Country

Bobbie Gentry “Fancy” (Capitol, 1970)

Even though she had a massive hit in 1967 with “Ode To Billie Joe” and released a grip of great LPs from in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Bobbie Gentry is not quite the household name she should be. Much like her English counterpart Dusty Springfield, the Mississippi-born Gentry is a soulful, nuanced vocalist who could work wonders with country, funk, rock, and pop material. Aside from singing in her supple, sensuous contralto, Gentry also wrote, produced, and even did the artwork for some of her album covers (including Fancy). She exerted a lot of control over her career for a woman in a male-dominated industry that wasn’t as progressive as it wanted to think it was.

Although she had sporadic chart success in the US and UK, and even hosted her own variety show on BBC TV, Gentry faded from the music biz and the public eye in the early ’80s. But her profile’s received a boost in recent years after being name-checked by young country-music stars like Kacey Musgraves and Nikki Lane, as well as the recent release of the 8-CD box set The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters, should further raise Gentry’s profile… [ahem] as well as this review.

The title track establishes Fancy‘s main mode: slick, orchestral country-funk executed by excellent session musicians from the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and in Columbia Studios in Nashville. The lone Gentry original, “Fancy” finds the singer recounting the rags-to-riches story of an 18-year-old woman whose mother nudges her into a life of prostitution to lift the family out of poverty. It’s so good, one wonders why Capitol larded the rest of the LP with other people’s compositions. On the two Bacharach-David tunes—“I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”—Gentry’s Southern-belle gravitas doesn’t thrive in the famous songwriting team’s spick-and-span suburban pop, no matter how well-crafted it is. She sounds a bit uncomfortable and out of her soulful element here. Similarly, the cheerful, waltz-time pop of Rudy Clark’s “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” does not play to her strengths.

Thankfully, Gentry shines on the rest of the album. While Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” may not be the most copacetic vehicle for Gentry, the melody is so sublime that she can’t help making a gorgeous swoon of yearning heartache out of it. Leon Russell’s “Delta Man” is a song into which Gentry can really sink her incisors. She switches the original song’s genders and lays into Russell’s rousing chorus with less brio than Joe Cocker did, but Bobbie out-finesses the English geezer by far.

“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” (written by Fred Burch and Don Hill and earlier covered by Bettye LaVette) is Southern country-funk that’s as lubricious as Tony Joe White at his most seductive. It’s a momentous coming-of-age tale… so to speak. The album’s highlight is Harry Nilsson’s “Rainmaker”; it’s the funkiest, most sweeping track here, augmented by banjo and violin—not exactly staples of the funk genre, but Gentry, producer Rick Hall and his Muscle Shoals crew, and strings arranger Jimmie Haskell make it work to the max. This is my go-to track on Fancy for DJ sets—so it has that going for it, too.

While I’d prefer to hear Gentry perform her own songs, on Fancy she inhabits other composers’ with sly charisma, imbuing them with a strong wiliness that was rare for its time among female entertainers. -Buckley Mayfield

The Rolling Stones “Goats Head Soup” (Rolling Stones, 1973)

For decades, Goats Head Soup endured many critics’ and fans’ slights and even dismissals for not being as earth-shaking as its canonical predecessor, Exile On Main St. But in recent years, a re-evaluation of Goats Head Soup‘s merits has gained traction, and its reputation has burgeoned among people with better-than-average taste in rock music (if I may be so bold). The turning point for me was when I found myself on New York psych-rockers Mercury Rev’s tour bus in Ohio on one of their mid-’90s tours, and they were listening to Goats Head Soup. If these musicians whom I admired like hell were into this album, maybe I needed to give it a closer listen. I’m very glad I did.

GHS boasts some of the Stones’ most popular and overexposed tunes (“Angie,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo [Heartbreaker]”), some of their greatest deep cuts (“Coming Down Again,” “Winter,” “Can You Hear The Music”), and a couple of country-rock burners (“100 Years Ago,” “Silver Train”; that these London blokes are so adept at country stylings has always puzzled and pleased me). There’s only one real dud: the rarely spoken-of, standard-issue blues-rocker “Hide Your Love.” Everything else deservers heavy rotation in your annual Rolling Stones diet.

Dancing With Mr. D” is such a great sleazy opener, so potent and sinister, although it kind of verges on self-parody by 1973. No matter. It’s the sound of a band whose members know they’re the baddest in the world, and that bravado manifests itself to the fullest in this grinding, midtempo rocker. “100 Years Ago” toggles between country-rock and R&B, with a slick raveup at the end in which guitarist Mick Taylor reels off a mercurial, wah-wah-intensive solo which reinforces the idea that losing him seriously weakened the Stones.

On “Coming Down Again,” Keith Richards sings in his most sincere, vulnerable, and poignant voice in a song that ranks among the Stones’ greatest ballads, up there with “Wild Horses” and “Sway.” This Gram Parsons-esque country-rock weeper exudes a junkie fragility that’s tragically beautiful. “Coming down again/Where are all my friends?” (with Jagger following in sotto voce “Sky fall down again”) is a concise summary of a drug addict’s situation. You can have “Happy” and “Before They Make Me Run”; I’m sticking with “Coming Down Again.”

Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” is a harrowing tale of drug addiction and violence set to menacing, flinty rock, augmented by horns of magnificently triumphal robustness, as if they’re trying to lift your spirits from the morbid NYC tale Jagger’s relating. You’ve heard “Angie,” a gorgeous, tender ballad about a dissolving romance with bravura piano performance by Nicky Hopkins, about a hundred times too many. No getting around it: The heart-string-plucking allure of the Stones’ most Elton John-like moment has been eroded by thousands of listens over the decades, but still, respect is due.

The three songs that close out GHS are phenomenal. The Van Morrison-esque ballad “Winter” has beaucoup soul and enough wistfulness to melt the coldest heart. Richards sat out this one, while Mick Taylor contributed much to the sublime music, but the Glimmer Twins shafted him on the credits. Not cool.

But let’s not get bogged down in petty administrative decisions. Because “Can You Hear The Music” follows. While few fans rate it highly in the Stones’ canon, I place this paean to the metaphysical power of music near the top. It’s at once one of the band’s funkiest and most psychedelic songs, and its outlier status is solidified by Jim Horn’s serene flute and percussion contributions from the great synth composer Nik “Pascal” Raicevic and CAN/Traffic member Rebop Kwaku Bah. This thing sways and breezes from an exotic place where the Stones rarely ventured, and it features some of their sickest guitar tones. It almost sounds like a tribute to Brian Jones’ Master Musicians Of Jajouka collab in Morocco. “When you hear the music/trouble disappear” is a mantra worth storing in your memory banks forever.

After the lofty, exotic splendor of “Can You Hear The Music,” “Star Star” slams you back down to earth and the bedroom with a raunchy Chuck Berry homage that gained notoriety for its profane chorus and its tumescent tribute to a hall-of-fame groupie who made Ali McGraw angry “for giving head to Steve McQueen.” Leave it to the Stones to follow perhaps their most spiritual composition with possibly their nastiest. If that sequencing was intentional, I tip my hat to Mick and Keef. You gotta love that kind of perversity.

So, yeah, Goats Head Soup has gotten a bad rap by certain establishment critics and wrongheaded fans, but it possesses at least five undeniable classic cuts. The Stones may have been buckling under the stresses of rock-star excess and unrealistic expectations in the early-’70s wake of Exile, but they somehow fought through the haze to create a strong, varied record that’s earned its status as an underdog favorite in their massive catalog. -Buckley Mayfield

Swamp Dogg “Total Destruction To Your Mind” (Canyon, 1970)

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(Little) Jerry Williams is one of those stalwart R&B/soul songwriters/performers who had some modest success in the ’50s and ’60s with solid but fairly conventional tunes. And then in the late ’60s our hero ingested some LSD, the ’70s commenced, and Williams became Swamp Dogg and took his music into much more eccentric and interesting territory. His debut full-length under that alias announced the arrival of a soul maverick. Total Destruction To Your Mind is a righteous cult classic that’s aged shockingly well.

The record peaks early with the dynamite 1-2 spiked punch of the title track and “Synthetic World.” The former’s an unstoppable burbling funk party jam fueled by liquid wah-wah guitar, bold horn flourishes, and Williams psychedelic-soul vocals redolent of Otis Redding’s Southern-fried throatiness. The latter’s laid-back funk with a country-folk lilt in the swampy (yes!) vein of Tony Joe White.

The two Joe South covers are fab, because Joe South was unfuckwithable in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Williams tackles “Redneck,” a sarcastic dig at bigoted white guys, and he really sinks his fangs into South’s good-ol’-boy chug with rollicking piano and horns that want to get you drunk. “These Are Not My People” is funky folk boasting a vibrant, catchy-as-hell melody; this song should’ve been a hit for both the composer and for Mr. Dogg.

A couple of other highlights: “If I Die Tomorrow (I’ve Lived Tonight)” brings more Redding-style testifying, just oozing real-shit emotion while “Sal-A-Faster” offers lean, menacing funk akin to Whitfield-Strong’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (think the Temptations’ version). And “I Was Born Blue” proves that Williams could render a heart-shattering ballad with one of the greatest key changes in soul music. It’s pathos overload, not unlike that in the Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke.” It gave my throat lump goose bumps.

Alive Records reissued Total Destruction To Your Mind in 2013, doing the world a humanitarian service that you’d do well to not let go to waste. -Buckley Mayfield

Parliament “Osmium” (Invictus, 1970)

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Osmium captures Parliament (aka Funkadelic) at a time before their trademark stylistic traits had firmly solidified. Consequently, it’s a wildly diverse record, full of songs both expected (if you’re familiar with the P-Funk catalog) and very surprising—like, “check the record to make sure this is still the band from Detroit led by George Clinton” surprising. Yes, Osmium is at core a soul album, but it’s a helluva lot more, too. Because any George Clinton production—especially from the ’60s and ’70s—can never be typical.

Osmium—alternately titled Rhenium and First Thangs in subsequent releases; a 2016 reissue of it is floating around, too—begins with a prime slice of horndog funk, “I Call My Baby Pussycat,” with Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross’ guitars and Billy Bass Nelson’s bass really setting fire under asses. Things grind to a solemn halt with “Put Love In Your Life,” a soul-gospel-tinged ballad sung with baritone gravity by Ray Davis… but then it unexpectedly shifts into a florid psych-pop anthem. Wow, my ears just got whiplash. If that weren’t strange enough, the Ruth Copeland-penned “Little Ole Country Boy” swerves into mock-country territory, replete with jaw harp, tabletop guitar embellishments, and Fuzzy Haskins’ Southern-honky vocal affectations; think the Rolling Stones, but with tongues more firmly jammed in cheek. More ear whiplash. Ouch! (Yes, De La Soul producer Prince Paul sampled the yodeling part for “Potholes In My Lawn.”)

“Moonshine Leather” peddles the sort of sublimely sluggish bluesy funk that occupied some of Funkadelic’s earliest releases, while “Oh Lord, Why Lord/Prayer” is a baroque-classical/gospel hybrid, sung with utmost passion and soul by Calvin Simon and Copeland. It’s definitely the frilliest and most churchy P-Funk track I’ve heard. As an agnostic, it sort of gives me hives, but there’s no denying the sincerity and skill behind the song.

Side two begins with “My Automobile,” yet more Stonesy faux country, but with sitar (?!) accompaniment, quickly followed by the revved-up, libidinous “Nothing Before Me But Thang,” which is the wildest, most Funkadelicized cut on Osmium. The struttin’, ruttin’ “Funky Woman” is indeed funky and ready to make any party you’re attending lit, as the kids say. The hippie-fied gospel rock of “Livin’ The Life” sounds like something off of Godspell or Hair, but it’s not bad at all.

Parliament saved the best for last with “The Silent Boatman.” Another Ruth Copeland composition (she also co-produced the LP, by the way), “The Silent Boatman” is one of the most beautiful and moving songs in all creation. A slowly building, majestic ballad aswirl in Bernie Worrell’s organ and glockenspiel, it’s a poignant tale lamenting inequality and strife on Earth and redemption in the afterlife. When the bagpipes come in, you feel as if you’re being swept up in a highly improbable dream in which Parliament become the most persuasive religious sect ever to enter a studio. Going way against type, “The Silent Boatman” might be the closest Clinton & company ever got to godliness. Ruth Copeland was their secret weapon, although she never again recorded another proper album with the group. But what a legacy she left. -Buckley Mayfield

Cat Power “What Would The Community Think?” (Matador, 1996)

WhatwouldthecommunitythinkMammal music was how Richard Meltzer described Chan Marshall’s music. Probably one of the last positive statements he said about anyone musical (that wasn’t playing jazz, blues or country maybe), since he called the decade of the 90’s an “empty room” and had long before pulled the plug on rock in most any form.

After the double barrel shots of “Dear Sir” and “Myra Lee,” Marshall went for something a bit prettier and more ornate than her stripped-down debuts. Not that Chan’s themes have changed much; it’s all nervous woman-breakdown content, but each song doesn’t sound so morbidly hopeless this time around. Steve Shelly of Sonic Youth is still drumming and some SY feedback rubs on the production in places, but for the most part this is Chan’s vision, and while the songs are brighter with chimes and steel pedal all is not well in this Southern girl’s world.

Originals “Good Clean Fun” and “Nude As The News” can leave a slab in the back of your throat with their honesty and moments like “They Tell Me” are very country-derived and sound just as true. Gearing up for Moon Pix, Chan shows that she can work people into her own personal foil and come up with something more elegant. But her own reinterpretation of “Enough” near the closer is still anxious and skittering, like what the inside of her head must’ve been like. -Wade

Neil Young “American Stars ‘N Bars” (Reprise, 1977)

American-Stars-n-Bars-thumb-500x500The cover art here was the first thing that caught me. Neil has fallen, his face smooshed down on some glass floor. But from your vantage point you can see all the action above his head; an obscured girl with a bottle, bright stars and crescent moon. Pretty disorienting, and it doesn’t give clues to the content inside…

On this album, Neil stirred up songs that were really intended for other projects and put them on a single platter, making this a looser album made in a pinch. When it was first released that was probably the main gripe of critics, lack of consistency. So, steel guitar and country twang take up a bit of the first side (The Old Country Waltz, Hold Back Your Tears), with spots of heartland rock breaking through (Saddle Up The Palomino, Bite The Bullet). Side two has more of the same; zig zags of country and rock songs, especially the guitar showcase of “Like A Hurricane,” probably his most impressive longplayer after “Cortez The Killer.” Maybe even better. Another great standout on this side is the affecting “Will To Love,” which could put a tear in your beer.

A great smattering of Neil Young material, “American Stars N’ Bars” touches on many a feeling from previous albums like “Zuma” and “On The Beach,” really well at that. I guess he had too many good ideas falling out of his head and this is where they ended up. – Wade

John Prine “John Prine” (1971)

People who don’t listen to country music much tend to consider John Prine a country artist, it seems, while people who do listen to country music consider him a folk artist. I guess non-country fans are taken by how country-sounding this music is; and I guess country fans are taken by how un-country these lyrics are. This could be called country music in retrospect, but Nashville didn’t put up with songs that deal with the subjects Prine wrote about. Still doesn’t, in fact.

Some singer-songwriters of this era wrote both funny songs and serious songs. Jim Croce did it. So did Prine’s pal Steve Goodman. And Jimmy Buffett. But Prine was different–he somehow blended his humor together with his more serious sentiments, rather than separating “funny” songs from “serious” ones. It’s uncanny, really.

For instance, “Illegal Smile” is completely goofy, but its message–that marijuana is fun and makes him happy and should be legal–is crystal clear. “Sam Stone” is a devastating depiction of a drug-addicted vet who unravels after the war, yet Prine makes it subtly funny the way only he could. Is there a better, funnier way to describe a junkie parent from a child’s perspective than the line, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”? Just about all these songs make you laugh but also make a point or at least tell a good story. —Rocket88

Beyond the Gilded Palace: 
A Guide to Country Rock’s Golden Age

Even though early rock and roll was deeply rooted in country music, the two were ideologically at odds from the start. This rift became more pronounced as the ’50s gave way to the ’60s, and by 1965 Nashville was more provincial than ever, seemingly impervious to the supernovas of musical activity in cities like London and LA. Nevertheless, rumblings of a sea change can be heard during this time period even in the music of Rock’s prime movers, the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” on Rubber Soul just one example.

In 1966, less than a year after he had almost been booed offstage for playing an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan would travel to Nashville to cut a little record called Blonde On Blonde. Similarly, even on their early albums the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield wore their country influences on their sleeves, this mark of distinction becoming even more pronounced with each release. Something needed to give, and give it eventually did in the summer of 1968. Embracing traditional country & western (some argue to a fault), the Byrd’s landmark LP Sweetheart of the Rodeo announced the arrival of a new aesthetic. Released the following spring, Bob Dylan’s downhome Nashville Skyline upped the ante even more.

These records confused both the squares and the hippies when they came out, but not as much as when Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman defected from the Byrds to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons, most largely responsible for the Byrd’s dramatic switch to Country purism on “Sweetheart…”, needed a broader sonic canvas to explore his “Cosmic American Music”, and he would do just that on 1969′s The Gilded Palace of Sin. Its cover, depicting the long-haired Parsons in a marijuana leaf-patterned rhinestone suit, conveyed its mission statement almost as much as the music within. Unlike the Byrds’ and Dylan’s albums, The Gilded Palace of Sin took pieces from country and rock and reassembled them into something truly unique. Of the three releases in this “Country Rock Holy Trinity”, the Burrito’s album sold the most poorly, but its long-term impact exceeded that of its counterparts. Immediately after its release, musicians of all stripes took notice, and decades later the alt. country movement would be born when bands such as Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks returned to this well with a similar M.O. But the few years between the late ’60s and early ’70s represent what can only be called Country Rock’s Golden Age. Below are some more highlights:

1. Bradley’s Barn Beau Brummels (1968) This release by undervalued San Francisco folk rockers, which arrived in stores just a few short weeks after Sweetheart of the Rodeo, is in some ways more successful than its competition. Much of this can be attributed to Sal Valentino’s gritty vocals and the impeccable picking of some ace Nashville sessioneers.

2. Goose Creek Symphony Established 1970 (1970) On their debut album, this Arizona outfit conveys a laid-back and goofy stoner vibe, which somewhat belies its virtuosic musicianship. Its side two opener, “Talk About Goose Creek and Other Important Places”, is one of country rock’s great psychedelic rave-ups.

3. Grateful Dead American Beauty (1970) Which Grateful Dead album most typifies country rock is open to debate; clearly, it’s a toss-up between Workingman’s Dead and their next album, American Beauty. But in the end the latter achieves this distinction, if only by a slim margin. Featuring Jerry Garcia’s sparkling pedal steel guitar and some of the band’s best ever harmonies, the Dead would never sound this great in the studio again.

4. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen Lost in the Ozone (1971) Looking back almost as much as it looked forward, this raucous album introduced elements of rockabilly and boogie-woogie into the country rock mix. Commander Cody would record some more great albums, but this remains his definitive statement.

5. Michael Nesmith And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’ (1972) The Monkees’ hippest member recorded some of the best music in the country rock canon. But this minimalist outing, which features a rendition of “Different Drum” that’s superior to Linda Ronstadt’s version, is a true standout.

Further listening: Across the pond, Americana made its mark in 60′s Britain as well. For an idea of what what Country sounds like when it’s melded with Yardbirdsy blues, check out The Country Sect by The Downliners Sect; its 1965 release date makes it a record that was truly ahead of its time. Ray Davies was also taking notes when it came to Country, and his obsessions with it are most successfully explored on the Kinks’ last great album, 1971′s Muswell Hillbillies. Brinsley Schwarz, a band that counted Nick Lowe as an original member, were major underachievers in their day, but their take on country would come to define another genre, pub rock. Their second LP, Despite it All, is a small masterpiece. – Richard P

Are we forgetting anyone? We’d love to hear your comments:

Willie Nelson “Red Headed Stranger” (1975)

It took all of a minute or so for me to realize I loved this album (when Willie sings “…and he screamed like a panther in the middle of the night,” the phrasing just kills me.) It took a full five minutes to actually give me chills (at the end of track three “…and the killin’s begun.”) “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” and “Can I Sleep in Your Arms Tonight” are two of the most beautiful, aching songs I’ve ever heard. My experience with Red Headed Stranger and country music is akin to the experience I had with Kind of Blue and jazz. The very first album I tried in the genre turned out to be the best, but it doesn’t matter because it was so good it led me to explore and enjoy so many others. –Lucas

Emmylou Harris “Elite Hotel” (1975)

Great interpretations of classic country and rock songs by the rare singer who’s voice matches up to her physical beauty. Backed by the excellent Hot Band, Emmylou exudes a sort of dewy innocence, even when singing world-weary songs of heartache and drinking. It makes the sadness all the more palpable, because you want such purity sheltered from the evils of the world. –Lucas

Willie Nelson “Shotgun Willie” (1973)

Classic outlaw country music, this record is polar opposite of the Nashville “songwriting machine” still so popular at the time. Honest (maybe too honest, the first words of this record are “Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear”), loose and written and performed with a “don’t give a f…” attitude that millions fell in love with and thousands tried to emulate. “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and “She’s Not For You” are bruised ballads that stick with you after one listen, and age gracefully in your mind. –Cameron