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Vinyl Cave: A pair of country samplers from Starday Records
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Sun Records wasn't the only famous yellow-labeled record company in Tennessee. The Starday label cranked out hundreds of country singles and LPs from the early 1950s through the '70s. And, despite what John Sebastian may say in The Lovin' Spoonful song "Nashville Cats," Sun wasn't based in Nashville. Neither was Starday, which was founded in Texas by "Pappy" Daily, moved to Hollywood (!) after being bought by Don Pierce in 1953, and soon wound up in the more appropriate home of Madison, Tennessee. For more history of the label, Both Sides Now Publications has an excellent write-up and discography.

There's been tons of country sampler albums over the years, and to this day the king of various artists comps has to be Starday. By the time they began issuing LPs in 1956, they had a serious backlog of singles sides, and went to work recycling that material. By 1959, they had only issued 10 long-players, and of those six were samplers. Then the floodgates opened and the label exploited the growing LP market with abandon, issuing tons of collections of older or otherwise leftover material.

In 1960, the label even upped the ante by beginning to issue "limited edition" double-album sets, which today are a great place to get an overview of what the label was up to. There's straight traditional country, bluegrass, ballads and boppers, and even some concessions to the emerging "countrypolitan" sound. Also, some harder-to-find early tracks by artists who went on to become famous on other labels tend to be sprinkled throughout Starday's samplers. Without digging too closely into discographies, it also appears these collections sometimes include some previously unreleased tracks.

Over the years, Starday would issue about 20 of these double albums, along with too many single-LP collections to count easily. If picking up any of their samplers, though -- and this goes for any '60s budget-line reissues in general -- it's always best to keep an eye out for the mono version if it exists; some incredibly bad rechanneled stereo is likely to be found on many of these types of repackage jobs. Even worse, rawer-sounding '50s tracks are also occasionally ruined with bad countrypolitan overdubbing as well. Thankfully the Starday compilations I've encountered never attempt that trick at "fixing" tracks.

Starday's sets often followed some sort of theme -- the 10 volumes in their Country Music Hall of Fame series are just one example -- but there are also some discs which present a seemingly completely random collection of tracks. Here are some notes on a couple of non-themed comps unearthed recently in Madison dollar bins.

The Hit Parade of American Country Music features 36 tracks, and I sure hope there are no Canadians on here, since the label felt the need to point out C&W's home base in the title. The appellation "hit parade" is also a bit goofy, as the songs included that were hits are mostly represented by cover versions by Starday artists! This collection leans heavily on Cowboy Copas, whose career had recently been revived by the crossover hit "Alabam." Ten songs is excessive, though it appears some of them may have been unique to this collection at the time. Much of the rest of the set follows the mid-tempo balladry of Copas' material, making this one of the most sedate Starday compilations I've encountered. Five early Dottie West tracks are welcome, even though it includes a couple Patsy Cline covers. Other highlights include Donny Young (better know as Johnny Paycheck) doing his best George Jones impersonation on "The Window Up Above," the best Justin Tubb song I've ever heard, the self-written "Five Minutes of the Latest Blues," and the sublimely ridiculous "Tattooed Lady" by The Willis Brothers. (Starday, 1962)

Country and Western Golden Hit Parade also contains a chunk of countrypolitan-aimed ballads. Starday's take on "smoother musical backgrounds" still retains much more of a traditional sound than, say, what RCA was up to at the time; there's very rarely any gloppy strings. Again, despite the title, most of the songs recognizable as hits tend to be cover versions. In fact, while making a quick comparison with Starday's singles discography, very few of the songs were even singles tracks. But overall, it's balanced well between ballads and up-tempo material, and there' are some boppers from unexpected sources. Archie Campbell does a decent cover of "Root Beer," a George Jones re-write of "White Lightning." Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, who I've usually only heard doing mellow instrumentals, has an entertaining talking blues called "Hospitality Blues." And who expected a fuzztone steel guitar intro on the Red Sovine ballad "There's Always One"? Trucker music had hit Starday by the time this album was issued, but is represented only by the somewhat awkward "Sleeper Cab Blues" by Tom O'Neal. Rarities include an early Buck Owens track in full-on Hank Williams mode (listed as "Buck Owen"), "The House Down the Block." There was even a George Jones song I'd never heard, "It's OK," which was an early B-side and apparently only available on LP otherwise on his(and Starday's) extremely rare first album. (Starday, 1963)

Starday merged with Cincinnati's fellow traditionalists King Records in 1968, and the flow of new recordings slowed until Starday-King was purchased by corporate interests. Eventually the publishing side of the business was split from the recordings and master tapes, which ended up being heavily repackaged once again through GML/International Marketing Group via various label names over the past three decades. The label's story will be told by its longtime president, Don Pierce, in the upcoming book The Starday Story: The House That Country Music Built, from the University Press of Mississippi.

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