Album Reviews

Various Artists: Small Town Country, Vol. 1 (Orion Read)

small town country

Various Artists
Small Town Country, Vol. 1
Orion Read

When Elvis went into Sun Records to cut a song for his mother, who knew it would be the start of something spectacular? When The Beach Boys recorded “Surfin’” with Hite Morgan, did they know that the world would soon be theirs? Both went in with little expectation of fame and glory, not knowing that the day they walked into that recording booth, they were opening the door for destiny. Not surprising, then, that thanks to their unexpected rags-to-riches stories, countless others thought that they could force the hand of fate in a similar manner, in order to escape what seemed to be dead-end lives, and set about recording their own singles in hopes of fame and fortune. There’s a reason why nobody knows the names of the fourteen artists on Small Town Country, Volume 1, the first in hopefully a long series dedicated to presenting local talents who took the time and made their own music, but are long since forgotten—if they were ever remembered in the first place. 

As one might expect, a few of these songs are, at best, mediocre. “I See Love There In Your Eyes” is a stripped-down affair, and Lee Royal is attempting a Kenny Rogers-style vocal. He falls short, of course; however, in his earnestness, he’s created a powerful emotion that is all his own. The lyrics to Ron McFarlan’s “Death of Bobby Darin” and Harold Crosby’s “The Old Man And The Burro” have such an amateurish quality to them, but as they are performed in dead seriousness, one wonders if these weren’t  merely song poems. Daniel Leal’s song “I Wish” is a flat, cringe-worthy number with a melody that is a flagrant rip-off of The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer.”  Then there’s the utterly bizarre “Peppenadi” by “The Harmonica Kid,” which can only be described as a bizarro world Daniel Johnston singing in an indiscernible language.

Others fare better, and some of these songs are of such high quality that it seems almost unfair that they weren’t the start of s successful singing career.  Earl Pettijohn’s “Sinner’s Fate” is a religious number, but it’s also a fine Western Swing number, making it easy to understand why he might have been a popular local performer. “Angel With A Broken Heart” by Buddy Jack and Kathy Williams is a Hank Williams-style tale of woe, while Kenny Brent & Donna Harris’ “Shadows of You” is simply gorgeous.

It is the final song on this collection that makes the strongest impression, and its inclusion makes the weaker moments of Small Town Country seem worthwhile. Lefty Batchelor has a vocal style similar to Red Sovine, and he tells the tale of his failed dreams—of a music career. He tells of how he meets his idol, Ernest Tubb, and how his budding career simply never got off its feet. The song ends with Batchelor hocking his guitar, buying a welder’s hat, and leaving music behind for a welder’s career. Try not to tear up when he sings, “Lord as I look back now, the glamor of the footlights, they were really great, but there’s just no place for a singer who’s just second rate.”

Sadly, that’s the message of Small Town Country, Volume 1—that just because you’re good, can write a song, and can sing, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed the entitlement of a musical career. That this labeled “volume one” gives one hope of another collection of fine, obscure, and unknown singers, dismissed at the time as “second rate,” but who, with the passage of time, can now be viewed as more talented than their obscurity made them.

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