CD Reviews for 06/23/05 – Burton & Mooney, Maphis & Travis, Speedy West by Dan Ferguson

Recent blasts from the past all courtesy of Coxsackie, New York-based reissue house Sundazed Music are once again in the Compact Capsules spotlight. The latest offerings from the label lean deep in a country guitar direction. Let’s take a look.

The Guitars That Won the West!

When talk turns to names like Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, James Burton, Ralph Mooney, and Speedy West, you are talking about five of the pioneering pickers of the country & western music set. Trailblazers one and all on guitar (Travis, Maphis, Burton) and steel guitar (Mooney and West), respectively, each of these highly influential players at one time or another stood the C&W music world up on its ears with their innovative strokes. Three classic country instrumental albums, each originally released on Capitol Records, from this cast of guitar totin’ cats have just been reissued and each for the first time on CD here in the States. And leave it to Sundazed Music to concoct such a catchy, not to mention highly appropriate, title for this trio of reissues calling it “The Guitars That Won West”. Sourced from the original Capitol analog master tapes, each reissue is an exact reproduction of the original album with the only addition being new liner notes from country music authority Richard Kienzle.

Corn Pickin’ & Slick Slidin’

First up is the reissue of the album Corn Pickin’ & Slick Slidin’ (Sundazed SC-9009) from the dynamic duo of guitarist James Burton and steel guitar player Ralph Mooney. Originally released in 1968, the dozen tracks comprising the original release of this album drew from each player’s work with some of country music’s biggest stars (“I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”, “It’s Such a Pretty World Today”) while at the same time mixing in some tasty original instrumentals. (As a side note, the title track for this recording, written by Mr. Burton, has provided the outro theme for my own radio program at WRIU-FM for over a dozen years now.) Burton and Mooney didn’t go for speed as much as for precision and the interplay between the two as demonstrated by this one and only recording from the duo is letter perfect when it comes to twang. Each based out of California, just a look at the resumes of these two fellows and it’s downright jaw-dropping. With a Fender Telecaster his principal weapon of choice, Burton first established himself playing lead guitar for Ricky Nelson in the 1950s before moving on to session work in Hollywood in the 1960s where he graced countless country, rock and pop sessions. He’d go on to back the likes of Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris in the 1970s as well as Gram Parsons on his two highly influential solo albums. For Mooney, the side man credits were equally as staggering. He began his career in Oklahoma backing Western swing artist Merle Lindsey before making the move to California. He’d first hit pay dirt with the Ray Price song “Crazy Arms” which he co-wrote with Charles Seals in 1956. He’d eventually hook on with Bakersfield artist Wynn Stewart while at the same time also working in the studio on a number of Buck Owens’ early classics. From Stewart, Mooney would join Merle Haggard’s Strangers band where his steel would grace many of Hag’s landmark 1960s sides. Perhaps Mooney’s greatest notoriety came in the 1970s as a member of Waylon Jennings’ band of outlaws and documented most notably by his work on the legendary Waylon Live! recording. Side men for their entire careers, Corn Pickin’ & Slick Slidin’ presented a rare chance for Mssrs. Burton and Mooney to step into the spotlight and shine they do on this classic treatise on the art of twang guitar.

Country Music’s Two Guitar Greats

Unlike James Burton and Ralph Mooney who performed mostly in supporting roles throughout their respective careers, guitarists Merle Travis and Joe Maphis each had very successful solo careers. Whereas Maphis played in a flatpicking style, Travis’s style could best be described as thumb-picking where he’d pick melody on the treble strings with his right index finger while plucking a syncopated bass accompaniment with the right thumb. Travis-pickin’ is what they’d call it. The two first met at radio station WLW in Cincinnati in 1942 where Travis had already been employed and Maphis was a new hire. Upon leaving WLW, each would meet with success in the music world. For Travis, the big time would arrive soon after his move to Hollywood in 1944. Signed to Capitol Records, he would unleash a string of hits including “Divorce Me C.O.D.”, “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed”, “No Vacancy”, “Sixteen Tons” and “Sweet Temptation”. In 1947 alone he’d score a total of ten Top 10 hits. Whereas he would never scale such heights again, he’d remain with Capitol while also delving into television. Maphis would also head to California, but not until the early 1950s. Playing a custom-built doubleneck Mosrite electric guitar, he would dazzle with his breakneck playing style. The co-writer of the honky tonk classic “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)” with his wife and performing partner Rose Lee, Maphis would divide time between his own recordings, television, and soundtrack work. Whereas the two would jam on television together as well as the occasional album cut, it wasn’t until 22 years after their first meeting that they’d join forces for a record. The end result was the newly reissued album Country Music’s Two Guitar Greats (Sundazed SC-9011). By 1964 when this album was made, big time success was behind each of these two wizards of the six-string. More than simply a recording session, this get-together was a guitar summit between a couple of six-string giants. It featured the two working their picking magic on a mix of country standards (“Kentucky Waltz”, “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”, “Corrine Corrina”) and fiery originals (“Blast Off” takes the cake on the latter end). Leave it to the late, great guitar picker himself, Chet Atkins, to set the record straight on the importance of this record writing in the original liner notes “this album will be a must for all of us guitar pickers”. Forty-plus years later, Atkins’ words still hold true. Country Music’s Two Guitar Greats is must-have goods for any and all who fancy themselves guitar pickers.

Not Just a Name

Caffeine or amphetamines, one gets the feeling that something beyond normal body chemistry had to be driving the swirling, lightning fast playing of pedal steel innovator Speedy West. In other words, they didn’t call him Speedy for nothing. Being the resident pedal steel player for Capitol Records during the 1950s, West accumulated some pretty hefty credentials thanks to playing on records from everyone from Tennessee Ernie Ford to Kay Starr to Spike Jones. Whereas he is renowned for his duo work with his perennial, guitar-toting sidekick Jimmy Bryant who was also part of the Capitol Records Hollywood “house” band, the great West’s also forged a solo career during that time releasing several albums which to this day are revered by pedal steel guitar players worldwide. Arguably the best of the bunch from the solo side of West was the newly reissued Steel Guitar (Sundazed SC-9011). Originally released in 1960, the all-instrumental album featured West at his most daring and innovative with sidekick Bryant matching him stride for stride on guitar. He duo moves seamlessly from blazing instrumentals such as the appropriately titled “Speedin’ West” to the tropical tranquility of “West of Samoa” with plenty of stops in between. (Sundazed Music, P.O. Box 85, Coxsackie, NY 12051, or