In the early eighties I came across an obscure album by an unknown singer named Jim Silvers. The cover of ...You Gotta Let All the Girls Know You're a Cowboy (CMH) featured a close-up of the singer with sunglasses, a white hat and suit, a guitar on his lap, and a big cigar in his hand. The album artwork had a certain charm and it sold for a bargain bin price so I bought it without hesitation. It turned out to be a gem which soon became a personal favorite. I later found out that a year or so after that first album came out Silvers had released a second one, this time on Ronnie Weiser's rockabilly label Rollin' Rock. Several years ago both albums, including a few unreleased tracks and extensive liner notes, were released on the Bear Family label in Germany (Music Makin' Mama From Memphis, Bear Family BCD 15555). If more country music fans around the world aren't grateful it can only be because the singer still remains "undiscovered."
Silvers is an unusual person who grew up in Chicago in the forties. Before recording his two albums he went to acting school, but later became a publicist for Universal Pictures. He stayed with the company for nine years or so in the late fifties and early sixties and then he studied opera and became a professional motorcycle racer and a livestock auctioneer. He also worked as a pornographic photographer in L.A. and as a photographer for the Grand Ole Opry.
Silvers had also sung some country and gospel while still in school. After moving to L.A. he began singing in a few bluegrass bands and then he went to Richard Bennett for a few guitar lessons. Bennett, who had been Neil Diamond's guitarist since 1971, was asked by Silvers to act as co-producer for his album and he finally agreed to give it a try. (Since then Bennett has, of course, become much better known for producing such artists as Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart, Steve Earle and Jo-El Sonnier.) The musicians for the album turned out to include fiddler Brantley Kearns (known for his work with Dwight Yoakam), banjo picker Fred Sokolow, and bass player Roger Bush. The album cost $12,000 to make, about double what most CMH productions would cost at the time. Although neither Silvers nor Bennett claimed to know what they were doing in the studio, the album is nonetheless an unsung classic.
Bennett described Silvers' talent as "riveting" and it's aa fair assessment. Silvers performs in a style which is a composite of bluegrass, rockabilly, hillbilly, and honky-tonk. He wrote wonderful songs and chose great tunes by other writers. Silvers is the type of performer who brings a smile to the listener's face from the word go. Some of his songs, such as "I Wanna See Las Vegas," "Old Faithful," and the title tune, are especially humorous even though they are in no way novelty songs. However, most of his material is amusing in one form or another. His choice of cover songs include "Cannonball Yodel," which starts off the album, and "Waltz Across Texas."
A year after the first album, and fully aware that no major label would be interested, Bennett and Silvers recorded again in Ronnie Weiser's garage. Many of the musicians were the same but there were a few changes, such as Ray Campi on slap bass. Although the second album was recorded quickly and the 8-track reel-to-reel had limitations, the spirit of the session comes across just fine. Silvers claims he despises some of the material he recorded, but quite frankly, it still stands up. "Julie" has an incredibly catchy melody. " I Ate the Whole Damn Hog" is in the rock 'n' roll spirit of the fifties. Some of the cover songs Silver sings on the second album are the Louvin Brothers' "Cash on the Barrelhead" and Harlan Howard's "Ain't It Strange."
The fact that Silvers only recorded 25 songs is a sad reflection on the country music industry. On the other hand, we should be grateful that the material is available at this time. Anyone who hears this material will undoubtedly hope that Silvers will take Bennett's advice and do the world a favor by recording again.
Larry Hosford is a singer who has quite a bit in common with Jim Silvers. He was also an artist based in California who recorded two wonderful albums of very original country songs before disappearing from the recording scene. Like Silvers, he is also the type of artist who quickly evokes a smile in the listener. Both Hosford albums appeared on the Shelter label (the same label that released Alan Willis Ramsey's only album). The first one, called A.K.A. Lorenzo (SRL-52018) and released in 1974, was produced by Don Airall in three different California studios and in Bradley's Barn in Tennessee. No photos of the artist appear on the cover. The artwork instead consists of a painting of a cowboy and his horse under the moonlight. Musicians featured on the album include a few well-known figures from Nashville and label-mate Leon Russell as guest pianist on a few songs, as well as a few lesser-known musicians and some great back-up harmony singers, most notably Ann Hughes.
Hosford is not a hard-core country singer, but rather like a more countrified John Prine. Like Silvers, Hosford doesn't take long to win over the listener. All of his material is original. The first two songs, "Long Distance Kisses" and "The King Takes the Queen," have catchy melodies with whimsical lyrics. "Singers and Dancers" is a slow ballad with wonderful piano by Russell. "Long Line To Chicago" is a trucker's song. "Ode To A Broken Coleus" is quite possibly the saddest, most heart-felt song to a plant ever written. "The 1 to Ten Scale" is another one of his songs that is full of witty word-play and bittersweet vocals. An example of Hosford's way with words is found in "Wimmin's Got Me Swimmin'." The song starts off with amusing metaphors:
Wimmin's got me swimmin' in a pool of tears
My baby's got me started and she won't shift my gears
The lights on lover's freeway all say stop
If I had another beer I'd pop my top
My love's so big it's semi-like a diesel truck
But on the road of heartaches I just got stuck
Love's an endless battle and I lost the bout
She played the game of stud but she dealt me out
In 1976 Hosford released another album, called Crosswords (Shelter SRL-52003). Production and back-up musicians were more or less the same as on the first album. Once again his voice complements the bittersweet material very nicely. On the slow ballad, Hosford sings as if he has a lump in his throat and there is often a skewed perspective which is simultaneously poignant and funny. The song titles are again reflective of his original approach: "Why I Spend So Much Time in the Bars," "If I Could Talk as Fast as I Think," "Last Chance Romance," "Nobody Remembers the Losers," and "She Went Back Home to Her Momma." The instrumentation is not always typically country. On "Direct Me" and "Wishing I Could," Leon Russell and George Harrison help out. The latter song also features the musical saw. Another song features saxophonist Tom Scott.
The title of Crosswords refers to four brief songs snippets interwoven amongst the other material. Each brief "crossword" segment is similar musically and follows a similar pattern. The singer looks for a short word which defines his predicament, such as in Crossword #3:
There's a crossword puzzle puzzling me
What's a sentiment for speechless supposed to be
Like the way I'm left whenever she comes undone
So tight inside that the cat can't find my tongue
Starts with a "d" and ends with a "b"
Looks like "dumb" to me
Crossword puzzle is that right
She struck me dumb and ran off in the night
Larry Hosford's albums have been unavailable for quite some time now. On the other hands, his albums are a little easier to find used than the original albums by Jim Silvers. It is to be hoped that both singers decide to come out of the shadows and back into the studio before too long.
Paul E. Comeau is a French-Candian journalist