Thursday, July 1, 2010

Johnny Darrell - Singin' It Lonesome: The Very Best 1965-1970 (Raven, 2000)

Although not a household name, Johnny Darrell is one of my favorite country music singers. As detailed in previous posts, the guy got a raw deal and should be a lot better known than he is. So if you're curious to give his music a listen, but you'd prefer checking out an intelligently compiled anthology instead of his individual albums, look no further. Singin' It Lonesome collects highlights from his first five LPs for United Artists, singles-only sides, and the groundbreaking "underground country" California Stop-Over album in its entirety.

"Green Green Grass of Home," "As Longs as the Winds Blow," "Johnnie Lose It All," and "Don't Tell My Little Girl" come from his debut LP, As Long as the Winds Blow (1966), which I've previously reviewed. The same applies to selections from Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town (1967) - "She's Mighty Gone," "Mental Revenge," "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," and "Come See What's Left of Your Man,"; the title track of The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp (1968); and Why You Been Gone So Long (1969) - "I Ain't Buying," "Woman Without Love," "Why You Been Gone So Long," and "River Bottom." I can't really argue with these choices since almost all of them are great melancholy-tinged songs, though I've always thought "Woman Without Love" was a little too saccharine, and the otherwise excellent "As Long as the Winds Blow" is unfortunately marred by shoddy remastering. Darrell's commercial high-water mark, "With Pen in Hand," reached the #3 position on the Country charts in 1968, and comes from the like-named album. Personally, I find both to be among his weaker efforts, as the singer's penchant for covering sad songs occasionally resulted in overly mushy material. "The Coming of the Roads" is a duet performance with Anita Carter from a 1969 single in which United Artists attempted to duplicate the success of her sister June's recordings with Johnny Cash. It's a pleasant if not incredibly inspired effort. Pretty much the same thing can be said about Darrell's last release for the label, "Winter's Coming," which comes from a 45 issued in 1970. It does, however, feature some nice steel guitar.

California Stop-Over was the proto-Outlaw country singer's final album for United Artists, with the recording sessions taking place in Los Angeles in 1969. Over the last few years, Darrell had essentially made a career of doing first-rate interpretations of songs with ahead-of-their-time lyrics that would later become huge hits for other recording artists. A brilliant concept, the LP attempts to fuse the sounds of Nashville and the West Coast by providing the Alabama native with material by mostly non-country music writers and backing him with a crack team of studio musicians led by guitarist extraordinaire Clarence White. Regrettably, the whole is not quite equal to the sum of its parts. That's not to say that any of the performances are truly bad, but too often they just don't catch fire. The Jackson Browne tunes, "These Days" and "Mae Jean Goes to Hollywood," are both pretty good, and Darrell's interpretation of Lowell George's truck driving anthem "Willin'" is damn near definitive. "She's Headed for the Country" is buried in suffocating strings, but the album rebounds with the introspective "Sing It Lonesome" and the winsome "Brother River." "Mama Come 'n Get Your Baby Boy" and "Bed of Roses" serve as filler, although a cover of Hoyt Axton's cocaine manifesto "Snowblind Friend" is superb, even if White's distinctive guitar fades out just a little too soon at the end. "Meanwhile Back in Memphis" has its moments, while the stirring "Freedom in the Yard" finds Darrell once again doing a sensitive reading of a song that describes the devastating effects of the Vietnam War, just as he had done with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" more than two years earlier. "Trouble Maker" is a non-album B-side to the ill-advised "She's Headed for the Country" single and by far the superior performance due largely to the clever lyrics.

1. Green Green Grass of Home
2. As Long as the Winds Blow
3. Johnnie Lose It All
4. Don't Tell My Little Girl
5. She's Mighty Gone
6. Mental Revenge
7. Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town
8. Come See What's Left of Your Man
9. The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp
10. With Pen in Hand
11. I Ain't Buying
12. Woman without Love
13. The Coming of the Roads
14. Why You Been Gone So Long
15. River Bottom
16. Winter's Coming On

California Stop-Over (1970)
17. These Days
18. Willin'
19. She's Headed for the Country
20. Sing It Lonesome
21. Brother River
22. Mama Come n' Get Your Baby Boy
23. Mae Jean Goes to Hollywood
24. Bed of Roses
25. Snowblind Friend
26. Meanwhile Back in Memphis
27. Freedom in the Yard
28. Trouble Maker


  1. Thanks so much for this ... been waiting patiently for "With Pen in Hand," which you said you'd post some months ago. Hope that comes soon!

  2. I bought this CD after an article/song in OXFORD AMERICAN turned me on to him. Fantastic record!
    Your comment about Little Feat's WILLIN' and this being near-definitive has been a point of conversation with a group of friends. I say it is definitive and most likely the first recorded version of the song (probably brought to Darrell via Clarence White). I think Lowell wrote the ultimate truck driving song and imagined a honky tonk version. Johnny Darrell delivers it.

  3. I think the mastering on this CD sounds hollow and tinny compared to the vinyl. Here's a vinyl rip:

    Has anyone else noticed that the melody for "Meanwhile Back in Memphis" (written by the album's producer) was ripped off from "Mr. Tambourine Man"?

    I have to admit I love this album unreservedly, even its more saccharine moments. The playing (not just Clarence White but Michael Botts of Bread [!] on drums) is often amazing--especially on "Brother River."

  4. Wow...I appreciate all of the great comments on this post, gentlemen.

    @ Anonymous,

    "With Pen in Hand," is coming up next, maybe later this summer or sometime in the autumn. I don't think it's that great of an album, so I'm not as enthusiastic about posting a review. But I will, of course, satisfy your request.

    @ Maestro,

    Yeah, I think that the inclusion of the excellent "Why You Been Gone So Long" on the 2003 Oxford Southern Music CD rekindled a lot of interest in Johnny Darrell as it obviously did with you. It's too bad he didn't live long enough to see that more people are finally recognizing his talent.

    @ Jonah,

    You're right. The sound quality of this CD isn't that great, and a clean vinyl version of "California Stop-Over" is definitely preferable to what's presented here. (Well, clean vinyl is ALWAYS preferable, but don't get me started...) I was thinking about replacing the CD rips of tracks from "Stop-Over" with rips from my own vinyl copy, but I got an attack of laziness what with all the beautiful summer weather we've been having here lately. Thanks for making a rip from your vinyl available for other readers. What is its bit rate? That's a good observation about "Meanwhile Back in Memphis" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" that you made, and you rightfully give Michael Botts praise for his solid contributions on drums.


  5. Bit rate is 192. It's not just a question of CD vs. vinyl. The mastering on this CD in particular does horrible things to Darrell's vocals. I doubt that Raven, the Australian company that released the collection, had any kind of access to the master tapes, if they even bothered to clear the rights to begin with.

    Anyone heard Darrell's "comeback" album, "Water Glass Full of Whiskey"? Is it any good?

    Thanks for all the wonderful music on this blog.

  6. Jonah,

    Agreed concerning the vocals on this CD, and you're probably right about Raven's source material. I have a copy of "Water Glass." It's OK. I'll post it at some point. I own just about everything in Johnny Darrell's discography up to that album, minus a 45 or two, so stay tuned for some more of his stuff. I'm very happy to know that you're digging a lot of the music here and appreciate the comments.


  7. CD rip

    MP3 @ 320 kbps





  8. I've been looking for this for a long time, simply because Larry Murray (ex-leader of Hearts & Flowers) is involved, as producer or co-producer I think.
    Thanks a lot !!

  9. Right you are, frumious. Murray was indeed the producer on "California Stop-Over." Happy listening.