"Hillbilly Central" was the name of the studio Tompall Glaser ran after the disbandment of the Glaser Brothers in the mid-'70s. It was the portion of the shared assets that he earned in the fall-out and he set up camp there, continuing to record for MGM, turning into something like the outlaw's outlaw: the ornery renegade who ran on the fringes, providing a clubhouse with his studio -- Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver cut albums there -- earning respect instead of hits. Bear Family chronicles this time on their two-part 2005 reissue dubbed Hillbilly Central, providing the first CD reissues of his classic LPs for MGM and Polydor. The first volume, My Notorious Youth, contains 1973's Charlie and 1974's Take the Singer with the Song, transitional albums that eased Tompall out of the Glasers and onto his own winding path -- quite literally so in the case of Charlie which, according to Colin Escott's excellent liner notes (over the course of the two discs, they untangle a knotty past and tell a complete history), was initially billed to the Glaser Brothers. It may have carried their name but it was surely a showcase for Tompall, particularly his gift for worn, weary introspection and storytelling. Unlike the MGM albums that followed, Charlie had a hefty dose of Tompall originals, highlighted by the title track -- an account of a no-good bastard who leaves his family in the lurch -- the story song "Big Jim Colson," "Bad Bad Cowboy," and its bad-time companion "An Ode to My Notorious Youth (Barred from Every Honky Tonk)." His covers of three Kinky Friedman songs -- including a terrific "Sold American" -- are pitch-perfect complements, as is a starkly melancholy medley of country gospel standards "I'll Fly Away" and "I Saw the Light," which don't contradict the carousing as much as underscore the sadness that runs beneath them. And that's the most compelling thing about Charlie: for outlaw country, it's surprisingly high and lonesome, a soundtrack for rumination, not parties.
The same can't quite be said of its companion here, Take the Singer with the Song, although it shares the "I'll Fly Away" medley, albeit in a different, expanded form. Polydor released Take the Singer in the U.K. early in 1974 to capitalize on the momentum Tompall had from his Wembley festival performance. As it's caught between Charlie, his defacto debut even if it didn't bear his name, and his out-and-out first solo album Tompall Glaser Sings the Songs of Shel Silverstein, this is very much a transitional album containing a big chunk of Shel and a lot of introspective outlaw ballads reminiscent of Charlie. The difference is, none of the sad songs come from Glaser's pen: he rounds up songs by Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Don Williams, and, yes, Silverstein -- plus the lesser-known Jimmy Louis and Lee Emerson -- to hit those melancholy notes. These songs don't quite have the sad swagger of those on Charlie but the music sounds fuller, which points the way to Glaser's late-'70s records as strongly as the creeping preponderance of humor, coming not just from Silverstein -- who has the old-timey romp "Broken Down Momma" -- but also the slyly funny and savage "Texas Law Sez," which deserved to go much farther as a single than it did. Some of this material popped up later in the U.S. -- "Broken Down Mama" showed up on The Great Tompall and His Outlaw Band in 1975 -- and this has a similar, but different, version of the "I'll Fly Away" medley from Charlie, one that tacks "Love Lifted Me" on the end, but by and large this is a good collection of great songs, one that holds its own with the best of Tompall's solo work.
Finally, Bear Family added two songs to the end of this volume of Hillbilly Central: the paper-thin and sugar-sweet unreleased AM pop confection "Love Stoned," co-written by Jim Glaser and Jimmy Payne, and a good, plain-spoken rendition of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" that was previously unreleased. It all adds up to an essential part of the Outlaw lexicon that has been buried for too long now.