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Premature departures and quiet returns

The loss of a great artist always produces an emotional reaction among fans, and it's particularly difficult to accept when a death is premature. This was clearly the case with the accidental suicide of country singer Keith Whitley from an alcohol overdose in 1989, when he was only 33. Whitley was considered one of the best new traditional honky-tonk singers, with a powerfully deep voice that channeled the spirits of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell more profoundly than anyone else in the business. Whitley had been a bluegrass singer with J.D. Crowe and the New South for years before signing a major-label country deal, and one of his final projects with Crowe's band was the Somewhere Between (Rounder, 1982) album. Recently Crowe took Whitley's incredible vocal tracks, rerecorded the backing music and remastered the entire album. He also discovered a few unreleased tracks, and Rounder has now released the CD as Sad Songs and Waltzes.
With a project like this, there's always the risk new recording technology will compromise the integrity of the original, but here the improvements are immense and satisfying. The new instrumental backup is crisp and clear, and subdued enough to allow Whitley's voice to carry the songs. Joined by Allison Krauss on harmony, the vocal blend is so pure it's hard to believe they were recorded 18 years apart. Whitley's song choices reflect his love of hard country, with homages to Frizzell ("I Never Go Around Mirrors"), Merle Haggard ("Somewhere Between") and Willie Nelson on the title track. In retrospect, hearing Whitley sing the tragic "Long Black Limousine" is haunting, with the knowledge that this incredibly talented man is gone.
Similarly, when John Duffey died of a heart attack in 1996, he left a void that his bluegrass band, the Seldom Scene, has struggled since to fill. Seldom Scene was, after all, Duffey's band. He was the spirit and soul of the group, and his wit, talent and willingness to challenge the boundaries of traditional bluegrass made the Scene one of the most important acts in the genre.
The recent 21-track release of his best performances with the Scene, Always in Style: A Collection (Sugar Hill), is a fitting tribute to his memory. The songs were compiled from the Scene's commercially-released recordings and cover the vast repertoire of musical styles they embraced. Focusing more on his singing than his excellent mandolin playing, Duffey's signature songs are presented here, including "Long Black Veil," "The Boatman" and the beautiful "Hickory Wind." While there's unfortunately nothing new or unique here — nothing that adds to the legacy of a great artist — it is nevertheless a nicely constructed package which serves to honor the memory of one of bluegrass' most distinctive voices, one silenced way too soon.
-- James Kelly

Head First (Snapper Music) is a near-legendary "lost" Badfinger album that most fans feared they would never hear. Recorded in December 1974, when the Liverpool pop group (labelmates and frequent collaborators with the Beatles) were riding high on the success of hits such as "Day After Day" and "Come and Get It," the album was snared in legal entanglements at Warners so long that its master tapes were ultimately misplaced. Dispirited and inconsolable, bandleader Pete Ham committed suicide in April 1975, and bassist Tom Evans followed him several years later.
Evans' frustration is evident in several songs included on the long-delayed debut of Head First (mastered for this deluxe CD package from a dupe tape found in the archives of the group's keyboardist). Despite the uptempo "Taxman"-like beat of "Hey, Mr. Manager," Evans' lyrics ooze with hatred for Badfinger's then-current moneyman Stan Polley ("You got no feelin'/You been dealin'/All the wrongs"). Evans comes off even more bitterly on "Rock 'n' Roll Contract," in which he shrilly declares, "Man told me not to worry 'bout the business/Just keep poppin' those hits."
In contrast, Pete Ham subordinated his pain in favor of his art, and the almost-hits that he popped out are genuinely inspired. "Lay Me Down" bops along like a classic Paul McCartney track, with beautiful harmonies showcasing Ham's distinct Liverpudlian accent. There's even a sizzling guitar break, rendered in the same spirit as Ham's superb session work on George Harrison's solo albums.
Head First comes with a second disc of rough demos, and only here do we discover Ham's anger. His "Nothing to Show," running barely over a minute long, boils with bitter references to "lawyers pricing, temperatures rising" and sounds almost like a draft of his eventual suicide note. The second disc also contains an impressive unfinished demo called "I Can't Believe In," a Ham original with such maddeningly obvious hit potential it makes his loss all the more painful and, ultimately, all the more wrong.
-- Gregory Nicoll