Kai Winding – Modern Country (1964)

I.

Universal Music partnered with the Detroit-based Third Man Records in October 2023 to reissue bebop jazz legend Kai Winding’s 1964 Verve album Modern Country in Universal’s “By Request” series. Third Man pressed both the original Verve black-vinyl version of the album as well as a yellow-vinyl version that features a slightly modified cover.

Of the 11 albums Kai Winding (1922-83) waxed for the Verve label between 1961 and 1967, Modern Country is hardly the most obvious choice for getting the 180-gram vinyl treatment.

Soul Surfin’ (1963), also known as !!!More!!!, is surely Winding’s biggest – and, really, only – hit. Moreover, Winding had quite a few career highpoints on Verve (this writer’s favorite period of Winding’s recorded legacy), including Kai Olé (1961), Dirty Dog (1966) and the hugely underrated and little-known Penny Lane & Time (1967).

But it is worth remembering that Stonebone, the gloriously electric 1970 A&M/CTI record Winding waxed with J.J. Johnson and an all-star cast of musicians (but only issued in Japan at the time), was finally issued – ever so briefly – on vinyl as part of Record Store Day in October 2020.

Modern Country immediately impresses with its cover, featuring the dapper brass man leaning like a middle-aged model against an ultra-cool fire-engine red 1965 Ford Mustang fastback (recall that the car, in a different iteration, made its silver-screen debut the previous year in the hit James Bond film Goldfinger).

The music within was, admittedly, pretty novel for the time.

Mixing country with jazz was pretty unheard of in 1964. But that never stopped Modern Country producer Creed Taylor (1929-2022) from pushing forward with unprecedented fusions. Only a few would even try going down this path – think, possibly, Hank Garland and, later, Gary Burton – and all to limited success, at best. Decades later, Charlie Haden, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell would revive this sort of thing as what is now known or appreciated as “Americana,” an enduring force, legacy or genre to this day.

Originally released in November 1964, between Winding’s Verve albums Mondo Cane #2 (1964 – which my good friend Mark Cathcart recently wrote about on ctproduced.com) and Rainy Day (1965), Modern Country’s probable precursor is likely Ray Charles’s seminal Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962) – a hugely popular and critical success. In 1961, Charles and Winding were even briefly labelmates on Creed Taylor’s then recently-launched Impulse Records label.

Given the recent success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and Beyonce’s latest, “Texas Hold ‘Em,” Modern Country seems like a most prescient, if not controversial, choice for a vinyl redux.

II.

The original 1964 Verve release
The 2023 Third Man release

Between Kai Winding and Creed Taylor, it’s unclear whose idea it was to record a country record in Nashville, Tennessee, the Country Music Capitol of the World. Taylor rarely ever left New York City except to venture to Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio. (To my knowledge, neither Taylor nor Winding ever went back to Nashville.) But whoever came up with the idea, it’s obvious they wanted as authentic a representation of the music as Taylor brought to Jazz Samba, the 1962 Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd classic recorded at a church in Washington, DC.

Kai Winding, throughout his multi-decade career, often paired himself with at least one other trombonist. Here, he’s paired with two: Bill Watrous (who’d been with Winding for about a year at this point) and Nashville-based Gene Mullins. The combination is ethereal and as smooth as hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day.

The trombonist is accompanied here by no less than four guitars – led by Nashville legend Grady Martin (Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson) – one or more keyboard players, an electric bassist, two drummers and the quartet of vocalists known as the Anita Kerr Singers, who along with The Jordanaires, probably sang on every hit out of Nashville in the fifties and early sixties.

It’s also not clear who was programming this thing. My sense is that Taylor and Winding probably had a few tunes in mind, likely popular well-known fare like “I Walk the Line,” “Busted,” “Bye Bye Love” (which Ray Charles also covered on Modern Sounds) and possibly even “Oh, Lonesome Me” (which Charles covered in the second volume of Modern Sounds, also 1962). But they likely left the rest of this program up to the Nashville crew, offering the album an even deeper authenticity.

III.

“Wolverton Mountian” – Kai Winding

Sixty years after Modern Country was recorded, it might be difficult to understand some of the song choices that were made here. Now, perhaps only “Bye Bye Love” and, “I Walk the Line” are familiar to most – or some. But what’s remarkable here is that this album is less a collection of strictly country tunes and a more nuanced set of “crossover” songs: pop nuggets that crossed over as country hits and country and western songs that crossed over as pop hits. Take a look:

“I Really Don’t Want to Know” was a 1953 country hit for Eddy Arnold and a crossover hit for Les Paul and Mary Ford in 1954 and Tommy Edwards in 1960.

“Busted” was a 1963 country hit for Johnny Cash and a crossover hit for Ray Charles.

“Wolverton Mountain” was a 1962 crossover hit for Claude King.

“Cool Water” was a 1948 crossover hit for Vaughn Monroe and The Sons of the Pioneers and also gained popularity in a version by Hank Williams.

“Bye Bye Love” was the 1957 debut Everly Brothers hit (on which Nashville legend Chet Atkins played), which also became a number one country hit.

“Wildwood Flower” was the 1929 Carter Family classic. The song had recently then been covered by guitarist Duane Eddy on his album “Twang” A Country Song (1963), which also features vocal arrangements by Anita Kerr.

“Detroit City” (a.k.a. “I Wanna Go Home”) was a 1963 country hit for Billy Grammer and crossover hit for Billy Bare.

“I Walk the Line” was the 1956 Johnny Cash hit, which he re-recorded for the 1964 album of the same name and probably gained its immortality on Johnny Cash at San Quentin (1969). The song became the title of two films, one from 1970 with Gregory Peck (featuring a Johnny Cash soundtrack) and a 2005 Johnny Cash biopic starring Joaquin Phoenix. 

“Oh, Lonesome Me” was the 1957 hit for Don Gibson (co-written and produced by Chet Atkins) and Gibson’s only Top 10 pop hit. Johnny Cash also had a hit with the song in 1961 and The Anita Kerr Singers covered the song in 1962.

The now obscure “Slippin’ Around” was a 1950 country hit for Bud Messner and His Skyline Boys, then known as “Slippin’ Around with Jole Blon.” The song originated as “Jole Blon,” a Cajun waltz first heard in the late twenties. It later became a country favorite, notably as Waylon Jennings’ debut single in 1958 (with Buddy Holly on guitar and King Curtis on sax). Gary U.S. Bonds recorded the song with Bruce Springsteen in 1981, while Springsteen is known to have performed the song live.

“Gotta Travel On” is a folk song first recorded by Pete Seeger in 1958. Billy Grammer had a pop and country hit with the song in 1959. Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys also had a country hit with the song in 1959.

“Dang Me” was Roger Miller’s 1964 pop, country and Grammy Award-winning hit. Miller’s recording also featured Modern Country’s Harold Bradley on guitar and Murrey Mizell “Buddy” Harman on drums.

IV.

The 1964 single of “Dear Heart”

Modern Country’s regrettable opener, “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” threatens to suggest that this is going to be a snoozy easy-listening affair. But, don’t despair. Things pick up from there.

The album’s best tracks are its all-too few instrumentals: “Busted,” “Wolverton Mountain,” Wildwood Flower” and “Dang Me.” Each of these makes this a genuinely worthy record. The Anita Kerr Singers appear on the remainder of the album’s songs. But only “Bye Bye Love” (with a great fuzz-guitar solo, no doubt delivered by Grady Martin himself) and “Oh, Lonesome Me” swing with the vim and vigor Kai Winding brought to many of his earlier – and later – jazz records.

Throughout, Kai Winding is superb. His signature tone is positively mellifluous while his layered trombones have a harmonic poetry that is transfixing. Considering how fast or aggressively he could play, Winding always puts melody ahead of dexterity; one very good reason Kai Winding is good for country-western. (It would have been nice to hear him tackle seventies-era country pop.) My only complaint is that there isn’t more Kai Winding to be heard here.

Modern Country was released in November 1964 to unfortunately little or no fanfare. “Kai Winding,” wrote Billboard at the time, “treats country standards [here] like ‘Slippin’ Around’ with a bright tempo and a pop trombone style. The Anita Kerr Singers provide effective vocal background, particularly on ‘Cool Water’.” While “pop trombone style” pretty much nails it, the crossover never happened: indeed, Winding never had a sequel to his 1963 hit “More (Theme from Mondo Cane” – not even with a song called “Mondo Cane #2.”

The record never caught on, but it was issued on CD in 2018 by the European Jackpot label, which paired the original album with Winding’s eponymous 1963 album that is also known here and elsewhere as The Lonely One. Also on the Jackpot disc is the bonus track “Dear Heart,” which Winding recorded during the 1964 Nashville sessions.

While “Dear Heart” – Henry Mancini’s main theme to the 1964 film and a hit at the time for Andy Williams – was not included on Modern Country, it was issued at the same time as the A-side of a single (backed with Modern Country‘s much stronger “Wolverton Mountain”). The single never charted (the market was likely saturated with the Mancini tune) and, sadly, no one thought to flip the record for Winding’s truly lovely take on the old Claude King hit. “Wolverton Mountain” should have been a hit for Kai Winding.

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