Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Don Gibson's 50 Best Songs: One of the Great Bodies of American Popular Music

This is another home-brew compilation, with songs in chronological order, going from 1954 to 1969. This was perhaps country music's most fertile period. Great songwriters seemed to exist by the truckload--Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, John D. Loudermilk, Hank Snow, etc., etc., etc.

It's easy to take this massive body of music for granted. Some of the songs--such as Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Sweet Dreams"--are such a part of the fabric of American music that they may be invisible to many people.

I consider Don Gibson to be one of the strongest, most passionate country songwriters of his day. That he was a superb performer--until he adopted iffy vocal affectations, circa 1964--is a decided plus.

Many of the pro songwriters in '50s/'60s Nashville were charming, if tentative, vocalists. No one is going to champion Harlan Howard as an outstanding performer. Gibson is up there with Willie Nelson and Hank Snow as a masterful writer/artist in the classic country idiom.

Gibson's songs demonstrate the arc of development in country music through two turbulent decades. The earliest recordings heard here are typical of the hard-edged, plaintive honky-tonk country that surfaced via the inestimable influence of Hank Williams. There are, as well, a handful of solid rockabilly-style numbers ("I Ain't A-Studyin' You, Baby," "Tell It Like It Is" and the country-punk of "Sittin' Here Cryin'").

Gibson's soulful voice was used as the vehicle for "The Nashville Sound"--an attempt to give pop and rock fans a reference point for a music that was scorned as corny and old-fashioned. Some regrettable things occurred in the building of the Nashville Sound--obnoxious, ultra-white backing choruses, incongruous instruments such as electric organs and, to some purists' eyes, full drum kits. The arrangements tended towards the saccharine/Caucasian, as heard in several recordings in this compilation. It is to Gibson's credit that, while he embraces this new sound, he also transcends it with the power of his wavering, pensive voice.

Gibson struggled with drug addiction and was infamous for erratic behavior. These excesses took a toll on his abilities as performer and songwriter. His delivery becomes curiously clipped and curt in his post-1963 recordings. Compared to the moving performances of the late 1950s and early '60s, this new approach falls flat. If Gibson saw this as an improvement in his art, one can only disagree. He could still perform a song--his or others', the latter which he leaned on heavily after 1963--with beauty and soul, but the flowing sustained notes of his best early recordings are achingly absent.

When able to write, Gibson still proved a first-class country and pop writer. Late songs on this collection, such as "Around the Town," "Run Along Blues" and "Times Were Good" meet or surpass the quality of his late '50s/early '60s output. Indeed, the final song here, 1969's "There's a Story," shows the writer adapting to new changes in the sound of country music.

"Oh Lonesome Me," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Sweet Dreams" have proved Don Gibson's most enduring compositions. He recorded the latter several times before arriving at his definitive version, released as a 1962 single. Its flipside, "The Same Street," is a devastating, gloomy song about the traces of a ruined relationship that supremely haunt their singer. This was a Gibson lyrical specialty. Few of his songs have happy outcomes. In the song "Give Myself a Party," Gibson takes this melancholy and turns it inside-out. The results are unusual and gripping. The song is a jaunty death-march to the idea that human love can successfully exist.

All songs are derived from the three box sets of Gibson's 1949-1969 recordings issued by, er, "Ursine Clan" Records in the 1990s. All three sets are worth acquiring, in whatever form available, for their alternate takes, tremendous cover versions and a few minor gems that didn't make the cut of this personal Top Fifty.

You can download this 314 MB file (just songs--no artwork) right HERE. No password required.

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