 1940s-'50s mix of honkytonk and western swing. This basically supercedes the standard-issue two volume "Best Of" LPs which came out in the 1960s, although it omits a few of the tiresome novelty chestnuts (such as "Squaws on the Yukon") and concentrates on Thompson as a heartsong and honkytonk singer. Several great tracks which have faded from sight over the decades are thrown in on the sly, making this a nicely-rounded collection. Plus, its got my theme song, "Sixpack to Go," so what else it there to say? If you don't know Thompson already, buddy, then this is your lucky day. (Also, check out my Hank Thompson website.)
Jimmy Wakely "Vintage Collections" (1996)
Wakely was a "western" singer; that is, a singer of sentimental "cowboy songs", along the lines of Gene Autry or the Sons of the Pioneers. After his heyday in the 1940s, he recorded for a bunch of labels, including his own Shasta Records, though this disc makes a pretty good case for his Capitol years. A lot of croony pop stuff, high-class schmaltz, with the shadow of Bing Crosby in the background, but also some surprisingly solid borderline honkytonk. Of all the Vintage discs, this is the one that's most unique, and the one which is least likely to be reissued in any future version. So what are you waiting for? Go get it!
Tex Williams and His Western Caravan "Vintage Collections" (1996)
In the 1940s, Williams was one of the stars of Spade Cooley's band, and was one of western swing's great singers. His solo career had a lot to offer, too, especially the novelty classic, "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" and the good-naturedly mysogynistic anthem "Never Trust A Woman". This disc's a little uneven, especially towards the end, but it's still a spiffy collection.
Around the same time as the Vintage series, Capitol also reissued a slew of old albums (often with extra tracks). The tastiest of these are the Hank Thompson and Merle Travis CDs, along with the numerous Louvin Brothers albums, which you can read about on my Louvin Brothers site. I think most of these were only in print for a little while, but most are still in circulation and all are well worth looking for.
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