Category Archives: Rockabilly

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘THE HANGMAN’S BLUES: Prison Songs In Country Music 1956-1972 (2016)

Grim tales of jailbirds, cutthroats, cuckolds, executioners, murderers and escapees.  Prison ballads form part of the historic lifeblood of Country Music and saw a resurgence after the 1960 execution of controversial convict Caryl Chessman. Here are some of the very best, seldom heard since their original release. Running the gamut from smooth balladeers of woe to ramshackle and plaintive backyard rockabilly.

While these days your more likely to find your folk music heroes went to Eton with Prince William or all met at Cambridge/Oxford/insert other posh university it’s not always been so. While it’s always been true that the music of the working classes has always been adopted by the well-heeled and the image of the bearded Green Party, Real Ale drinking, middle class ‘leftie’ singing away with his finger in his ear still rings true around the folk clubs. This also explains their reluctance to accept other genre’s like celtic-punk as part of the folk scene as at it’s heart is a snobbery to keep others out at all costs. Folk music was never a static thing with bands and singers always finding ways to keep the music alive and relevant though always with a healthy respect for the past. That the celtic-punk scene can be said to be partly responsible for the popularity of bands long gone like The Dubliners, Clancy Brothers and The Pogues butters no onions with these people who just want to keep things as they were at all costs. Happy to be big fish in small pools! What the artists on this album would make of four faux-ploughboy, waistcoat wearing members of the aristocracy representing folk music I don’t know (have to admit here I DO actually love Mumford And Sons!) but one thing is for sure they wouldn’t last five minutes in the company of people featured here and long to be be forgotten while these days be writ high.

One things for sure it has always been, and always will be, the poor that go to jail. Whether for a crime they freely admit (or not!) or through bigotry and lack of decent representation the jails of the world are full of the poorest of our society. Folk and country music has never been a stranger to the inside of prison walls right from the very start and this stunning compilation covers just about every country music offshoot musically as well as covering just about every reason why you could end up inside. The album opens strongly with ‘The Wall’, written by Harlan Howard, given a powerful performance here by Freddie Hart. Born to a sharecropper family in Alabama Hart left school at 12 but still managed to become one of country music’s biggest stars of the 70’s. I love the sound of the harmonica and there’s plenty of it’s woeful sound to be found here to keep me happy.

“The years gone by since he made his try
But I can still recall how hard he tried and the way he died
But he never made that, wall he never made that wall”

All the tracks were recorded between 1956 and 1972 and although I have heard several prison -themed album’s in the past I seriously cannot remember one that came anywhere remotely close to the quality found here. I could wax lyrical about every artist but this review would then run for pages and pages. Suffice to say that all the artists here know what it means to be hungry and many indeed did cross swords with authorities and some others saw the other side of a prison gate. Tennessee born, early rockabilly star Jaycee Hill’s  fantastic ‘Crash-Out’, is typical of many here with the acceptance and regret of a life of crime. Most of the artists here are American but one of the album highlights is the London born Marty Robbins with his intense performance of ‘The Chair’. Inspired by the controversial execution of Caryl Chessman in 1960.

Chessman was an unsavoury character that much is true and something he was intelligent enough to recognise within himself but he was convicted and charged on a law that was later repealed though not retroactively meaning his death sentence still stood. He became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row. In May 1960 Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, just too late, with his stay of execution. His story is also dealt with in songs on this album by Country Johnny Mathis, one of the album highlights with its sheer, haunting poetry, Ronnie Hawkins and Jimmy Minor. The full story of Caryl Chessman is also told in a fine performance from Hoyle Miller notable for the last line of his song

“you see I too Hoyle Miller was once too on death row”

Dirt farmer’s son Porter Wagoner gives us a compelling version of the Hank Williams penned ‘(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle’. Known for his flashy suits and for giving Dolly Parton her big break Wagoner never forgot his working class roots often touring in rural areas where many would not perform and was also famous for his friendly relationship with his fans mingly before, during and after gigs with them. The jauntyness of ‘I Always Did Like Leavenworth’ belies the subject George Kent is singing of. Eddie Noack was a honky tonk singer influenced by Hank Williams and his superb version of ‘Invisible Stripes’ tells of the stigma that jail carries throughout  the rest of your days. Named from the stripes of the uniform prisoners were made to wear. A subject also visited here by Howard Crockett who turned to singing after a shoulder injury ended a promising baseball career. He performs a excellent cover of the famous Johnny Cash penned song ‘I Got Stripes’. Artist jailbirds like Johnny Cash, David Allen Coe and Merle Haggard are notable by their absence but the music that inspired them more than makes up for it. There are simply too many great songs and artists here to give justice to and the album comes to an end with ‘A Prisoner’s Dream’ by Charles Lee Guy III. When he was 16 he was convicted of manslaughter and sent to jail. During his imprisonment he learnt to play guitar and started writing songs. He sent a tape to Capitol Records who were sufficiently impressed to bring their studio equipment to Vacaville Prison in December 1962 to record him. Charles’ album, The Prisoner’s Dream, was well-received and in October, 1963 Time Magazine reviewed the album:

“Charles Lee Guy III has been an inmate of California State Prison since he was 16. The songs he has learned to sing there all reflect his sorry circumstance – and among them is the latest composition of a prison chum, country music’s Spade Cooley [himself a wife killer]. Guy’s woeful voice and guitar accompaniment fit the spirit of his music, and in this remarkable album he has the power of a young white Leadbelly.”

One of the songs on that album was titled ‘Wishin’ She Was Here (Instead of Me)’ thought to refer to his mother who many thought had committed the murder that Charles had been found guilty of. A moving, emotional and chilling way for this album to close.

All the tracks here were first issued on long forgotten 45’s often on obscure, tiny or private-press labels. All are incredibly rare and many are reissued here for the first time since release and are remastered from the original master tapes giving the album a sound that is as clear as crystal. Their are twenty-eight tracks here and just under eighty minutes of music. Pretty much all of the songs come in around the two minute mark and the pacing on the album is also well thought out. Available on vinyl and CD the amount of care put into this album is to be applauded including the incredibly handsome twenty page, full colour booklet that comes with informative liner notes by Alvin Lucia and rare photos and label shots. This amazing package has been put together by Bear Family Records who also gave us Hillbillies In Hell- Country Music’s Tormented Testament, another timeless compilation telling of Satan, drugs, murder, suicide, demonic visions, infanticide and redemption. Their were plenty of prison songs before the era (1956-1972) chosen here on The Hangman’s Blues but these songs begin from the early days of rock’n’roll and though most are straight up country songs all have a dark edge to them, of course, and some have that raw rock’n’roll sound that many of you will love I am sure.

Declarations of innocence, profound diatribes on capital punishment and mournful odes to the Last Mile. The Hangman’s Blues will chill, thrill and bedevil the dreams of all who hear it. Feel the penal pain. Like the album liner notes say…we are all prisoners in one way or another.

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ALBUM REVIEW: PITMEN- ‘Back To The Pit’ (2017)

 As we strive to introduce you to new music you must check out the German psychobilly band Pitmen. A real melting pot of influences. In amongst the classic psychobilly fare, you can also hear Irish folk with banjo and fiddle giving things a nice céilíbilly twist and all blended together in original Pitmen style!

When I was a young one the music that reverberated through my house growing up were the sound of Irish folk and American rockabilly. My Mammy was a bit of a one in her younger days and from photo’s I’ve seen had the most incredible beehive haircut and saw every decent band of her generation from The Kinks to the Rolling Stones to The Beatles and even Johnny Cash. So no surprise then that both me and the brother grew up with a love of both Irish folk and rock’n’roll and while he became a Goth and I found myself living off chips, lager and punk and living in a squat we never lost that love. So when this album from German band Pitmen landed on my doorstep I was well excited. All I knew of them was a live You tube video of the band performing an old Irish rebel song ‘Roddy McCorley’ at a Psychobilly festival and it stirred me enough to order their new album, Back To The Pit, that had just come out.

Pitmen were founded in the spring of 1995 and the following summer of 1996 they recorded a demo which led Crazy Love Records to release it as Pitmen’s debut EP Misfits. They followed this in 1997 with their debut album Listen To The Engine and in 2001 their follow up album Welcome To The Show. Then back in 2003 at the top of the game and headline appearances around Europe at all the major Psychobilly festivals they decided to take a break. The members of the band went on to form and join other bands of many different genres with front-man Christian even forming a Irish folk outfit called airím with Susanne Böhler. So it was after six years Pitmen began to rehearse again and the following year they played their first live show since 2003.

So it is that after a several-year recording hiatus, Pitmen are back and Back To The Pit is the result. Fourteen tracks of

“Equal parts psychobilly, folk from both sides of the Atlantic, hard-as-fuck neo rockabilly and Celtabilly”

as O’Prez of the Dublin based psychobilly Hellacious Harmonies, here, site called it.

Long time fans are sure to be joined by new recruits on hearing this album and Back to The Pit kicks off with some western style guitar that thundering double bass and Christian ‘s clear as a bell vocals for  ‘Always On The Run’. Great start to proceedings and from the very off you can tell this is an absolutely spotless production with the sound as perfect as it could possibly be. The music speeds up for the psychobilly anthem ‘Grab Life By the Balls’ but still sounds perfectly accessible.

‘You Are Not My Friend’ is next and even though the CD booklet is sparse to say the least it doesn’t matter too much as regards the lyrics as Christian’s vocals are very easy to understand. I guess that playing Irish folk songs has helped that and every now and then you can detect a slight Irish twang to his voice as in the catchy as hell ‘Fifteen Dead’ with its fantastic singalong chorus.

Now anyone with a slight interest in psychobilly will know that there is a zombie fixation throughout the scene and following song the rockin’ instrumental ‘Zombie Rumble’ keeps that going nicely. A right foot tapper and thigh-slapper which takes us nicely onto ‘Please Don’t Call Me Baby’, one of the album highlights which if it weren’t for the electric guitar harks back to the genre’s 50’s roots. The first sign of that Irish folk influence comes rolling in next with ‘Hot Rod Hotel’ which features the wonderful voice of Nina Heinrich on backing vocals and only whets the appetite for a bit more folk and a bit of her too. There’s more horror themed catchiness to follow in ‘Roadkill’ and they follow this up with the hilarious ‘You’re The Reason Mommy’s Drinks’ which is some sort of country-psychobilly mash up lullaby from a disappointed father to his stepchild! The banjo and fiddle are out and proud courtesy of Fran Urton on fiddle and Eduardo Ribeiro on banjo. Great sense of humour there lads. Love it. Next up now is the song I have been waiting for. With the Dropkick Murphys adopting of Finbar Furey’s legendary song ‘The Lonesome Boatman’ and their recording of it on this years new album 11 Short Stories Of Pain And Glory. I would even go so far to say it was the album highlight but how well would Pitmen stand up to it and would they be able to do it justice. Well I can report it is amazing. Simply amazing. It’s unlike any version you will have heard before I can guarantee and yet is still unmistakable. All the songs here are sang in English except for ‘Schnitzel mit Kartoffelsalat’ which is in German and from what I can gather a drinking song about a food fight! Singer and guitarist Christian has written the majority of the songs here albeit with help from both his wife and guitarist Holger so they take a break with a superb cover of The Animals ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’. Again its done in their own style and is yet unmistakable and as we near the end they follow it up with another cover, ‘Baltimore Fire’, of an old song about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 which was originally recorded by Charlie Poole (1892-1931) and The North Carolina Ramblers. Nina Heinrich is back on backing vocals and you can find more of her great voice by checking out Christian and hers folk trio Sackville Street here. The fire raged for over thirty hours, spanning seventy city blocks, and destroying 1,545 buildings, doing an estimated $3.84 billion in damage in today’s money. A great choice of cover and shows the band know their onions and have plenty respect for the music that has influenced them. We are at the end of the album and another album highlight with the romantic ‘One More Day’. A real fifties feel here with the vocals accompanied by whistling, which you don’t hear much these days. The banjo is back and a really outstanding way to bring down the curtain on Back In The Pit.

Christian

So sixteen years on from their last album Pitmen are back with an almighty bang and I was gutted to find out that they played here only last month at the famed Bedlam Breakout festival where they went down a storm. Now as much as I love psychobilly it has to be said, and the same too could be said about celtic-punk, that many bands do sound the same so when you do hear something that you can say is unique its worth taking notice of. Twenty-two years on from getting together in their working class coal-mining home town of Essen Pitmen are still bringing something to the table that no other psychobilly bands can manage. This is a fine album of mainly foot stompin’ originals and a selection of instrumentals and covers that just enhance what they do. Be sure to keep an eye on Pitmen as they will be featured here again soon!!

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