It's high time I fessed up. Twelve years ago, I stole something and got away with it.
The object of desire was a spare promo copy of The Byrds' Sweethearts of the Rodeo, just gathering dust in a pile of records strewn across the floor of the flophouse where I bunked my junior year in college. At least that's how I rationalized my random act of anti-social behavior to appease my guilt-ridden Lutheran conscience.
Thanks to some forward-thinking folks at Sony Music's Legacy division -- which just re-released the album in a fat, digitally remastered package complete with bonus tracks -- I can finally come clean and return the lost LP to its rightful owner.
The landmark 1968 release got the Byrds booed off the Grand Old Opry and confused the heck out of acid-addled fans more accustomed to the sonic wash of "Eight Miles High" and "Wasn't Born to Follow." But it's since been lauded as the album that launched country-rock, owing to the participation of icon-in-the-making Gram Parsons and the band's then-reckless fusion of throbbing pedal steel guitar and lazy California harmonies.
As a recent article by Sound Views compadre Gary P. attests, you can hear strains of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," "Hickory Wind" and "One Hundred Years From Now" on most every "alt-country" record put out in the past three decades. Even albums you don't like very much, like The Jayhawks' long-awaited Sound of Lies (American).
I had my doubts after lead singer Mark Olson drifted off into the sunset following the gorgeous 1995 crescendo of Tomorrow the Green Grass (American). Guitarist Gary Louris and bassist Marc Perlman gave us all cause to hope for something bigger and better on the sloppily inspired Golden Smog tour. But, alas, it was not to be.
Sound of Lies sounds like a band on Prozac. The melodies, harmonies and edgy guitar are all still there, but the whole album (and the band's current live show) sounds like it's being delivered through a sleepy underwater haze, with no sense of urgency or relevance.
As proof of the ultimate equilibrium in the alt-country universe, once-also-ran Blue Mountain has risen to the occasion of the Jayhawks' descent with Home Grown (Roadrunner). McCartney lookalike Cary Hudson has finally found his voice, jettisoning the Farrarish drone that crept up all too often on the band's Dog Days (Roadrunner) debut and fashioning a twitching, melodically dense sound that crashes about like a punch-drunk grad student slam dancing at a bluegrass festival.
Things are bit safer, but no less satisfying on Slim Chance & the Convicts' Twang Peaks (Rainy Day) and the Volebeats' Sky and the Ocean (Safe House).
Aside from a shared fondness for effortless, Sweethearts-style harmonies and fat, hummable guitar hooks, these bands have little in common (except for this writer's attempt to merge them in an awkward transitional device for which he has become rather infamous).
Slim and the boys hail from down Atlanta way, but don't let that scare you -- these are the wise-acres who brought you "George Jones Has Never Sung About My Girl" on 1995's Bubbapalooza (Sky) compilation. "My Baby Drives a Shopping Cart" takes the cake this time around, with nearly every cut on this infectious piece of twang pop glistening with a sweet, play-me-again sheen.
The Detroit-based Volebeats serve up a more melancholy brand of country-rock, reflecting the dark remorse of the town that spitefully foisted Goober & the Peas and Dennis Rodman upon us all. Sky and the Ocean is a gorgeous, introspective record that owes as much to the Velvet Underground as it does to the redneck revolution. Fans of Luna, the Vulgar Boatmen, Yo la Tengo, "For the Good Times" and "He'll Stop Loving Her Today" will be equally entranced.
Arthur Dodge & the Horsefeathers (Barber's Itch) is the latest proof of the fertile scene a-happening out in Lawrence, Ks., which has managed to outgrow the stultifying influence of its favorite whiner son, Freedy Johnston, and produce a slew of confidently cynical alternative rockers. Arthur Dodge spins out hoarse, anthemic choruses about dogs, cats and people drifting apart and back together again, veering and crashing into genres with the gleeful verve of that SNL cat, Toontses, behind the wheel of his first Gran Torino.
Things get a bit fishier and twangier out Portland way, where a whole bunch of bands with names like the Prairie Dogs, Golden Delicious, Sunset Valley and The Dickel Bros. have cobbled together a surprisingly original roots-rock compilation in Used to Be: Blues From the Pacific Delta (Undercover). There's not a trace of Birkenstocks or Gus Van Sant on this one. But Lisa Miller's "Trailer Park Honey" and Jim Boyer's "Three Sheets to the Wind" have that ragtag, psychobilly feel that might convince Hazil Adkins, Mojo Nixon or Charlie Feathers to move to Portland, burn down the Nike headquarters and lay waste to a couple of laptop-cluttered coffeeshops.
Woody Guthrie once lived in Oregon. But you could say the same thing about 48 or 49 other states. His easygoing, rambling lifestyle made him the Johnny Appleseed of his craft, as he dropped bits of songs and oft-pirated melodies here and there so they could take seed and sprout into something new.
This Land Is Your Land (Smithsonian/Folkways) is the first in a four-volume set of loping, tossed-off records Woody made for the Library of Congress in the 1940s. The performances and sound quality vary widely, but Woody's wry humor, compassion and humility consistently crackle out of every cut, bringing to life the character documented so warmly in Woody, Cisco & Me: Seamen Three in the Merchant Marine (University of Illinois Press), Jim Longhi's spirited memoirs of a wartime stint as Guthrie's merchant marine sidekick and singing partner.
After years of his own brand of vagabonding about the city and country, ex-NYC songwriter Eddy Lawrence has finally found a place to set down some roots. Luckily, the unheated stone house near the St. Lawrence Seaway he now calls home also makes for a swell recording studio.
Locals (Snowplow) is the product of Lawrence's generator-powered new surroundings. And the isolated backwoods setting is stamped all over it. The album conveys the sense of a guy with a lot of time to think and reflect, one who's unable to repress a boyish urge to relate all the stories and realizations that have built up in his whirring head since he finally cleared all the Lower East Side soot out of his nostrils.
There's a light, bouncy quality to the proceedings, with Lawrence laying down all the instrumental tracks on an old four-track and tempering his musings with just enough winks and sheepish grins to make this one to bring along on all those latenight summer drives out beyond the horizon.
A luscious hillbilly-reggae remake of the Slickers' sweet ska classic, "Johnny Too Bad," by Steve Earle and his Knoxville posse, The V-Roys, is just the ticket to rouse the backseat sleepers as you reach your seaside or lakeside destination. The CD single (on Earle's E-Squared label) also includes a driving V-Roys roadtrip rocker, "Straight Highway," and a hauntingly beautiful prison song, "Ellis Unit One," featuring Earle and the majestic Fairfield Four gospel quartet.
Mr. Earle's Texas soulmate, Guy Clark, has weathered some lean years of his own. But his raspy, knowing baritone and lilting guitar picking can still mesmerize an audience. Keepers (Sugar Hill) catches Clark and a nimble backup ensemble live, off-the-cuff and just plain "on." "L.A. Freeway" and "Let Him Roll" have never sounded more lonesome. And "Homegrown Tomatoes" will have you braving the rats and squatters of the community gardens on Ave. B for just a taste of a big, red juicy one.
There are no songs about interstates or vegetables on Tom Russell's live album, The Long Way Around (HighTone). But the ghosts of Bill Haley, Roberto Duran, Jimmy Magrue and the Angel of Lyon all figure quite prominently. As do the voices of Russell fans Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Katy Moffatt and Dave Alvin, who chime in for some stunning live duets that allow the more reserved Russell to lay back and crawl inside the head of the lost dreamers and drifters that populate his unjustly ignored work.
Aside from a few poignant write-ups by rock chroniclers such as Peter Guralnick, Greil Marcus, Eddie Dean and David Cantwell, there has been little evidence of anyone really appreciating the scope and depth of the late Charlie Rich's achievements, either. One almost got the feeling after his barely acknowledged passing that the Silver Fox might just pop up alongside Bill Haley in that Texas pancake house on the Rio Grande, with Tom Russell left to figure out the rest of the story.
Once again, someone at Sony/Legacy has seen fit to raid the immense corporate archives and work some deals with Sun, PolyGram and Sire to deliver the 36-track double-CD set that finally rescues Rich's lost career from obscurity and gives him the chance to prove that there was a lot more to the man than the flowing white mane and "The Most Beautiful Girl."
Rich always thought of himself as a jazz and blues singer. And the strongest cuts on Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich are emotive, country-tinged blues songs with a jazz sense of rhythm, arrangement and chord structures. This thread runs through Rich's early Sun stuff ("Who Will the Next Fool Be?"), his mid-'60s Smash period ("When Something is Wrong With My Baby"), the Billy Sherrill-produced Epic hits ("I Almost Lost My Mind," "Life's Little Ups & Downs," "Behind Closed Doors") and the brooding "Pictures and Paintings" from Rich's stately last album, 1992's Pictures and Paintings (Sire).
If there's one cut that sums up Rich as an artist, it is the rare 1973 piano-only demo of "Feel Like Going Home," which Rich dedicated, in a moment of utmost sincerity, to a Watergate-torn Richard Nixon.
"Lord I feel like going home," testifies Rich, over a hopeful gospel chord change. "I tried and I failed, and I'm tired and weary. Everything I done was wrong, and I feel like going home."
The song ends abrubtly, with a quick, stumbled search for a closing chord and a stunned, suddenly self-conscious Rich muttering, "And, that's it..." as the last notes trail off into memory.
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
Addresses of harder-to-find labels are as follows: Rainy Day Records, 3005 N. Druid Hills Rd., Atlanta, GA 30329; Safe House, Box 214, Poultney, VT 05764; Barber's Itch, 545 Louisiana St., Lawrence, KS 66044; Undercover, Box 14561, Portland, OR 97293; Smithsonian/Folkways, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Suite 2600, MRC 914, Washington, D.C. 20560; University Of Illinois Press, 1325 S. Oak St., Champaign, IL 61820; Snowplow, Box 27, Moira, NY 12957; E-Squared, 1815 Division St, Suite 101, Nashville, TN 37203; Sugar Hill, Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717; HighTone, 220 4th St., Oakland, CA 94607.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe