CRITICS have a tendency to recommend the reissues of old music as if they were some sort of historical duty. They're right to do so, for you can't fully appreciate today's music without hearing in it the echos of Hank Williams and Louis Jordan.
Nonetheless one shouldn't overlook the sheer self-indulgent pleasure of these old records. Jimmie Rodgers' vibrant railroad yodel is still every bit as exciting as the excited yelps of Dwight Yoakum. Patsy Cline's romantic purr is still sexier than Emmylou Harris' croon. Merle Travis' quicksilver guitar runs still sound more daring than the new-age picking of Mark O'Connor. So check out these records, not only for their weighty legacy but also for their pure gratification.
JIMMIE RODGERS --
"On Record: America's Blue Yodeler" (Smithsonian Collection R 034 DMM 2-0721). The Smithsonian has finally released this two-record set, the definitive collection by "The Singing Brakeman," "The Blue Yodeler" and "The Father of Country Music." Of the 111 tunes Rodgers recorded between 1927 and his death at age 35 in 1933, 36 of the most famous and most interesting have been remastered for this collection. A 26-page glossy booklet by Rodgers' biographer Nolan Porterfield offers lavish details on both the 36 songs and on Rodgers' life. It's a thoroughly professional job throughout.
Despite the primitive sound of the original 78s, Rodgers' charisma and distinctive style deliver their considerable impact across half a century. There's something elegant and eloquent about the simplicity of his songwriting, but it was his voice, remarkably pure and informal, that remains most striking. Like most American music innovators, he scrambled black and white idioms into something entirely new. He's joined by several jazz bands (including a young Louis Armstrong on one cut) and combines the blues lament with the optimism of pop melodies and hillbilly yodels.
RAY PRICE --
"The Honky Tonk Years: 1951-1953" (Rounder SS-22). Dallas' Price became Hank Williams' protege in 1951. He lived with Williams, worked with him and even filled in for him when Williams missed dates. These 14 songs from the beginning of Price's career reveal him as a most capable student. Though these performances clearly imitate Williams' late honky-tonk style, they imitate very well and capture the ache of a man cast outside his family and home.
JIM REEVES --
"Live at the Opry" (Country Music Foundation CMF-008). Reeves was one of those who tried to follow in Williams' footsteps, but he never had the emotional depth to pull it off. These 20 songs feature Reeves' previously unreleased performances on the "Grand Ole Opry" radio show between 1953 and 1960. Reeves had a smooth, appealing voice, which helped him become one of country music's rare crossover artists of the '50s, but it was far more suited to novelty tunes, hymns and sentimental ballads than true honky-tonk confessionals.
THE LOUVIN BROTHERS --
"Radio Favorites '51-'57" (Country Music Foundation CMF-009). Alabama's Charlie & Ira Louvin were perhaps the best of country music's brother duos. Their high, plaintive harmonies were the acknowledged model for both the Everly Brothers and the Parton, Ronstadt & Harris Trio. These 14 previously unreleased radio performances captured them when their sound was at its purest. Side one is devoted to the religious songs that launched their career; side two showcases the love songs that made them stars.
JOHNNY CASH --
The Vintage Years: 1955-63" (Rhino RNLP-70229). Lest we forget, Johnny Cash was part of the rockabilly revolution at Memphis' Sun Records in 1955-57. He wasn't as frenzied as Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis but he lent a certain folk poetry to the jumping beat on songs like "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Get Rhythm." For the first time ever, the best of Cash's Sun recordings are combined on one disc with his earliest and rawest recordings for Columbia. Dozens of other artists have recorded these songs; here's where you hear why.
PATSY CLINE --
"Songwriters' Tribute" (MCA 25019). A songwriter could hope for no better treatment of his work than to have Patsy Cline sing it. She sang these 12 songs between 1960 and '63, at the height of her considerable powers, and she made every one sound so sexy and emotionally transparent that they're still surprising today. On the back cover of this collection, songwriters such as Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard and Carl Perkins reminisce about Cline and how she came to sing their songs. There's not a false note in all their flattery.
MERLE TRAVIS --
"Rough, Rowdy and Blue" (CMH 6262). Travis, the most influential guitarist in country music history, recorded this collection of traditional blues tunes near the end of his life (the liner notes offer little information, but he died in 1983). His voice had deteriorated badly, but his acoustic picking was as sparkling as ever, and his feeling for black music explains a lot about the vitality of his country music.