Leon Payne is a legendary figure in country music, but it's for his songs more than his recordings. He wrote hundreds of songs during the '40s, '50s, and '60s, including such perennial classics as "Lost Highway," "I Love You Because," "They'll Never Take Her Love Away From Me," "Blue Side of Lonesome," "You've Still Got a Place in My Heart," and "Things Have Gone to Pieces," but he never had the same rate of success as a recording artist, never following through on his initial success with "I Love You Because." This lack of success kept his recordings out of print for years, until Bear Family finally released the 30-track compilation I Love You Because in 1999. It's not just that this is the first serious reissue effort on this major artist -- it's the first reissue period, and after listening to it, it's stunning that his recordings haven't gotten more attention before, since this is about as honky tonk as traditional country got in the early '50s. Unlike many Bear Family sets, this is not a complete recorded works set: It concentrates on Payne's recordings for Capitol between 1949 and 1952, when he was at his peak as a performer and when his records were selling at least regionally. Although this collection does include previously unreleased sides, it doesn't contain some of his major early work, including no version of "Lost Highway"; that song was recorded for the Nashville independent Bullet, and it, along with other tracks he cut for the label, is available on the superb Bear Family box set A Shot in the Dark: Tennessee Jive, which chronicles music made for Nashville indies and is unconditionally recommended. Payne also continued recording until the '60s, but it's actually better that this set is narrowly focused on the Capitol recordings, because it's not only all of a piece, but the shorter length will mean more country fans will be able to afford the time and money to explore this great music. Payne wrote all but two of the songs on this collection, and they cover a wide range of material, from weepy ballads and honky tonk ravers to novelties, romantic tunes, religious songs, and dance numbers, both slow and fast. Payne had a crackerjack band and a versatile voice that could be sweet or catch in his throat when the song called for it. While this music sounds familiar on the surface, it stands among the best country of the early '50s -- even if it wasn't widely heard, Payne's Capitol work is consistently satisfying and musically rich, living up to his reputation as a songwriter. It's a shame it took so long for a collection like I Love You Because to be released, but it's hard not to be grateful that it finally came out, just like it's hard not to wish that the rest of his recordings will eventually be reissued.
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