Various Artists: Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music 1968-1970
If you have ever dropped a reference to Gram Parsons or Townes Van Zandt into casual conversation, you are morally obligated to purchase this record.
Cosmic American Music 1968-1970 is the fifth in Numero Group's Wayfaring Strangers series, which has previously featured similar, oddly effective compilations of one-off releases by wanna-be Led Zeppelins, Joni Mitchells, and John Faheys. This batch of never-weres and coulda-beens follow the spirit of Gram Parsons and the country rock artists sprung from the Laurel Canyon scene of the early 70s. Pete Doggett rightfully called country rock "the dominant American rock style of the 1970s" in Are You Ready For the Country, his exhaustive history of the form. The 19 cuts collected here emphasize that influence with a sincerity that is infectious.
This is not your typical outsider music collection. The performers here are not harboring delusions of grandeur weighted down by anchors of inability. These are all musicians of some talent who had put in the necessary time and practice to get, if not great, then pretty darn good. With time and opportunity, a handful of these artists could have grown to something approaching greatness, but fate provided neither.
Most of the tracks feature decent musicians emulating noteworthy influences. The collection opens with an awesome, bass-led folk-rock riff from Jimmy Carter and Dallas County Green, whose interplay of male and female vocalists on "Travelin'" evoke not just Nashville but also the pastoral folk of Fairport Convention. Plain Jane's "Can't Make it Alone" wouldn't be out of place as a Notorious Byrd Brothers outtake. Arrogance's "To See Her Smile" sounds equal parts inspired by Mike Nesmith's First National Band and Emmitt Rhodes' Merry Go Round. Vietnam vet F.J. McMahon sounds like an even world-wearier Fred Neil on "The Spirit of the Golden Juice", stubbornly reassuring himself "It was worth everything we went through." Doug Firebaugh's haunting "Alabama Railroad Town" brings a Neil Young-like sparseness to a modern broadside ballad.
Listening to this collection is not unlike listening to the Nuggets and Pebbles collections of garage band cuts from the past. There is, of course, genre-based stylistic and philosophical differences, but all share the same passionate striving. While these tracks weren't cut in a garage, though a few bedrooms and basements feature prominently, their diy spirit unites them. Many of these cuts are on the demo side of the sonic scale, lacking the studio refinement that the big names of the time got, but there's something in the rough-around-the-edges demeanor of so many of these songs that is endearing. And it's not a stretch to think that a few of these tracks, like Allan Wachs' "Mountain roads", Jeff Cowell's "Not Down This Low", or Black Canyon Gang's "Lonesome City" could have made a deep impression on the country or pop charts of their time had they only received proper care and attention.
This is a rewarding collection that maintains the high standard set by previous Numero Group anthologies. The level of research that went into compiling not just the music but the information about these long-ignored performers is impressive and reflected in the fascinating liner notes. Every artist is presented in an engaging bio, even the mysterious Kathy Heideman, whose whereabouts are lost to time but who spent some time as an in house vocalist at tiny Tiki Studios in San Jose, California, along with another striving young vocalist named Juice Newton, whose talents the fickle hand of fate would reward with global hits "Angel of the Morning" and "Queen of Hearts" a decade later. The band members of Plain Jane recorded their lone album using hand-me-down equipment from the Electric Prunes. F.J. McMahon was a shell-shocked Vietnam vet trying to make sense of his re-entry into a fractious American society and who poured everything he had into the political stew that was his 1969 custom label release, recorded and mixed in two days to soul-crushing disinterest.
Sandy Harless financed his 1973 record with proceeds from his family's fish-breeding business, only to be bilked of his investment by an unscrupulous promoter. A happier take is that of Jimmy Carter a Missouri farmhand who recorded his lone album with fellow musical farmhands Dallas County Green in 1977. Though their record sank without a trace, Carter, after enlisting in the military and going abroad, ended up making a secure living performing country music for appreciative German audiences throughout the 80s. The resourceful Mistress Mary followed up her lone 1968 album, which featured Byrds guitarist Clarence White on "And I Didn't Want You", the track featured here, with careers in belly dancing, self-defense training, and auto repair. Arrogance featured a young Don Dixon, who would go on to some renown as a producer (R.E.M., Smithereens) and solo artist.
As seemingly odd and specialized as this collection's focus is, it should nonetheless find a wide and appreciative audience among fans of country rock, Americana, alt-country, etc. No one is going to fall in love with every track here, but everyone s guaranteed to find a few that will become personal favorites.