Rancho Deluxe, |
Eleven Hundred Springs,
(Palo Duro, 2006)
I have never entirely understood the appeal of Gram Parsons, spoken of in some circles as a kind of country-music Bob Dylan. From his modest recorded legacy (Parsons died of a heroin overdose on Sept. 19, 1973), I can hear only a thin voice and decently intentioned, if mostly unexceptional, self-penned songs, plus some covers that, while perfectly listenable, do not exactly overwhelm the originals. One of Parsons's most covered songs, "Hickory Wind" (which first appears on the 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, a genuine masterpiece, when he was briefly a member of the Byrds), borrows without acknowledgement the melody of the 1955 Porter Wagoner hit "A Satisfied Mind."
Besides drawing the world's attention to Emmylou Harris (for which act alone he deserves our undying gratitude), Parsons's most lasting legacy, however, would be in turning lots of hippies and rockers on to country music. California country-rock begins with the Flying Burrito Brothers, a band he formed in 1968 with Chris Hillman, bluegrass veteran and founding Byrd. The Eagles, who would go on to preposterous commercial success as a bland mainstream rock band, started out as a bland California country-rock band.
For better and worse, country-rock has proved a remarkably resilient strain. Take these two discs as current examples. Rancho Deluxe is out of Los Angeles, where it all began, while Eleven Hundred Springs calls Dallas home. The former puts the emphasis on rock, the latter on country. But they're both making first-rate bar and dancehall music, writing solid, workmanlike songs and carrying on the style -- is it old enough to be called a tradition? -- in a fashion that does credit to both themselves and their influences.
The core of Rancho Deluxe is a trio consisting of Mark Adams (acoustic guitar, vocals), Jesse Jay Harrison (guitars, mandolin, vocals) and Graham Harris (bass guitar). On their eponymous album they're joined by some giants of California country, prominently steel player JayDee Maness and drummer Don Heffington. Fiddle, dobro, banjo and keyboards fill out the sound -- not a hard-core honkytonk music, rather a straight-ahead, melodic roots rock, done capably and tastefully.
If Rancho Deluxe sometimes brings the late, missed Beat Farmers to mind, the more countrified Eleven Hundred Springs feels like an updated Burrito Brothers (or, elsewhere, Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen). Band member and steel player Aaron Wynne's "Hank Williams Wouldn't Make It in Nashville, Tennessee" enshrines Parsons among the heroes, right up there with Hank himself, of true country music. "Gram Parsons used to sing about 'The Streets of Baltimore,'" the song goes. That's true, but it was Bobby Bare, who took the Tompall Glaser/Harlan Howard composition into the country charts in 1966, from whom Parsons learned it. Bare's version is better. That's just pedantry on my part, I suppose; Wynne's larger point, that Nashville music these days mostly stinks, is hardly an original one, but somehow always gratifying to hear somebody, especially a younger artist, affirm. Other numbers, celebrating "hippie freaks" and joint-rolling, underscore the band's roots in the hippiebilly late 1960s and '70s. All but two of the cuts -- one an impressive reading of Mickey Newbury's "Why You Been Gone So Long" -- are originals.
For the most part, though, the band is dealing in the themes of traditional country -- alcohol, Jesus, heartbreak, true love (in this last category, always treacherous territory where dreaded Hallmark-card sentiments lurk as clear and present danger, Steve Berg and Matt Hillyer's "Gina from San Jose" shows how you do it right) -- in sweet, tuneful young men's voices. I doubt that any serious country fan will mind the ride on the Springs' Bandwagon. Beyond that, they reassure those of us who care about such things that real country has a future, after all.
by Jerome Clark