On one of those snowbound weekends not too long ago, I entertained my wife and five year-old daughter in my role as domestic disc jockey. And I do mean “discs.” Most of our music resides on LPs, that wonderful abbreviation for “Long-Playing” records. There are just under 600 of them . . . so far.
Much like the line “Yet knowing how way leads on to way” in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” a song carries intimations of other songs. The next tune on your Listener’s Peregrination may be linked by musicians and songwriters, instruments used, allusions, borrowed melodies or lyrics, earnest homage, or cheeky nods and winks.
So it was that I began our ramble with a whole side–side 1–of Little Feat’s 1979 pearl of an LP, Down on the Farm, opus posthumous for the band’s leader and noted songwriter, Lowell George. It’s the kind of album that has vanished from Rock radio as computers and accountants have become playlist arbiters. I remember regularly hearing the title track and “Straight from the Heart” on New York’s one-time premier Rock radio station, WPLJ.
Down on the Farm is a record rich with connections. I could’ve transitioned to “U.S. Blues,” a master-class in dancehall piano, since Keith Godchaux, keyboardist for the Grateful Dead, co-wrote the zydeco-inflected “Six Feet of Snow” with Lowell George. Or I might’ve cued up Bonnie Raitt’s soulful singing and signature slide guitar work on a track off of “Give It Up” since she shares her talents on several Down on the Farm numbers. Instead, I chose to follow the leader and pulled Heart Like a Wheel, Linda Ronstadt’s 1974 masterpiece, out of its sleeve since it contains a cover of Lowell George’s greatest song, “Willin’”
Here’s a song that could find its way onto many compilations, including All-Time Greatest Truck Driver Anthems. And it’s further testimony to Ronstadt’s magnificent vocal power and heartfelt phrasings that one never questions the obvious fact that she’s a woman even with the song’s persona of a weathered trucker who hauls things highly frowned upon by the Interstate Commerce Commission. The chorus captures a lifestyle:
And I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari,
Tehachapi to Tonapah,
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made,
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed,
And if you give me . . .
Weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign,
I’ll be willin’
To be movin’.
If Down on the Farm offers several roads diverging in a swampy woods, Heart Like a Wheel teems with more exits than a cloverleaf on the L.A. freeway. It’s an album of well chosen, masterfully performed covers of songs by Paul Anka, Clint Ballard, Jr., Phil Everly, James Taylor, Hank Williams, and, as mentioned, Lowell George. And the musical personnel reads like a Pop/Rock/Country All-Star team roster, including Chris Ethridge, Andrew Gold, Glenn Frey, Emmylou Harris, Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit, and J.D. Souther.
But for my next song I followed the siren twang of a pedal steel guitar. Peter Kleinow, better known in the industry as Sneaky Pete, was a wonderfully ubiquitous session ringer, who, not coincidentally, also played on Down on the Farm. His solo in “Willin’” comes early in the song, cascading over your ears with enough allegro intricacy to have made a preoccupied Bach look up with interest from his latest fugue. Kleinow became a sought-after studio musician in the 1970s due to the only group in which he was actually a member, The Flying Burrito Brothers.
The Burritos formed in 1969 when The Byrds began to fly in different directions. Chris Hillman, a Byrds founding member, and Gram Parsons, the shy “new kid” who joined The Byrds in 1968, founded the ensemble, bringing in Sneaky Pete on steel and the aforementioned Chris Ethridge on bass (soon replaced by Bernie Leadon, who would go on to greater fame as a member of The Eagles.)
Some of my favorite pedal steel work by Kleinow or anyone else comes on The Flying Burrito Brothers cover of Merle Haggard’s classic, “Sing Me Back Home.” If the song was a broadside edition of a poem, then Kleinow not only adorns the parchment’s border with beautiful filigree, but adds a moving stanza of his own with his solo.
Along with Sneaky Pete, Gram Parsons had a fruitful artistic association with Emmylou Harris, who joined The Fallen Angels, Parsons’ next solo project, in 1973. Together they would sing some of the most stirring duets in a budding new sub-genre called Country Rock, or what Parsons liked to call “Cosmic American Music.” To change the mood from measured melancholy to foot-tapping fun, I queued up their live performance of “California Cotton Fields” (which also happens to be a tune first covered by Merle Haggard–are you with me so far?)
Emmylou Harris rates a double-shot and her many collaborations made it easy to pick my next song: “Evangeline.” No doubt, if you’ve watched The Last Waltz, the documentary directed by Martin Scorsese of The Band’s 1976 farewell concert, then you remember this performance. It’s one of the “studio” pieces Scorsese films separately from the actual gig. At one end of a stage stands Harris, ethereal, almost elvish, with her straight jet hair, her chaste body-length dress, and an acoustic guitar; arrayed alongside of her, The Band accompanies with a kind of soulful solemnity of purpose.
Scorsese wisely chose this number for a stylized, crowd noise-free performance because it showcases the remarkable skills of each member of The Band. Levon Helm, The Band’s legendary drummer and lead singer, displays his formidable chops on the mandolin; Richard Manuel, usually a piano player, gets behind the drum kit; bassist Rick Danko deftly wields a fiddle; and keyboardist Garth Hudson plies the accordion.
Continuing our Listening Pleasure, the baton had to go from Emmylou to the late Levon, so beloved a figure in our home that we named our great bobcat of a tabby after him. I selected Levon Helm’s cover of “Tennessee Jed” on his Grammy-winning swan song studio album, Electric Dirt. “Tennessee Jed” is one of many songs by the Grateful Dead that you hear and wonder how it could be possible that it hadn’t already been in the Great American Songbook for centuries. Listening to the vocal vigor of Helms, if you didn’t know that he’d come back from a bout with throat cancer, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.
So I figured since we’re in Tennessee and our Levon is tapping his paw to the beat, I’d finish up with one of my daughter’s current favorites, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Nashville Cats,” a witty paean to all those ringer guitarists–I mean pickers–in “Music City.”
With its prominent pedal steel (played by John Sebastian), “Nashville Cats” sounds like it could’ve jumped off the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead or American Beauty or perhaps The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Amazingly, Hums of The Lovin’ Spoonful, the LP on which the song appears, was released in 1966, a full two years before The Byrds took a big ole Country-Bluegrass turn with Sweetheart and four years before Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter went down the same dusty dirt road with Workingman’s Dead.
For their own capricious and ultimately contrabarometric reasons, critics don’t accord Hums the same pioneering credit as the efforts by The Byrds, the Grateful Dead, or Bob Dylan. Oh well, Sebastian and Co. only had a #1 hit with “Summer in the City,” while “Nashville Cats” and “Rain on the Roof” made it into the Top 10. Oh, and Johnny and June Carter Cash made “Darlin’ Companion” one of their most memorable duets.
While I’m sure my listeners noticed a theme, the specific reasons for choosing each song–for my taking one diverging road over another–may have eluded them. But I knew it was no mere ramble, but a Logical Progression, and that made all the difference.
Side 1 of Little Feat’s Down on the Farm
Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Lowell George’s “Willin’”
The Flying Burrito Brothers cover of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home”
Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris live performance of “California Cotton Fields”
Emmylou Harris and The Band performing “Evangeline” in The Last Waltz
Levon Helm’s cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed”
“Nashville Cats” by The Lovin’ Spoonful