Sad news from the worlds of country music, gospel music, and harmony singing. Longtime tenor singer for The Jordanaires, Gordon Stoker, passed away on March 27 at the age of 88. While the man himself was hardly a celebrity, Stoker’s voice was recognizable to millions, most famously in conjunction with that Presley fella, with whom they sang backup from 1956-72. In fact, Stoker’s work with Elvis predates the group’s work by a few months. Gordon sang harmony with brothers Ben and Brock Speer of the Speer Family on three Elvis sessions between January and April 1956, including the initial RCA date that produced “Heartbreak Hotel.” The Jordanaires’ first session with Elvis was on July 2, when they memorably cut “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Any Way You Want Me.” Yeah, I guess that was a pretty good day of work.
However, The Jordanaires weren’t just Elvis’ backup singers. They added their distinctive harmonies to hit singles by Patsy Cline (“Crazy” and “I Fall To Pieces”), Jim Reeves (“Four Walls”), Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”), George Jones (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”), and Ricky Nelson (“Poor Little Fool” and “Lonesome Town,” the latter song introduced to millions of new listeners via the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1994). They also appeared on The Blasters‘ Hard Line (1985), the last studio album to feature Dave Alvin and Gene Taylor from the classic Blasters lineup, who I showcased last time in This Song Comes From 1982.
In the wake of Stoker’s death — and thanks to Joey Thompson of The Archibalds — I’ve become obsessed with one of the fringe efforts in The Jordanaires’ discography: Ween‘s eccentric 1996 homage to classic country, 12 Golden Country Greats, which features only 10 songs because of course it does. Ween were genre-hopping pastiche masters, like a Siamese twin* Beck or two-man Beastie Boys, and with this album they continued the tradition of rock musicians cutting country (or country-ish) records in Nashville. The dirty little secret about 12 Golden is that though it’s yankee outsider art heavy on irony and dick jokes, it’s a damn good album. Not “wink wink” good, I mean actually, tangibly good.
*LANGUAGE POLICE: We believe “conjoined twin” is the preferred nomenclature.
TOC: So, at some point (Ween) says to you, “We want to make a country record,” and you say?
Ben Vaughn: Well, they say, “And we want you to produce it.” And I said, “OK, if we’re gonna do this, let’s do it the really classic way, you know, let’s book Bradley’s Barn and let’s get Pig Robbins and Charlie McCoy and these guys together. Because, there was that great moment in the ’60s where everybody went to Nashville to record, whether it was Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, or even Buffy Sainte-Marie, people like that. When Ween came to me, it was like a flash in my mind: Well, this is one of those kind of records. Nobody does that anymore, a rock act going to Nashville. Those records — and Charlie McCoy had a whole lot to do with those — were so good, especially the Dylan records. Blonde On Blonde is phenomenal and that’s Pig Robbins playing those piano parts on “I Want You,” Charlie McCoy playing bass. There’s something so musical about those records, but they’re not country.
But there are some serious (songs), too, like “You Were the Fool.”
“You Were the Fool” is awesome. I love that tune. That’s kinda hippie-country. I really love the bass line on that one. I remember when we were mixing it, we kept turning the bass up, and (engineer) Bobby Bradley was saying, “Can you do that?” ‘Cause, you know, in country music they don’t keep turning the bass up until it becomes really loud, like a Grateful Dead record or an R&B record — they don’t do that.
“You Were The Fool” was a great moment. Buddy Harman, this guy is definitely the most recorded drummer in country music. You know, we’ve got demos, we play the demo and Charlie McCoy would chart it out — numbers charts, instead of putting down the actual chord names, he would put a one and a four, and back to a one and a five, in case we wanted to change keys. It’s called the Nashville method (aka Nashville Number System). Actually, The Jordanaires invented that. Buddy hears [the demos] and goes, “You don’t mind if I use my hands, do you?” Then he sat back there and started that beat, the whole things played with his hands. It was so innovative, and he felt it right away, through his musical filter and all those years of experience. It was great.
–Producer Ben Vaughn Q&A with Taste Of Country, July 16, 2011
Ween – You Were The Fool
12 Golden Country Greats, 1996
“Fool” doesn’t feature The Jordanaires, but after those quotes I couldn’t NOT include it. I think Vaughn’s characterization of the song as “hippie country” is basically correct. You can practically smell the burritos from here. According to Vaughn, Dean Ween (Mickey Melchiondo), the band’s usual lead guitarist, only cut solos for “I Don’t Wanna Leave You On The Farm” and “Fluffy.” Therefore, the gnarly space guitar that enters “Fool” at 2:56 is in all likelihood the great Pete Wade. Because the session musicians on 12 Golden are what make the album as timeless at is, I’ve listed them below. Please marvel at Charlie McCoy’s stunning versatility. He would’ve also played sousaphone and glockenspiel had those instruments not been rented out by a Tom Waits cover band called Rain Dogs.
Gene Ween – vocals
Dean Ween – vocals, guitar
Charlie McCoy – bass, harmonica, percussion, vibraphone, organ, trumpet, tenor banjo, tuba
Pete Wade – guitar, dobro, 6-string bass
Bobby Ogdin & Hargus “Pig” Robbins – piano
Buddy Spicher – fiddle, mandolin
Russ Hicks – pedal steel guitar
Buddy Blackman – banjo
Bob Wray & Kip Paxton – bass
Buddy Harman & Gene Chrisman – drums
Ween – Powder Blue [Ali version]
12 Golden Country Greats, 1996
Same lineup as “You Were The Fool,” but add Jordanaires on backup vocals.
A simple two-stepper with a middle eight (2:26-3:06) featuring sincere, bemused band member intros, it could’ve been written by any one of the thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville. Two things that distinguish it from the traditional country song are: 1) Its reference to “the seventh sun of Orion,” more of that aforementioned hippie country talk, and 2) The final band member introduction.
I could compare 12 Golden Country Greats to Brobdingnagian totems like Blonde On Blonde and Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, but that would be too easy and lazy, even if technically accurate. In fact, I think 12 Golden is closer in spirit to Roger Miller and John Hartford, zany geniuses whose best work was country, yet not Country, accessible, yet irreverent. Instead of being outsiders, Miller and Hartford were insiders who behaved like outsiders. They were mad scientists having fun with expectations, twisting comfortable forms into uncomfortable positions, and creating a wholly unique worldview drenched in maple surple. How is that not also a description of Ween?
And yes, I just wanted to use the word “Brobdingnagian.”
“Plug them holes till you see straight through to the mind’s eye.”
–“You Were The Fool”