Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Season of Box Sets: Roots & Country

Posted By on 12.24.09 at 09:00 AM

Buddy Holly, Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More
  • Buddy Holly, Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More
I had a moment of internal struggle when it came time to subtitle this post, because the music of Buddy Holly can fit into so many categories: rock ’n’ roll, country, pop. Next to Jerry Lee Lewis, Holly has always been my favorite 50s pioneer. The young man from Lubbock, Texas, who died at 22 in the same February 1959 plane crash that took the lives of Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, was a superb and distinctive singer. Plus his band came up with novel sonic ideas, and he wrote the most sophisticated, catchy melodies of any of the early rockers.

So I splurged on Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More (Geffen/Hip-O Select), a prohibitively priced six-CD set (list is $119.98) with a title that doesn’t lie. There are 203 tracks here, assembled in a handsome book. Previously I’d been content with the 50-track Buddy Holly Collection, which has all the Holly songs most people will ever need. And when I first started playing this new set, I thought that maybe those 50 tracks were enough for me too. Admittedly, some of the obscurities in the new set were fascinating—like the version of Hank Snow’s “My Two-Timin’ Woman” that Holly cut at home when he was just 13 and the home recordings with childhood pal Bob Montgomery, all of which speak to Holly’s immersion in old-school honky-tonk—but I grew a little weary of the multiple takes and imperfectly recorded early originals.

As I plowed through the contents, though, and read the detailed liner notes by sometime Reader contributor Bill Dahl, I got sucked in not just by the music, which I already adored, but by the story contained in its aesthetic progression. I’m downright embarrassed at how ignorant I was about Holly. When I first eyed the set, I felt ambivalent about the “overdubbed versions” that filled the last disc and a half, but I soon realized that these were the versions I knew. The recordings Holly made with his band in the garage of his family home in late 1956, as well as the solo pieces he recorded at his place in New York just a month before his death, are basic and raw, but they provide great insight into the singer’s craftsmanship. Many familiar Holly tracks are posthumous studio transformations: older, unissued solo and trio recordings were enhanced with full-band arrangements, Jordanaires-style backing vocals, and other bells and whistles. You might’ve thought it was slightly creepy the way Tupac and Biggie kept somehow releasing things after their deaths as labels and rights holders dug into their vaults, but those odd episodes have nothing on the bone picking that went on with Holly’s unreleased material. The difference is that most of Holly’s work was good to great: “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping,” “What to Do,” and many more, plus convincing covers of Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. I probably won’t consistently reach for the discs that are heavy on the oddities, but Not Fade Away is an invaluable chronicle both of Holly’s genius and of the machinations of the money-hungry music industry.

Dolly Parton, Dolly
  • Dolly Parton, Dolly
I wouldn’t say that Dolly (RCA Nashville/Legacy), the recent 99-track, four-CD set of music by Dolly Parton, was quite as revelatory for me, since I already knew that Parton is a brilliant songwriter and singer and that she’s made many stylistic shifts over the decades. Just the same, it’s great to have so much of her work collected in one place, so that it’s even easier to appreciate her development and range.

I had heard very little of her earliest stuff, which includes pop-kissed rock ’n’ roll and superhooky teen fare like “Puppy Love” and “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt.” Those tunes don’t have the heft and craftsmanship of her best material, but it’s clear that she was something else from the very beginning of her career. While so many great country singers used songwriters, Parton wrote most of her greatest songs herself, and the darkness and sting in her lyrics can come as a shock to modern ears, since popular country is now dominated by toothless sentimental treacle. She masterfully portrays the ways women are held down and treated as second-class citizens, and she can also write tales of death and depression that contrast jarringly with her gossamer voice.

My first memories of Parton have to do with my mother buying a copy Here You Come Again in 1977. I hated it. I hated country music back then, and Parton was not only country, she was (I thought) downright cheesy. Time has given me plenty of chances to recalibrate, and now even Parton’s slickest, most pop-oriented material—“Here You Come Again,” “9 to 5,” the disco-flavored “Potential New Boyfriend”—sounds great to me . . . well, mostly great. Her voice can carry anything, and somehow she brings a mix of dignity and fun to just about every song she touches. This set features all the unequivocal classics, like “Jolene,” “Down From Dover,” and “I Will Always Love You,” as well as a handful of killer duets with Porter Wagoner and some superb previously unreleased tracks. Holly George Warren nicely sums up the arc of Parton’s career in a lengthy, informative essay. The set ends with music cut in 1992, omitting the material Parton has released on Sugar Hill since reinventing herself as a bluegrass singer in 1999, but that still leaves songs from five different decades.

Today’s playlist:

Dana Hall, Into the Light (Origin)
The Very Best, Warm Heart of Africa (Green Owl)
Positive Catastrophe, Garabatos Volume One (Cuneiform)
Tımuçın Şahın Quartet, Bafa (Between the Lines)
Jim O’Rourke, The Visitor (Drag City)

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