Roy Acuff

Sings American Folk Songs/Hand-Clapping Gospel Songs

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Two of Roy Acuff's 1963 albums, Sings American Folk Songs and Hand-Clapping Gospel Songs, are combined onto one disc on this CD reissue. Sings American Folk Songs was the third album that he recorded in the early '60s for his own Hickory label, and might be less essential than some of his other work from the era, simply because most of the songs are folk tunes rather than his own compositions. That doesn't automatically mean they're not of interest. But Acuff is simply a more distinctive talent when working with the country compositions of his own and others than he is as an interpreter of folk songs. In its favor, though, the arrangements make no concessions to ascendant Nashville country-pop production, presenting the singer with a basic combo including steel guitar and fiddle. That's all the better to put the focus on his plaintive vocals, which are suited to the material, though not conducive toward exciting personalization of the songs. Acuff's arrangement of "The House of the Rising Sun" here, incidentally, has an entirely different tune than the more famous one popularized by the Animals' chart-topping single, coming off as a mildly doleful waltz rather than an anguished blues. Not too many of the selections are covered-to-death folk staples, and there's a slight bent toward tragic tales like "The Great Titanic," "Shut Up in the Mines," "Birmingham Jail," and "Little Rose Wood Casket." His follow-up LP, Hand-Clapping Gospel Songs, seemed to indicate that the country legend was latching on to broad concepts in order to expedite spinning out multiple albums within a small time frame. Devoting an entire album to gospel songs wasn't a bad idea, and this one mixed traditional numbers with compositions credited to Hank Williams, Walter Bailes, and Frankie Bailes, and others (Roy himself has just one co-writing credit). It differs from some of his other Hickory output -- Sings American Folk Songs, for instance -- in its use of robust backing vocals, though the core instrumentation remains no-frills traditional country (albeit with gentle honky tonk piano). It's not such a fine listen, however, mostly because so many of the songs share similar brisk hand-clapping rhythms and melodies. That gets to be particularly troublesome when, say, "Build Me a Cabin in Gloryland" is immediately followed by "That Glory Bound Train," the quick repetition of promise excessive enough to make heathens out of potential converts. Less cheekily, the similarity between tracks does threaten to cross over to monotony, and casual listeners might sometimes catch themselves wondering if they've just heard the track playing only a minute or two ago. So both of these 1963 albums are far more for the comprehensive Acuff collector than for the general Acuff fan, though it's handy to have them neatly combined on this CD, with thorough historical liner notes.

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