Three mournful country melodramas this week. All released between 1957 and 1960, these make for a fun, highly atmospheric bunch.
These selections are somewhat tricky to place in the continuum of post-War commercial records. They share some of the darkness of the archaic dirges and haunted story songs of American folk music, certainly, and more perhaps directly, the windswept melancholy of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Ramblin’ Man,” Red Foley’s moody “Midnight” and Lefty Frizzell’s haunting “Long Black Veil.” They also generously invoke some of our more sombre pop Western motifs. Johnny Cash tracks like “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” or the “The Caretaker” come to mind here, not to mention dozens of versions of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me)” and “Streets of Laredo.”
But ultimately these three recordings came into existence not only wholly independently of each other, but also without clear commercial precedent, or so it seems. Straddling a fine line between country, folk and blues lament, they’re paced at a funereal crawl, their intimate, cinematic moods summoned with the miracle of post-War recording technology and magnetic tape. There is a certain theatricality in a lot of good country music, but these selections, with their visually evocative productions, their narratives of loneliness and gloom, their protagonists cut adrift, they’re existential tours de force.
1. Curly Sanders and the Santones, Walking Blues (Concept 45-Con-92)
Born in 1935 outside of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, Ray “Curly” Sanders was a singer and songwriter who found some success in the ‘60s and ‘70s, gamely changing with the times without ever quite having a breakout single.
Sanders, still in his teens, enjoyed a run of disc jockey stints in the ‘50s and, as early as 1954, was making singing appearances at local showcases like the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Lincoln Jamboree.
Sanders’s recorded output commenced in late 1956 with “Brand New Rock and Roll.” 1 Other 45s would be pressed locally around this time, too, including “Walking Blues,” but “Brand New Rock and Roll” is easily Sanders’s most prized side, showing Sanders adapting to the new rock ‘n’ roll form with the sort of raw enthusiasm that appeals to deep-pocketed rockabilly 45 collectors.
Following a year spent in El Paso, Texas, Sanders made his Grand Ole Opry debut in 1959. The contract with prominent West Coast indie label Liberty Records that followed would inaugurate a long schedule of country music recorded for a variety of labels, big and small.
Sanders, who worked henceforth as Ray Sanders, followed the dream throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, gigging tirelessly and finding some success with Liberty Records in 1960 (“A World So Full of Love” and “Lonelyville,” both top twenty country hits), and, later, with Imperial Records (“Beer Drinkin’ Music,” 1969) and on United Artists (with a version of “All I Ever Need is You,” 1971). Sanders won Top New Male Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music in 1968, and made television appearances on Hee Haw in the early ‘70s. (Hee Haw, for all of its cornpone humor, did help a lot of country musicians land national exposure.) He played with Ray Price for a time as well, but by the late ’70s Sanders was working the California club circuit, semi-retirement to Hawaii following that.
All of his singles and albums as Ray Sanders, along with his songs covered by other country artists, are good; it’s just that they’re somewhat straightahead Nashville product at the end of the day. At least personally speaking, it’s Sanders’s idiosyncratic clutch of late ‘50s 45s on local record labels which invite the most interest. Among these are the aforementioned “Brand New Rock and Roll,” of course, along with “You’re Smiling (I’m Crying),” an echo-drenched ballad. And this selection, written by fellow singer Dell Shirley. “Walking Blues” sounds like nothing else in Sanders’s discography and, as with the other selections, it is unabashedly and very successfully theatrical, a colorful piece of forlorn somnambulation.
2. Harry Charles, Petoskey Town (Wildcat WOO35A)
This week’s mystery disc.
This 45 was released in 1960. Harry Charles is very likely the same Harry Charles responsible for two other isolated teen pop 45s from the ’60s: “My Laura” b/w “Challenge of Love” (released on New York City-based Rowax, 1963) and “I’ll Be There” b/w “I Want the Best for You” (released on the Oklahoma City-based Boyd Records, mid-‘60s).
But nothing actually leads me to believe that Harry Charles was in fact based in central Texas at the time, despite his 45′s release on Wildcat Records (a cool San Antonio-based indie with a short, sweet run of R&B, Tejano, pop, country, rock ‘n’ roll and vocal group sides in the late ’50s and early ’60s).
A contemporary account from the Petoskey News in 1960 refers to Charles performing at the local high school dance. Though again it’s not clear whether he was visiting the titular northern coastal Michigan town as a stunt to promote this 45, or whether he was actually from the area, and was singing from some experience. And another reference puts him in Nashville in 1963.
Harry Charles’s obscure trajectory aside, what a record. Miles, stylistically, from the commercial pop of his other 45s, “Petoskey Town” paints a striking tableau, its well-placed cymbal rolls and Charles’s mournful vocals conjuring the frozen north country with grim effectiveness.
3. Eddie Miller and His Band, Ghost Town (4 Star 1740×45)
Eddie Miller was born in 1919 in Camargo, Oklahoma, and while recalled primarily as a songwriter, he got his start as a musician, playing with and, beginning in the late ‘30s, leading his own Western Swing groups.
Like many from a post-Dust-Bowl Great Plains, he was drawn westward around World War Two, and spent a good deal of his subsequent career in Southern California. As an aspiring songwriter, Miller – with a reformed version of the Oklahomans – would release “Release Me” (a song co-penned with guitarist Bobby Gene Yount) in 1949, one of a number of 45s and 78s he recorded for 4 Star Records, a prolific Los Angeles-based country label.
“Release Me” tanked at the time but would become a titanic country and pop hit for several different performers. (Ray Price’s and Kitty Wells’s 1954 versions and Englebert Humperdinck’s 1966 version are especially well-known.) And while Miller’s own recordings tapered off, his songwriting success continued apace, with top ten hits for Carl Smith (“There She Goes,” 1955), Eddy Arnold (“After Loving You,” 1962) and Ernest Tubb (“Thanks a Lot,” 1963).
Eddie Miller was a somewhat inconsistent songwriter – there are a lot of dashed-off novelties in his voluminous catalog – and, as far as performing went, a limited singer. But “Ghost Town,” among his last releases as a solo artist, is an entirely convincing performance. 2 Miller fully commits to his spurned, world-weary drifter character. “Ghost Town” enjoys a slightly fuller production than the other two, but there’s that haunted, walking rhythm again, the song’s ghostly steel guitar accents and its mood of empty streets and lament making for an arrestingly visual tone poem.
While Miller’s returns from his published songs remained considerable into the late ’60s and ’70s, he decreased his output, shifting his energies into country music advocacy, helping to co-found both the Country and Western Music Academy in Hollywood (now the Academy of Country Music) and the Nashville Songwriters Association.
Incidentally, Eddie Miller cast Ray Sanders in his mid-’60s “country opera” The Legend of Johnny Brown, which was released as an album in 1966.
Eddie Miller died in 1977.
- 78 recordings attributed to a Curley Sanders, likely a Texan, appeared in 1949 on Dallas’s Star Talent label, and in 1953 on Los Angeles’s Imperial Records. I believe these are unrelated to the Curly Sanders in question. ↩
- There has been some speculation at the Steel Guitar Forum about whether this was the “Release Me” Eddie Miller or whether it was, in fact, Eddie Miller, singer from the Texas-based Western Swing band the Miller Brothers, who also recorded for 4-Star Records. I do believe “Ghost Town” was the handiwork of the “Release Me” Miller, however. ↩