by Sean Jewell ::
When Jeff Cowell hits the high note on “Not Down This Low” you realize the potential for him to have been a star. The song fits perfectly in lyrical vision, sound quality, and structure with the songs of the era. If the 1960s were about soul, the 1970s were about country. In 1975, the year Cowell recorded Lucky Strikes and Liquid Gold, the country and western charts were packed with classic artists competing for the top spot, and no act spent more than two weeks at #1. Willie’s “Blue Eyes Cryin’ In The Rain,” Waylon’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” CW McCall’s campy and critically acclaimed “Convoy,” and John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” all hit the top of the charts. Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills died. Hank Jr. fell off that damn mountain, George and Tammy finally divorced, and Charlie Rich notoriously burned John Denver‘s CMA Entertainer of The Year award ballot live on national television.
More importantly, visionary Gram Parsons had spent the decade before confounding country music entirely. His talent for writing had got him into Harvard, where he was exposed to country acts like Merle Haggard. He’d later work for the Byrds, and, along with bassist Chris Hillman, developed a sound combining the soul of rhythm and blues, the libidinous showmanship of rock & roll, and the storytelling of country music. After befriending The Rolling Stones and spending time playing with Keith Richards, Parsons would emerge with his own band The Flying Burrito Brothers as an avante garde synthesis of American music; country on the surface and psychedelic in its grooves: Cosmic American Music. Parsons’s appropriation of nudie suits typically reserved for Opry men and women, along with every musical style from bluegrass to ranchera, frequent drug use, and progressive thinking created the first iteration of the alternative country sound. His loosely played, wildly conceived songs inspired entire generations of musicians despite his own limited output.
Wayfaring Strangers launches into country’s cosmos from this point in space. Kathy Heideman‘s soul-stirring warble from 1971, too dark to meet with success for decades to come (and mysteriously untraceable), is unsparing in both storytelling and composition. In 1973 Chapel Hill, North Carolina band Arrogance would record “To See Her Smile” on their first official album, Give Us A Break. 300 copies would be distributed locally. You can hear the southern influence in the opening, their love for Sabbath and psychedelics across the bridge, and college rock’s bright Southeastern future all over the track. The album opens on Jimmy Carter and Dallas County Green‘s “Travelin’,” a song that shows just how far down from the mountain country music had come by 1976. Putting telecaster licks and bottom shaking bass before vocal harmonies, but excelling at both makes Carter’s output –and invisibility until now– dumbfounding. It seems the Dallas County, Missouri musician did most of his work in Germany as well.
From 1968 to 1980 Country and Western was at once in full bloom, and complete reformation. Outlaws had split from the gospel and grandeur of the Grand Ol Opry and developed their own healthy following and media praise. Great records turned up far from Nashville‘s country-politan production reach —Tulsa, Austin, Los Angeles, San Marcos, East Village all had skin in the game. But the stakes remained the same; the industry at large is great at recognizing acts who have the widest public appeal, and can afford the best press relations teams. Hundreds of thousands of acts of all genres since the invention of the Victor talking machine must have fallen through the cracks. It’d be impossible to hunt them all down. Along with the fulfillment of our fetish for nostalgia, this is why re-issue labels are great. Collections like Rock Beat Records’ Groove & Grind Rare Soul, and the upcoming Wayfaring Strangers from Numero Group do something amazing with those acts lost to history: they find those dusty tracks and put them in a collection for us. The oft-glorified, over-sanctified music industry was always only hit or miss. Well, here’s some of the hits they missed.
From the press release:
Every act here has its own fascinating story. There are bands like Jimmy Carter and the Dallas Country Green and the Black Canyon Gang, composed of farm and ranch hands who just liked making music. Others, such as Mistress Mary and Mike & Pam Martin, harbored dreams of record deals only to see them dashed when their demo albums were ignored. Sandy Harless’s tale is particularly heartbreaking. After financing his album through his fish breeding business, he got duped by a sham record label. Then there is a case of the mysterious Kathy Heideman, a San Jose session vocalist who recorded an album of songs written by one Dia Joyce; however, not even the experts at Numero Group could dig up info on her.
One thing that all of this acts unfortunately have in common is that their albums flopped. Many wound up never recording again. The disappointment hit Kenny Knight so hard that he tossed his master tapes in a dumpster. As the one-time Southern California singer-songwriter F.J. McMahon reflects: “My concept of record albums and musicians was, you came out with an album and went on T.V. and you had some money and you lived off it and you made another album. I had no concept of you make an album and it goes nowhere, which it did. It was a harpoon to the heart for a long time.”
1. Jimmy Carter and Dallas County Green: Travelin’
2. Mistress Mary: And I Didn’t Want You
3. Plain Jane: You Can’t Make It Alone
4. Dan Pavlides: Lily of the Valley
5. Angel Oak: I Saw Her Cry
6. Kathy Heideman: Sleep a Million Years
7. Deerfield: Me Lovin’ You
8. Arrogance: To See Her Smile
9. Jeff Cowell: Not Down This Low
10. Kenny Knight: Baby’s Back
11. The Black Canyon Gang: Lonesome City
12. Allan Wachs: Mountain Roads
13. Mike And Pam Martin: Lonely Entertainer
14. Bill Madison: Buffalo Skinners
15. White Cloud: All Cried Out
16. Ethel-Ann Powell: Gentle One
17. Sandy Harless: I Knew Her Well
18. F.J. McMahon: The Spirit of the Golden Juice
19. Doug Firebaugh: Alabama Railroad Town
Wayfaring Strangers : Cosmic American Music is out Friday March 18th on Numero Group. You can purchase re-issues from Kathy Heideman, Arrogance, and Jimmy Carter and Dallas Country Green right now from Numero as well. I’m gonna suggest you do what ol Gram Parson’s probably woulda done and score you some.
The American Standard Team also points out to me that the Wayfaring Stragners project extends far beyond Cosmic Country, with previous selections available from the series covering music of Ladies From The Canyon, Guitar Stoli, and Lonesome Heroes, and even…a boardgame (?) in which mythical hard rock bands must make a D&D style tour through the Cities of Darkscortch. Collect them all!