The British have a grand tradition of introducing Americans to American music. When The Beatles landed in New York, the press asked the Fab Four what they most wanted to see in the States, to which they famously replied: “Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.” Some intrepid reporter then asked, without irony, “Muddy Waters, where is that?”
America is a big place and I guess we sometimes have trouble keeping track of the really good stuff. Regardless, I was sitting in a plane reading the latest issue of Mojo magazine, that glorious bastion of British rock, when I happened upon a postage stamp-sized album review for COUNTRY FUNK 1969-1975. Intrigued, I added the compilation onto my “to-listen” list and went about my vacation. When I got home I promptly forgot about COUNTRY FUNK, until I picked up another music mag and saw it featured again. After reading yet another positive review for the damn thing, but unable to find it on Spotify, I decided to just bite the bullet and order it.
Which reminds me–record labels take note, if you want me to buy your album keep it off Spotify. I love having every album at my fingertips, but when I get it in my head that I want to hear something and it’s not on Spotify I tend to whine, stomp my foot, and then go on Amazon and buy the damn thing (meaning you get my money). But I digress.
COUNTRY FUNK 1969-1975 is a reissue put out by Seattle indie/hipster label Light In The Attic Records. Besides putting new music, Light In The Attic has thing about digging out really awesome, really obscure music. I’d never heard of them, but after seeing the care and attention to detail they put into their releases (at least this one) I’m itching to buy some more albums from them.
Essentially, COUNTRY FUNK is a hodgepodge of artists that walk the line between country, blues, gospel, and rock. The majority of artists featured on the album hailed from the South but wound up recording in California. This juxtaposition between the grit of the South and the glitter of Hollywood forms the compilation’s central theme–and the very definition of country funk as a genre. The music is polished but soulful. The blending of the best parts of black and white music creates a reese cup of awesomeness that’s thoroughly American.
I was only familiar with one of the album’s sixteen artists,* but I won’t lie 1970’s country isn’t my strongest area. I’m 99.999% certain that these artists are obscure by most standards. After listening to COUNTRY FUNK several times I desperately want to explore all of the artists catalogues, but I’m discovering that might take a bit of work (read: illegal downloading) because unfortunately this is music that time has forgotten, which is a shame because every single track is a winner.
Standout tracks include “Georgia Morning Dew” by Johnny Adams, a bittersweet song about growing-up and moving away from one’s small town for the hustle and bustle of the big city. Big horns and fuzzed-out guitars sandwich Adams’ remembrance of his early days in Georgia as he looks out at the early morning in L.A. By the end of the song he’s painted such a charming picture of life in Georgia you just want to shout “Move back home!” which is exactly what he ultimately decides to do.
“He Made A Woman Out Of Me” by songstress Bobbie Gentry is like demonic version of “Son of a Preacher Man.” The song, which is about the deflowering of a young country gal, is damn sexy. Jim Ford’s “I’m Gonna Make Her Love Me” is groove from the other side of the war of the sexes. More soul than country, Ford’s voice wails intensity to pure I’m amazed he isn’t a household name. Both Gentry and Ford are two artists I’m eager to hear more from, hopefully I won’t have to look too hard.
“Hello L.A., Bye-Bye Birmingham” by John Randolph Marr and “LA Memphis Tyler Texas” by Dale Hawkins are both celebrations of rising stardom and relocation. Marr’s song details the tribulations of a up-and-coming musician trying to get to Hollywood (spoiler: it’s a little difficult). The song’s protagonist has to do all sorts of things like hitch a ride with a biker and *gasp* take a two day job to get his guitar out of hock! “LA Memphis Tyler Texas” is almost an Vegas-style Elvis number about the three cities where Hawkins recorded the song. It’s pretty fun and pretty funny.
COUNTRY FUNK has a few less-than-fun serious moments, like Bobby Charles “Street People” which tackles the subject of homelessness. Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone” is a gospel number about the end of the world…which is also kind of a bummer. Musically and lyrically Wray’s song reminds me of the Rolling Stones maraca-shaking ode to Satan, “Sympathy For The Devil.” It’s an epic, good vs. evil number, complete with a nice, understated guitar solo.
The most surprising song on the compilation, however, is “Light Blue” by Bobby Darin. It’s a fantastic song about depression and oncoming gloom. According to the (fantastically written) liner notes, Darin was there the day Robert Kennedy was shot and killed. He was so moved that he sold all his possessions and bought a trailer in the California backwoods, where he wrote this deeply dark, intense song. It’s an awesome, scary song made all the more awesome when one hears the transformation of Darin. This is, after all, the man who co-wrote and sang the bath-time classic “Splish Splash.” It’s cool to be able to actually hear something with depth from the man. So, Mr. Darin, you’re officially redeemed.
As I’ve said, I’m really impressed with the care and attention Light In The Attic Records has taken with this release: the artist/song selection is magnificent, the album artwork is really cool, and the CD booklet has a fantastic essay written by Jessica Hundley (whom I believe contributes to Mojo). This is far and away the best album that I’ve heard this year, and more importantly it’s introduced me to so many really cool artists that weren’t on my radar. Hell, it introduced me to a whole genre. In that regard, COUNTRY FUNK 1969-1975 breaks my heart and fills me with hope. It breaks my heart, because I’ve been living all these years without these wonderful songs! I’ve wasted so many years without “Hawg Frog” and “Piledriver.” But it fills me with hope because as I get older, I become more jaded about the existence of “good” music. Releases like COUNTRY FUNK prove that I haven’t heard everything and that there is still a lot of really cool old records for me to find.
I can’t recommend this record enough.
*And that was Bobby Darin of “Mack The Knife” fame, listed on the album as Bob Darin.