a tuxedo, a highball, a country tune

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Smack in the middle of the 1960s, an Italian-American crooner from Ohio and a team of crack session players in Los Angeles made a series of country-pop albums and not many people stopped to consider how extremely weird that was. I mean, listen to some of the tracks on Houston, the third Dean Martin album LP Reprise released that year; the title cut a relaxed, finger-snapping number by Lee Hazlewood, the barely-ambulatory vocal on the single “I Will,” the Tijuana Brass-like horns on “Detour,” the mod-country organ on “Hammer and Nails.” The whole thing takes the notion of cosmopolitan country music to a surreal level. Every few weeks, it seemed, Dean strolled into the studio with producer Jimmy Bowen and the Wrecking Crew and knocked off a dozen tracks that came from everywhere – (Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You is mostly country (“Born To Lose,””Take These Chains From My Heart,” “My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You”), but also makes room for the pop hit “The Birds and The Bees” and the antique “Red Roses For A Blue Lady”—and whipped into an easy-listening cocktail, with strings, backing vocals and Martin’s bourbon baritone.

It’s oxymoronic to say that Martin settled into a groove during that period, because settling into a groove was his jam, as the kids might or might not say. What he thought of these songs or this approach or anything else was irrelevant. Who would even ask him? He might not’ve liked rock all that much (he famously joshed about the Rolling Stones when introducing them on The Hollywood Palace) but that didn’t stop him from getting his kid’s group (Dino, Desi and Billy) a deal with his pally Sinatra’s label, or doing what he had to do to stay on the charts. And it turned out that what Bowen concocted for him was a pretty solid formula: From the summer of ’64 when, from out of nowhere. “Everybody Loves Somebody” became a number one hit, through late 1968, Martin and Bowen scored nine gold albums. In 1966 alone, they put out five albums, and were able to keep up this insane pace by recycling tracks from LP to LP (‘66’s Somewhere There’s A Someone pulled selections from a couple of country-centric 1963 albums, and who cared? Not Dean).

We can assume that those two ’63 efforts – Dean “Tex” Martin: Country Style and Dean “Tex” Martin Rides Again — were a response to Ray Charles’ ’62 Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music; Rides Again even uses one of Charles’ arrangers, Marty Paich, on a collection that draws on Hank Williams, Harlan Howard, Eddy Arnold. But those albums didn’t sell (that’s why Reprise was so quick to recycle the tracks), and it wasn’t until after “Everybody Loves Somebody” (and its hastily-patched-together namesake album – the Wiki discography considers it a “compilation” — featuring songs such as “Shutters and Boards” and a twangy “Corrine, Corrina”) that everyone decided to live at this intersection of MOR and country for a while. It was incongruous, watching Dean on his television show, tuxedoed and under-rehearsed, the epitome of L.A. languor, doing selections from the Music City Songbook, mixing them up with oldies like “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You,” breezing through them like he’s strolling off the 18th green and ready for a post-round drink. It was the country of cool.

It’s also a mess to sort out, this Martin in the mid-late ‘60s body of work, and no one has thought to do some type of chronological survey starting with those two ’63 “Tex” albums, and going through the rest of the decade, taking out The Silencers companion album to his first Matt Helm movie, and his Christmas and Dean Martin TV Show albums, avoiding the duplications from prior LPs, ending up at the end of the decade when Dean was doing Jimmy Webb, John Hartford, Tim Hardin (yes, really), Merle Haggard and Buck Owens (“I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am,” “Crying Time”). You can even spill into the early ‘70s, and Kristofferson, Jerry Reed and Harlan Howard on For The Good Times. A lot of brush has to be cleared to get to Dean doing Hazlewood’s “Shades” (The Hit Sound of Dean Martin), and entering into the next decades uncovers things like his version of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” and The Nashville Sessions, where he sings duets with Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty.

This was a trick not many of his peers could have pulled off. Tony Bennett may have helped kick off the whole country-to-pop strategy when Mitch Miller gave him Hank Williams songs to interpret, but you can’t picture him doing Cindy Walker, Marty Robbins and Bobby Bare songs. Jack Jones had a one-off novelty hit with George Jones’ “The Race Is On,” Bobby Darin tried to emulate Ray Charles throughout the You’re The Reason I’m Living album, and even Sammy Davis Jr and Buddy Greco tried to get into the swing of country, but none of them could loosen up enough; they all made the mistake of trying. So did Sinatra, when he approached “Little Green Apples” as though there were a tender torch song hiding inside the nonsense. For Dean, it was a break in his afternoon. Compare his “Gentle On My Mind” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” with Sinatra’s from exactly the same time (late ’68), the way Sinatra, bless him, struggles with lyrics that you know mean nothing at all to him, the way the Don Costa arrangements are sooo serious. Dean, he slouches into these songs. Does he, like Sinatra, play grammar cop and sneak a “gently on my mind” in there? Would that even cross his mind? He’d have been 99 years old today, and he’s justly celebrated for many things, but one of my favorite Dean Martins is when he sounds as though he’s a city slicker who’s stumbled into a saloon, found a jukebox with a bunch of country singles on it, orders a tall one and absent-mindedly sings along while eyeing a down-home Daisy Mae.

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