[9 August 2004]
It was 1984 and I was at the Grand Ole Opry with my parents who had traveled down from Atlantic Canada to do the touristy Tennessee music trek—see the Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, crash Ronnie Milsap’s recording studio to see if he was there, and then jaunt down to Memphis to see Graceland. The Saturday night I attended the Grand Ole Opry was also the night that Stonewall Jackson performed. Although hearing “Waterloo” and others considered country classics of his, the man was a bit long in the tooth and the voice heard on vinyl wasn’t quite the same as the one onstage.
But after his heyday with Columbia Records, Jackson found himself with Little Darlin’, a small but influential label that also worked with others who bent over backwards for the Nashville labels only to be figuratively screwed later on. And this collection shows just why he was so loved back in the proverbial day. The album, recorded around 1979, still reeks of the classic ‘60s and ‘70s style of country with the lush orchestration, the high female harmonies and other nuances, but Jackson delivers the goods beginning with “My Favorite Sin”. The pedal steel is also vital to getting each of these songs of heartache and longing across. Throughout it all, though, it’s his deep Southern timbre and slight twang that makes the 20 tracks quite easy and relaxing on the ears. Another example is the simple country narrative of “We’re the Kind of People That Make the Jukebox Play” with its lovable honky tonky sway and barroom piano.
Jackson gets a little more rambunctious on the toe-tapping “I Can’t Sing a Love Song” that recalls the good old days of Waylon, Willie, Merle and Johnny. “I’ve been singin’ and dreamin’ that’s so easy to do / That’s all I’ve been doin’ since I’ve been lovin’ you” Jackson sings as the easy-going, heartbroken-go-lucky tune glides along easily. A fiddle is added to give it even more of that country touch but it’s really just icing on the cake here. Jackson gets a tad religious on the gospel-leaning “Jesus Took the Outlaw Out of Me” with Jackson offering some of his best performances on this precious, minimal yet engaging ditty. The only downside is you expect an additional verse but there isn’t. Hard to find fault with the cheating songs though when a nugget such as “Come On Home and Have Your Next Affair With Me” ensues.
Thus far there is the heartache and cheating, but Jackson finally gives the booze pre-requisite on “The Pint of No Return” with its instant and timeless old-time country gratification that many current country or alt.country bands can’t resemble despite the best of intentions. Jackson never lets himself get out of this comfortable groove or tempo for the entire record and, for some strange reason, you never grow tired of it. “Things That Lovers Do” tends to slow the album a bit more with its minimal arrangement and lack of lush background music that is often needless. The production value is often quite good on these tracks but “Spirits of St. Louis” comes off like a recording with the mic either in an air duct overhead or in the next room. Some of the titles themselves you can’t help but chuckle (or groan) at, especially the booze-induced “Alcohol Of Fame”.
A couple of clunkers are here, especially the cheesy and stale “Sunny Side of the Mountain”. And the rendition of “The Long Black Veil” might take a couple of listens to get into as it resembles something Kenny Rogers circa The Gambler might get away with. Nonethless, with homestretch greats such as “Angry Words” and “Leona”, it’s hard to ignore the brilliance of this country living legend. And by the time you hit “Waterloo”, Stonewall Jackson has nothing left to prove. He might be an oldie now, but he was one hell of a goodie!