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Cousin Harley Cousin Harley
Album: Blue Smoke (The Music Of Merle Travis)
Label: Little Pig
Tracks: 12

This album can be enjoyed in so many ways

The moment you hear the initial few chords played on the Gretsch Bigsby guitar of the first track on this CD, you just know that you are in for a rockabilly music fest. The lively performance defies the nature of the song but that will not be any surprise to the fans of country and western singer/songwriter Merle Travis. "Divorce Me C.O.D.," was a hit in the late 1940's spending fourteen weeks at No.1 in the country charts. The protagonist has bought a bus ticket out of town and is remarkably cheerful about using it, having found out that his wife has been having an affair.

The musicianship of the group, Paul Pigat on guitar particularly is exhibited wonderfully on "Deep South" reputedly having a great life "on the sunny side of the Mason-Dixon Line." There is no doubt that this Canadian trio possess both the expertise and the love of Travis' music to fully exploit intricacies therein. The finger picking is clever, thoroughly authentic and accurate.

"Blue Smoke" If you thought that the previous track was intricate, then the title track of this CD has a surprise in store. It sets off at a cracking pace. Indeed as another reviewer wrote, "Paul Pigat and Cousin Harley play hot enough to raise sweat on a chunk of granite!" (Ron Forbes Roberts). The blue smoke in question could easily be from the tortured tyres of a hotrod leaving black stripes along the pavement.

Whilst today it seems almost every woman is trying to trim her figure, this was not necessarily the case in the example of the blonde bombshell in the late forties and early fifties. Then, a girl who was "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed" was in great demand. I would imagine such a direct description of a female partner would not pass muster these days, bringing down on the head of the singer disapprobation from the PC crowd. I am pretty sure that Merle Travis would not have experienced that level of disapproval, possibly the opposite even from the women themselves. So this track justifiably retains it's place on the album. I am old enough to regard the whole thing as tremendous fun, as is exhibited by Cousin Harley here.

The almost dreamy introduction is a misleading beginning to a missive of hard sweaty work down the mine, where the money is poor, conditions worse and unimaginable debt weighs down the workers. "Sixteen Tons" is probably the most recognised track on the CD, most people of an age would have heard a version of it in their lives. Possibly the best known recording is by Tennessee Ernie Ford and I admit I did not realise it was a Merle Travis original. This performance displays the despair of the mud, blood, skin and bone. It further shows the menace of meeting such a disgruntled employee, threatening, "if you see me coming, better step aside, a lot of men didn't and a lot of men died." A complete contrast to previous track.

Setting out a high stepping pace "Too Much Sugar For A Dime" gives the impression that the lead character has partaken of too much sugar at any price. Certainly the object of this song is someone who is constantly bragging about what they own and have done, leaving a less than sweet taste in the mouth of those being lectured. "Get over yourself and get back down to earth" is the message here. I am finding that appraising these songs is slightly getting in the way of enjoying the music. This album can be enjoyed in so many ways, just sit back (or dance) and enjoy the music, listen to the message which is there in every song, or appreciate the skills of the musicians and the originator of such fine compositions. The choice is yours.

"Cincinnati Lou" sounds to be quite a girl, hard drinking, flirtatious, ready to do anything suggested. The girl that put the "Sin" in Cincinnati, yet at all times remaining the belle of the ball. She sounds as though she could be hard work, but it seems the rewards of being with her are tremendous and definitely worth it. Wow!

The chord sequence that starts the next track reminded me of the that which Hank Williams used on almost all of his records. It serves to set the tempo for a blues about a man, his pockets bulging with cash hitting the town after being demobbed. He was relieved of his money by a woman who later refused to recognise him. He was arrested, thrown in jail penniless and has to re-enlist. "Re-Enlistment Blues" is a sad tale of a man who gets drunk, robbed and has a short lived whale of a time.

The physical attributes of a "well built" woman are examined in "Fat Gal." Keeping you warm in the winter, shady in the summertime, you don't need a pillow when she's around. I won't go through all the advantages of having a fat girlfriend, but when the landlord is about you can always hide behind her. I must admit I laughed out loud at some of the lyrics. This is another song that would probably have the PC mob in apoplexy, - I loved it!

A more serious song is "Dark As A Dungeon" describing how a young man might be tempted to take his chance to get a fortune working in a coal mine. Things turn out not as he might have imagined as the coal gets into your blood, the dangers are doubled and the pleasures are few, where the rain never falls and the sun never shines. Many men's lives are wasted and they have no escape from the darkness. The lyrics are dark as they are sung to an almost military beat on the drums. A very different song to "Sixteen Tons", but they both share the bleakness, the hard work and the threat of death at work. - Sobering.

"Smoke Smoke That Cigarette" a tale warning of the dangers of smoking even in 1947 that rings true today. It is curious to discover that at the very time this song was being written, American radio shows sponsored by tobacco companies promoted country music. They also suggested that smoking was beneficial, even doctors were used as smoking advocates and "scientific research" suggested the "benefits" of smoking. I doubt this song got much airplay on those shows. Despite this the song went to number one for 16 non-consecutive weeks on the Hot Country Songs chart and became a number one hit in August 1947 and remained at the top of the "Best Sellers in Stores" chart for six weeks. There's a conundrum. Perhaps the power of advertising is not what it seems to be, having said that, in the 50's and 60's most people smoked. so maybe it works after all.

The final track on the CD is "Rosewood" an instrumental that allows the listener to appreciate the virtuosity of Paul Pigat, Keith Picot, and Jesse Cahill, collectively known as Cousin Harley it carries on the up tempo country feel that started with the first track. The album is sponsored by Bigsby Guitars, has light and shade permeating through it from start to end and it is performed by consummate musicians. If you like Country Music, you will love it. It highlights the music of one of the most prolific C&W songwriters, whose songs have been performed by many stars of the genre. I would treasure the opportunity to see the act live.

Tony Collins