YouTube Discoveries: Tributes to Kitty Wells and Hank Williams

Laura Cantrell performed her beautiful tribute to the late “Queen of Country Music” Kitty Wells, the titletrack of her 2011 album Kitty Wells Dresses, Tuesday night at City Winery, with husband Jeremy Tepper, program director of SiriusXM satellite radio’s Outlaw Country and Willie’s Roadhouse channels, in attendance.

I don’t know why it took me so long—going on four years—to see the connection between it and a song Tepper co-wrote and recorded in 1990 with his band the World Famous Blue Jays. “Do It For Hank” was produced by Eric Ambel and released on Tepper’s Diesel Only label, which focused on trucker country songs but also put out Kitty Wells Dresses.

Cantrell’s song speaks for itself. It was the only original in a set of Wells songs expertly chosen by Cantrell, who’s as knowledgeable about vintage country music as her husband.

What’s so cool about “Do It for Hank,” though, is that it’s part of a grand tradition of Hank Williams tribute songs. I’ll touch on four.

Moe Bandy’s 1975 country hit “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life,” is pretty straightforward in expressing the singer’s identification with Williams songs (“You wrote ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ about a gal just like my first ex-wife’”).

Waylon Jennings’ hit “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” also from 1975, wearily questions whether the prescribed route to stardom being laid out for him—“ Ten years down the road, making one night stands/Speeding my young life away”—was really the way Hank done it.

David Allan Coe took a mystical approach on his spooky 1983 hit “The Ride,” in which a hitchhiker gets picked up and briefly mentored by the ghost of Hank.

Of course, no one could do a Hank Williams tribute song better than Hank Williams, Jr., whose “The Conversation” finds Waylon intensely querying Bocephus about his dad. Even the video is genius.

Coe actually took the Hank Williams tribute to the next level with his “Hank Williams Junior–Junior” tribute to Junior, who became so big both physically and talentwise that Coe didn’t feel comfortable calling him Junior anymore.

And Tepper? “Do It for Hank” is a rowdy country rockin’ trucker’s pick-up line that Junior, if not Senior, was certainly proud of—if he ever heard it—and an original take on a well-worn country music theme and subgenre.

Of Ray Stevens and Shakespeare

I got called out—rightly—for my piece yesterday on Ray Stevens’ new comedy box set Encyclopedia Of Recorded Comedy Music.

“Sadly,” commented maybe the one Facebook friend who actually saw the piece (sadly!), “Stevens has become a voice for the Tea Party with a focus on virulent anti-Obama songs.”

“That’s true,” I responded, meekly, embarrassed. “I felt guilty writing the piece but did it for everything else in the set.”

To continue the rationalization, the set is quite extraordinary. Without reprinting the entire Examiner piece, I’ll just say it’s got 108 songs on nine discs and includes comedy song classics ranging from the likes of The Coasters (“Poison Ivy,” “Yakety-Yak”), Bobby “Boris” Pickett (“Monster Mash”) and Allan Sherman (“Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”), to Stevens’ own signature hits including “Ahab The Arab,” “Gitarzan” and “The Streak.”

But the ninth disc is actually a bonus disc of new and recent originals including the scornful “Obama Budget Plan”—which I had heard, but let it slide. I also knew Stevens was likely appearing on Fox News while he was in town, but a lot of other country stars whom I’m fans of go there, so I let that go as well.

But then I started researching and found an essay Stevens wrote for last summer, “The Blamer-in-Chief.” Find it yourself if you care to read the usual right-wing tripe. I’ll just quote from the middle:

“I try to find the humor in everything but there is nothing funny about what the president, his policies and his associates are doing to this country with the help of a political party that obviously cares more about elections than the great nation they have sworn to protect and defend.

“I’m tired of it. I’ve heard it all before and don’t want to hear it anymore.

“I’m tired of hearing how we have lost a war and how our troops terrorize and kill innocent people in the dead of night.

“I’m tired of hearing good, honest, caring people like the Tea Party folks being referred to as ‘terrorists’ by people who won’t even call a real terrorist a terrorist.”

Tiresome? Yes. Should I have given Stevens any coverage? Arguable.

Regular readers will know I’ve written about right-wing artists before, and may have correctly surmised that some of them I’m friendly with, if not very friendly with–and for many years.

Most recently, of course, I chose to cut Hank Williams, Jr. some slack—a whole lot of slack, admittedly—for his infamous Obama-Hitler analogy.

“That’s just Hank being Hank,” I felt. Not the smartest guy politically, way too gun-crazy, but still such a great artist–and he showed guts as well as class in going to The View to take his lumps, as well as Fox to get his sugar.

I gave the Bellamy Brothers a Brother Pass, too, after satisfying myself that their 2010 hit video for “Jalapeno” was not gratuitous Obama bashing. Here I figured that the guys who gave us “Get Into Reggae Cowboy” and “Old Hippie” deserved the benefit of some doubt.

Larry Gatlin? I wrote the liner notes for the 1996 Galtin restrospective Best Of The Gatlins: All The Gold In California. Known him since he opened for someone at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wis., in the mid-’70s when we were both starting out (I want to say Conway Twitty, with or without Loretta, maybe). Great artist. Great guy. Did one of those Broadway AIDS benefit shows a few years ago at B.B. King’s (I saw him play the lead in The Will Rogers Follies on Browadway, brilliantly).

He’s in town a lot now doing Fox News right-wing commentary. I went with him to do Huckabee a few years ago and much to my embarrassment, was spotted in the studio audience by a couple dubious Facebook friends. I also met Huck, and told him I was pals with his former campaign manager Ed Rollins. “I’m sorry for you!” Huck joked—at least I think he was joking.

But I do love Larry, and Ed. And Wagner, as in Richard.

I have a Jewish friend, an intense right-wing Zionist, who loves the opera but won’t go to any Wagner. I don’t’ know how he feels about Shakespeare and Shylock, Dickens and Fagin. I’m not going to ask.

I love the Stones, but always felt a tinge of guilt for loving “Midnight Rambler” so much: “I’m a hit-and-run raper, in anger….stick my knife right down your throat, and it hurts.” Remember the billboard campaign for Black And Blue, the one with the girl tied up and beaten, yet chirping, “I’m black and blue from the Rolling Stones—and I love it!”? Feminists hated the album. I still love it.

I’ve defended with pride Phil Spector here and elsewhere as one of the kindest, most generous and thoughtful people I’ve ever known. I’ve never met him, but anyone I’ve met who’s ever worked with Mel Gibson says pretty much the same thing. I still love his films, still love Phil’s records.

I don’t know that I’m making a point or that I have one to make, other than that I will continue to enjoy Ray Stevens, and not listen to the bonus disc of Encyclopedia.

And I will continue to repudiate his politics, and suggest he just take a good long nap.