One of the more prominent "indie" labels in Nashville between 1954 and 1974, with several major pop and country hits to its credit, Hickory Records has nevertheless been somewhat under-represented in the CD era, save for a few US-originated "best of" anthologies that are very short on playing time and tracks. It's Ace's aim to give Hickory a better representation on CD, via a series of reissues of original 1960s albums - paired as 2-on-1s - and also a selection of career anthologies on artists who never had more than one (if, indeed, they had any) original Hickory album release.
We're delighted to start this series with a pairing of the first two Hickory albums by a man who, more than any other artist on the label, can be described as not so much a true legend as "The King Of Country Music" - the great Roy Acuff. When Roy joined the Hickory roster in 1957, he had actually been hitless for the best part of a decade. Although his music was still good, public tastes were changing. A whole new generation of record buyers had the disposable income to spend on new exciting rockabilly sounds by artists who were closer to their own age group than was the now 50 year old Acuff. If not perhaps a museum piece, Roy Acuff might well have been considered "old hat" as Elvis Presley leapfrogged over him and the late Hank Williams to become country music's latest American Idol.
It's therefore very much to his credit that, on joining Hickory, Acuff immediately started to record a body of work that is arguably the best of his whole career. At 53 he was in superb vocal shape. He had the already-vast resources of the Acuff-Rose publishing catalogue at his disposal, and thus had a deep vein of impeccable country songwriting to mine. Being, effectively, the company's co-boss, he could record what he liked, when he liked and how he liked. And so it was that, between 1957 and 1960, Acuff and the musicians he assembled as the Smoky Mountain Boys released half a dozen sublime singles that paid little heed to any current music trends - other than the utilisation of a steel guitar where Pete Kirby's dobro had previously been the main feature.
The sound on these early Hickory records was at least half a decade out of date in terms of musical and technical advancement. Although drums were still banned from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry - and would continue to be banned well into the early 60s - very few artists would have had the cojones to be recording without a drum kit by the late 1950s. Not Acuff, though - and how fortunate for all lovers of classic hillbilly music that this was the case. Acuff's first six Hickory 45s represent something of a last hurrah for the traditional country music sound.
Hickory did not enter the album market until mid 1960, almost six years after it issued its first 45. Naturally Roy Acuff was among the label's first acts to be honoured with a long player. Issued in mono only as LPM 101, Once More It's Roy Acuff was as stunning a debut album as you'd expect from one of country music's living legends - and, amazingly, it was a debut album, as Columbia had not yet begun to anthologise its vintage ARC/Vocalion/Okeh masters, and Capitol would not release the first of its two Acuff compilations for another couple of years!
It's paired here with Acuff's first album to be recorded as such, the man's wholly successful 1962 attempt at updating some of his earliest hits for the hi-fi connoisseur. That year, Acuff became one of the earliest inductees of the recently established Country Music Hall of Fame, and also its first living member. He celebrated his induction with "All Time Greatest Hits" (UK "The King Of Country Music"), which consisted of 12 sparkling revivals of Acuff ARC/Okeh/Columbia classics from the 30s and 40s, all done in a traditional style that - improved recording techniques notwithstanding - remained 100% faithful to the style of the originals. This writer is just one of many Acuff aficionados who prefer these recuts, as much for the beautiful recording quality and Pete Kirby's high-in-the-mix, overwhelmingly lovely dobro work as for the power and passion in Acuff's voice. They may well be the very best recordings Roy Acuff ever made.
Ace is celebrating what would have been Roy Acuff's centenary with the reissue of these two important albums from the "King Of Country Music". Acuff collectors should be aware that the company hopes to release further 2-on-1s from his Hickory catalogue in the near future. For now, though, we're all delighted to present an hour of superlative country music from someone who can truthfully be said to be among a select few who effectively 'invented' it - Mr Roy Acuff."
By CHRIS BOLTON