Album Review #34: Night Life by Ray Price (1963)

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“So me and The Cherokee Cowboys are knockin’ on your record player once more, and we hope that you can just kinda sit back, kick off your shoes, and relax, just a little bit, and listen to our latest album. And if you like it, tell us about it won’t you?” –From “Introduction and Theme”

I like it, Ray. I like it a lot. This record is certainly not the happiest album out there. In fact, it’s incredibly despondent and gloomy, but in a way it’s also strangely calming. The arrangements are sweet and easy-on-the-ears, but the lyrics are depressive and miserable, and it’s this juxtaposition that makes the album so disarming. The record’s sadness catches you off guard, and when it comes to creating an atmosphere and mood, no other country album so far on this list has topped this one. Created as a tribute to lonely barflies everywhere, it’s a potent statement of loneliness that’ll resonate with pretty much anyone.

Ray Price’s vocals are wonderful, and Willie Nelson’s guitar and backup vocals are a treat, but the real star of the show here is Buddy Emmons’ pedal-steel guitar. Creating beautiful, harmonious tones that have now become iconic to the “Nashville Sound,” a subgenre of country in which Price was a trailblazer, it ties every song together quite nicely. For those unfamiliar with the instrument, this video is a highly recommended watch. The fiddle that shows up on several tracks is a welcome addition to the band’s sound, and Floyd Cramer’s piano is, despite being subtle and easily missable, a very nice compliment to the rest of the instruments. The band’s overall style is spot-on, creating a genre-defining sound with the pedal-steel guitar and fiddle, and this only serves to amplify the emotions on display in this record. The interesting thing is that the majority of the album’s tracks are in major, and still manage to emanate an almost tangible sense of sadness and lamentation through Ray Price’s singing and lyrics alone. Not all sad songs have to be in minor: quite the opposite, in fact, as often songs in a major key can be the most gut-wrenching.

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Ray Price at the microphone with his acoustic guitar. Image source:

The album opens with a nice, leisurely introduction (quoted above), before launching into the title track, one of Ray Price’s most popular songs, despite it originally being a Willie Nelson song. He just so happens to sing backup vocals on the rest of the record though, so it’s cool. As with many of the album’s other tracks, the star of this one is that good ol’ pedal-steel guitar. Providing a soothing, yet mournful riff that really exemplifies Nelson’s lonely and down-in-the-dumps lyrics, it takes the song from quality country track to unforgettable hit. “Lonely Street,” the next track, keeps up the sadness, adding backup vocals from Willie Nelson. Some other great songs include “The Wild Side of Life,” “The Twenty-Fourth Hour” and “Pride,” which each bring something new to the table in terms of pure country-style angst.

Every track here works together to create one big country concept album, the ultimate expression of loneliness and gloom. Ray Price wasn’t the first country artist to fully embrace manly tears, but you could argue he did it the best. And hey, if you’re not in the mood for a real downer of an album, just don’t pay attention to the lyrics and you’ve got yourself a relaxing and calm half-hour of music that’ll sooth your nerves in a jiffy. No matter which angle you look at it from, this is a genre-defining album for the “Nashville Sound” of country that would be endlessly emulated for decades to come, and is most definitely deserving of a listen. And if you like it, tell them about it, won’t you?

Favorite Tracks: “Night Life,” “Lonely Street,” “The Twenty-Fourth Hour,” “The Wild Side of Life,” “Pride”

Next Up: With the Beatles by The Beatles (1963)

Album Review #31: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles (1962)

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Ray Charles

Ray Charles’ previous album on this list, The Genius of Ray Charles, was really just a warmup. This is Ray at his peak. Every track is passionate, soulful, and moving, even the fast and upbeat ones. This record is pure innovation at its finest. It’s just bounding with creativity, and each of the twelve tracks on display here are Ray Charles at the absolute pinnacle of his artistic abilities. He takes classic country songs that you would never think would be compatible with his R&B/Big Band style and makes them work beautifully, making the old standards feel new and exciting while retaining the emotion of the original. It’s a perfect fusion of the old and the new, and it holds up marvelously even today.

It was certainly a radical creative decision. His current audience would be averse to the country, and the country crowd would be averse to the jazz/R&B. It seemed, to the record executives at least, to be career suicide. But somehow, against all odds, he pulled it off. It wasn’t chance either. Ray Charles’ genius as a musician turned the album that would never be a success into a cultural phenomenon, winning over the critics, the public, and even his own fans in one fell swoop. Listening to it, his mastery of the artform is impossible to deny. Each and every lyric is sung with emotion and passion so strong you can feel it in your chest, and the arrangements that back his vocals are masterful, perfectly complimenting the lyrics with soul-melting harmony. Most of the album is slow balladry, but the one or two fast big band tunes are exciting as anything on The Genius of Ray Charles. No matter what kind of song it is, Ray just seems to know exactly what to do to make it perfect.

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The album’s first track, “Bye Bye Love,” doesn’t pull any punches. It’s explosive, energetic, and so catchy it should be considered a cognitohazard. That said, at the same time it’s bizarrely sad. The lyrics, like the majority of the album, are a pretty depressing tale of lost love, and despite being completely at odds with the tone of the music, it weirdly works. The backup singers will stick in your head for days, and the percussion drives the song along excellently.The next track, “You Don’t Know Me,” is my personal favorite song off the album. Here, Ray trades out the brass band for a string section, and goes full on depressing string ballad with lyrics about unrequited love and isolation. The chords and harmonies are haunting, and Ray’s vocals are just painfully sad and mournful. He sure does know exactly what to do to pull at your heartstrings in a moment, and he doesn’t hold back. The rest of the album keeps up the standard set by the first two tracks, and even though most of the lyrics deal with the same topic, it still feels fresh throughout. He may not have written the lyrics, but the way he performs them with every inch of his soul, he might as well have. The final track, “Hey Good Lookin’,” ends the album on a more uplifting note, dropping the doom and gloom and leaving the record on a happy, upbeat big band tune that’s a welcome shift from the rest of the record, and does a great job of helping your mood recover before it closes.

This album is indispensable. Not only did it help bridge barriers in a time of severe racial tension, but it also broke down the barrier between genres for future style experimenters, all while simply giving the world an excellent album to enjoy. It’s without a doubt Ray Charles’ greatest achievement, and anyone interested in his music should give this record a listen.

Favorite Tracks: “You Don’t Know Me,” “Bye Bye Love,” “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” “Hey Good Lookin'”

Next Up: Green Onions by Booker T. and The M.G.s (1962)

Album Review #22: Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins (1959)


I feel bad for people who don’t listen to country. The genre has such a stigma surrounding it for some reason, which confounds me, with the wealth of great country music that there is. Writing off an entire genre of anything is a terrible thing to do. My personal belief is that there’s great music to be found in every genre, so for all the country haters out there, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins is proof of that theorem.

The title is accurate; every track is either a story-song about outlaws and shootouts, or a campfire folk song about the daily struggle. Marty Robbins has a good singing voice, and his band is a good accompaniment to his lyrics. He’s got a classic country croon, clean and almost never faltering on a tone. It’s simple, but it works. In fact, I’d say that that can describe the album as a whole: simple but good. The melodies are uncomplicated and difficult not to sing along to, and the instrumentation is minimal, with the only instrument other than guitar, bass and drums appearing on the album being a brief fiddle intro to “Cool Water.” He does more than well with what little he has to work with, making each and every track an engaging listen.


Image source: Los Angeles Times

While the music itself is great, the album’s true strongpoint is the lyrics. Marty Robbins himself only has a writing credit on four of the album’s twelve tracks, with the others being either covers of fellow country artists or traditional folk songs, but he still infuses both his own songs and his covers with equal love and attention. My favorite tracks still tend toward Robbins originals, however. “Big Iron” starts the album off on a high note, and “In the Valley” is soulful and moving, with the only negative I can come up with being that it’s too short, at only 1:48. “The Master’s Call” is the only one of the four I don’t like; the lyrics are good, but musically it’s almost identical to “Big Iron,” just in a different key. The best track of the album has to be “El Paso.” With great lyrics, excellent guitar playing, and the catchiest melody of the record, it was his biggest hit for good reason. It’s a truly classic song, and one every country fan should hear.

If you don’t like country, that’s fine. Different strokes for different folks. Heck, I wrote possibly my most scathing review yet on Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers, the first country album on this list. But that isn’t to say you should dismiss the entire genre. As I said before, there’s great music everywhere. If you dislike a certain genre, you just have to dig a little more for it. I’m almost certain you’ll find it somewhere. And if you dislike country, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs just might be the one to change your mind.

Favorite Tracks: “El Paso,” “In the Valley,” “Big Iron,” “Cool Water”

Least Favorite: “The Master’s Call”

Next Up: Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet (1959)

Album Review #17: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (1958)


While Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is sadly pretty obscure among the general public, his influence among fellow musicians is massive. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Mick Jagger to Paul Mc-Freaking-Cartney has cited this guy as a major influence on their music (listen to “Rocky Raccoon” off The White Album and the influence of his “talking-blues” style is blatant). It’s not hard to see why. His guitar playing is excellent, his songs are catchy, and his stories are entertaining. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott truly is a folk musician only paralleled by Woody Guthrie himself.


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Jack Takes the Floor is, to say it simply, one of the finest folk albums of all time. It feels like a relaxing afternoon on the back porch with grandpa and his guitar. Jack Elliott’s guitar playing is almost flawless, and his lyrics are engaging and sometimes even funny. Each of its 11 tracks (later 13, when it was reissued as Muleskinner with a couple bonus tracks) are memorable, but “Mule Skinner Blues,” “New York Town,” “Cocaine” and “Dink’s Song” are stand-outs. “New York Town” even has Woody Guthrie himself as a guest performer! “Cocaine’s” guitar is strangely sweet considering the song’s subject matter. “Dink’s Song” is just plain heartbreaking, sung from the point of view of a prisoner singing about his love outside of prison. “Mule Skinner Blues” is the longest song of the album, at over 5 minutes in length, and boasts some great guitar work and singing. Overall, the whole album is great, with wonderful playing and lyricism throughout.

Jack Takes the Floor is one solid folk album. If you’ve got even a passing interest in the genre, or are looking for a good place to start, this is your record. With a set of songs like this, its no wonder an entire generation of musicians to follow were impacted by it. Give it a listen, will ya?

Favorite Tracks: “Mule Skinner Blues,” “Cocaine,” “Dink’s Song,” “New York Town”

Next Up: Sarah Vaughan At Mister Kelly’s by Sarah Vaughan (1958)

Album Review #3: Tragic Songs of Life by The Louvin Brothers (1956)

Tragic Songs of Life by Louvin Brothers

I’m going to be perfectly honest; this album left me underwhelmed. While there were a few things that I enjoyed about it, it just seemed a little… bland. The different tracks just sounded like each other, and while the lyrics were generally pretty good, the music itself was just lacking.

The Louvin Brothers are considerably big names in the world of Country. Tragic Songs of Life is thought of as a landmark album in the genre, along with their 1959 record Satan is Real. However, while I can see the importance of this album, it just didn’t make that much of an impression on me. I’m not that experienced in the genre of Country music, but I still enjoy it as much as I enjoy pretty much any other music; I have always held the belief that there is amazing music to be found in every genre. The guitar is enjoyable to listen to, particularly the riffs usually kicking off each song, and Charlie and Iva’s vocal harmonies are admittedly incredible; I would go as far to say that the singing is by far the best part of the record. However, the Brothers’ personal lives prove to be much more interesting than the music itself.

You see, Iva “Louvin” Loudermilk was what you would call an incredibly unstable human being. An extreme alcoholic and womanizer with borderline dangerous anger issues, his flaws were so severe that it was sometimes even dangerous to work with him. His behavior reached a horrifying peak when he attempted to strangle his third wife with a phone cord, which prompted her to shoot him multiple times in the chest in self-defense. Miraculously, after a presumably long time in recovery, he survived. In 1963, his brother Charlie finally decided to split with his brother and start a solo career, distancing himself from Iva. Two years later in 1965, Iva was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Ironically, Iva was currently wanted on a DUI charge.

So with all of this as a backdrop, it’s a little bit jarring to listen to the album and hear such stable, calm and traditional songs. Even if the lyrics are occasionally very dark (“Knoxville Girl” is particularly messed up, coldly and casually recounting a murder, and with pretty much no explanation as to why) the sound of the music itself really offsets that. The emotions being expressed through the lyrics are just cancelled out by the frankly dull instrumentals.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy this album. The songs just didn’t sound that inspired, and while the singing and harmony itself was excellent, the rest just doesn’t seem to meet the same quality. The songs all seem to sound similar to each other, and even if the lyrics are often good, it really doesn’t make up for the negatives. If you aren’t a diehard Country fan, I wouldn’t recommend this album.

Next Up: The Wildest!, by Louis Prima (1956)