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Classic Album Review-Johnny Darrell “The Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp”

Greetings from Asheville, where good music flows all around, either via the turntable, the CD player or the MP3 player. On this day, we pull out a selection from the 1960’s, 1968, to be exact. Johnny Darrell is a name you may or may not be familiar with. Too often, he gets overlooked in the annals of Country Music history. While only two of his nine Country top forty hits broke into the top ten, they both are tunes that fall into the classics ledger. First, there was his 1967 version of the Mel Tillis-classic “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town”, which was the first hit version, released two years prior to The First Edition’s Pop classic. Then, a year later, Johnny Darrell scored one of the biggest hits of 1968, when he peaked at number three with the Bobby Goldsboro written “With Pen In Hand”, one of Country music’s greatest sad songs; in fact, a textbook example of how one should be written, in my opinion. In between, there would be two singles that didn’t fare nearly as well; “Come See What’s Left Of Your Man”, which barely broke into the top forty at the end of 1967, and the title cut of the album we’ll be looking at, today, “The Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp”, which just missed the top twenty, early in 1968. As an album, The Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp was released by United Artists in February, 1968, peaking at thirty-seven on the bestseller list. As is the case with many albums of that era, it contains only the title cut as a single, and is full of covers of other hits of the time.

And it is the title cut that opens things on this collection, this one coming from one of Nashville’s songwriting greats, Dallas Frazier. Debuting on the charts in January, of 1968, it would peak at twenty-two. A good mid tempo track, it’s a well-written story song that really deserved a higher chart placing. I’m sure the subject matter likely played into the record’s chart performance, as in 1968, I’m willing to guess it might have been a little uncomfortable for some listeners. Johnny Darrell wasn’t a great vocalist by any means, but when he had the right song, such as this one or the aforementioned “With Pen In Hand”, he was effective.

Next is a cover of the David Houston/Tammy Wynette hit “My Elusive Dreams”. A faster tempo than their version, it’s an okay track that is a decent Darrell performance, but the quicker pace has caused the track to lose some of it’s emotion.

Had Mel Tillis’ version of “Goodbye Wheeling” (a song Mel also wrote) not been a hit the previous Fall, I would argue that Johnny Darrell’s swinging version could have been a good single. I like his version of this song, again, a track that fits his vocal style, well, with the result of a very good version of this track.

A ballad titled “Absence” is next on the disc. As a composition, it might be one of Roger Miller’s most unheralded works. Johnny gives a good performance of this track, as well.

“Break My Mind” was a big hit for George Hamilton IV, and Johnny Darrell’s version closely mirrors the Hamilton version. Not a bad performance, though not quite as good as the original.

Side one ends with a cover of the George Jones (and later, Patty Loveless) hit, “If My Heart Had Windows”. Not bad to the point of what I’d call a miss, but it’s the weakest performance on side one. Unfortunately, Johnny’s somewhat limited vocal range just doesn’t match well with this track.

Side two opens with a track titled “I’m A Travelin’ Man”. Mid tempo, and again, a track that isn’t quite a miss, but it doesn’t work. The song, itself, isn’t bad, the main issue, here, though, is the keying, too low as Johnny sounds like he was struggling to hit the low notes.

“But That’s Alright” is another ballad. Nothing particularly special, here, rather average, all around. The vocals are alright, the composition is nothing that stands out.

Another cover is next, as Johnny Darrell would tackle the Leon Ashley hit “Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got)”. Again, a track where the composition and the voice just don’t quite line up. Not an awful effort, but the original version is far superior (as is the later Kenny Rogers version).

“The Chokin’ Kind” was a 1967 hit for Waylon Jennings, and in 1969, it also became a Pop and R & B hit for Joe Simon. Johnny performed his take in a medium-slow version that is effective and competes with the following track for the best cut on the side.

In 1967, a record made a brief appearance on the Country top forty, titled “Hangin’ On”, sang by the Gosdin Brothers. While the record and the brothers would soon be forgotten, it wouldn’t be the end of the song’s story, as one half of the duo, Vern, would later get a record deal with Elektra, and in 1976, his rerecorded version of “Hangin’ On” would become his first major top twenty hit. As for Johnny Darrell’s version, it’s okay. Johnny’s vocals work well with this song, which in and of itself, is an outstanding composition. This is a good track to end the album.

Long out of print, used copies of this album can be had between $5 to $10.

The title cut gets my Standout Track designation, while Johnny’s version of “Goodbye Wheeling” nabs the Hidden Gem title. “I’m A Traveling Man” gets the Weakest Track nod.

Overall, a rather ordinary album that is somewhat uneven. A few good performances, and a few not-so-good performances. Again, with the right song, Johnny Darrell could be quite effective, despite his limited vocal range. But on this album, “The Son Of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” and “Goodbye Wheeling” are really the only two cuts that have a chance to stand out to a listener. I rate it a 2 out of 5.


“The Best Of Bobby Lewis”

David Houston & Tammy Wynette – “My Elusive Dreams”

“Mel Tillis’ Greatest Hits”

“Wynn Stewart – Jan Howard”

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