This week’s column was going to be the final one of the year that focuses on new and upcoming roots music releases. But as there are more coming out than one column can hold, I'll do another one in a couple of weeks that highlights albums that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. For now, the ones that follow are essential, five of the year's best. Plus, there's a heads-up on notable Record Store Day roots exclusives.
Various Artists – At the Louisiana Hayride (Dec. 8)
Bear Family Records has released many outstanding sets over the years, but this time it has surpassed even its own high standards. The At The Louisiana Hayride set is a 20-CD set comprised of 559 tracks from 167 different artists from 1948 to 1960 and a lavish 224-page hardback book (LP sized) full of photos and memorabilia. Most of the tracks have not been heard since they were first broadcast, and many of the photos have never been seen outside the radio station's walls, let alone published.
The Louisiana Hayride was a live three-hour broadcast on KWKH out of Shreveport, and, like Nashville’s Opry, was the place for country music fans to be on a Saturday night, either in the audience or on the radio. While the Opry may be more well-known, the Hayride did not play second fiddle to anyone. Rather, it gave its audience experiences, such as a young Elvis, that the Opry never would. While both presented the stars of the day, as well as lesser known folks, there was more of an edge to the KWKH show. Let me put it this way, even if it's a bit oversimplified: It’s the difference between Sinatra and Dylan. On the Opry you got the former, on the Hayride, you got both.
Prime example is after the Opry refused Elvis in 1954, he took his own brand of rockabilly blues to the Hayride airwaves before anyone knew what he or his music was about. Included here are 15 prime Elvis performances, including “That’s All Right” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” During his last appearance in 1956, the crowd went completely nuts. It seems they put Elvis on the show’s first hour, with two more hours to go. So what does the MC do when a crowd just won't let up? He comes back on stage and utters, for the first time heard anywhere, these famous words, “Elvis has left the building.” You hear the full version on this set.
We also get to hear two different Hank Williamses: first as a newcomer and later as a seasoned, troubled vet after being booted off the Opry. There's also an unreleased version of “I’m A Long Gone Daddy.” Another is the first recorded live version, from 1955, of George Jones’ breakthrough hit, “Why Baby Why.” You hear what made Buddy Miller include it as a staple of his live shows.
Also included are unadorned gems from Johnny Horton, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash (who also hawks doughnuts), June Carter, Roy Acuff, the Louvin Brothers, Ray Price, Roger Miller, and Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw. Also included from my home state are the Bailes Brothers (whom my parents knew) and Wilma & Stoney Cooper: both sets of artists are in the West Virginia Musical Hall of Fame. The list goes on, but suffice it to say we get to hear most of the great country artists of the day giving their best to their fans.
I hesitate to call this set a “historical” one, even though it is. It is more than that, and it is more than nostalgia – we get to hear what live country music was like with an audience of its time. Nowadays we can listen to all the studio recordings we want, anytime we want, anyplace we want. It has all become too easy, too polished, and we experience it only through the eyes and ears of today. But to be able to go back in time when something was fresh and new, when you had to go out of your way for something special and to be part of that audience, is an experience that only time travel can achieve. This is the closest we will ever get. This set is certainly the release "event" not just of the year, but of the decade. You can get marvelously lost in these recordings, and you have that gorgeous book to guide you through Mr. Peabody's wayback machine.
Additional information, including a five-minute video and a listing of all 559 tracks, on this magnificent box set can be found here.