"Country & Western Hit Parade: Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music" is the second half of an invaluable album project from Bear Family Records that enables pop fans to step back in time to listen to music on the radio just like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and Ray Charles did more than half a century ago.
Each of the single discs released in the "Dim Lights" series contains 25 to 30 of the most popular country songs of a given year, from 1945 to '55 -- and you have to go only seven tracks deep into the 1945 album to hear a song that hard-core Presley fans will recognize.
Ernest Tubb's "Tomorrow Never Comes," a honky-tonk ballad co-written by Johnny Bond, spent three weeks at No. 1 on the country charts in 1945 and remained a radio favorite for years. A young Presley surely heard the tune in the endless hours he spent listening to R&B and country stations in Memphis; he recorded the song for his "Elvis Country (I'm 10,000 Years Old)" album in 1971.
The "Dim Lights" series also contains at least 19 other songs that were recorded by Presley, including Hank Snow's "(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such as I," Leon Payne's "I Love You Because" and Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Other tunes in the collection were recorded by such varied figures as Dylan, Charles, the Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis and Eric Clapton.
These discs are the country music equivalent of Bear Family's earlier "Blowing the Fuse," a 16-volume series of albums that focused on R&B hits of each year from 1945 to 1960. Interestingly, Presley recorded approximately the same number of songs from both the R&B and country sets.
"Country & Western Hit Parade: Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music"
Bear Family Records
What follows is a look at some of the revealing moments from the series, produced by Colin Escott for Richard Weize's German label, which continues to set the standard for vintage retrospectives.
The Maddox Brothers & Rose, "Milk Cow Blues" (included in the 1947 volume). Though this song -- which Elvis recorded in his pre-"Heartbreak Hotel" days -- is a vintage blues number, several country artists, including the colorful Maddox group, have recorded it. Presley never said where he heard the song, but there's a sudden tempo change in the instrumental break here that could have inspired the King's celebrated version.
Bill Monroe, "Little Cabin on the Hill" (1948). This lonesome ballad first gained attention among Presley followers when he, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins sang a couple of lines from it during the informal 1956 studio jam released years later under the title "Million Dollar Quartet." Presley also returned to the tune on "Elvis Country."
Darrell Glenn, "Crying in the Chapel" (1953). Most rock fans assume that Presley's 1965 take on "Chapel" was based on the Orioles' 1963 R&B rendition. Yet this original country version was probably in Presley's head long before he heard the Orioles' record. In fact, the song, written by Glenn's father, Artie, was a Top 10 country hit in 1953 for both Glenn and Rex Allen.
Elvis Presley, "That's All Right" (1954). It's a stretch to include Presley's debut Sun single in the series since it wasn't a national hit in the country field. On the other hand, it is totally appropriate to have Presley's version of the Arthur Crudup blues tune here because it underscores the series' theme about these songs leading to the door of rock 'n' roll. In his treatment of the song, Presley defined rock 'n' roll as we now know it.
Eddy Arnold, "The Cattle Call" (1955). Arnold was the country equivalent in the 1950s of easy-listening pop crooners such as Perry Como, so it's odd that Presley recorded more hits by the conservative vocalist than by any of the more adventurous country singers. Though Presley didn't record the entire song, he re-created the playful yodel from "Cattle Call" during an L.A. rehearsal in 1970 and then joked with the musicians in the room, "That was my biggest hit record . . . also my last one."
The 16-second yodel was released by RCA Records in a 1998 Presley retrospective titled "A Touch of Platinum: A Life in Music."
Backtracking is a monthly feature highlighting CD reissues and other pop items of historical interest.