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Posts from the ‘Country music’ Category

The Byrd who fell to earth

Gene ClarkSomehow Gene Clark never looked young, even when “Mr Tambourine Man” was hitting the charts before he had turned 21. Unlike the other members of the Byrds, or of their rival groups breaking through on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965, he didn’t look like a boy. He had a face that seemed to have seen things, a face of premature experience.

We learn a lot about the background to the way he looked in The Byrd Who Flew Alone: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Gene Clark, a two-hour documentary  by Jack and Paul Kendall, released on DVD this week, in which the two English film makers talk to just about everyone involved in the story of a great singer-songwriter who didn’t begin to receive proper attention as a solo artist until after his untimely death in 1991. Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn and David Crosby from the Byrds, the producer Larry Marks, the record company president Jerry Moss, the singer Carla Olson, his wife Carlie, members of his family and many others are among those providing testimony, interspersed with snatches of music from the various phases of his career.

Gene Clark’s face turns out to have been that of a person who grew up in a small community in rural Missouri, in circumstances described by one his brothers as “austere”. He began playing in bands at the age of 14, moved to Los Angeles while still in his teens, joined the New Christy Minstrels, and decamped to the fledgling Byrds in 1964. Just over a year later he was receiving a first royalty cheque. Because he wrote songs that the group recorded as B-sides and album tracks (such as the wonderful “Feel a Whole Lot Better” and “Set You Free This Time”), he earned more money than the other four members. That first cheque was for $47,000. The others got $4,000 each. “The rest of us were still taking buses and walking around LA,” Roger McGuinn remembers, “and he had a little MG. That created a bit of tension.”

The MG was followed by a Porsche and then a very nice maroon vintage Ferrari. And there were other factors. “You take a group of young men, very different young men, give ’em some money, introduce them to drugs… I don’t think there was anything wrong with the fact that we all of a sudden got laid a lot… but the money and the drugs… that’ll do it every time,” says David Crosby, one who knows whereof he speaks.

Clark’s departure from the group and the various chapters of his solo career are dealt with in fascinating detail. I always loved the two Dillard & Clark albums, particularly The Fantastic Expedition, and it was sad to listen to the reasons behind the disintegration of that pioneering project in 1969, followed by many more false starts.

“He had great songs,”  Hillman says, “and he sang from the heart. Why didn’t it work? That’s the question.” Chronic indiscipline when under the influence of drink or drugs seems to have been the simple answer. Perhaps the happiest period of his life began in 1970, when he moved out of LA to Mendocino with Carrie McCummings and enjoyed a return to his roots in rural surroundings. It was there that he wrote the songs for the album White Light, produced by Jesse Ed Davis and released in 1971, which I consider to be the highlight of his career: the recording in which his gifts find the best balance and the most sympathetic environment.

Many of his admirers would nominate No Other, the album that followed in 1974, recorded for David Geffen’s Asylum label and produced by Thomas Jefferson Kaye with a huge budget and a cast of thousands. It’s a cult classic, to be sure, and it contains some fine songs that only Clark could have written, but I find it overproduced, overarranged, overplayed, overpackaged — just overwrought in every direction. Its commercial failure more or less put an end to his prospects of once again experiencing the success he had all too briefly known with the Byrds.

He wasn’t entirely finished. I wouldn’t be without the album he made with Olson, called So Rebellious a Lover, released the year after his death and containing two real classics: his own “Gypsy Rider” (“Crank her over once again / Put your face into the wind / Find another road where you’ve never been”) and the most gorgeously compelling version of “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” I’ve ever heard. But the life did for him when he was only 46.

There are some sad and illuminating reflections in the course of the film. “I watched him go from an innocent country boy to road-weary and just… tired of it all,” McGuinn says. Marks, who produced his first solo album, says: “You couldn’t help but just feel the energy that Gene put out whenever you were with him. It wasn’t all good. That energy carried some danger with it.”

Luckily, bits and pieces of his music continue to emerge. The latest is Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, released on Universal/A&M’s Omnivore label, containing bare-bones versions of some of the great songs — “For a Spanish Guitar”, “The Virgin”, Where My Lover Lies Asleep” — plus others than didn’t make the cut, including the lovely “Here Tonight”, which turned up on the restored version of an abandoned album called Roadmaster, which was to have been his next A&M release after White Light. The demos are touching in their plainness. You wouldn’t swap them for the original album, but they’re very welcome. And the documentary is highly recommended.

* The photograph of Gene Clark is from the insert with Here Tonight: The White Light Demos, and was taken by Henry Diltz.

Willie and the women

Willie NelsonDid Willie Nelson ever encounter a female singer with whom he didn’t think he could bring off a passable duet? I very much doubt it. His new album, To All the Girls…, is full of successful new collaborations with Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne and a dozen others. It can’t fail, and it doesn’t.

My all-time favourite Nelson album is Stardust (1978), which I’d class with Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely among the most exalted recitals of the great American songbook. My second favourite is Across the Borderline (1993), in which he tackled standards of more recent vintage from the pens of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and others with equal success; maybe its most striking track is Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”, in which Willie and Sinead O’Connor sing the parts originally recorded by Gabriel and Kate Bush. Now Willie, who turned 80 in April, might just have presented me with a new candidate for third favourite.

If there’s nothing adventurous about To All the Girls…, that’s in no way to the new album’s discredit. Produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s a spare, unassuming collection of fine songs performed by terrific singers working in a sensitive environment. Willie’s voice, as ever, is the essence of understatement, as comfortable as a much-washed raw cotton shirt. The arrangements represent the essence of restraint and economy: a steel guitar here, a Hammond organ there, a hint of strings or harmonica, all subordinate to Willie’s unmistakeable gut-string guitar. It’s the pattern set by Booker T Jones on Stardust 35 years ago, and it can’t be beaten.

The highlights include Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” with Cash, Waylon Jennings’s “She Was No Good For Me” with Miranda Lambert, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dry Lightning” with Harris and the imperishable “Always on My Mind” (by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson) with Carrie Underwood. Norah Jones does beautifully with Willie’s “Walkin'” (containing one of my favourite openings: “After carefully considering the whole situation / I stand with my back to the wall…”), Mavis Staples manoeuvres Nelson into a slightly funkier area on Bill Withers’ gorgeous “Grandma’s Hands”, and Paula Nelson has the good fortune to be featured on a lovely version of John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”. The surprise for me is Lily Meola, a young Hawaiian singer who sounds as  perfect partner as any on Willie’s “Will You Still Remember Mine”, a sultry last waltz on which a six-decade age gap is closed to nothing.

But the one I can’t get out of my head is “No Mas Amor”, another Willie song, on which he’s joined by the divine Krauss and a mariachi trumpet: there’s almost nothing to it, but it won’t go away. Just like the whole album, which is likely to remain close to the top of the pile for as long as there’s a pile to be close to the top of.

* The photograph of Willie Nelson is from the cover of To All the Girls… There’s a rather sweet seven-minute promo video here.

** An early version of this piece credited Willie as the writer of “Always on My Mind”. Thanks go to Phil Shaw for putting me straight.

A voice to remember

Maybe you’ve heard the sad news that Linda Ronstadt will never sing again. She announced it a week or so ago, letting the world know that Parkinson’s disease has taken her voice. Today I read an interview with her, in the International Herald Tribune, in which she tells Sam Tanenhaus about her illness and the other problems that have dogged her life in recent years.

Things were pretty different when I interviewed her for the Melody Maker in January 1971. She’d had her first hit with the Stone Poneys’ great “Different Drum”, she was already making solo albums for Capitol Records (Hand Sown… Home Grown and Silk Purse), and she was starting to move in the right kind of circles. But she was still a few years away from the superstardom that arrived when Peter Asher took control for the run of hit albums that began with Heart Like a Wheel.

She was smart, funny, serious about serious things, and completely beguiling. She told me how she’d made the move from her home in Tucson, Arizona in 1965, when she was 18, after a friend called from Los Angeles, saying there was a band out there for her to sing with. “I jumped into a car with my boyfriend, who played steel guitar, and we drove straight there. I think the boy went straight back. I never saw him again.”

A free spirit, then and always, but she was fretful about one thing. “I’ve had trouble finding material,” she said. “I don’t write. I’ve never been able to write even a paragraph. And I can’t do songs that have been done well by the people who wrote them.”

That changed, with Asher’s help. She turned out to be a wonderful reinterpreter of the very finest material. I didn’t really follow her through the years in which she collaborated with Nelson Riddle on albums of standards and then delved back into her Mexican roots, but I loved the recordings she made with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. The YouTube clip above is of an exquisite song from their second album, Trio 2, called “High Sierra”. It features Linda. She composed it, too. So she could write a paragraph, after all.

Where the Stones were fourth on the bill

Odeon, NottinghamIf you look carefully at the top of the building in the photograph, you’ll see the faintest shadow of the long-gone neon sign that read ODEON. I took the picture on a raindy day a couple of winters ago, while passing through Nottingham, my old home town. How many of the hundreds of people walking along this pavement every day know that it was here, in this cinema on Angel Row, a hundred yards or so up from the Old Market Square, that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones played, in 1963 and ’64? And now it’s finally vanished. The demolition crew have done their job and the construction workers are in, filling the space with a building apparently intended to provide housing for students.

Buddy Holly played the Odeon in 1958: three shows on the night of March 8, during his only UK tour. I missed that one, being only 10 at the time (although I’d already saved up to buy the Crickets’ “That’ll Be the Day” on 78), but three years later I saw Cliff Richard and the Shadows, just after Brian Bennett took over from Tony Meehan on drums — a source of some regret, since Meehan was my first drumming hero. The screaming meant that not much could be heard. But at least Hank Marvin gave me my first sight of a Fender Stratocaster in action, and they were still doing the famous Shadows walk, much copied by we schoolboys in front of bedroom mirrors.

OK, I’ll own up: I missed the Beatles there — three times, on the first occasion with Roy Orbison — and the Stones. Absence of cash, I expect. I wouldn’t have been able to hear them above the hysteria anyway, although I’ve always kicked myself for not making it to the Stones’ show in October 1963, since it also featured the Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, all of them above the Stones on the bill when the tour started. My friend Phil Long remembers Little Richard’s set: “One of the best I’ve ever seen. He jumped off the stage, ran all the way round the theatre, then got back on the stage and started taking his clothes off and throwing them to the audience… there was a riot.”

The most memorable concert I did manage to attend at the Odeon was on May 12, 1964, the fourth date of a 22-night package tour headlined by Chuck Berry, with support from Carl Perkins, the Animals, the Nashville Teens and King Size Taylor and the Dominos. It was great merely to see Chuck, who provided so many of us with the inspiration for our own bands, but he gave a pretty uninterested performance — as indeed he would do on every subsequent occasion I saw him. He was accompanied by King Size Taylor’s excellent band, and I seem to remember that about half the set consisted of throwaway instrumentals; has any great songwriter ever taken a less obvious pride in his achievements? But it was enough to hear those guitar intros ringing out, and to witness his perfunctory demonstration of the duck walk.

Carl Perkins was not exactly spectacular, either, in his very short set. And so, curiously, the musical highlights were provided by two English bands. The Animals, of course, were excellent. “Baby Let Me Take You Home”, copied from “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” on Bob Dylan’s first album, was nudging the Top 20, and their act still had the R&B edge honed in Newcastle’s Club A Go-Go. But they also played their epic four and a half minute version of another song from Dylan’s debut: “House of the Rising Sun”. It hadn’t yet been released, or heard on the radio, and its arrangement — featuring Hilton Valentine’s arpeggiated guitar, Alan Price’s wailing Vox Continental organ and Eric Burdon’s baleful vocal — was nothing short of stunning. Five weeks later it would enter the charts, on its way to No 1.

It was the same with the Nashville Teens, whose set included John D Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road”: another dramatic song, its structure and mood inspired by the compositions Willie Dixon provided for Muddy Waters and other blues stars. The group, from the Surrey stockbroker belt, did an enthusiastic job of impersonating the sound of the Chicago stockyards, and by July they were on their way to the UK Top 10. By August “The House of the Rising Sun” was on its way to No 1 in Billboard‘s Hot 100, while “Tobacco Road” topped out at No 14 in the US a month later. Heard for the first time in live performance, both made an immediate impression.

And now the Odeon has disappeared. I suppose it’s not exactly like losing the Cavern or the Marquee. But it would be nice, when they finished its replacement, if someone thought it worth putting up a plaque to remind passers-by of former glories. Buddy Holly, The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Everly Brothers. Little Richard. Bo Diddley. Chuck Berry. Not bad, eh?

The home of Johnny Cash

The other day I read somewhere that they’re going to turn Johnny Cash’s home into a Graceland-style museum. Here’s a picture I took from outside Cash’s front gate in Hendersonville one day in 1970, during a visit to Nashville.

Cash

The purpose of the trip was to interview the members of Area Code 615, the Nashville session musicians whose “Stone Fox Chase” later became the theme tune of a TV programme with which I was associated. I talked to the bass player, Norbert Putnam, and the drummer, Kenny Buttrey, at the then-new Quadrafonic Studios, which Putnam had started with the pianist David Briggs and the producer Elliot Mazer. Neil Young recorded “Heart of Gold” there. Here it is, at 1802 Grand Avenue.

Quadrophonic

I was shown round town by a friend of theirs, Troy Seals, a singer and songwriter who would later share the composing credit on Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” with Mentor Williams. Troy is a distant cousin of Dan Seals (of England Dan and John Ford Coley) and Jim Seals (of Seals and Crofts). He never managed to match their fame as a singer, which is a shame; he gave me an acetate of his version of “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” that puts him close to the class of Ronnie Milsap and Charlie Rich. But he’s had plenty of songs recorded by some of the big country stars, and he’s a member of the Nashville Hall of Fame, so I guess he’s done all right.
It was Troy who took me to shake the hand of Scotty Moore at Moore’s own studio and then drove me out to Hendersonville. There was no sign of Cash that day, so after I took a couple of pictures we drove back to town and he dropped me at the place where I was staying, Roger Miller’s King of the Road Motel. Here’s a picture of my room, too, with its ultra-modern (for 1970) decor.

Motel

I remember going down to the bar late one night and hearing a young man with a guitar singing Kris Kristofferson’s great “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” as though he meant it. As John Sebastian had written a year or two earlier, “There’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville / And they can pick more notes than the number of ants in a Tennessee ant hill.” I’ve often wondered what happened to that guy.

* This post has been corrected in the light of a reply from Troy Seals’ great-niece, who tells me that Troy is not the brother of Jim and Dan Seals, as I had believed, but their distant cousin.