Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Big As Texas: Ethyl & the Regulars

Fill 'Er Up, the fantastic 2009 album by Denver's Ethyl and the Regulars

In my last post I discussed many of the neo country bands that I've been following lately.  Well, as I mentioned, my adopted state of Colorado has a very solid neo country scene and has several bands that are producing outstanding traditional country, including Bonnie and the Clydes, the Blue Mountain Ranch Hands, and the Railbenders.  But recently I got to see what might arguably be considered the best of a very excellent bunch, Ethyl and the Regulars.  They played at the Oskar Blues Grill and Bar in the small mountain town of Lyons and they were OUTSTANDING.  I've really come to enjoy their music, having purchased their lone album, 2009's Fill 'Er Up, but seeing them live was on another level entirely.  These guys play rock solid country mixed with honky tonk, western swing, and rockabilly in a way that is absolutely riveting.  This was one of the best gigs I've seen in the past 25 years, and I've seen everyone from Madonna to the Weirdos to Itzhak Perlman in concert. But this was no "concert"; part of what made it so enjoyable was that this was just a honky tonk band playing a honky tonk bar in a honky tonk town for a honky tonk crowd; no hipsters here, just mostly regulars and people who like real country music played hot and live.  The size of the crowd was disappointing given how good these guys are but everyone there seemed to really enjoy their 3+ hour set, with many older couples jumping up and cutting it up western style.  Their lineup of stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, Telecaster, pedal steel, and fiddle with minimal amplification sounded warm, rich, and organic.  They ripped through most of the songs on their album, including my personal favorites "Canada Day", "Love's Gonna Get You", the western swing influenced "Big as Texas", "Knee Deep in the Blues", "Good Morning Blues", the rocking hillbilly boogie of "Cash on the Barrelhead", and "At the End of My Blues".  During their break I talked to lead singer Jeff (and bought a t-shirt and CD from this terrifically nice and talented guy) and requested my favorite song by them "Cook County Jail", which they ripped through with the ferocity of a man eating tiger.  They also roared through a wicked number of fantastic covers, including "Together Again" by Buck Owens, "Mind Your Own Business" by Hank Williams, a phenomenal version of Johnny Horton's "One-Woman Man", and a blistering countrified romp through the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville".  This was a terrific night of authentic country music and I cannot wait until I can see them again live.  They have ascended my personal Top 10 in dizzying fashion and I am just so excited that a band of their talent and stature is in my neck of the woods. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Circle Will Be Unbroken: Neo Country

Denver's own Ethyl and the Regulars

In a recent post I mentioned how much I’ve come to appreciate REAL, i.e., non-Nashville, country music.  In fact, in the past two months I’ve listened almost exclusively to country (and western swing and occasionally rockabilly and jump blues) and can’t get enough of it.  This type of country, which rejects the pop sheen and fashion image consciousness of contemporary Nashville country, is often referred to as “neotraditional country” or sometimes just “neo country”.  Regardless of the name, this type of country music appears to be thriving in the 21st century. It seems like more and more people are searching for music (and art and literature and political opinions) outside of the usual standard arenas.  We also live in a retro obsessed culture that has lionized, even fetishized, old and/or archaic artistic forms.  Groups like the Avett Brothers (I like “Slight Figure of Speech” and “And It Spread” from I and Love and You) and Mumford and Sons have crafted a sound that is immersed in these old fashioned, folk/traditional musical idioms; there’s a great compilation called The Roots of Mumford and Sons that contains tracks by old time artists who influenced them, and includes such classic and revered country/blues/traditional artists as Cisco Houston, Henry Thomas, the Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, and Leadbelly.

Other artists are mining a similar old-timey vein, but none are older and timey-er than Pokey Lafarge.  Hailing from St. Louis but often found criss-crossing America like a modern day Woody Guthrie, Lafarge’s sound is a compelling amalgamation of Jimmie Rodgers hobo country, Leadbelly-inspired folk blues, and 20’s ragtime and jazz age pop.  He brings a Dylanesque quality to this unique, almost artisanal mix of neo-primitive musical forms, writing most of his own material and adding his distinctive vocal stylings as well.  I’ve just begun exploring his work but so far my favorite songs are “Mr. Nobody”, “Where I’m Gonna Go”, and the title track off 2008’s Beat, Move, and Shake; “La La Blues” off 2010’s Riverboat Soul; and “Sunny Side of the Street” from his most recent LP, Middle of Everywhere. 

Another artist who has mined a real old time vein, but has been doing it since the mid-90’s, is Gillian Welch.  Welch, and her husband/guitarist David Rawlings, have been crafting introspective updates of Appalachian folk that is heavy on the harmonies and light on the instrumentation.  On songs like the slight and plaintive“Barroom Girls”, the echoey, soulful “Paper Wings”,  “Tear My Stillhouse Down” (with its martial drum beat), and most notably the spectacular “Orphan Girl” off her debut album, the aptly named Revival, Welch hews extremely closely to the sweet harmonies and simple, somber instrumentation of the Carter Family.  “Red Clay Halo” off her third album, Time (The Revelator) is another sweet chunk of country pickin’ and croonin’.  However, Welch and Rawlings could occasionally kick out the jams, and my favorite song by them is the milk cow boogie of “Honey, Now” off her second album, Hell Among the Yearlings, with its fat drums and electric guitar boogie, it really feels like a country dance band cutting loose.  On 2003’s Soul Journey, they continue to experiment with more, and more electric, instrumentation, for example the soft organ backing “Wayside/Back in Time”; this song sounds almost like a Natalie Merchant piece it veers so close to modernity.  “Lowlands” is much closer to their prior, exclusively acoustic work, but “Look At Miss Ohio” even sports an (electric) guitar solo!  Welch and Rawlings took awhile to rediscover their inner muse but in 2011 released The Harrow & the Harvest; I particularly like the low-key folk blues of “The Way That It Goes” and the soft, introspective “Silver Dagger”.

Almost as antique is the music of my current obsession, Texan Wayne Hancock.  I wrote about Hancock in my previous post but in the meantime I’ve become even more obsessed with his amazing talent.  Hancock sounds like the reincarnation of Hank Williams Sr., nailing not only Williams’ nasal honk but his Jimmie Rodgers-influenced yodel to a T.  As if that isn’t good enough, Hancock has chosen to adapt Hank’s traditional country combo honky tonk sound to the large ensemble sound of western swing.  There’s a great deal of Bob Wills there of course, but also elements of Spade Cooley and other western swing pioneers.  Like these swing antecedents, Hancock’s music can vary from “large ensemble” stuff complete with horns sounding like classic Tommy Dorsey regular big-band swing (like on the title track of Hancock’s 2006 album Tulsa) to a smaller, more intimate combo sound as showcased more on 2009 album the Viper of Melody.   Wayne will also slow it down for lush slow dance numbers like “This Lonely Night” and “Lord Take My Pain” off Tulsa; he also mixes in hard blues elements in songs like “Drinkin’ Blues”.  But I like it best when he cuts loose, ramps it up, and drives his band to yank astonishing solos out of the air like on songs like “Tulsa”, “Going Home Blues”, “Jump the Blues”, “Freight Train Boogie”, “Big City Good Time Gal”, “Gone Gone Gone”, and “Flat Land Boogie”.  Most notably, Wayne’s personnel have been out of this world, mind blowingly outstanding musicians; Wayne typically picks the cream of the Austin scene crop for his touring and studio bands, and his guitarists, particularly Paul Skelton and Herb Steiner on Thunderstorms and Neon Lights,  Dave Biller and Jeremy Wakefield on A Town Blues,  Skelton and Biller and Eddie Rivers on Tulsa, and Izak Zaidman and Tony Locke on Viper of Melody, kick up a wild, extemporaneous squall of solos that will have you nodding your head and tapping your toes guaranteed.  Wayne is, to me anyway, hands down the guy who is doing neo country right, melding different sub-genres of country to make a novel hybrid while simultaneously breathing new life into these older musical forms.  I know of nobody who is trying to do big ensemble, hardcore traditional honky-tonk infused western swing like this anywhere; as far as I can tell, Wayne is in a class by himself.  I don’t even know how you wake up one day and decide to put together a western swing ensemble like this; it’s so beyond the regular musical pale to be almost inconceivable to me.  I cannot WAIT for Wayne to swing through my town soon, I’m dying to see him live, where he supposedly puts together shows that are legendary for their length and enthusiasm.  Right now, for me, Wayne is in a class by himself.

I did manage to recently catch Hank’s more literal offspring, his grandson Hank Williams III, on his recent tour.  Like Wayne Hancock, with whom he collaborated early in his career, Hank III has forged a unique path through modern country, in Hank’s case one that veers between traditional, straight-up honky tonk and between punk and hardcore.  Hank has also fronted the hardcore punk band Assjack and more recently has tried to meld both honky tonk country and industrial, metal, and punk.    Not surprisingly, while I respect his other musical passions I’m most attracted to his more traditional work.  My favorite songs by Hank are “Lovesick, Broke, and Driftin’” (which could be mistaken for a song by his granddaddy), the funky “Mississippi Mud”, the doleful “Whiskey, Weed, and Women”, and “Walking With Sorrow” off his second album, 2002’s Lovesick, Broke, and Driftin’; “Thrown out of the Bar”, which tells a tale of getting wasted with old school country outlaws Dave Allen Coe and George Jones off 2006’s Straight to Hell; the perky “Wild and Free” off Damn Right Rebel Proud; the rumbling, aggressive, industrial tinged “Hillbilly Joker” off the 2011 album of the same name;  and the title track, “Sun Comes Up”,  and “What They Want Me To Be” off the 2012 compilation Long Gone Daddy.   Like Wayne Hancock, Hank III has the nasally vocals of his grandpappy down pat (though supposedly Hank III has said Wayne has more of his grandfather in him than anyone else, including him).  “Long Gone Daddy” comes the closest to capturing the funkiness of Hank’s granddaddy, who’s music often strutted sassily and made you want to tap your toes at the same time.  “Sun Comes Up” is more reminiscent of Hank Williams Sr.’s cry-in-your-beer songs like “Lonesome and Blue” and “Lovesick Blues”.  Most of Hank III’s song lyrics deal with heartache, getting wasted, or giving the finger to the traditional country establishment, putting him squarely in the forefront of this neo-outlaw country movement.

Seeing Hank III live was fascinating.  I’ve seen a lot of weird acts with weird fans live in my 45 years, but perhaps none as weird as Hank and his crowd.  It was a unique blend of alterna-nation types—shaved heads, dreadlocks, goatees, tattoos, piercings—and hardcore hillbilly types in cowboy hats, moustaches, and beer guts.  Everyone got along fine and most folks were enthusiastically shouting out the lyrics to nearly every song.  Hank has clearly tapped into a solid vein of anti-country sensibilities that resonates with a surprisingly wide swath of fans.

There are a couple other guys who are also producing some great classic honky tonk sounds that I mentioned in my previous  post:  Virginia’s J.B. Beverley and the Wayward Drifters and Houston, Texas’ Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys.  Like Hank III, Beverley has logged time in an assortment of traditional hardcore punk bands, including the Bad Habits, G.G. Allin’s former band the Murder Junkies, and the Little White Pills.  Beverley plays a more stripped down and banjo-inflected honky tonk sound; my two favorite songs by him are the slow cowpoke blues of “Walked Across Texas” and his middle finger to Nashville, “Dark Bar and a Juke Box”, both of which are on his 2006 album Dark Bar and a Juke Box, but I’ve also since come to like “Lonesome, Loaded, and Cold” and “Going to the Show” off this album.  Though for the most part his music leans too heavily on banjo (and also on fiddle) for my tastes, I prefer guitars and standup bass more.  Sean Reefer almost comes off as a joke band, so heavily does he immerse himself in marijuana culture.  Aside from his name and that of his band, nearly every title on his 2003 album Texas Hill Country focuses on smoking weed and getting high.  Aside from this, I like his sound even better than Beverley’s; while not pursuing the western swing angle as avidly as Wayne, Reefer’s music hews more closely to that of Wayne Hancock, with lots of pedal steel guitar on songs like “Otherwise” and “Whiskey Bottle” and “Do It All Wrong”.  Unfortunately this is the only album available on iTunes but I hope they put out some more (hopefully less weed obsessed) music soon.

Georgia’s Joey Allcorn is another country troubadour mining a Hank Williams honky tonk vein. Like his occasional collaborator Hank III, Allcorn has also occasionally infused his music with some of the energy and raw sounds of punk, particularly on tracks like “In Memphis Tennessee” and “Like I Never Will Again” on his debut album; these two artists more than any other are responsible for creating what’s become known as hellbilly, which is like the country/hillbilly variant of psychobilly.  On his debut album, 2006’s 50 Years Too Late, Allcorn creates some amazing music; my favorites are the perky “I Just Don’t Know” and the sad lonesome sounds of “Here I Go Again”.  I also like the more up-tempo rave-up “Honky Tonkin’ Ramblin’ Man” and the slow “Lonesome, Lovesick Man” off 2009’s All Alone Again, but Allcorn’s voice lacks the Texas twang and nasally drawl of Wayne the Train and Hank III and doesn’t sit quite as well with me as their voices do.  All Alone Again also features some of the last recorded pedal steel guitar work done by Don Helms, who was Hank Williams Sr.’s pedal steel player for nearly all his big hits.

A guy who has been creating fantastic neo country for over 20 years now is Junior Brown. Brown was born in Indiana but now resides in Texas.  Brown’s music hews more closely to the electrified honky tonk country of one of my newfound heroes, Buck Owens, really sounding like an update on the “Bakersfield Sound”.  Brown’s music is highlighted by the sounds of his so-called “guit-steel”, an electric guitar/steel guitar hybrid of his own creation, as well as Brown’s deep, stentorian vocals, which bring to mind classic male country singers like Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones.  He also showcases his guit-steel with blistering country shreds that evoke a corn pone Eddie Van Halen in their countrified pyrotechnics.  Brown has released half a dozen albums since 1993, all of which are consistently excellent, but my favorite current songs are the very old-timey sounding “Gal From Oklahoma” off his debut Guit With It;  the clear, crisp “My Baby Don’t Dance To Nothing But Ernest Tubb”, the straight-up country of “Too Many Nights in a Roadhouse”, and the beautiful Hawaiian steel punctuating “Hillbilly Hula Gal” off his follow-up  from that same year 12 Shades of Brown; “Gotta Get Up Every Morning”, “Darling I’ll Do Anything You Say”, and the title track off 1996’s Semi-Crazy; and the twangy, Bakersfield-infused “I’m All Fired Up” and the jazzy swing of “Lookin’ For Love” off 1998’s Long Walk Back.   Brown has forged a unique musical sound that owes much to the Bakersfield sound but is wholly his own.

As mentioned in my previous post, Austin’s Derailers are another band that has taken many of its musical cues from the Bakersfield sounds of Buck Owens; Owens was so impressed with their abilities he had them play his birthday party in the late 90’s, and the Derailers released an all-Buck cover album titled Under the Influence of Buck.  These guys spent a good chunk of the 90’s and early 2000’s making outstanding, straight-up electrified honky tonk country; on songs like “My Heart’s Ready”, “This Big City”, “I’m Your Man”, “Where Ya Been”, and “Jackpot” of their 1996 debut album of the same name showcased their immense talent; rarely has there been a stronger top-to-bottom country debut album.  These guys instantly vaulted themselves into the top (non-Nashville) country acts in the nation by channeling their inner Buck.  They even looked the part, with their greaser hairdos and Western suits.  They continued to storm the country ramparts on their 1999 big label (Sire) follow-up Full Western Dress with solid honky tonk two steppers like “The Right Place”, “Someone Else’s Problem” , “Whatever Made You Change Your Mind”,  and their cover of the Crystal’s Phil Spector hit “Then She Kissed Me”.  The latter two songs brought to the fore their increasing fascination with Beatlesque harmonies and Byrds/Merseybeat janglepop.   This element would become more dominant on later albums like 2008’s Guaranteed to Satisfy, which was made following the departure of long-time vocalist Tony Villanueva.   Songs like “The Get-Go”, with its soaring vocal harmonies and funky 60’s garage pop guitar and the slower, more jangly Byrds exercise “The Sun Is Shining On Me” showcased this new direction.   But on 2003’s Genuine (which featured songs like “Leave a Message, Juanita”, and “Boomerang Heart”) and 2006’s Soldiers of Love (on songs like “She’s a Lot Like Texas”, “Hey, Valerie”, and It’s Never Too Late for a Party”) they continued to produce drop-dead country classics. And while it’s hard to fault a band for evolving (particularly after the aforementioned departure of primary singer Villanueva), I have to confess I miss the “classic” Derailers sound of their earlier work.  Right now aside from Wayne Hancock I’d say they are my favorite act because of their ability to conjure the best sounds of Bakersfield.

Dale Watson also looks to the west for his inspiration, but his deep, almost stentorian vocals hew closer to those of another Bakersfield icon, Merle Haggard.  Watson’s smooth, deep, classic country voice has made him a favorite of the neo-country crowd too. Watson is Alabama born but lived in (and has moved back to) Texas and considers the Lone Star State his home.  However, he got his start at the Palamino Club in North Hollywood, and even spent some time songwriting in (ugh) Nashville.  But starting in 1995 he began releasing a bewildering number of albums showcasing his own vocal and songwriting talent.  My favorite songs by Dale are “Cheatin’ Heart Attack” and “List of Reasons” off his ’95 debut Cheatin’ Heart Attack and the more swing-inflected sounds of his One More Once More album, including the title track, “You Win Again”, and “You’ve Got Me Now”.  I’m still exploring Dale’s massive back catalog and hope to unearth more treasures soon.

As mentioned in my previous post, Moot Davis hails from the decidedly non-country state of New Jersey but has also made a name for himself in just the past few years.  In 2004 he released his debut, a solid effort that brought him plaudits from many neo-country circles for its traditional Hank Williams inflected honkey tonk.  This album had some great songs, including the leadoff track “Thick Of It Now”, which evokes both Hank the first AND Hank the third, and “Highway Kind”, which, with its heavy electric and steel guitar presence and yodeling vocals sounds like Wayne Hancock minus the nasally Texas inflections.  “Thanks for Breaking My Heart” is a cry-in-your-beer Buck Owens type of number.  “Last Train Home” is a country plaint made even more doleful by Gabe Witcher’s delicate banjo work and by braying horns, not a typical country instrument but here they work.  “One of a Kind” and “Stay Gone” also could be songs from a lost 50’s country album.

Moot’s follow-up, 2007’s Already Moved On, continued on in this same manner.  “Toggle Switch” has the peppy rhythm and classic electric guitar twang of a Don Rich arrangement, and “Talkin’ About Lonely” is another Hank Williams-infused piece of traditional honky tonk.  I also like “Go Down Alone” and his cover of Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m the only Hell (My Mama Ever Raised)”, but this album seems to showcase a much lighter production that seems less heavily rooted in traditional honky tonk country as his debut.  Moot waited five years to release his third album, Man About Town, and it in some ways seems to be a return to form but also finds Moot spreading his musical wings a little.  “Rags to Rhinestones” has a Merle Haggard feel to both the song and the lyrics.  “Day the World Shook My Hand” and “Memory Lane” sound like countrified Chris Isaak numbers, while “Rocket” is slower and funkier, a hip shaking country song.  “How Long” and “Fade to Gold” showcase Moot’s fantastic lyrical writing skills and are beautiful songs that will stick with you.

Another band I mentioned in my previous country post whom I’ve gotten more into are the Two Dollar Pistols.  The Pistols, who hail from North Carolina, are essentially a vehicle for singer John Howie, Jr., a former drummer who formed this traditional country outfit in the early 90’s.  George Jones is the obvious reference point here, both in terms of Howie’s rough, masculine vocals and in terms of the lyrics, which often focus on heartache and loss.  Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings also jump to mind.  Right now the songs that have leapt out at me are “You Ruined Everything” and “Gettin’ Gone”, “All I Can Think of is You”, and the jaunty “There Goes a Heartache” off their 2002 album You Ruined Everything.  I also like “Too Bad You’re Gone” and the rockier title track off 2004’s Hands Up!

But the Pistols’ best effort is arguably their 1999 EP collaboration with fellow Carolina crooner Tift Merritt, which hearkens back to the classic country duets of Tammy Wynette and George Jones.  Merritt has a spectacular voice that evokes the clear, ringing tones of Emmylou Harris and which meshes with the rougher, more craggy vocals of Howie, particularly on tunes like Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton’s “Just Someone I Used to Know”, Waylon Jennings’ “We Had It All”, Charley Pride’s “I’m So Afraid of Losing You Again”, and Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson’s “One Paper Kid”.

Though they hail from Nashville (though the members all come from elsewhere), BR5-49 have become one of the biggest neo-country success stories.  Like the Derailers, they mix traditional country, Western swing, Bakersfield honky tonk, and rock/rockabilly to create a compelling blend.  Also like the Derailers, they walk the old time country walk as well, wearing retro Western duds and hats, which personally I always like as a nice touch.  Their 1996 self-titled debut album (their name comes from a telephone number in an old Hee Haw sketch) was magnificent, with a terrific array of originals and covers meshing well together.  In addition to covering Moon Mullican’s “Cherokee Boogie”, Mel Tillis’ “Honky Tonk Song”, Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never”,  Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms”, and Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind”, their original compositions “Chains of This Town” (which its Latin flavor) and “Even If Its Wrong” fit in extremely well.  They continued in this vein on their second album, 1998’s Big Backyard Beat Show, which contained covers of songs by Buck Owens, Johnny O’Keefe, and Billy Joe Shaver.   In 2001 they made their major label debut on Sony with This Is BR5-49; this album seems to lose a little of the wild energy and enthusiasm they brought to their prior albums but still has some high points, including the country rocker “Look Me Up” and the strutting “Fool of the Century” and “While You Were Gone”.  Sadly, This Is BR5-49 didn’t sell and they subsequently left Sony, and lost guitarist and vocalist (and lyricist) Gary Bennett.  2004’s Tangled in the Pines marked a return to their signature sound from the over-polished sheen of This Is BR5-49 and featured far more original numbers, including “That’s What I Get”, “When I Come Home”, and “Honky Tonkin’ Lifestyle”, the latter two of which hew lyrically to the Hank Williams school of songwriting.  2006’s Dog Days saw the band losing more membership but they have continued to soldier on.     I like the feeling-sorry-for-themselves lament “A-1 On the Jukebox” and the cowpoke lope of “I’m Goin’ Down”.

Another major and prolific neo-country band I was late in discovering is Asleep at the Wheel, who have been cranking out updated western swing for almost forty years.  They have a jillion albums and I’ve been trying to pick my way through all of them.  One feature of Asleep at the Wheel is their eagerness to collaborate with a wide array of country and western swing artists, including former Bob Wills guitarist Leon Rausch (I like “It’s a Good Day” and “Osage Stomp” off the album It’s a Good Day), outlaw country icon Willie Nelson (I love “Hesitation Blues” off Willie and the Wheel), and even swing/retro hounds the Squirrel Nut Zippers (on “A Maiden’s Prayer” off Ride with Bob, a tribute album to Wills).  I also like their Johnny Cash-influenced cover of Arkie Shibley’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” and Bob Will’s “Roly Poly” off Western Standard Time, their cover of “Albuquerque” off the compilation More Songs of Route 66:  Roadside Attractions, their cover of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (another Bob Wills standard) off Ride With Bob, and “Cotton Eyed Joe” and “Miles and Miles of Texas” off Live at Billy Bob’s. 

San Antonio, Texas country outfit Two Tons of Steel have made a name for themselves as a live draw that packs them in every summer at Gruene Hall, considered the oldest continually operated dance hall in Texas.  They have released several studio albums as well, and I’m still exploring these.  So far my favorite songs are the swinging “Cryin’ Eyes”,  the mellower, organ-infused “Long Road to Heaven”, and “Bottom of the Bottle” off 2009’s Not That Lucky.  It’s easy to see why these guys are such a popular live act in the Lone Star State.  On their Vegas album, they also do countrified covers of “Secret Agent Man”, The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”, and Ray Harris’ rockabilly raver “Red Hot”, but I like “Drive You Home Tonite” and “Can’t Stay With You”.

I’ve been doing some exploring of the local music scene trying to find neo country artists in the Denver/Front Range area near where I live.  One of the first bands I came up with is Ethyl and the Regulars, a popular Denver band that has been making the club circuit for awhile.  They have an album available on iTunes, 2009’s Fill ‘Er Up.  I downloaded the entire thing and am greatly enjoying it; it reminds me a lot of the fantastic work of BR5-49 and the Derailers, particularly on songs like “Good Morning Blues”, “Love’s Gonna Get You”, the honky tonk heavy “Long Gone, Long Forgotten”, and the faster, more  up-tempo “Knee Deep in the Blues”.

The Cowboy Dave Band is another Mile High purveyor of classic country.  Led by “Cowboy” Dave Wilson, who also plays with Nebraska’s terrific country ensemble Forty/Twenty, the Cowboy Dave Band have a fun EP out, 2009’s Saddle Up, Pal, that showcases Dave’s killer country sound.  “Friend in a Bottle” and “Bill, Wyoming” are two standout songs.

Another popular country draw in Denver are the Railbenders, who play a high lonesome western sound that leans heavily on bleak Johnny Cash-like vocals and Waylon Jennings influenced outlaw western country stylings.  They have several albums on iTunes, and I’ve downloaded the frantic “Hellbound Party Train” as well as the local shout-outs “I-70 Westbound” and “Driving Back to Denver” off 2006’s Showdown; and “Lonesome Train” and “Minus One” off 2001’s Southbound (they do a honky tonk version of Ozzie Ozbourne’s “Crazy Train” on this album that works quite well).  I also like “Drive Away”, “Drop Me Off at the Honky Tonk”, and the title track from 2009’s Like a Wheel.  I definitely need to catch these guys live soon.

They call themselves “Twang Rock”, but 4H Royalty have a sound that draws heavily on rock, alternative, powerpop, rockabilly, and country.  I like “The Breaks” and the incredibly punchy “Orbison Eyes”, which actually reminds me of new wave/powerpop legends  SVT with its surging, crunchy blasts of bass and guitar, off their 2010 album Colossolalia.  The live versions of their song “Accordion Bus” available (as with the songs above) on YouTube are also phenomenal; again, there’s a heavy late 70’s California powerpop vibe that evokes the best of Tommy Tutone and the Plimsouls but with a rootsier edge.  These guys are mining a unique vein of music that I greatly enjoy.

Boulder’s Gasoline Lollipops are slightly closer to the country side of things but still bring an alternative rock feel to their music.  They have several good songs uploaded on their MySpace site, including the quavery “Devil’s in the Ace” and “White Trash Song”; singer Clay Rose’s voice often evokes for me a slightly more countrified version of Eddie Vedder’s vocals with Pearl Jam.  My favorite songs by these guys right now is the plaintive, moving “Nashville” and the equally sweet “Longest Night”. 

Blue Mountain Ranch Hands, who hail from the tiny mountain town of Lyons, are producing some of the most hardcore western swing I’ve heard; aside from Wayne the Train and perhaps Asleep at the Wheel, these guys (and gals) are doing more to keep the memory of Bob Wills alive than anyone else on the planet.  I’m not as huge a fan of the vocals as I am of the fantastic musicianship of their guitarists, particularly their pedal steel player.  I’ve downloaded “Bud’s Bounce” and “Kansas City Kitty” from their 2010 album Steal the Show, which is available on CDBaby, and am enjoying them immensely.

Fronted by the fiesty Bonnie Sims, Bonnie and the Clydes are a six piece outfit that is cranking out plaintive songs like “Dark Side of the Road” and “Take Me Home”, which can be found on their 2012 release Wrong Side Up.  I particularly like Bonnie’s vocals on the latter song, but my favorite song is the perky “Rocky Mountain Town”.  Bonnie also does a soulful country version of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody”.

He's not from my current hometown but he is from my former hometown. Every time I find myself back in my (and Snoop Dogg's) hometown of Long Beach, California I go to the farmer's market by the Marina in Belmont Shore, and Caribbean country singer Billy Rose is almost always there with his acoustic guitar.  I fell in love with Billy's voice the first time I heard it; his hoarse, raspy vocals are extremely bluesy and remind me almost of field hollers.  For my 40th birthday, my in-laws tracked Billy down and bought me a CD of his work, The Day Love's Well Runs Dry.  I was surprised and a little disappointed, because it features Billy with a large electric country ensemble and is obviously far more polished than his raw, powerful live performances.  But I've since come to greatly treasure this CD.  Billy's songs "A Special Kind of Woman", his cover of Kris Kristofferson's"Help Me Make It Through the Night", "I'm in the Picture with You", "Long Distance Phone Call", his cover of the George Jones classic "Once You Had the Best", and the title track are excellent country cuts.

It’s truly amazing to me how vibrant and fertile country music, particularly neo-country, continues to be in the 21st century.  There are so many artists exploring traditional American musical forms and breathing new life into older idioms like western swing and hobo country.  I’ve found the bands above in my neck of the woods but there are plenty of other bands out there cranking out classic country music in bars and clubs across America.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Streets of Bakersfield: Buck Owens and the Bakersfield Sound

Buck Owens and Don Rich during their mid 60's heyday

In my recent post on country rock I did a lot of digging to find out more about the roots of country rock.  I mentioned toward the end of that post that it was only when I was older that I started to gain a greater appreciation for country music.  When I was a kid I totally detested it, particularly when my mother would torture me with songs like “Elvira” by the Statler Brothers, or anything by Kenny Rogers (seriously, is there a dumber song than “Coward of the County”?  Even my well-established love of story songs hasn’t been enough to make me like that song).   

It has only been in the last decade or so that I’ve (a) acquired enough age to appreciate country more—I seriously question the sanity, intelligence, and taste of anyone who professes to like country music who is under 30 years of age, country is something I feel you have to have been kicked around by life a bit to appreciate; (b) been able to delve deeper into the roots of country and really find what I like.  I can honestly say that I am now a fan of country music, though with some huge caveats.

Caveat number one is that I still prefer country ROCK to country almost any day.  My first exposure to “country” was highly indirect and initially occurred through an appreciation of 80’s LA post-punk, in particular the so-called cowpunk of bands like X and the Long Ryders.  In the 90’s I briefly got into alt country through my appreciation of bands like the Geraldine Fibbers; in the late 90’s and early 2000’s I got further into alt country through my love of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt.  In the late 90’s I also saw Iris Dement in concert for the first time and was blown away by her sweet pure country voice.  Also in the late 90’s I was finally able to “sample” some songs by Gram Parsons, about whom I’d hear much but of who’s music I’d heard very little.  Parsons’ solo efforts, as well as his work with the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, was as hardcore country as I’d ever listened to, and in fact was probably a little TOO country for me at first.  For most of my adult life, I’ve been very much an urban person, attracted to modern art and punk rock and contemporary jazz and classical music; I feel way less comfortable in redneck situations.  

But I’ve definitely gained a greater appreciation for real, raw country music, which led to my recent revelation that I don’t actually dislike country, what I actually dislike is NASHVILLE country, i.e., the slick, overproduced pap that is simply twangified pop music that has oozed out of Nashville for the past 40 years.  And so Caveat Number Two is that the only country that I really will listen to and enjoy is stuff nobody who is a regular country fan has ever heard of.  It was in the 60’s that Nashville producers started crafting a slicker, more polished country sound to appeal to pop fans and cross over to the pop market; one of the first such movements was called “countrypolitan” in an effort to emphasize it’s accessibility to city folks as well as rednecks.  This is not to say that artists like Patsy Cline (I love “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces”; I also like "Angel of the Morning" by Merrilee Rush for its stately adulteress dignity) didn’t put out some good songs during this time, but in subsequent decades this polish came at the price of grittiness and authenticity. 

But country music isn’t just produced in Nashville, and what I’ve finally come to understand is how much I love some of these other, often less commercial strains of country music.  Specifically, I recently discovered that what I REALLY like is the country music produced in the California farming and oil town of Bakersfield.  As I mentioned in my previous post, part of my attraction to this sound may be because I actually lived in Bakersfield in the early 70’s (specifically for part of 1973) and remember enough of its hardscrabble charm to appreciate this music on a more fundamental level.  But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate this music for exactly what it is:  a rawer, simpler, more rock and roll version of country than what was being produced in Nashville at the time (or since).

Arguably the king of the Bakersfield sound is Buck Owens.  I mostly remember Owens from his lengthy stint as co-host of the cornball hillbilly comedy show Hee Haw in the 70’s (and into the 80’s though I obviously wasn’t watching it by then), but during the 60’s Owens almost literally put Bakersfield on the map in musical terms by the slew of hit singles he produced.  Owens’ sound was the antithesis of the overproduced Nashville sound; raw, simple, clean country that focused on Buck’s Texas drawl and acoustic guitar as well as electric guitar and some light rhythm.  Few if any overdubs, no strings or horns, no choirs, just a few instruments played extremely efficiently.

Buck Owens is rightly credited for bringing this clean and simple country sound back to the charts, but an unsung hero, the real architect of this sound, was his guitarist Don Rich.  Rich is revered by true country fans for his rockabilly-influenced electric guitar playing and high singing harmonies, both of which perfectly complemented Buck’s acoustic guitar and lead vocals.   Rich gave Buck Owens a sound that was both rooted in country history as well as forward facing toward the rock generation.  Sadly, Rich died in a motorcycle accident in the mid-70’s; Buck was supposedly never the same afterward.

I recently purchased the album Buck Owens:  21 #1 Hits off iTunes, and I am enjoying it immensely.  Often collections that focus on #1 hits only can give a skewed view of an artist’s output; after all, not all of an artist’s best songs always hit #1, and plenty of songs that aren’t so great become #1 songs.  But this collection really provides an excellent overview of Buck’s most successful (both commercially and musically) period, from around 1963 through the mid-70’s (the collection also includes a re-recorded version of “Streets of Bakersfield” from the 80's featuring Dwight Yoakam).    Buck’s first #1, 1963’s “Act Naturally”, is one of his best songs, featuring Rich’s clean, twangy rock-infused picking and high harmony with Buck; this song was actually covered by the Beatles on Help! (it was released as the B-side of “Yesterday” in the States).    His second #1, “Love’s Gonna Live Here” is another jaunty slice of Bakersfield country; Rich’s picking here is funkier, less reverbed than on “Act Naturally” and is a perfect accompaniment to Buck’s simple acoustic strumming.    “I Don’t Care (As Long As You Love)” is similarly fantastic and owes a debt to the early country of Roy Acuff and Jimmie Rodgers.

In 1965, Owens had a staggering four #1 singles “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, “Before You Go” (with its incredible, ringing guitar intro by Rich), the phenomenal instrumental “Buckaroo” (named for his backing band the Buckeroos and sounding like Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” filtered through “Day Tripper” by the Beatles; this is still the only instrumental song ever to top the country charts), and the slow ballad “Only You (Can Break My Heart)”.  In 1966 Owens barely slowed down, producing three more #1 hits, “I’m Waiting in Your Welfare Line” (with its terrific chorus “I’ve got the hungries for your love, and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line),  “Think of Me” (with its Spanish rhythm and Rich’s high, ringing guitar), and the funky “Open Up Your Heart” (with its tejano beat).  1967 brought three more #1’s, the oddly named lament “Where Does the Good Times Go”, the slow, soulful “Your Tender Loving Care”, and the high-tempo rom “Sam’s Place”. 

The next year, Buck’s incredible streak showed signs of tapering off.  His singles branched out from his typical formula, and while several charted, he had only one #1, “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone”. 1969 brought “Tall Dark Stranger”, with its cowboy choruses and greater emphasis on acoustic and Spanish guitar, and the oddly suggestive “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass”, with Rich playing his electric guitar through a fuzzbox for a weird, pseudo-psychedelic roar that sounds more like “Sneaky” Pete Klenow’s work with the Flying Burrito Brothers.  

Buck continued to have chart success but his staggering run of #1 singles was nearly at an end; his final #1 was 1972’s faintly embarrassing “Made In Japan”, with its hokey chop-socky guitar and corny lyrics.  This is one of the few musical missteps on this amazing album.  From 1963-1969 Owens had something like 19 #1 songs, an amazing feat.  But more importantly, he did so on his terms and against the prevailing grain of the Nashville sound.  For this reason Owens can truly be considered an original country punk, making music that was rawer and simpler and achieving success on his own terms.  Another thing I love about Buck’s music is how much it pulls on, and would influence, Spanish country or tejano music.  Many of the rhythms and guitar textures Buck used in his songs come from that Spanish/Tex-Mex influence, and his music in turn was a huge influence on the burgeoning tejano music  scene.  Tejano typically uses more accordion and a firm 2/2 beat—which can be heard on Buck’s re-recording of “Streets of Bakersfield” with Dwight Yoakam—but many of the flourishes Buck put into his songs came from a Hispanic influence that as a long-time (former) Californian I appreciate and respect.  Buck was making music for ALL of the honky tonk folks of the California Central Valley.  His music pulls more on the Western music aspects than on the Country music aspects of country western music, and as a lifelong Westerner I appreciate that immensely. 

Buck wasn’t the only superstar to emerge from the Bakersfield scene; the other was Merle Haggard.  Haggard’s influence on country, country rock, and alt country was massive, gargantuan.  Haggard played briefly in Buck Owens’ band and through Buck he absorbed some of the simplicity of the Bakersfield sound, but Haggard had one of the most captivating lyrical muses in the history of country music, fed no doubt by a colorful life spent in and out of jail and working the oil fields around Bakersfield.  I particularly love some of his key early hits with his group the Strangers, like “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”, “The Bottle Let Me Down”, “Swinging Doors”,  and “(My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers”.  Merle was also a pioneer in what eventually came to be called “outlaw country”, with artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings jumping on board in the 70’s. 

I respect Haggard but I am also less comfortable with his reactionary redneck side, which is highlighted on songs like “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fighting Side of Me”; Haggard has claimed at various times that these songs, which glorify a narrow-minded, jingoistic take on American values, were written tongue-in-cheek, but I think they ring a little too true to be parody.  In contrast, Buck Owens embraced, and was embraced by, the counter-culture during the 60’s; as mentioned above, his “Act Naturally” was covered by the Beatles (Buck was supposedly a big fan of the Beatles, unusual among country artists at the time), and Buck famously played a series of shows at the Fillmore West to an audience of appreciative hippies.  And while I think I prefer Haggard’s voice over Owens’, Buck had a much better band (specifically guitarist Don Rich).   But Haggard was also arguably a better lyricist, and his songs have found new life in some of my favorite country rock covers, including “Big City” by Iris Dement, “Silver Wings” and “I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” by John Doe,  “White Line Fever” by the Flying Burrito Brothers,  and “Kern River” by Dave Alvin.

Buck and Merle put Bakersfield on the map, but there were musicians playing in Bakersfield before them.  Tommy Collins was arguably the first Bakersfield artist to gain recognition by the country music establishment in the 50’s.  I only have two songs by Collins, “Whatcha Gonna Do Now” and “You Better Not Do That” off the album Country Music’s Greatest Hits of the 50’s; both are kind of tinny and twangy and owe more to the Appalachian country sound than Owens’ more western-influenced sound but you can hear glimmers of the stripped-down Bakersfield sound here. 

Wynn Stewart was a stepping stone between Tommy Collins and Buck and Merle.  I am just starting my Stewart collection but right now my favorite song by him is “Wishful Thinking”, even though its sound is busier and more polished than Buck or Merle’s.  I also like “Big Big Love” and “I’ve Waited a Lifetime”, the latter of which comes the closest to the high lonesome simplicity of Buck Owens’ work. 

The Bakersfield sound has remained incredibly durable over the decades since its mid-50’s to late-60’s heyday.  As mentioned, a wide array of pioneering country rock artists idolized Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, including Gram Parsons, as well as members of The Speckled Bird, Poco, and the Byrds.  In the 80’s, Dwight Yoakam was a standard-bearer for the Bakersfield sound and even released an entire album of Buck Owens covers.  In the 90’s and 2000’s the main musical progeny of the Buckaroos are probably Texas’ Derailers, who almost perfectly capture the clean lines and facile elegance of mid 60’s Buckaroo sounds (and who, like Yoakam, have released an entire album of Buck Owens covers called Under the Influence of Buck).   I am just getting into these guys but pretty much everything off their 1996 album Jackpot but specifically “My Heart’s Ready” (Don Rich is smiling somewhere at the funky guitar twang here), the honky tonk stomp of “This Big City”, “I’m Your Man” the quickstep of “Where Ya Been”, and the marvelous title track.  “Whatever Made You Change Your Mind”, “Someone Else’s Problem”, their gender-reversed cover of the Crystal’s “Then She Kissed Me”,   and “The Right Place” off 1999’s Dave Alvin-produced Full Western Dress are some other terrific old school Bakersfield western songs.  I also like “The Get-Go” and “The Sun Is Shining on Me” off their 2008 album Guaranteed to Satisfy, though these move away from the crisp sparseness of Buck’s best work and more toward the work of those who interpreted Buck in a rock setting, specifically the Byrds.  The big, chiming rock guitars and soaring harmonies that start “The Get-Go” are straight from the Byrds playbook (with a dash of “Drive My Car” or “Ticket To Ride” by the Beatles) and even though it departs from the country simplicity of the Bakersfield sound I still like this work a lot.  They started migrating away as early as 2003’s Genuine, specifically on the Beatlesque song “Scratch My Itch”, and on 2006’s Soldiers of Love they channel Jerry Lee Lewis and “Day Tripper” on “Get ‘er Done”  and Chuck Berry and the Killer on “Hey, Valerie!”  It’s great to see a band evolve, and while I lament their migration away from their Buck influenced origins I can’t fault them too much for trying to move toward something new.

In a similar way, North Carolina’s Two Dollar Pistols channel Merle Haggard and the Strangers.  Lead singer John Howie Jr.’s voice reminds me a lot of John Doe’s of X, which I have always been a fan of (Doe recorded two of the best Haggard covers ever so that's not a bad person to emulate).  I’m just getting into this band but I love their series of duets with alt country chanteuse Tift Merritt from 1999 that evokes the best of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, most notably on “Just Someone I Used To Know”, “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again”,  and “We Had It All”.  I also like “You Ruined Everything” off their 2002 album of the same name and “Too Bad You’re Gone” off 2004’s Hands Up! 

Wayne Hancock plays a hardcore honky tonk music closer to Hank Williams than Buck Owens and with an incredible mix of western swing, rockabilly, big band swing, jump blues and even 50’s crooner pop.  I am really becoming a huge fan of his; right now he along with the Derailers is at the top of my current favorite artist list.  I really enjoy the spare, simple arrangements of much of his work, most notably songs like “Thunderstorms and Neon Lights” off his 1995 album of the same name; this song is just infused with the spirit of Hank Williams through and through.  Another of my favorite songs of his is the title track off 1997’s That’s What Daddy Wants—I love how his Hank Williams vocals meld with the swinging guitar twang, which has elements of Tal Farlow and even Django Reinhardt in it, and the braying sax and rumbling tympani give this a jump blues feel similar to the music of the Brian Setzer Orchestra (his song “Juke Joint Jumping” off his debut also has this same honky tonk plus jump blues feel, with rockabilly guitar flourishes tossed in for good measure).  I also enjoy the rockabilly/swing/honky tonk feel of “Lose Your Mind” and “Big City Good Time Gal” from his 2003 live album Swing Time.   The title track from 2006’s Tulsa swings and bops, and the shout-out chorus spelling of “Tulsa” owes a big debt to jive numbers like “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, and his yodeling vocals on “Goin’ Home Blues”  evoke Jimmie Rodgers as much as the immortal Hank.  Finally, “Jump the Blues” off his latest album, 2009’s Viper of Melody, continues his streak of great swing songs.  I’m no two stepper but this music makes even me want to get up and get in the line!

Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys also play some old tyme yodeling Hank Williams style country in a 40’s/50’s style, with plenty of amazing fiddle work combined with clean electric picking.  There’s only one album by him on iTunes, 2003’s Texas Hill Country, but I like pretty much everything off it.  Particular favorites are the sweet, twangy picking and fiddling of “The Other Side”  and Reefer’s yodeling “Whiskey Bottle”.

 Georgia’s Joey Allcorn, also heavily influenced by Hank Williams, isn’t quite as yodeling or twangy as Reefer or Hancock; his voice is more nasally and sounds more alt country than hardcore neotraditionalist, but his overall sound is nevertheless rooted in classic country and western sounds.  His song “50 Years Too Late” off his 2006 album of this name is a lament about how he missed out on the heyday of country; in this way it reminds me of Saint Vitus’ similarly themed “Born Too Late”, which laments their missing out on metal’s 70’s era.  I also like the sweet Hawaiian steel guitar on “Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man” off All Alone Again.  

The retro outlaw sounds of J.B. Beverley & the Wayward Drifters from Virginia are also something I’m really enjoying now.  “Dark Bar and a Jukebox” from his 2006 album with the same name really summarizes my feelings about country music—‘You won’t find no country on country radio’.  Amen.  Beverley played in a punk band called Bad Habits before forming his western swing infused outfit in the late 90’s. I also like his yodeling delivery on “Lonesome, Loaded and Cold” from this same album.  And I love the finger snapping ditty “Walked Across Texas” off his 2009 album Watch America Roll By.    

Moot Davis, from New Jersey of all places, is another retro stylist mining a less commercial country vein.  His vocals fall just to the right side of country for me but are much closer to traditional Nashville sounds.  In some ways he comes off like a country version of Chris Isaak (whom I’m definitely a fan of)—kind of alt country lite.  Again, I’m still just exploring his work but so far I enjoy “Thick of It Now” off 2004’s Moot Davis, “Talkin’ About Lonely” off 2007’s Already Moved On and his duet with Elizabeth Cook “Crazy In Love With You” off 2012’s Man About Town.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Crazy Diamonds and Madcap Laughs: The Music of Famous 60's Burnouts

Syd Barrett in the mid-70's

My previous post on country rock, and specifically the part about Gram Parsons, made me think about how hard the 60’s were on rock people.   Many leading lights of the 60’s died young, most of them not outliving the decade by too many years.  Janis Joplin, Mama Cass Elliot, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, all of them died way too young.  There’s even an internet meme called “The 27 Club”, which focuses on how most of these musicians, as well as musicians from other eras (including blues great Robert Johnson and grunge icons Kurt Cobain and Mia Zapata and even a more recent loss, Amy Winehouse) all died at the age of 27.

But the 60’s had another group of casualties; these didn’t die, but basically went insane, either as a direct result of over-consumption of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or through other mechanisms.  I’ve long been a little obsessed with these damaged geniuses and their Van Gogh-like descents through creativity into madness.  The general public often conflates genius with madness (or at least eccentricity); the idea of the mad scientist or the creative-yet-disturbed artist (like the aforementioned Van Gogh) are clich├ęs widely accepted by the masses.  But I’ve never felt that genius and madness were necessarily connected; there are plenty of talented folks that could arguably be considered geniuses who are perfectly sane and well-adjusted, and conversely there are tons of crazy folks who are no more talented or creative than average.  In fact, I often wonder if my attraction to these people has more to do with them being the exception to this rule:  I want to know what happened and why they were unable to avoid such a terrible fate.

One of the most legendary of these 60’s icons is Alexander “Skip” Spence.  Spence was born in Canada but move to the Bay Area in California as a child.  In the mid 60’s he was in the thick of the whole San Francisco scene, playing guitar in an early incarnation of Quicksilver Messenger Service before being asked to play drums for the Jefferson Airplane.  Spence played drums on their debut album The Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, co-writing the song “Blues from an Airplane” with Marty Balin.  This pre-Grace Slick version of the Jefferson Airplane was actually a fantastic band, splitting the difference between folk-twinged Beatles-influenced pop, 60’s garage rock, and nascent psychedelia.  “Blues from an Airplane” has an ominous bass-tinged beginning and crashing, cymbal-heavy drums from Spence.  The backing vocals remind me of something the Godz might have recorded around the exact same time.  “Bringing Me Down” has a twangy country/garage guitar lead-in, a sleazy, strutting drum line from Spence and Balin’s shrill vocals simply scream 60’s garage rock.  This would have fit perfectly onto Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation of 60’s garage punks. “Let’s Get Together” is more mellow, a hazy slice of pre-psychedelia written by Chet Powers; this song would achieve greater recognition when the Youngbloods remade it as “Get Together” and had their biggest hit with it.  It features Grace Slick’s predecessor on vocals, Signe Anderson.

Skip Spence (and Anderson) left the Airplane prior to their recording of what would be their magnum opus, Surrealistic Pillow, in 1967.  This might be as good a place as any to mention that I consider “Somebody To Love” to be one of the greatest songs the 60’s ever produced, it’s clanging, chiming guitar and jangly, edgy, driving tempo are just to me the perfect distillation of that heavy psychedelia period and the sonic template for everything from the Velvets to the Stooges.  I just love this song.  The band included another Spence composition, the sweet, jaunty “My Best Friend”, which sounds like a precursor to the electric folk pop of the Mamas and the Papas

Anyway, Spence proceeded to form one of the great lost bands of the 60’s, Moby Grape.  The Grape was formed by former Airplane manager Matthew Katz around Spence but bad decisions and bad breaks derailed the band before they could truly make their mark.   Moby Grape sounded much less overtly psychedelic than the Airplane, often bouncing between whimsical psychdelia-tinged folk pop and Grateful Dead style jams.  “Hey Grandma” off their first album sounds like vintage Dead; galloping rhythms, noodling guitar, crisp harmonies.  “Mr. Blues” is a more formal electric blues workout.  “8:05” is sweetly affecting guitar pop with folk harmonies. Two of Spence’s compositions are present on this first album, the surging, urgent “Omaha” (it reminds me of “American Ruse” by the MC5), and “Indifference”, which has a sultry strut and vocal harmonies that sound like Crosby, Stills and Nash.

It was between the release of their debut album and the recording of their second album, Wow, that Spence began to deteriorate mentally.  According to bandmates, Spence was hanging around with a lot of shady characters who were plying him with hard, heavy drugs almost constantly.  While recording the album in New York, Spence apparently had an almost complete psychotic break, and legendarily attacked bandmate Jerry Miller with an axe before being hauled off to famous NYC prison the Tombs and eventually to the insane asylum Bellevue, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.   

It was while in Bellevue that Spence supposedly wrote what would become his one and only solo record, Oar.  Upon his release from Bellevue in 1968, Spence supposedly drove directly to Nashville on his motorcycle and recorded it, and it has been widely debated ever since.  The debate, in essence, can be summarized as follows:  genius or madman?  Gold or crap?  While some of the songs are interesting, many are pretty spare, even skeletal.  At times they sound like the mutterings of a lunatic (which in a sense they are).  And it is fiercely debated whether anyone would have actually cared about this independent of Spence’s prior history and his legendary breakdown.    “Little Hands” comes the closest to the bluesy jam-band-meets-the-Byrds creations of Moby Grape. On songs like “Cripple Creek”, “Dixie Peach Promenade”, and “Broken Heart”, Spence’s stentorian baritone and spare picking evoke Johnny Cash but you can also hear the future echo of southern gothic bands like the Birthday Party here.  “Diana” is a sweet acoustic number and almost sounds like some of Robert Plant’s post-Zeppelin work.  “Margaret-Tiger Rug” throbs on a heavy bass and spare drum taps and Spence’s muttering vocals.  “Weighted Down (the Prison Song)” is melancholy and spare.  “War In Peace” has a shimmery late 60’s guitar sheen and lurching tempo that again evokes Zeppelin at their less overtly metallic.  “Book of Moses” is pure folk blues, with the rainstorm sound effects adding an eerie vibe along with Spence’s higher pitched, almost straining vocals.  “Lawrence of Euphoria” is as odd as its title, another off-kilter slice of skewed acoustic folk.  “Grey/Afro” is a subdued, droning song in which Spence mutters almost unintelligibly below the sonic moan and martial drumming.  The original Oar ended with “Grey Afro”, but in subsequent releases other songs have been appended to Oar, most of which continue on in the same vein.  One of the strangest is the subdued folk sketch “Furry Heroine”, which was covered by Beck as “Halo of Gold”.

Alas, Spence never really recovered, and the rest of his life was more or less a downward spiral of drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness.  His former bandmates tried to support him for awhile but given Spence’s several and debilitating mental disabilities he was eventually re-institutionalized, and spent much of the rest of his life cycling between institutions, homelessness, and stays with friends or in his trailer in San Jose.  He died at age 57 in 1999 of lung cancer.  Spence never worked effectively as a musician post-Oar with one possible exception, a scratchy recording of a Spence song, “All My Life (I Love You)” was recorded around 1972 and has since found release on iTunes.  This is actually one of his best songs, a hard rocking but soulful meditation on love that serves as a fitting coda to his strange, remarkable career.

But the influence of Oar has been huge.  In 1999, the cover compilation More Oar: a Tribute to the Skip Spence Album was released, and contained covers of the songs on Oar by artists as diverse as Robert Plant, Beck, Mudhoney, Robyn Hitchcock, Flying Saucer Attack, and Tom Waits.  What was perhaps most interesting about this collection is how right these varied artists sound covering these songs.

Probably the next most celebrated 60’s burnout is Syd Barrett.  Barrett was a founding member of Pink Floyd in the mid-60’s, helping to record and release their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn.  Piper was an impressive debut, one of the first and most comprehensive psychedelic albums of the 60’s that built effectively on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album and extended it,  and which was written almost entirely by Barrett.  Among the standout tracks are “Astronomy Domine”, with its odd, flat vocal harmonies and rambling guitar and eerie keyboards; “Lucifer Sam”, which sounds like a psychedelicized version of the “Peter Gunn” theme; the epic, clanging “Interstellar Overdrive”; and the spritely “The Gnome”.  Barrett and Floyd’s take on psychedelia was playful, almost whimsical, with almost intentionally child-like or silly lyrics, jaunty melodies, and strange musical accompaniments. 

But like Spence (and at almost exactly the same time), Barrett was rapidly falling apart.  Heavy drug use (particularly of LSD) and growing mental instability were causing Barrett to behave increasingly erratically and antisocially.  In the months prior his performances with the band and interviews had deteriorated badly, and he often just stood on stage strumming a single chord or even not playing at all.  Initially, the members hoped to keep him on as a non-performing songwriter but even this proved to be too much for all parties to handle, and in spring of 1968 the band announced they were parting ways with him.  Unlike Spence, Barrett had no final break with reality requiring incarceration or institutionalization, but he drifted farther away from the public eye.

Also like Spence, he did embark on a solo career, in Barrett’s case one that lasted for two albums instead of just one.  Both were released in 1970 and feature hazy, introspective songs centered on Barrett’s off-kilter lyrics.  “Terrapin” (co-written with Jerry Garcia), off the Madcap Laughs, is slowly strummed bluesy folk with Barrett’s sing-song voice and strange time stops interspersed.  “No Good Trying” and “No Man’s Land” are electric and feature some acidulous guitar; they come close to capturing Barrett’s psychedelic rock with Floyd and are two of my personal favorites.  “Love You” is jaunty and silly, as is “Dark Globe” (the latter was later covered by R.E.M.).  “ “Here I Go” is another standout, as is “Octopus”, twee acoustic romps.  “Golden Hair” is much more somber and solemn.  “Long Gone” and “She Took a Long Cold Look” and the rest of the songs on the album hew to the same fractured take on acoustic folk as most of the other songs here.

Barrett’s other 1970 album, Barrett, boasts far better production that greatly improves the material.  Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley and Floyd members Rick Wright and David Gilmour play here (wright and Gilmour produced the album, often without Barrett’s input since he was incapable of assisting) and better flesh out the arrangements more than was done on the Madcap Laughs.  As a result the album is a huge improvement over the sketchy Laughs.  Album opener “Baby Lemonade” clearly benefits from this additional production; Wright’s keyboards and Shirley’s drumming pump this song up and give it much greater depth than anything on Laughs; it’s one of Syd’s best post-Floyd songs.  “Love Song” and its quirky, tinkling piano and droning organ is another terrific track.  “Dominoes” sounds like a more subdued rendition of “Happy Together” by the Turtles.  “It Is Obvious” sounds like John Lennon leading the Doug Yule era Velvet Underground through a folk standard.  “Rats” is much louder and more strident and Shirley’s peppy drum beat keep things moving along nicely while Gilmour’s noodling guitar provides embellishments to Barrett’s random ramblings.  It is followed by the slower, lurching, almost threatening “Maisie”, a warped blues workout.  “Gigolo Aunt” returns to Syd’s usual quirky, perky vibe, but is saved from being another tossaway acoustic sketch by the organ flourishes and some nice guitar licks from Gilmour.   “Waving My Arms in the Air” and “I Never Lied To You” are typical Barrett musings.  Effervescing Elephant” sounds like a goofy kid’s song, particularly with the tuba accompaniment.  In all Barrett was a vast improvement over Madcap Laughs, for which Barrett could thank his former Floyd mates. 

Barrett never recorded another proper album, but rumors about additional studio outtakes from his first two albums floated around for almost two decades before a compilation was released in 1989 called Opel.  Opel contains alternate versions of songs from his first two albums as well as a few previously unreleased songs, including the title track and “Word Song”, which continue on in the vein of Madcap Laughs.  Many of the alternate takes have subsequently been appended to the original releases and are available elsewhere.

Barrett did become involved briefly in a musical project in the early 70’s involving Twink of the Pink Fairies and Henry Cow guitarist Henry Firth called Stars but after a couple of gigs (one of which supported the MC5) Barrett quit.  He also supposedly played with Steve Peregrin Took of Tyrannosaurus Rex and Shagrat, and was famously asked by both the Sex Pistols and the Damned to produce their albums (the Pistols’ first, the Damned’s second).  Barrett drifted further and further from public contact throughout the 70’s; eventually in the early 80’s he returned to live with his mother in Cambridge, focusing his talents on another artistic love, painting.  He died in 2006 at age 60 from pancreatic cancer.  In 1987 a covers tribute album was released that featured the Shamen, Opal, and the Soup Dragons, among others, and artists as diverse as John Lennon, David Bowie (who covered “See Emily Play” for Pinups) and Robyn Hitchcock have said to have been influenced by him. 

Less well known than either Spence or Barrett but nevertheless regarded as another burned out 60’s visionary is Roky Erickson.  Erickson was a founding member of the seminal Texas psychedelic group the 13th Floor Elevators, who along with Moving Sidewalks (which contained future ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons) were two of America’s first psychedelic groups.  The Elevators’ single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” is a wild slab of galloping 60’s garage rock, punctuated by Erickson’s fierce, punky vocals and wild primal screams.  The Elevators developed a significant following but in 1968 (which was apparently a bad year for acid-damaged musicians), Erickson started acting erratically and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Houston where he received electroshock treatment.  A year later he was busted for possession of marijuana and was essentially given the choice of going to jail for 10 years or pleading insanity and chose the latter.  He was sent to a home for the criminally insane, where he received more electroshock treatments and Thorazine.  Erickson continued to write and perform however, even in this psychiatric prison; over the years a few homemade tapes of performances while still incarcerated have surfaced, including the songs “Devotional Number One” and “God Is Everywhere”, odd, affectingly warped acoustic numbers.  “Gone and Number” is more high fidelity and features rambling vocals but is a sweet love song.   “You’re an Unidentified Flying Object” is similarly pleasant, a nice acoustic jaunt.  But my favorite of these old recordings is “Save Me”; here Erickson’s beautiful voice peeks from under the low fi nature of the recording and is simply magnificent.  This is strong evidence that he was an extremely talented if disturbed man.  These songs are particularly poignant because most of Erickson’s other solo offerings were obsessed with aliens, demons and other forms of disturbing imagery. 

Upon his release in 1973, Erickson put together a band known as the Aliens which released some interesting music.  One of their best songs is “Two Headed Dog”, which sounds like a cross between twangy 70’s Tom Petty rock and crunchy Ted Nugent hard rock; this song was later covered by punk guitarist Jeff Dahl, and “Mine Mine Mind”, a garage punk ditty that again has Tom Petty-esque overtones, mostly in Erickson’s twangy Midwestern vocals.  “The Wind And More” is another phenomenal track, another Nugent-y number showing that if his legal and mental troubles hadn’t sidetracked him he might have achieved as much success as fellow Texan Billy Gibbons did with ZZ Top.

Unlike Spence and Barrett, whom I didn’t get into until the late 90’s when I was able to sample a few of their songs via online means, I actually was into Erickson in the 80’s when I was in college. At the time I worked at the campus radio station and Erickson released an album called Don’t Slander Me in 1986 that I listened to and liked, particularly the title song, which returns more to his shrieking 60’s wild man persona vocally.  A few years later a collection of acoustic recordings was released called the Holiday Inn Tapes, and this is instead a return to his mid-70’s mellowness.  A particularly stellar song is “The Times I’ve Had”, which sounds like Zeppelin’s “Going to California” but contains some touchingly autobiographical lyrics, such as “let me tell you about the times I’ve had; ain’t so good and they ain’t so bad”.  Other standouts are an acoustic, almost rockabilly run through “Don’t Slander Me” and “May the Circle Remain Unbroken”, a cover of another song of his from his 13th Floor Elevators days in the mid-60’s.  This is a fabulous album and a perfect entre into the amazing talented world of Roky.

But Erickson was in slow decline during the 80’s and 90’s, becoming ever more isolated and mentally ill as his schizophrenia affected him more deeply. For a time he became obsessed with the mail, and would spend hours reading junk mail and contacting the senders.  He was eventually arrested for stealing some of his neighbors’ mail.  But in 2001 his brother took over care for him and he started receiving some high quality health care and has continued to improve psychologically.  He has continued to play around at various festivals.  In 1990 a tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye was released containing covers by such artists as the Butthole Surfers (who were both fellow Texans and huge fans; BH drummer King Coffey had put out an Erickson album on his Trance Syndicate label in the 90’s), R.E.M., the Jesus and Mary Chain, ZZ Top, Julian Cope, and Richard Lloyd.  In 2006 a documentary of Erickson’s life was aired and some of his best songs from his 13th Floor Elevators and Aliens days were assembled for the soundtrack, which is available on iTunes.  In 2010 Erickson released another incredible album, True Love Cast Out All Evil with the band Okkervil River.  On this album Erickson has mellowed and sounds wise and comfortable with himself.  This is a really terrific album that should have received more attention and accolades than it did.  The title track is a great slice of country rock, an introspective ballad anchored by this fantastic backing band.  Roky seems to be in a much better place now and it’s great to see him making music again.

The fourth member of the “60’s burnout club” is Sky Saxon.  Saxon didn’t end up in an institution, but he did spend a considerable chunk of the 70’s affiliated with a strange Hollywood cult known as the Source Family.  Saxon first achieved renown as the lead singer of the seminal LA 60’s garage band the Seeds, who had a minor hit with “Pushin’ Too Hard”, a galloping, twangy gem that features Saxon’s yowling Jagger-esque vocals and was featured in Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation.  Another song, the slower “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine”, was covered by the Ramones.  “Girl I Want You”, with its fuzzy/buzzy guitar and pulsing organ fills, is another Seeds classic.  “The Tripmaster” is ominous and reminds me of early Doors, while “Mr. Farmer” is an upbeat splash of sunny psychedelia. 

But, like the artists above, Saxon’s story took a turn for the deeply bizarre as the 60’s ended.  In 1969, Saxon became involved with the Source Family, a bizarre spiritual cult centered around James Edward Baker, aka Father Yod aka YaHoWha.  Baker, a decorated WWII hero, moved to Los Angeles after the war and became a follower of various beatnik and Eastern philosopies.  In the late 60’s he opened one of the first health food restaurants in Hollywood on Sunset Strip and eventually started his own spiritual commune which lived in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills.  The Source Family practiced a random mix of free love (Father Yod reputedly had thirteen “wives”), vegetarianism, kindness to animals, Eastern spiritual meditational practices, and so forth.  All members, including Saxon, adopted the surname “Aquarian” (his official name was Arlick Aquarian).  The cult was better tolerated than many other 70’s outfits because they didn’t proselytize, had better grooming standards, and didn’t beg.

Music was another central concept of Baker’s cult, and Saxon became involved on the musical end after joining the group in 1973.  He would eventually assist in the release of a 13 CD set of their music called God and Hair (the cult is reputed to have over 65 albums worth of music from the 70’s alone).  The cult’s band, named Ya Ho Wa 13, produced strange extended neo-psychedelic jams; several of these can be found on YouTube and are worth a listen—“Time Travel”, “Two”, “Fire in the Sky”, and “Wolf Pack” actually aren’t bad, in a Spinal Tap blues/jazz, jazz/blues jam kind of way.  “I’m Gonna Take You Home” is a driving, building jam that strangely reminds me of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus.  Imagine if Charles Manson had guided his Family toward music and not toward murder, this is what it might have sounded like.  Interestingly, these recordings have become highly sought-after by collectors for their rarity and oddity.  In fact, collector and avid Ya Ho Wa 13 fanatic David Nuss (himself a member of an odd musical collective called the No-Neck Blues Band, also known as NNCK), met with surviving members of the cult in the 2000’s and worked with them to release another collection of Ya Ho Way 13 songs called Magnificence in the Memory

Father Yod died in 1975 in a bizarre hang gliding accident in Hawaii that authorities felt was better left unsolved (actually, this last part about the authorities is untrue but sadly the rest of it isn’t).  Saxon continued to make music both within and outside the confines of the Source Family/Ya Ho Wa 13, under a bewildering array of related hippie-esque monikers, including the Starry Seeds Band, Sky Saxon & Firewall, King Arthur's Court, and Shapes Have Fangs the Universal Stars Peace Band, Sky Sunlight Saxon, Star's New Seeds Band, Sunlight and the New Seeds, and even a reconstituted Seeds.  In 1977 he released a bludgeoning EP called Expression, which contains “In Love With Life” b/w “Starry Ride” (some generous soul has uploaded this to YouTube), which evokes the finest of the MC5 and Stooges; this is actually one of the best things Sky put out in his life.  Supposedly Mars Bonfire of Steppenwolf and Ron Bushy of Iron Butterfly contribute to this work.  In 1986 he put out an album with Steve and Jeff McDonald of Redd Kross and Brian Corrigan of Chemical People under the name Sky “Sunlight” Saxon and Purple Electricity.  None of this is available on iTunes (though a couple of modern day Saxon albums are)”Starving for Your Love” by Sky Saxon and Firewall from 1986 is actually a pretty decent recreation of the garage punk of the 60’s Seeds.  Prior to his death in 2009, Saxon also played a number of gigs, including a beautiful, sloppy, feedback-drenched jam with Fuzztones member Rudi Protrudi and members of the Cheeks

As mentioned above, Sky never experienced any major psychiatric problems or had any break with reality that necessitated being institutionalized.  However, to quote All Music Guide’s description of him and his work, “Much of his post-Seeds work fit the mold of a curious 1960s relic, a hippie acid casualty with a strong cult following, in the mold of Roky Erickson”, and that he released “a series of singles that increasingly reflected a drug-induced separation from reality”, which is why I felt his work was best discussed here.    All four of these artists experienced some major dislocations after the dream of the 60’s died, and maybe that’s one reason why I still cherish their work.  They believed in, and bought into, the 60’s revolution of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and ended up paying for it with their sanity, at least for a time.