[27 August 2013]
Zen Buddhist Cowboy Songs. That’s how guitarist Robbie Basho once described his music. It’s a good description. Throughout his discography one finds influences of Persian, Japanese, Indian Classical music, traditional American folk and ballads, Native American indigenous music and even European classical. A musical and spiritual seeker for most of his existence, the synthesizing of these cultural explorations defined Basho’s life as well as his music. People in the 1960s and ‘70s sometimes referred to Basho’s guitar playing as “far out”. He would reply to them that it was, in fact, “far in”. Robbie Basho was a true innovator on his instrument, exploring vistas and panoramas nobody had previously before explored on the guitar. Though he died in 1986 virtually unknown outside a small circle, the last few years have shown a resurgence of interest in his music, with reissues, a tribute album and now a documentary in the works. The aptly named grass-roots label, Grass-Tops, is reissuing the musician’s long out-of-print 1978 album Visions of the Country on CD; they have partnered with Gnome Life, who have released a vinyl and MP3 version.
Despite Basho’s utterly unique guitar style and his influence on other guitarists, by the time Visions of the Country was recorded it had been four years since his last album. In addition, the nine albums he’d previously recorded for a variety of record companies (including the guitar-centric Takoma label) were all out-of-print. This included his two most recent records, then only a few years old, which had been recorded for Vanguard. Vanguard had released the Native American-themed Voice of the Eagle and the Persian-themed Zarthus, but sales were so low that a planned follow up never happened (some tracks were recorded at the time and finally released in 2007, under the title Indian II, though that’s not available any more either.) It wouldn’t be stretching things to say that, in a career plagued by obscurity, the mid 1970s was one of Basho’s more obscure times. Though he wasn’t recording any new music during this period, Basho wasn’t just sitting around doing nothing. His life of inquiry into spiritual and musical frontiers continued unabated. He also gained the admiration and friendship of fellow guitarist and soon-to-be record label founder Will Ackerman. Ackerman’s label, Windham Hill, would in a few short years be a multimillion-dollar company almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of New Age music. Early on it was a goal of Ackerman’s to sign his friend to his new business venture.
The resulting Visions of the Country was composed of primarily new recordings, apart from three songs recorded a few years earlier which had been intended for Basho’s next Vanguard release. In many ways, it’s a quintessential Robbie Basho album, containing dazzling instrumental guitar flights as well as songs featuring his operatic singing and whistling (yes, whistling). An acquired taste, his unusual singing style may actually have worked against him in his popular acceptance as a guitar master. Still, one has to admire him for having the conviction and confidence in his own abilities to sing on many of his albums. In fact, after releasing his first two entirely instrumental albums in the late ‘60s, Basho issued the next with the title “Basho Sings”, and there was no turning back after that audaciously named release.
Visions of the Country is wrapped in reverence for the American wilderness and nature. In the liner notes, Basho writes, “Visions of the Country is simply an L.P. of Guitar Paintings of the Americas and other joys. It uses the folk ballad style of some and the flowing Raga style of Hindu music to express the feeling and texture of the American Wilderness…Panoramique”. The music is meant to evoke the mountains, rivers, and skies of Basho’s native land, the West in particular. His vision of the country is a very romantic one, infused with passionate rhapsodies to “smooth singing sunshine” and “fast flowing waterfalls”.
Tying in with the cover picture of the Grand Teton mountain range in Wyoming is the leadoff track of the album, “Green River Suite”. Against a backdrop of shimmering, cascading guitar Basho sings “Oh holy river, sweet water/ Oh Lovely/ My home is Wyoming/ Green River Wyoming/ Wild and free/ Holy river/ It smells like heaven to me/ From the center of the earth to the center of the sky/ There am I/ Sweet water/ There am I.” It’s one of the most successful marriages of guitar and voice on any Basho album and is a strong opening track.
This euphoric feeling is carried over in the tumbling, folky instrumentals “Rodeo” and “Variations on Easter”. “Rocky Mountain Raga” is a more contemplative piece, where the guitarist is accompanied by violin. Even here, though, it’s as if Basho can’t contain himself and his guitar rises to a fleet-fingered crescendo two thirds of the way into the song before settling back again.
Unusually for a Robbie Basho album, this one includes two songs performed on piano. For a musician primarily known for his guitar prowess, his piano playing is quite affecting. It’s extremely nuanced and melodic and, when combined with his whistling on “Leaf in the Wind”, is haunting.
Windham Hill ended up releasing one more album by Basho, despite his music being much more challenging than that of the other artists on the popular New Age label. Even with the support of the head and founder of the label itself in Ackerman, once Windham Hill graduated to major label status Basho was once again adrift without a recording contract. Both releases were soon out-of-print and remained among the few Windham Hill titles never reissued. The master tapes of Visions of the Country were long lost by the time Grass-Tops began work on the reissue project last year. As a result, mint copies of the original LP were sought out and painstakingly copied and cleaned up for the best version of each track. This attention to detail, helped by the fact that the record was recorded very well to begin with, has resulted in a reissue with remarkable fidelity.
Though he will probably never have the name recognition of a Leo Kottke or even a John Fahey, some of Robbie Basho’s long-forgotten music may now get the attention it missed while its author was alive. More archival Basho releases are planned by Grass-Tops; if this new version of Visions of the Country is any indication, it should be a good series indeed.