|The Neon And The Rain (1967)|
|Many Happy Hangovers (1966)|
As I've written before, I'm enamored of country music produced prior to the 1970s, before pop crossover success became deathly catnip to Nashville songwriters, and before production became slick and bloodless, the rural honky-tonk edges of the previous few decades smoothed over, ignored for the sake of radio. There's been a long tradition of country singers who chose tuxedos over Nudie suits, crooning over yodeling, strings over pedal steel, and supper clubs over honky-tonks—thanks to individual temperaments, splintering and evolving audiences, and producers Owen Bradley, Chet Atkins, and Billy Sherrill, among others—but there have also been regular, twangy volleys from the other side of town. Two albums released within a year of each other—Jean Shepard's Many Happy Hangovers and Freddie Hart's The Neon And The Rain—reflect a certain strain of mid-1960's country music that still aimed for the charts but wasn't yet neutered by orchestral string arrangements, laid-back playing, and softened tones. The playing on each of these albums is crisp, vigorous and precise, the kind of music made for AM transistor radios. These songs explore heartache, lust, jealousy, revenge, violence, selfishness, pride, disenchantment, and bedroom blues—your average day in country music—restraining them in formal, radio-ready decorum without sacrificing emotional content.
Shepard was a pioneer among female country music singers; Hart never quite achieved the commercial success his singing and interpreting deserved; alas, neither is talked about quite often enough, it seems to me. These tunes that amount to a heated conversation between two great singers, a six-act melodrama of domestic duress. The real thing.