This 14-track highlights reel of the catalogue of Joyce Street is first and foremost a collection of great country songs – smart, spirited, wise, funny and lustily sung in a voice pitching somewhere between the throaty croon of Patsy Cline and the snappy sass of Loretta Lynn. But it’s also a bracing reminder of what a cruel and arbitary racket popular song can be.
Mississippi-born – with the accent to prove it – Street spent the late ’60s and ’70s in particular following a guitar-shaped star all over the United States and Canada without ever quite fetching up in the right place at the right time. There were no hits, little airplay, maddening silence from the managements of established artists whose singers could have blown the Grand Ole Opry doors off with the best of these songs. (It’s not too late, of course, nor too difficult to imagine, for example, Miranda Lambert stopping a show with the luxuriantly maudlin blues of “Don’t Make Me Cry”.)
Two key influences guided Street. One was the rich twang of the Bakersfield sound – there is a lot of Buck Owens in the breezy swingers “California You’re Slipping” and “When You Belong To Me”, and a hefty dose of Jean Shepard in the rueful tears-in-beer lament “Back Streets Of Your City”. The other was the sumptuous, string-drenched Countrypolitan of the sort that Billy Sherrill was conjuring for Tammy Wynette and George Jones in Nashville. Street, regrettably, did not have the budget or the connections to enlist such an arranger, but “That Man Of Mine” and “Woman Do Something Nice” are arrestingly convincing budget facsimiles, and the tormented confessional “The Good Book Says It’s Wrong” would have slotted seamlessly into the tracklist of any of Wynette’s late-’60s classics.
Granted, these tracks are drawn from many years of work, but it’s Street’s easy conversance with such a broad range of country idioms that astounds. “Mississippi Moonshine” is a Bobbie Gentry-style story song delivered with Nancy Sinatra’s swagger. “Life Ain’t Worth Livin’ (If I Can’t Have You)” borrows heavily from Cline’s jazz-tinged country balladry, but pays it all back with interest. The sparse demos of “Music Soft And The Lights Down Low” and “Tied Down” still sound like they’re waiting for the singer and/or producer who’ll decide exactly what kind of classic they’re going to be turned into.
Music owes nobody a living, of course, and the difference between success and oblivion is often down to the wispiest zephyr of fortune – nobody knows what might have happened if they’d played a particular honky-tonk on a Tuesday, when the label executive was in, rather than a Thursday, when they weren’t. But that these fine songs languished substantially unheard, and their composer unheralded, is a considerable injustice, which this collection does something to correct.