Country music isn't what it used to be. That's the lament of longtime fans who can still remember when steel guitars trumped slide guitars and male artists wore spangly suits instead of ripped jeans and t-shirts.
And that's the message underlying the songs of Country Music of Your Life. Presented by Time Life and radio program syndicator Music of Your Life, the new 10-disc collection harks back to what some recall as the genre's golden age, though old-timers of the late 1950s were as skeptical of its bona fides as today's traditionalists are about lyrics that extol beer, trucks and Daisy Dukes.
With 36 Number One hits, plus 30 Gold and four Platinum albums internationally, Country Music Hall of Fame member Charley Pride was a giant of those bygone times. Fittingly, he and fellow icon Crystal Gayle are spokespersons on television ads for the collection. Pride's smash hit "Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'" and Gayle's "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" are among its 150 tracks, which also include Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors," Glen Campbell's "By The Time I Get to Phoenix," Patsy Cline's "Crazy," Floyd Cramer's "Last Date" and other classics.
From gauzy string sections to sentimental reflections on love lost and won, Country Music of Your Life appears to define the style's essential elements. Yet Pride insists that the collection doesn’t argue in favor of vintage versus contemporary country.
"I don't go around kicking what country music is going through today because Carrie Underwood and all those people have had so many great hits," he insists. "When they started bringing in people they referred to as the 'hat gang' — I guess it would be Garth (Brooks) and Alan Jackson — I didn't go around saying, 'We were better than them!' or 'It was better then!' And Taylor Swift has had so much success from the vantage point of money. I mean, who's going to kick $53 million a year?”
When pressed on whether the subjects addressed 50-odd years ago did differ markedly from the bro-country bromides of our time, Pride prefers not to comment. "You've got to understand," he responds. "Country music got picked down and put down until it got so hot that everybody else wanted to come over here and do it."
Pride does acknowledge that the process of picking songs for the collection had more to do with chronology than preconceived criteria. "Let's start with traditional country music," he explains. "My dad loved Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. . . I saw Bill Monroe with Roy Acuff, and from there you just walk on up the line with Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams and the ones that weren't as famous as them but were in that category. For traditional country, I kind of cut if off at George Strait."
In his view, it's a smooth continuum from that point up to what dominates radio airplay today. "When I first met Randy Travis, we were doing a thing for kids at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville," Pride recalls. "I walked up to him and told him, 'You're going to be big.' He knew people like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill and all the way up through Garth Brooks and Blake Shelton. That takes us to where we are now. That's the way I see it, as to how country music has progressed. That's my way of trying to explain how we go from Bill Monroe and Eddy Arnold all the way up through Hank Williams and me, Merle Haggard and the whole bit."
One final characteristic ties together all the great country music performers, minimizing whatever differences there may be between them as individuals and as products of their particular time. As Pride sees it, "We're in the business of selling lyrics, feelings and emotions. We try our best to do that with the songs we sing."
We asked Pride to pick his 10 favorite songs from the Country Music of Your Life compilation, a task he deemed impossible. So instead, he picked the ten that, he says, "jumped out at me."
Marty Robbins, "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife": "He's one of the five artists that I give tribute to in my show. I love them all, but he was one of the first that took me out on the road. He was so funny all the time. He was just good to me. So it's not only that this song jumped out to me, but it was also thinking about how good he was to me and how I loved his singing and him as a person."
Johnny Cash, "Ring Of Fire": "When I started out in Montana singing in nightclubs, I used to do this song all the time. It was a part of me as I was using other people's songs to get myself going. I'm not a songwriter, but I have to admire how Johnny's wife (June Carter Cash) and Merle Kilgore wrote this song and what it's trying to say."
Bobby Bare, "Detroit City": "I was working on the missile sites up in Montana when that song came out. I started singing it in the nightclubs there."
Charley Pride, "Kiss An Angel Good Morning": "When I first got that song from (songwriter) Ben Peters, I couldn't wait to get into a studio with it. I didn't realize it was going to do what it did. But my friend who I loved so much, Jack Clement, picked all my stuff at the very beginning — we didn't fight one another over it, because we worked together. I just love those lyrics. I guess I sold it pretty good; it was the biggest hit I ever had."
Randy Travis, "Forever And Ever, Amen": "I love Randy. I first heard that song when he did it at the Academy of Country Music Awards out in California. I said to myself, 'Oh, boy, I'd like to have that one!'"
John Conlee, "Rose Colored Glasses": "I love John, we're good friends. I like this song, but I also like the one he does by Red Lane, called 'Miss Emily's Picture.' When we do the Opry together, a lot of times he'll do that and say, 'This is for Charley Pride. It's 'Miss Emily's Picture.'"
Willie Nelson, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain": "Willie's version of this song is fantastic. I have a pretty good cut on it myself, but I don't think too many people have heard it because Willie's was so gigantic. Plus, I love the lyrics. You just lay it out and it picks at your heartstrings."
Conway Twitty, "Linda on My Mind": "Conway and I were both from Mississippi. We were born 30 miles apart. I do that song a lot onstage. Conway is one of the five people I do tribute to in my show, with 'Hello, Darlin'.'"
Faron Young, "It's Four in the Morning": "I've recorded this one too. You know, I'm on my way to England, Scotland and Ireland, on tour until May 6. 'Four in the Morning' was quite big over there. Of course, Faron was one of my favorite people. He took me out on the road for the very first time. I'm not trying to measure which artist I love the most, but he was one of them."
Waylon Jennings, "Luckenbach Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)": "Waylon gave me a ring that I've been wearing all the time for 40 years. I might have picked 'Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line' because my son Dion does a pretty fine on that himself. I took both of my sons (Dion and Kraig) to England with me last year. So it's a combination of love and appreciation for Waylon and wishing he was still here, like so many of my other peers that have gone."