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V/A - Shit Happens!

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Artist: V/A

Album: Shit Happens!

Label: Bear Family

Review date: May. 29, 2007

Like the Book of Job set to steel guitar, Bear Family’s newest compilation – the evocatively titled Shit Happens! – offers a deluge of woe from big-name country stars of the late 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. A celebration of mawkishness as much as misery, the collection winds through bathetic tales of orphaned cherubs, god-fearing soldiers, jilted lovers and arthritic hounds. Should you lose your way through the morbid bluster, there’s a handy roadmap of Crumb-lite illustrations from German cartoonist Reinhard Kleist.

Shit Happens!’s liner notes do a brief but adequate job of tracing the theme of misfortune through the Scotch-Irish murder ballads, Appalachian folk songs, and the earliest country music of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Making the familiar case that the hardships of the Reconstruction and WWI-era South were key to spawning the kind of eerie, anguished, and ambiguous music of the so-called Old Weird America, the author stops short of venturing a guess as to why two decades of post-war prosperity gave birth to the balls-out bathos that’s celebrated on Shit Happens!. In one sense, the collection is a snapshot of the wobbly marriage between the glossy Nashville Sound of the ’50s and the dark themes that gave earlier American folk its juice. There are mountains of Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and Kitty Wells 45s that prove how this marriage could work quite functionally, but for the purposes of this compilation, Bear Family’s isn’t always interested. After all, we’re talking about a record called Shit Happens!.

It’s appropriate that the collection begins with Eddie Arnold’s first single – “Mommy Please Stay Home With Me” (1944) – as Arnold played a key role in coating country’s red dirt with karo syrup. The song – about a negligent mama who boozes while her baby dies – pulls in two directions, with the quivering steel and reedy fiddle floating out of the past while Arnold’s velvety voice trains like a laser beam on a crossover-appeal future. This same tension’s everywhere; the pipes of Just Because I’m A Woman-era Dolly Parton are as soulful as any, but you spend most of “Mommie, Ain’t That Daddy” waiting for Porter Wagoner to pop in and torpedo the song with Sunday morning sanctimony.

Some of the songs on Shit Happens! are genuinely affecting, and others persuade you to love them for the shit that they are. George Hamilton IV breaks things wide open with “Little Tom,” a spoken portrait of an industrious young urchin who scarfs hamburgers while explaining how his home of sin leaves him with little choice but delinquency. It’s hard to imagine the track being recorded without a single member of the Capitol Records orchestra wetting himself. Meanwhile, Ed Bruce’s “Tiny Golden Locket” has such an alluringly silky and loping vibe that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s singing about a mother who slams her car into her five-year-old son. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at this shit.

By Nathan Hogan

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