April is a cool month. Baseball is back. There’s the drama and pageantry of The Masters. In some parts, it’s even warm enough for outdoor patio seating at restaurants. The smell of freshly cut grass, tax refunds (hopefully?), NCAA Final Fours, and the celebration my birthday are just a few more examples of this month’s joys. Beat it, T.S. Eliot, there’s lots, in fact, to like about the so-called “cruelest month”.
And, depending on who you ask, Record Store Day, is now an addition you can add to the calendar of April superlatives. While some revel in waking up at 4AM and lining up outside their local brick-and-mortar in the hopes of scoring some limited-edition swag, others decry the event as an attention-seeking money grab designed to bring out the werewolves and vultures with their sights set on wreaking havoc on the local business community. Regardless of your stance, there’s no denying that Record Store Day has been an imposing phenomenon within the worldwide musical landscape. What started rather modestly in 2007 has now grown into a strategic media blitz with its’ own hashtag (#RSD15), celebrity curators, and corporate marketing partnerships. For those of you who braved it this year, I hope your journey brought forth many great treasures. Even if it didn’t, well that’s okay, too. Hopefully you spent some time browsing, made some mental notes of things to check out, and maybe even scored some free beer and caught some live acts at participating stores. That’s a winning Saturday in my book.
For those of us who love record shopping and can remember when heading to the local shop was one of the only ways to learn, discover and sample, almost any day can be a Record Store Day. With the resurgence of vinyl and the still stellar playing ability of my three-decades old, hand-me-down record player (since augmented with a sweet set of new speakers), I’ve taken to spending many free afternoons scouring the deep stacks of used vinyl at some of my local outlets. I’ve moved around a bit the past few years, but from Raleigh to Hoboken to Dallas, I’ve still been presented with a couple of nice options to build up my collection, both economically and eclectically.
Like an ‘80s kid looking to complete his Upper Deck MLB All-Star or Garbage Pail Kids sets, I’ve taken to putting together musical genre sets of interesting listens. I look for titles that are a bit overlooked or discounted. Think Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, instead of Blood on the Tracks. I’ve found this is a good way to expand the palette and listen to some things I may have otherwise missed — even music released by some of my favorite artists and bands.
Here, I’ve chosen to showcase some listening gems I’ve gathered over the past few months from the Folk/Americana/Country genre. It’s the genre that has consistently proven rather pointless to attempt to classify. None of these showcased artists would be considered obscure. Quite the opposite, actually as they’re all (with one exception) universally recognized. These individual albums were all foreign to me, though, so that’s been the thrill: discovering an untapped aspect of these artists’ discographies.
Interestingly, as well, are the album’s cover art selections. If such a platform existed and was deemed as being necessary at the time, then the cover portraits would serve as appropriate and reasonable LinkedIn profile pictures. They’re all just so professionally formal! So, without further ado, here are five choice pickups recently found in some dusty record store bins.
Joan Baez: Farewell, Angelina
A recent read of Larry “Ratso” Sloman’s epically comprehensive On the Road With Bob Dylan sparked my interest in Baez, an artist whose work I’ve always observed through her timeless connection to The Bard. While reporting on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, Sloman’s focus on Baez makes her pretty much on equal footing with Dylan as the book’s subject. He reveals her to be sarcastic, quick-witted, and sort of the den mother that kept the chaotic caravan of musicians, managers, and assorted hangers-on rolling. By this point in time, Baez and Dylan’s relationship was well over a decade old and battle-tested. Both parties had moved onto other people and further creative outlets, but their songwriting and performing bond kept them tightly intertwined throughout the tour.
Ten years earlier in October 1965, Baez released this album to great worldwide fanfare amongst the folk community. However, as usual for the times, Baez kept in step with Dylan as she used the recording sessions for this album to not only cover several of his songs, but to also usher in a plugged-in backup band. Unlike Dylan, though, she keeps things more subtle as Bruce Langhorne’s electric guitar, Russ Savakus’ bass, and Ralph Rinzler’s mandolin gently glide alongside Baez’s angelic voice, providing a reserved and stately melodic touch that stands in stark contrast to the unrestrained bombast propelled forth by Dylan’s Hawks.
Throughout the album, her singing, as expected, is gorgeous. She belts through the 11 tracks — “Satisfied Mind”, “Ranger’s Command”, and the title track are particular highlights — with her confident yet unimposing soprano at the helm. A nifty German language cover of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is an unexpected bonus.
Brewer & Shipley: Tarkio
Well-worn and filled with a couple of perturbing scratches, I found this 1970 folk-rock cult classic buried deep in the $5 or less bin, and modestly listed for only $3. So, for less than a large cup of Starbucks, I’ve been jamming out to a jovial and almost giddy collection of sweet, yet pointed tunes that are satisfying enough to tolerate the skips and dents that plague the sound. Honestly, the scratchy condition fits the album’s ethos well. It’s unfussy music that featured enough socially conscious lyrical nods to satisfy the era’s post-Woodstock peace-and-love crowd, while also pulling back the cynicism just enough to appeal to a wider Americana base.
This album contains their two most well-known compositions: “Tarkio Road”, an uplifting ode to a well-traveled highway in their home state of Missouri, and “One Toke Over the Line”, which famously garnered scorn from the Nixon Administration and, having just watched them perform the number on his national television show, a sort of spiritual praise from a befuddled Lawrence Welk. More recently, the song pops up from time to time on films, as it does in key scenes from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and St. Vincent. The duo still gets out there to perform, though they’re mostly tethered to the Midwest, where interestingly enough, Tom Shipley serves on the staff of Missouri University of Science and Technology.
The Byrds: (Untitled)
In 1970, the Byrds were embarking on the start of a three-year period of lineup stability, one which would ultimately prove to be the longest running of the band’s career. With an ever-revolving cast of characters that had previously included David Crosby, Gram Parsons, and Gene Clark, de facto bandleader Roger McGuinn had solidified a roster that surrounded him with guitarist Clarence White, drummer Gene Parsons, and the most recent recruit, bassist Skip Battin.
Having spent the previous year working with playwright Jacques Levy on a country rock themed stage production (another fact I learned from Sloman’s Dylan memoir), McGuinn was eager to record some of his latest compositions. He also was buoyed by the live chops his newly configured possessed, so the idea was formed to hatch together a double-album comprised of one LP of concert tracks from a series of New York City shows and another LP of new studio material. Upon its’ release in the fall of 1970, a few critics seemed a bit puzzled by the live/studio duality of the album, but for the most part it was an acclaimed release and one that was definitely praised for the raucous live intensity brought forth by the newly configured Byrds roster.
As good as the studio material is-the Parsons/Battin composition “Yesterday’s Train” and McGuinn’s jaunty “Just a Season” are particular highlights — it’s the live LP that has really been wearing out my record player’s needle. It’s a punch-in-the-gut set that offers the sensation of actually sitting on the sticky residue of the ancient Queens College and Felt Forum floors where the dual scents of weed and incense were surely pungently being wafted through the sweltering air. The band swiftly kicks through the rollicking rhythms of “Lover of the Bayou” and “Nashville West” and offers forth a swirling 16-minute version of “Eight Miles High” that comprises the entire Side Two of the live LP.
The Byrds were always straddling the boundaries of country, folk, psychedelia, and free-form. Listening to the band contort and massage the notes of a track like “So You Want to be a Rock n’ Roll Star” as they do here, proves indeed that this early ‘70s lineup was certainly one to be reckoned with.
Emmylou Harris: Cimarron
Late ’70s and ’80s country music tends to get a (deserved) bad rap. It’s an era of watered down production values that tended to throw too many syrupy string arrangements and pedal steel and fiddle of the schmaltzy variety into the mix. The lyrical content also started to delve into cliché as country radio and film/television valued and rewarded the trite and contrived “y’all-ness” of singer-songwriters over some of the more introspective and insightful content being produced. Blame The Dukes of Hazzard, Hank Williams, Jr., or Eddie Rabbit (actually Eddie Rabbit songs are pretty cool), but whatever the culprit, country started to sag towards its’ current Nashville hit-making iteration around this time.
It was also about this time that country music began losing its’ long-standing crossover appeal. Those that resisted the Nashville tag moved along as the outlaws they already were and would pop up later as torchbearers of the Americana or alt-country movement. These figures included stalwarts like Merle Haggard, Wille Nelson, and Emmylou Harris, the latter of whom released Cimarron at the tail end of 1981, thus making it eligible for the following year’s Grammy Awards, where it snagged a nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female. It’s an interesting album, in that it’s comprised entirely of outtakes from previous material that failed to find a place on some of her earlier releases.
However, it also falls right in Harris’ wheelhouse, as she expertly melds together pop, rock, and standard material into her signature country sound. It’s all cover material, but she chooses wisely with versions of Townes Van Zandt (“If I Needed You”), Bruce Springsteen (“The Price You Pay”, but not “Born to Run”, a non-Bruce track of the same name also featured), and Chip Taylor (“Son of a Rotten Gambler”, made famous a few years earlier by the then Canadian sensation Anne Murray). The songs were all familiar ditties to those interested in country music at the time and like most of Harris’ songbook does, serves as a comforting blanket of musical warmth. A little too comforting at times, as some of the material does get bogged down a bit with too much instrumental flourish and swirl. It’s probably not Harris’ best work, but it’s fine work, nonetheless, and the perfect type of album to cherish from an afternoon spent used record diving.
Jerry Lee Lewis: All Country
Originally titled Country Songs for City Folks, this collection was re-released in 1969 following Lewis’ resurgence as a country music star. When he first touched these tracks four years prior, ol’ Jerry Lee was floundering in a series of personal and professional missteps, ignited further by his decision to part from his long-time home at Sun Records for a new contract with Smash. Although his success in the country music genre was a still a few years away from reaching its’ commercial country peak, this album serves as a valid attempt at trying something new.
The problem lies a bit in the material. It just fails to take any risks or cop any attitude befitting of the wild man they called “The Killer”. Author Rick Bragg spends a good portion of his stellar book, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story discussing this country period with Lewis, who seems to express regret letting his competitive spirit and rash decision-making get in the way. It seems Lewis thought he could pump out superior versions of many of these hit tracks.
That being said, there are a couple of redeeming numbers. He pulls some nifty vocal acrobatics on the jaunty “Wolverton Mountain”, pushes through a faithful and spirited version of “City Lights”, and plays his “good ol’ boy” charm to its’ hammiest perfection on “Detroit City”. The overall end result, however, ends up sounding more like a sub-par version of his old Class of ’55 mate: very Johnny Cash-lite. Success wouldn’t elude Jerry Lee for very long, though. Shortly thereafter, he was performing songs that would truly resonate with the country audience.
So, there you have it. A pretty solid collection of tunes all found for about 20 bucks found over a few pleasant leisurely hours of record shopping. As I mentioned, these aren’t essential listens that will be revisited on a daily basis (well, “Eight Miles High” would be, if I had the luxury to carve 16 daily uninterrupted minutes out of my life at the moment), but rather charming gems that likely may fly by the radar, otherwise undiscovered.
If you’re a music fan, don’t make April’s Record Store Day your only visit to the shop. Get out there and revel in the in the treasures that await.