“The Definitive Collection” (MCA)
“The Essential” (Epic/Legacy)
“The Artistry Of” (Shout Factory)
“Greatest Hits” (Collectors Choice)
When reviewing career retrospective albums of great female country music vocalists, it is almost obligatory to start with Patsy Cline. She was the genre’s first superstar, although the bulk of her hits came in a rather compact year-and-a-half period from late 1961 until her death in a plane crash in March 1963.
Whenever an artist dies, there is a tendency to overpraise her talents. After listening to this 22-song single disc collection of Cline’s best material, it is clear that her legacy is richly deserved. She never tried to wring the last note out of a song as too many diva wannabes do these days. “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “She’s Got You” and “I Fall to Pieces” have stood the test of time because of Cline’s unhurried phrasing making them great wistful singalongs. The album’s liner notes state that her version of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” is the most played song in jukebox history. After having seen my share of “Star Search” and “American Idol” episodes, I’ll accept that claim at face value. The sad irony is that if Cline were getting started in showbiz today she wouldn’t have much of a chance on those TV shows because she was far from sexy and never interested in vocal histrionics.
In 1992, when her husband was first running for president and rumors of his alleged affairs with Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers were erupting, Hillary Clinton sat down for an interview for CBS’s “60 Minutes.” During the interview, Mrs. Clinton expressed support for her husband but also added that “she wasn’t a stand-by-your-man woman like Wynette.” Wynette and many country music fans were outraged and Mrs. Clinton quickly called Wynette to apologize. Ironically the two hit it off pretty well and Tammy Wynette actually performed at a Bill Clinton fund-raiser.
The funny part is that Hillary Clinton knew her country music, because Wynette was the victim in nearly all of her songs. In “Apartment Number 9” she sang about how her husband just walked out on her one day without telling a soul, while in “I Don’t Want To Play House” she told of how her young daughter did not want to play that old childhood game with a boy her age because she did not want to endure the same domestic violence her mom faced. On “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Wynette and her husband have to spell words out so that her young son won’t know the impending bad news which will tear his world apart.
Her signature song, “Stand By Your Man,” which Mrs. Clinton referred to, is a classic because of its twangy guitar-chord intro and frankly masochistic lyrics about “how he’ll have good times and you’ll have bad times but give him all the love you can.” The song was given a deserving sendup in the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” Wynette was reportedly so upset at what Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi did to the song in the film that she refused to allow it to be placed on the film’s soundtrack album.
One thing is certain. Wynette, who was married five times (one of her husbands was tempestuous singer George Jones), certainly lived out the lyrics she put on her records. It is one reason why she died all too young at 55 years of age.
Bobbie Gentry was the William Faulkner of 1960s country pop, as she wrote nearly all of the songs she recorded and practically every one of them dealt with growing up in the Mississippi Delta. Images of cotton fields, insects flying around the dinner table on hot summer nights and the thrill of leaving the farm to go to town are all described in Gentry’s music. Her biggest hit, 1967’s “Ode To Billie Joe,” with its slow sparse choppy acoustic guitar licks and Gentry’s deliberate husky storytelling, talks of the suicide of her friend Billy Joe McAllister who jumped off the Tallahachie Bridge. Gentry has never revealed why Billie Joe killed himself and what else was thrown off that bridge that fateful day. They remain an unsolved mystery in much the same way that Carly Simon has kept the secret identity of the protagonist of “You’re So Vain.”
While “Ode” is Gentry’s biggest hit, her catchiest and most controversial tune was another Top 40 hit, “Fancy.” The song was about an impoverished single mom who raises her daughter to believe that the only way to escape destitution is to use her looks and charms on wealthy gentlemen by taking part in the world’s oldest profession.
Lynn Anderson got her start by being the female country singer on “The Lawrence Welk Show” in 1967. With tall, blonde, model-like looks to accompany her fine voice, Anderson’s stay with Welk was mercifully brief and she quickly found herself in demand. She also had the benefit of having a mother, Liz Anderson, who was a widely respected country music songwriter. Lynn dutifully recorded a number of her mom’s tunes, but she did not hit it big until she covered Joe South’s “Rose Garden,” a tune about how love must ultimately stand the test of real world problems.
Anderson had a chance to become a pop star after the crossover success of “Rose Garden,” but preferred to stay in the world of pure country music. While she continued to have success on the country charts with songs as “How Can I Unlove You” and “You’re My Man” as well as remakes of the Johnny Ray classic “Cry” and the University of Tennessee fight song, “Rocky Top,” she never reached the heights which stars like Crystal Gayle or Barbara Mandrell did. Nonetheless, this greatest hits package is ample proof that Anderson should be remembered for more than just “Rose Garden.”