Part Of A Perfect American Trilogy
Mike B. | 03/24/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"1972 was a banner year for what is now called Americana music, and its best and brightest purveyors were attached to Warner Brothers Records and their subsidiary Reprise. Between the two labels, they had a very cool stable of artists. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor became mainstream successes fairly quickly. Others took longer to find fame and acclaim, but were no less noteworthy. Among these were 3 forward-thinking, backward-glancing master musicians who anticipated the best-selling "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack by 28 years.
Consider: In 1972 Warner/Reprise released Ry Cooder's "Into The Purple Valley", John Fahey's "Of Rivers And Religion", and Van Dyke Parks' "Discover America". Fellow label-mate Randy Newman issued his "Sail Away" album that year, but he wouldn't fully explore American themes until 1974's "Good Old Boys". The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band gained the most notice of all of these records with the 1972 release of their landmark double album "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" on the Liberty label.
It's not like no one had recorded this stuff before - there was of course the originals (Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, to name just two) - and such vaunted keepers-of-the-flame as Johnny Cash. Dylan was certainly an early practitioner at times, as were the Byrds with much of 1968's "Sweetheart of the Rodeo". Many folk artists recorded chestnuts like "Statesboro Blues" on albums otherwise filled with their own material. Singing and playing old songs on acoustic guitar is one thing. Total immersion and dedication to the proper historical instrumentation - and presentation of these songs as a conceptual whole - is something entirely different. It could be said that 1972 was when this music finally reached "critical mass", and a greater number of counter-culture artists tapped into the zeitgeist and expanded its boundaries (or narrowed them, if you prefer). Their attention to detail and authenticity raised the bar to a new level, and they made dusty old Smithsonian archival recordings sound fresh and revelatory for a whole new generation.
For this review, I'm choosing to concentrate on the Warner/Reprise releases that best illustrate this discussion. All 3 were flawless masterpieces that investigated different facets of American music. Ry Cooder explored Tennessee Dust Bowl balladry, Western themes of gunfighters and farmers, and the kind of "union" songs favored by Pete Seeger. John Fahey released an all-instrumental record (no vocals) of sleepy Mississippi blues, spirituals, and New Orleans dixieland jazz. Van Dyke Parks went further south yet, with steelband calypso music of the Caribbean - but sang entirely about American themes and people such as Franklin Roosevelt, Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, and J. Edgar Hoover.
For me, these albums comprise a perfect American trilogy. That they were released the same year is altogether remarkable. Thankfully, they are all available on CD. I can't recommend them highly enough."
Another Cooder winner
K. Swanson | Austin, TX United States | 09/17/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Goes perfectly with Paradise and Lunch; the two fit nicely on one cd for the car.
Tremendous git playing from Ry as usual, with the added bonus of lots of his tasty mandolin. All the tunes are old gems, treated with reverence and joy. The Joseph Spence tune about FDR coming to Trinidad is a hoot and a half.
Very musical music, and lots of fun."