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Fifty Year Friday: Nashville Skyline, Songs From A Room, Nazz Nazz

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BOB DYLAN: NASHVILLE SKYLINE

“Oh me, oh my,
Love that country pie.”

— Bob Dylan

Especially with singer songwriters, its’ fun to speculate which came first: the lyrics or the music.  Bob Dylan’s 1967 album, “John Wesley Harding” appears to be a well-crafted set of poems that then are set to music.  Dylan’s next album, Nashville Skyline appears to be a set of music compositions, with lyrics added afterwords.  Adding the words later, creates a task much more difficult for the lyricist role of the singer songwriter, particularly if the music does not emerge from a set of chord progressions, but comes from the heart — a melody that one hears with or without its associated chords, that then one must fully form into a song.  I am particularly amazed at the results of lyricist Lorenz Hart who was able to write such excellent lyrics to completed Richard Rogers songs.

However, writing great music to preexisting lyrics seems to be an almost impossible feat. As impressed as I am at the quality of Hart’s lyrics to fit into preexisting music, I am even more amazed at the quality of music that Richard Rogers was able to provide when he switched to working with Oscar Hammerstein, a lyricists whose method of creation was to first write the lyrics, handing those finished lyrics to the composer who then had to create appropriate music for those words.

So, I am not surprised that Dylan, who is not the quality of composer as Richard Rogers, comes up short musically sometimes when creating music to fit his own existing poetry as is the general case with the “John Wesley Harding” album.

Note that I may be completely wrong with this thesis, but I believe that with Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, released on April 9, 1969, several of the songs were written first with lyrics added.  “Nashville Skyline Rag” was a rare instrumental by Dylan and gives us a clear example of Dylan writing music without preexisting lyrics, but I believe this is also the case with songs like “To Be Alone With You”” I Threw it All Away”, and “Lay, Lady, Lay.”  Unlike the previous album, Nashville Skyline is not a series of songs with verses and no choruses but a collection of traditional,  fairly catchy and easily singable tunes.  The music sounds more natural, and comes across as the primary content — another indicator that the lyrics are there for the music and not the music being created to support existing poetry.

But an additional reason for my assertion that the music came first, is the generally simple quality of the lyrics. On scrutiny, this is a rather weak argument when one considers that not only most of the music, but the associated words are totally in alignment with expected character of late 1960’s country music, and so one could argue that Dylan once again wrote the lyrics first to get the level of authenticity needed for the project and rose to the task of fitting natural, catchy, country music to those lyrics. Either way Dylan deserves praise for the final product and his amazing adaptability.

He also deserves particular praise for the number of musical and lyrical cliches he was able to fit into a short twenty-seven minute album, given there is nothing inherently wrong with cliches: to quote Nicolas Slonimsky, one of the great musicologists of the twentieth century defending a particularly cliche in classical music, “yes, its a cliche, but it’s a good cliche!”   Musically, we find heavy reliance on common country music chord progressions and melodic patterns, but it is the lyrical cliches that interest me even more. For example, the entire content of the third song, “To Be Alone with You” is almost entirely crafted from cliches:

“To be alone with you,
Just you and me,
Now won’t you tell me true
Ain’t that the way it oughta be?
To hold each other tight
The whole night through;
Everything is always right
When I’m alone with you.

“To be alone with you
At the close of the day
With only you in view
While evening slips away;
It only goes to show
That while life’s pleasures be few
The only one I know
Is when I’m alone with you.”

“They say that nighttime is the right time
To be with the one you love;
Too many thoughts get in the way in the day
But you’re always what I’m thinkin’ of.
I wish the night were here
Bringin’ me all of your charms
When only you are near
To hold me in your arms.

“I’ll always thank the Lord
When my workin’ day is through —
I get my sweet reward
To be alone with you”

And so it goes for the rest of the album with such often-used phrases as

“I treated her like a fool”, “in the palm of my hand”, “I threw it all away”. “Love … makes the world go ’round”, “stole my heart away”. “love to spend the night”. “future looks so bright”. “girl is out of sight”. “loved her just the same”. “And I love her so”. “you’re the best thing that he’s ever seen”. “You can have your cake and eat it too”. “tonight no light will shine on me”. “lost the only pal I had”. “I just could not be what she wanted me to be”. “I thought that she’d be true”. “what a woman in love would do”. “I didn’t mean to see her go”. “tell me that it isn’t true”, “They say that you’ve been seen with some other man”. “he’s tall, dark and handsome”. “It hurts me all over”, “all I want is your word”, “you better come through”, “I’m countin’ on you”. “playin’ ’til the break of day”. “that ain’t no lie”, “got nothin’ on me”, “Throw my troubles out the door”, “it was more than I could do”. “your love comes on so strong”, “I’ve waited all day long”, “Is it really any wonder”, “You cast your spell and I went under“, “I find it so difficult to leave.”

One has to conclude, even if  reluctantly, that there is a genius at work here, and whether the lyrics came first or were cleverly fitted into the music, it’s impressive how all these cliches were incorporated into these few songs.

One personal note: “Lay, Lady, Lay” was repeatedly played on AM radio, over and over, starting in July 1969.  I cringed every time it came on. I was fourteen, and this is second worse traumatic experience for me that year — the worst was having to hear The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” on the radio, relentlessly repeated with the resumption of the school year that September. What an ordeal! A poor, suffering, helpless fourteen-year-old freshman high school student being subjected to the one song that most exemplified (and historically defined) bubble-gum pop music — and subjected to such inane music and lyrics every morning and every afternoon on the school bus ride.  “Lay, Lady, Lay” was a welcome relief in comparison.

Musicians [from Wikipedia]

Bob Dylan – guitar, harmonica, keyboards, vocals
Norman Blake – guitar, dobro
Kenneth A. Buttrey – drums
Johnny Cash – vocals on “Girl from North Country”
Fred Carter Jr. – guitar
Charlie Daniels – bass guitar, guitar
Pete Drake – pedal steel guitar
Marshall Grant – bass guitar on “Girl from North Country”
W. S. Holland – drums on “Girl from North Country”
Charlie McCoy – guitar, harmonica
Bob Wilson – organ, piano
Bob Wootton – electric guitar on “Girl from North Country”

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LEONARD COHEN: SONGS FROM A ROOM

Released on April 7, 1969, Leonard Cohen’s second album Songs from a Room, did well on the US Charts (peaking at 63) and impressively in the UK (getting as high as second spot on the UK charts.)  This seems to be another one of those singer-songwriter album which has songs that are based on poetry set to music rather than lyrics devised to fit the music.

The most amazing song, on a relatively strong album, is the powerfully compelling “Story of Isaac”, basically an anti-Vietnam song, set within the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It’s message extends much more broadly, and the song unfolds first as a narrative and then as a commentary.  “A scheme” such as capitalism or communism poorly compares to a divine vision, and if what Abraham did is clearly inappropriate, how much more so is sending our youth off to fight politically-motivated wars?  Or to kill off the promise of future generations by reckless consumption of our planet’s precious resources?  One has to be astonished at how artfully and convincingly Cohen has crafted his message.

Cohen delivers intimate, personal songs from his room that can fully enjoyed when we provide undivided attention to the music emanating from the speakers in front of us in our rooms.

Musicians [from Wikipedia]

Leonard Cohen – vocals, classical guitar
Ron Cornelius – acoustic and electric guitar
Bubba Fowler – banjo, bass guitar, violin, acoustic guitar
Charlie Daniels – bass guitar, violin, acoustic guitar

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THE NAZZ: NAZZ NAZZ

Todd Rundgren and The Nazz, released their second album, “Nazz Nazz” on April 7, 1969.  This was effectively their last album, originally intended as a double album, with some of the music held back and then later released as “Nazz III” by SGC Records coinciding with Todd Rundgren’s blossoming solo career starting to provide a commercial audience for these earlier tracks.

The diversity of this album is remarkable.  There are two solid blues numbers, “Kiddie Boy” and “Featherbedding Lover”, a fine-blues based hard rock number “Hang on Paul”, sounding as it would almost fit into the Beatles’ White Album, the melodic “Gonna Cry Today”, the richly euphonic “Letters Don’t Count” with its glass harmonic intro and coda and its layered vocals, the heavy “Under The Ice”, the confusingly psychedelic “Meridian Leeward”, and the artfully composed “A Beautiful Song.”   One hears not only influences from The Beatles, Laura Nyro and Burt Bacharach, but Todd’s own singular voice in all the compositions (particularly in the melodies and harmonic modulations), the arrangements, and the overall production. In addition we have Rundgren’s distinct guitar work and his general lyrical competency which sometimes rises to be as profound and effective as anything by the more renown singer songwriters of the sixties. Case in point is this verse from “Gonna Cry Today”

“Are you turned off by my lack of composure?
Please excuse my state, it’s just that I know
Your gonna take away something that I never had
But I thought was mine.”

which is perfectly understated, identifying the essence of not only romantic loss but loss in general.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All songs written by Todd Rundgren.

Side one

  1. “Forget All About It” – 3:15
  2. “Not Wrong Long” – 2:30
  3. “Rain Rider” – 3:52
  4. “Gonna Cry Today” – 3:15
  5. “Meridian Leeward” – 3:20
  6. “Under the Ice” – 5:40

Side two

  1. “Hang on Paul” – 2:42
  2. “Kiddie Boy” – 3:30
  3. “Featherbedding Lover” – 2:47
  4. “Letters Don’t Count” – 3:25
  5. “A Beautiful Song” – 11:15

Nazz

Robert “Stewkey” Antoni – vocals
Thom Mooney – drums, vocals
Todd Rundgren – guitar, keyboards, horn arrangements, string arrangements, vocals
Carson Van Osten – bass, vocals

 

 

 

 

 

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Fifty Year Friday: John Martyn, The Beau Brummels

Though 1968 was the era of electronic music, there are many fine acoustic or mostly acoustic albums that were released in October 1968 including John Martyn’s second album, and The Beau Brummels’ fifth album.

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Approximately a year after the release of John Martyn’s first album, London Conversation, a relaxed, leisurely studio rendition of mostly original British folk material he was performing for small venue audiences in 1967, Martyn released a more upbeat, energetic and stronger album. The Tumbler, that better showcased his musical skills with the music incorporating rock and jazz elements.

On The Tumbler, Martyn adds additional musicians for a fuller sound and to support the greater musical variety of the compositions.  In London Conversation, we get a sampling of flute from Martyn himself, but on this second album we get Jamaican-born jazz flautist, Harold McNair, who played and recorded with Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, as well as appeared on a number of Donovan albums and on tenor sax on the James Bond Dr. No theme.  The quality of production handled by twenty-two year-old Al Stewart is quite good, with a more forward, active sound, spotlighting individual instruments.  All instruments are acoustic, with no drums on any track. The album closes with the guitar-dominated instrumental “Seven Black Roses”, the highlight of the album.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

All tracks composed by John Martyn except where indicated.

  1. “Sing A Song of Summer” – 2:22
  2. “The River” – 2:59
  3. “Goin’ Down to Memphis” – 3:12
  4. “The Gardeners” (Bill Lyons) – 3:15
  5. “A Day at the Sea” – 2:35
  6. “Fishin’ Blues” (Henry Thomas) – 2:37
  7. “Dusty” – 3:07
  8. “Hello Train” – 2:36
  9. “Winding Boy” (Jelly Roll Morton) – 2:22
  10. “Fly on Home” (Martyn, Paul Wheeler) – 2:33
  11. “Knuckledy Crunch and Slippledee-slee Song” – 2:55
  12. “Seven Black Roses” – 4:02

Personnel

  • John Martyn – vocals, guitar, harmonica, keyboards
  • Harold McNair – flute
  • David Moses – double bass
  • Paul Wheeler – guitar

 

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As noted in earlier posts, the latter half of 1968 introduced several albums that blended  rock and country music, albums often authored by Canadian-born or Californian-based musicians.  One notable such album was The Beau Brummels’ Bradley’s Barn.

The Beau Brummels hailed from San Francisco, forming in 1964 and releasing their first two albums in 1965, incorporating folk and British-invasion elements. Though later denied by band members, legend has it that they chose the name, “Beau Brummels” for its English sound and so their albums would be shelved in records store bins immediately after the best-selling Beatles.

Their first album, heavily influenced by the British Invasion sound, peaked at number 24 on the Billboard album chart and included ten of twelve original songs, all written by lead guitarist, Ron Elliott, or in one case by Elliot and sometimes collaborator, Bob Durand. Sal Valentino was the lead vocalist, and its interesting to follow his development as a singer and his greater, often extreme use, of vibrato as well as Elliot’s and Valentino’s shift to more of a country sounds in their subsequent albums.

in 1966, with their label, Autumn, verging on collapse, the band starting recording their third album.  Warner Brothers purchased the group from Autumn, but the transaction didn’t cover publishing rights.  So despite a number of already recorded original songs planned for this third album, Warner Brothers directed the group to record an album of covers,  The album was a commercial flop.

In 1967, the group released a concept-inspired album of mostly original music, Triangle, considered by many a pre-country rock classic mixing folk, rock, country and hints of psychedelic and progressive elements.  Outstanding tracks include”Magic Hollow”, “Triangle” and the excellent “The Wolf of Velvet Fortune.”

In 1968, The Beau Brummels, down to just two members, Sal Valentino and Ron Elliot,  after losing their bass player to the draft, recorded their fifth album at Bradley’s Barn, a studio a few miles from Nashville.  Joined by studio musicians like guitarist Jerry Reed and drummer Kenny Buttrey , this album named after the recording site, is perhaps the most authentic and highest quality of the handful of early country-rock albums recorded in 1968.  I say, “perhaps”, as I am not really a country music fan.  I love bluegrass, particularly live, and can listen intently to the country music recorded on 78s in the twenties and thirties, but generally not much attracted to the commercial country music or country rock of the last sixty years.  Yet, this album of all but one original song holds my attention and gets my respect. Valentino continues to evolve his use of vocal vibrato, incorporating an authentic country twang, some Bob Dylan influence, and extending his own range of effective emotional delivery.

With this level of excellence, the group was set up nicely for greater artistic and commercial success, but shortly after the release of Bradley’s Barn, Valentino and Elliot went their separate ways, Valentino soon starting up a new band,  Stoneground, and Eliot releasing a solo album and producing or playing guitar on various albums. The band temporarily reformed in 1974, and at various times later, with their most recent album, Continuum, released in March 2013.

 

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

1 “Turn Around” Bob Durand, Elliott 3:03
2. “An Added Attraction (Come and See Me)” Valentino 3:03
3. “Deep Water” Elliott, Valentino 2:33
4. “Long Walking Down to Misery” Elliott 3:16
5. “Little Bird” Elliott 2:42
6. “Cherokee Girl” Durand, Elliott 3:36
7. “I’m a Sleeper” Elliott, Valentino 3:20
8. “Loneliest Man in Town” Elliott 1:54
9. “Love Can Fall a Long Way Down” Durand, Elliott 4:16
10. “Jessica” Elliott, Valentino 2:22
11. “Bless You California” Randy Newman 2:16

Personnel

Fifty Year Friday: Jeff Beck, Truth; The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

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1968 continued to provide a greater and greater diversity of music for the LP consumer with all musical influences, past and present, east, west, north and south, being available on relatively easily accessible recorded medium for composers, musicians, producers, arrangers to listen to and often be significantly influenced by such music.

Blues — and rhythm and blues — along with popular music whether from English music halls, Hollywood or elsewhere provided the starting point for Rock & Roll which evolved into Rock as it incorporated additional musical influences and compositional techniques. However, as rock & roll became rock, many groups continued to reach back into blues history — whether for inspiration or for a simple harmonic pattern that provided a flexible, forgiving framework for jamming and relatively simple improvisation.

Jeff Beck’s Truth, recorded in May, followed by a successful tour in the U.S., and released sometime in August 1968, is primarily a blues-based album with a mix of Willie Dixon and J.B. Lenoir and Jeff Beck & Rod Stewart compositions.  Some of the exceptions include an acceptable but not an earth-shattering version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River”, Beck’s mostly acoustic version of “Greensleeves”, a successful reconstruction of the Yardbird’s classic “Shape of Things”, and the highlight of the album, Jimmy Page’s composition, “Beck’s Bolero.”

Of particular note is Nicki Hopkins on piano, providing his usual upbeat, finely detailed keyboard work.  Jeff Beck is joined by Jimmy Page on “Beck’s Bolero” and John Paul Jones provides organ or bass on a few tracks.  The album is rounded out with Ron Wood on bass, and Rod Stewart.  Stewart, out of work after having left Steampacket in March 1966 and then Shotgun Express later that same year, was selected by Beck in February 1967 for this post-Yardbirds group.  Stewart is still developing as an expressive singer at this point,  but as an avid fan of Sam Cooke, he does quite well on this album, providing effective vocals.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

Side one

No.

Title

Writer(s)

Length

1.

Shapes of Things Jim McCartyKeith RelfPaul Samwell-Smith

3:22

2.

“Let Me Love You” Jeffrey Rod

4:44

3.

Morning Dew Bonnie Dobson

4:40

4.

You Shook Me Willie DixonJ. B. Lenoir

2:33

5.

Ol’ Man River Jerome KernOscar Hammerstein II

4:01

Side two

No.

Title

Writer(s)

Length

1.

Greensleeves Traditional

1:50

2.

“Rock My Plimsoul” Jeffrey Rod

4:13

3.

Beck’s Bolero Jimmy Page

2:54

4.

“Blues De Luxe” Jeffrey Rod

7:33

5.

I Ain’t Superstitious Willie Dixon

4:53

Personnel

Additional credited personnel

Additional uncredited personnel

Swbyrds 2

Previously incorporating, folk, bluegrass and country music influences in their work, with the addition of Gram Parsons, the Byrds go out whole hog, so to speak, in making their next album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”,  a true bluegrass, folk and country music album.  Parson’s talked the band in recording in Nashville and adding pedal steel guitar and jukejoint piano.  The result is an excellent album that, though, has little to do with rock and roll or rock music, contributed, along with the Band’s Big Pink and other contemporaneous albums like Credence Clearwater Revival’s first album, to the new and ultimately highly commercial endeavor of melding country and rock elements into a new style of music that would simply be called country rock.  Soon, “country rock”, would provide a walloping, additional revenue stream for the major labels.

Track listing [from Wikipedia]

# Title Writer Lead vocals Guest musicians/band contributions beyond usual instruments Time
Side 1
1. You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere Bob Dylan McGuinn Lloyd Green (pedal steel guitar), Gram Parsons (organ) 2:33
2. “I Am a Pilgrim” traditional, arranged Roger McGuinnChris Hillman Hillman John Hartford (fiddle), Roy Husky (double bass), Roger McGuinn (banjo), Chris Hillman (acoustic guitar) 3:39
3. “The Christian Life” Charles Louvin, Ira Louvin McGuinn JayDee Maness (pedal steel guitar), Clarence White (electric guitar) 2:30
4. You Don’t Miss Your Water William Bell McGuinn Earl P. Ball (piano), JayDee Maness (pedal steel guitar) 3:48
5. “You’re Still on My Mind” Luke McDaniel Parsons Earl P. Ball (piano), JayDee Maness (pedal steel guitar) 2:25
6. Pretty Boy Floyd Woody Guthrie McGuinn Roy Husky (double bass), John Hartford (acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle), Chris Hillman (mandolin) 2:34
Side 2
1. Hickory Wind Gram Parsons, Bob Buchanan Parsons John Hartford (fiddle), Lloyd Green (pedal steel guitar), Roger McGuinn (banjo), Gram Parsons (piano) 3:31
2. “One Hundred Years from Now” Gram Parsons McGuinn, Hillman Barry Goldberg (piano), Lloyd Green (pedal steel guitar), Clarence White (electric guitar) 2:40
3. “Blue Canadian Rockies” Cindy Walker Hillman Clarence White (electric guitar), Gram Parsons (piano) 2:02
4. “Life in Prison” Merle Haggard, Jelly Sanders Parsons Earl P. Ball (piano), JayDee Maness (pedal steel guitar) 2:46
5. Nothing Was Delivered Bob Dylan McGuinn Lloyd Green (pedal steel guitar), Gram Parsons (piano, organ) 3:24

Personnel

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