One of the most high-quality oldies labels in the States, Collector's Choice Music is where several major labels have farmed out some of their best classic material for reissue. Striking for its selection of first-class hard country reissues, as well as a stunning array of pop vocals and big band releases, Collector's Choice does have the advantage of a strong on-line presence, along with a reliable mail order department. Here are some recommendations for cool stuff from the CCM catalog.

Classic country music often gets short shrift from the major labels that own it... for the last few years Collector's Choice has become one of the main places to find some of the best hick music out out there. Word to the wise: if any of these albums sound cool to you, try and find 'em quick! They are usually in short supply and high demand!

Country and Folk

Amazing Rhythm Aces "Stacked Deck" (ABC, 1975)
Amazing Rhythm Aces "Too Stuffed To Jump" (ABC, 1976)
One of the best country soul/southern rock crossover bands, the Aces featured the vocal talents of Russell Smith (as distinctive a voice as you could ever hope for) and pianist James Hooker (who later became Nanci Griffith's bandleader and arranger). Although they have more than their fair share of super-goofy '70s moments, they also had plenty of solid, fabulously well-produced tunes. Their big Top 40 hit was "Third Rate Romance," with a singalong chorus that's still as catchy today as it was in '75. But there are plenty of other goodies in their catalog, particularly "Typical American Boy," one of the great dopey redneck ballads of all time. (Note: both albums were re-released on a single CD)

Amazing Rhythm Aces "Toucan Do It Too" (ABC, 1977)
Amazing Rhythm Aces "Burning The Ballroom Down" (ABC, 1978)
Although uneven and at times indulgent, these albums still show the Aces' continuing strength as a rootsy white soul band. Naturally they beg comparison to Little Feat, and in many ways they contrast quite favorably, in that Lowell George and Co. had always set out with grander, sleeker crossover goals in mind, while the Aces mostly, almost desperately, wanted to keep things real. Russell Smith is often a remarkable balladeer (although it has to be admitted that much of this material is cloying...) But the rock star sheen of the Feat is largely absent here, and blues and country roots are cultivated to a surprising degree. Even with the preponderance of sappy material and rampant Stax/Motown envy, there are several memorable tunes on here, such as the western swing tinged "I'm Setting You Free" and surprisingly quiet "Burning The Ballroom Down". It's cheesy, sure, but still worth checking out. (Note: both albums were re-released on a single CD)

Elton Britt "The RCA Years" (Collector's Choice, 1997)
One of those improbably sissy-voiced singers who became country stars back in the early days, Britt started off doing novelty songs and yodeling tunes, but shifted to the sentimental side when he had a big wartime hit in 1942 with the patriotic weeper, "There's A Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere". After that, he kept his hillbilly sensibility, but his work was much smoother and sedate, keeping an eye on the Bing Crosby-dominated pop market. In a sense, Britt could be seen as an early prototype for Porter Wagoner, rural and cornball, but also showbiz slick. This is a great collection of his early work, and a nice compliment to the recent set of radio transcriptions released on the Bloodshot Records "Soundies" series.

Jonathan Edwards "Honky-Tonk Stardust Cowboy" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
In the early '70s singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards made a big splash with the bouncy, roots-tinged Top Ten hit, "Sunshine." Promptly thereafter, he delved deeper into the roots part of the equation, and became one of the most notable hippiebilly pioneers of the time. This is a nice reissue of his second album, in which he purposefully shied away from capitalizing on his commercial success, in favor of a laid-back mix of country-bluegrass-rock. The title track is a classic of sorts -- Lefty Frizzell even recorded a version -- and there are several other nice tunes on the album. Largely this falls into the intermediate, not-quite-country terrain of folkish artists such as Jesse Colin Young and Jesse Winchester; on his follow-up album, Have Yourself A Good Time, Edwards sharpened his sound and became more honkytonk. This is a nice example of early '70s experimentalism, definitely worth checking out!

Norma Jean "The Best Of Norma Jean" (BMG/Collectors Choice, 1999)
As far as I know, this is the only Norma Jean CD release out there... but it sure is a doozy! Lots of up-tempo novelty numbers such as "You're Driving Me Out Of My Mind", "I Cried All The Way To The Bank" and "I Wouldn't Buy A Used Car From Him". None of these are great art, but they are fun to listen to. There are also jealousy songs ("The Shirt") and Loretta Lynn-style sass ("Don't Let That Doorknob Hit You" and "Go Cat Go") as well as some sexual come-on material ("Let's Go All The Way"). What's surprising is how little emotional doormat material she recorded; although along those lines, this 21-track CD does sort of slight her abilities as a straight ballad singer, concentrating instead on Buck-and-Loretta influenced bouncy stuff. Still, that may be what makes this disc so accessible and fun. HIGHLY recommended!

Patsy Montana "The Best Of..." (Collector's Choice, 2001)
Was there ever another country performer as adorable as Patsy Montana? I doubt it. Montana was the greatest of the "cowgirl" singers, and now at last we get a chance to really check out Montana at her peak form -- perkily yodeling away on these delightfully antiquated, sentimental "western" tunes. This is a long-overdue American edition collecting her best work from the 1930s and '40s -- two dozen old tracks from Vocalion and several smaller labels that have been out of print for decades, available only on teeny specialty labels, and in dribs and drabs on various compilation albums. The songs are corny, but Montana's delivery is not, especially later on as her band put more and more swing into their sound -- and you can hear that progression as it actually happened, since these songs are presented in straight chronological order. A particular highlight is a tune Montana penned herself, "Cowboy Rhythm," which demonstrates how strange musical fads such as opera and jazz can't hold a candle to a coyote's howl and a lonesome guitar as the moon starts to rise... Fans of swing-string revivalists such as The Hot Club of Cowtown are strongly urged not to let this one slip by -- records this fun don't come along that often.

Fred Neil "The Many Sides Of Fred Neil" (Sony Collector's Choice, 1998)
One of the bluesiest of the '60s folkies, Fred Neil is also an object of enduring mystery, since he stopped touring and dropped out of the public eye in the early '70s, and is a notorious recluse. He's best known for writing the fab "Everybody's Talking At Me", theme song for the gritty Midnight Cowboy, even if it was Harry Nilsson who had the hit version. Neil fits in with the legacy of brooding space-folkies such as Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin, since he shares the same sort of wiped-out, dissipated detachment. Listening to this extensive retrospective -- which includes reissues of three full albums (Fred Neil, Sessions and The Other Side Of This Life) as well as an oddball single and some unreleased live material -- it's easy to hear Neil's musical limitations. He was basically an acoustic blues balladeer, recycling couplets and riffs heard earlier on his Elektra recordings (such as "Blues On The Ceiling" which sadly isn't included here... different label and all...) but yet he had a tremendous presence about him, which comes through loud an clear on these recordings. Highly recommended for anyobody who wants to dig deeper past the Baez-Dylan-Ochs folk axis, and get a sense of the variety of personalities to be heard back in the 'Sixties scene.

Floyd Tillman "The Best Of..." (Sony Collector's Choice, 1998)
Every once and a while an extraordinary reissue like this comes along, fulfilling our every fantasy that, indeed, the CD revolution would make all the best old stuff available again. Floyd Tillman was a honkytonk legend's honkytonk legend, an extraordinary singer, as well as the guy that Willie Nelson looked up to when he was starting out as a songwriter. Tillman's style was profoundly understated and profoundly influential. Half Ernest Tubb, half Bing Crosby, Tillman made the most of an unremarkable voice, blending his froggy tones with curlicued jazz phrasings that were seldom heard in the boozy honkytonk of the late 1940s. He was also the kind of singer who pours heartfelt delivery into the most maudlin lyrics, with devastating results. His waltz-time weeper, "I Love You So Much It Hurts" is one of the most sincerely melancholy ballads ever written; though released in 1948, it still holds a real wallop for the unsuspecting modern-day listener. Tillman also helped stretch the lyrical boundaries of country music: "Slippin' Around" was one of the first honkytonk songs to deal openly and sympathetically with the subject of cheating and adultery. In the 1950s, as slick-sounding Nashville took over country music, Tillman was left by the wayside, and by and large his music has languished out of print for decades. This new CD, with 24 tracks, greatly expands on the scarce Best Of and Columbia Historic Edition LPs which came out in the '70s and '80s. It's a treasure trove of the best that country music has to offer -- highly recommended!

Ernest Tubb "The Definitive Hits Collection" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
This is perhaps the single longest-overdue country reissue in America... Ernest Tubb's recorded legacy is probably one of the most criminally neglected in all of popular music history. Tubb (or "E.T.," as he was affectionately known) was a major pioneer of Texas honkytonk, though he mostly stuck to the clean-cut family values side of the bar; singing love songs, love lost songs and novelty tunes. He was also one of the biggest sellers Decca Records had in the 1940s and '50s. Although monumental, multi-box retrospectives have been mounted by Bear Family, back here in the States Tubb has been mostly left on the backburner for the last three or four decades. To a certain extent you can see why -- striking though his music is, the songs all do sound a lot alike, and at first glance the appeal may seem a bit limited. But Tubb was a phenomenally soulful performer, and with the exploding interest in country and roots music of all kinds during the last few years, it's always been a mystery why MCA Music has been so damn stingy about cashing in on the country music goldmine of Tubb's back catalog. (MCA is the corporate heir to the Decca label, whose fortunes Tubb helped build in the 1940s...) The label has limited their domestic reissues to meagre single-CD releases -- now at last we get the strong, 2-CD collection that should satisfy the curious and the collector alike. Classic, prime recordings from the early '40s rub shoulders with material from the '50s and '60s... Although his excellent duets with Loretta Lynn are conspicuously absent, other collaborations with folks such as Red Foley and the Wilburn Brothers are included, along with a generous and intelligently-chosen selection of his extensive catalog. No country fan should be without this set -- at last, justice is done!

Faron Young "The Complete Capitol Hits" (Collector's Choice, 2000)
Of the brash postwar honkytonkers who followed in Hank Williams' footsteps, Faron Young was one of the genre's most striking and distinctive singers. Although he started in 1952 as an unabashed Hank imitator, Young swiftly found his own voice, developing a sound that was much more penetrating and forceful than either Williams or Lefty Frizzell, the unchallenged kings of the style. He favored up-tempo numbers, delivering them in a folksy, conversational tone that undercut the normal moroseness of the genre; Faron was like the good-natured, back-slapping local who struck up a conversation at the bar, rather than the scary drunk in the corner. His upbeat feel suited itself well to the rock and roll era that overtook the country scene in the late '50s, and as this excellent new collection shows, Young resisted the temptation to go pop much longer than many of his contemporaries. This two CD set is a treat that hard country fans should remember for years to come, reissuing dozens of tracks from 1952-62 that have been out of print for decades, and capturing a neglected country legend at the height of his powers.

Various Artists "Park Avenue Hillbillies and West End Cowboys" (Collector's Choice, 2001)
Sheer, unabashed corn. Technically speaking, this is not really a "country" album... mostly it's a bunch of city slickers -- Broadway and television stars, big band singers and pop vocalists -- hamming it up on endless hick-based schtick. Their dim-witted, indolent, heavy-drinking, cross-eyed, barefooted protagonists combine some of the most beloved hillbilly stereotypes of the 1930s and '40s. It's dopey but delightful material, full of the goofiest puns and most exaggerated twangs you've ever heard. The thing is, country singers have never been overly shy about hamming it up, either, so there's kind of an affectionate cross-pollination at work here. Some of these performers, such as the Doris Day-ish pop singer Dorothy Shay, created whole careers and personas around phony-billy routines. Indeed, there are ten whole tracks by Shay on this disc... and all of them are pretty funny. Speaking of Doris Day, she's on here, too, along with Dinah Shore, Tony Pastor, Tiny Hill, The Hoosier Hot Shots and others. The only real sour note comes on an Arthur Godfrey cut, "Slap Her Down Agin, Paw" which plays on the "joke" of rural domestic violence. It's scary on a number of levels, but not very funny... still, even though it's an incredibly unpleasant song, it's also the kind of cultural footnote that still may astonish for decades to come. Mostly, though, this is a riotously fun collection, and lots of these songs are classics. Recommended!

Big Band, Pop and Pop Vocals On Collector's Choice


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