One of the nastiest things you could say about country music during the Jimmy Carter era was that it was hokey. Country music had become popular and relevant. Willie Nelson played the White House, Urban Cowboy was an earnestly hot movie, and New Yorkers wore cowboy boots. Gene Clark originally released Two Sides to Every Story in 1977, and it can best be described as hokey. Clark embraced contrived corniness and rebelliously expressed its superficiality. During a time when country was serious, large and in charge, Clark jokingly thumbed his nose at the appearance of genuine. He understood that authenticity was just as manufactured as any product.
Which is not to say Two Sides to Every Story doesn’t have its share of sincerity. It’s there, buried under thick production and clueless arrangements. Now one might suggest that Clark and producer Thomas Jefferson Kaye were not consciously trying to achieve this effect. But if one carefully listens to Clark’s rendition of the classic murder ballad “In the Pines”, and then the cheery and cheesy smiling banjo and fiddle licks that accompany him, one realizes this must be on purpose — like when The Jesus and Mary Chain would put out precious pop songs on one speaker and nasty feedback noise on the other. The juxtaposition makes something larger than the individual components.
After all, the backing musicians on this record include some of country’s greats: Doug Dillard, Byron Berline, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, and Jeff Baxter. As lead vocalist of the Byrds, Clark wrote such important songs as “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better”, “She Don’t Care About Time”, and “Eight Miles High”. Kaye was a noted producer, responsible for Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk”, among other highlights. This strangely congealed set of 10 songs must be a master recipe, so that when we hear James Talley’s tale of a coal miner dying of black lung serenading his love over violins instead of fiddles, and a grand piano instead of guitar, we need to appreciate the delicacy of the moment.
Or not. You could say this is one royal mess of an album. It went out of print not long after release because of record label problems. Its resurgence in a very handsomely packaged reissue by High Moon, a deluxe hardbound item that comes with a full color 24-page book and an e-card that enables one to download 90 minutes more, is certainly welcomed by Clark fans who remember his 1974 magnum opus No Other, also produced by Kaye and known for its expensive and expansive instrumentation. But this album is very different. These two artists were heavily into drugs when recording Two Sides to Every Story and the eccentric aspects of this album are the result.
So while one may not be able to grasp the genius of this album, because it doesn’t have any, one can value it as an artifact. Clark grittily wails to the sound of a train on “Kansas City Southern” until he’s out-sung by the back-up singers, while an electric guitar lick chugs down the tracks. What does it all mean? What about the boppin’ banjo that turns “Home Run King”’s nonsensical lyrics (re: “there’s a 10-year old in the alley that throws a hot dog against the wall and that’s the truth”) into a conventional feel good song? Well, the album was just dressing the part of country during country’s heyday in American popular culture. Sometimes buying in is just another way of selling out. Clark discovered and promoted country music before country was popular, certainly he deserved to reap some rewards.