Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hank Locklin: RCA Country Legends (1956-68)



Though he's outpaced in influence and long-lasting mass appeal by a hefty handful of his peers, Hank Williams down to Patsy Cline and beyond, this sweet-natured, melancholy tenor passionately embodied the pure heart of country music at its artistic peak. The genre's most rabid cultists regularly name his early RCA recordings as among the basest pleasures of the period, a zenith of stark and direct expression from a real entertainer of the old sort. His time playing before audiences ranged from the 1930s to the late '70s, though he'd spend his last few decades in seclusion before passing in 2003. As a result, he captures so much of a certain American dream, the ideal of the high school dropout chasing something for love and somehow succeeding, across transformative decades.

Lockin's voice is naturally chirpy and cheery, which can be off-putting at first for those used to spinning the AM dial to hear the barely-contained desperation of someone like Williams, or the deadpan misery and irony of a Johnny Cash, but the smallness and classical sweetness of the singing is what makes a tearful tune like "Livin' Alone" feel sincerely heartfelt rather than just generic, and what sets alight the tired musical and lyrical conceits of "Geisha Girl."  Locklin tended to ignore trends, which is one reason his work has aged well (though perversely, also a reason it hasn't survived particularly well into subsequent generations), so the proto-rockabilly shades of "Why Baby Why" serve mostly to prove how much teenage music of the period owed to ideas that had floated around radio for at least a generation. The most brilliant of the rockabilly singers always went for the jugular, intending to bruise, a hit-and-run, and with the possible exception of Gene Vincent, you'll never find anything in their catalogs that offers up a vocal as sophisticated as that of Locklin on "Why Baby Why," on which he exercises the remarkable collision of the gentle and the operatic.

That knowing humanity was by design, however, and Locklin has a tightly controlled voice that suggests the Depression as his period of entrance into the performing world; as a result he seldom loses himself outright. When he soars, as on "It's a Little More Like Heaven," it's because he means to. On this entire, brief compilation, the pleasures are consistent; fans maintain that not only is this only the beginning, but that it's actually the bottom tier of Locklin's output -- it's often argued that he's never enjoyed the cachet of a true legend in America as he does overseas, particularly in England and Germany, where his most esoteric work is lovingly gathered and collected and studied. This disc only scratches the surface, presumably, of understanding Locklin -- but these are indeed the songs that brought him his greatest period of fame Stateside, so they must operate as a firm starting point.

Besides, even in just sixteen tracks, this collection exposes an excellent primer not just on Locklin's own vocal range but on the varied utility a singular voice, even an ostensibly limited if gifted one, can have in popular music -- the contrast on the two best tunes here, the mournful "Please Help Me, I'm Falling," a true country classic, and the jubliant and gigantic "We're Gonna Go Fishin'," one of the most unpretentiously joyous singles of the early '60s, is just as gratifying and fascinating as the more-than-competent read on the future standard "Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On," which paid the bills and sent Locklin into a permanent radio oblivion for years to come. Overseas importance notwithstanding, that's a fine enough legacy, isn't it? Turn your AM dial just the right way and you can still hear the late Locklin wailing out into the ether about his longing for you, livin' alone and wanting to dream on that pillow too. There's apparently far more to his legacy, but you know, even if there wasn't...

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