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CD CORNER : ‘Country Classics’ Arrive for Old or New Fans

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Timing is just one thing that Columbia Records’ new “Columbia Country Classics” album series has in its favor.

The success in recent months of such young stars as Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Alan Jackson has created a whole new audience for country music--and the best of the Columbia albums offer a valuable historical overview for these new fans.

But even longtime country enthusiasts should find much to enjoy in the series, especially the first two volumes, which concentrate on memorable recordings from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, many of which have not been available until now in compact disc.

The problem with the series is that the music is limited to artists who recorded for Columbia or its subsidiaries. This means such seminal country figures as Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams are missing--along with such key secondary artists as Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.

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That omission isn’t a key problem, however, in the first two volumes because Columbia had a great roster in the early days of recorded country.

Volume 1, for instance, spotlights Roy Acuff (on such songs as “Wabash Cannonball”), Gene Autry (“You Are My Sunshine”), Bob Wills (“New San Antonio Rose”) and Bill Monroe (“Blue Moon of Kentucky”).

In addition, the volume--titled “The Golden Age"--also features early or original versions of songs that became country standards. These include Ted Daffan’s “Born to Lose” (popularized by Ray Charles in the ‘60s) and Wiley Walker-Gene Sullivan’s “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” (recorded by Elvis Presley in the ‘50s).

Volume 2--"Honky Tonk Heroes"--contains recordings from the end of World War II through the early days of the rock revolution, and it’s also highly recommended. The artists include Marty Robbins (“Knee Deep in the Blues”), Ray Price (“Crazy Arms”) and, most significantly, Lefty Frizzell (“Always Late” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways”).

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Volume 3--titled “Americana"--showcases country’s folk/storytelling side, while Volume 4--"The Nashville Sound"--documents country’s obsession in the ‘60s and ‘70s with pop-oriented crossover hits. While both albums have worthy moments, the musical subjects are limited, making them far less essential than the first two.

However, Volume 5--"The New Tradition"--explores well some of the influences on the back-to-basics movement that has helped restore character to country music in recent years. The key selections range from Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and the Byrds’ “Hickory Wind” to Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and George Jones’ exquisite “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”


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