If you’re here looking for a Jann Wenner/ROLLING STONE/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame style affirmation of how great Bruce Springsteen is, move on… there’s nothing here for you; Springsteen’s indecipherable vocal grunts have never appealed to me and – like Kurt Cobain’s – his lyrics are a tick (well, okay… several ticks) below that “Friday” girl (Rebecca Black). So, with that out of the way, I can pretty much guarantee that this list will not look like any other such list. Why? Okay, while there are albums that are obviously classics, landmark releases or “must hears,” most of those don’t manage to meet my stringent requirements for this list. Do I like Miles’ BITCHES BREW, Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED or the Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON? Absolutely! And, just for the record, I do actually like a lot of Nirvana’s stuff, IN UTERO being my favorite. But, and here’s the major prerequisite for this list, how often do I listen to them? Not as often as I listen to the records that made the cut and, to these ears, that’s what counts. So, there you go… that is my stringent requirement: How often do I listen to the album and, to a lesser extent, how vehement am I about forcing said album on everyone else with whom I come into contact. A few minor things to consider (or not): There are no live albums (that’s a completely different list); these are all full-length releases (no EPs or singles); every album on this list is an official release (no bootlegs or “promotional only” items); “Greatest Hits,” “Best of… ” and singles collections are strictly verboten.
Ask me again next week and this list will probably look quite different; in fact, it’s already changed significantly since I decided to do a list. I started at 20 (in line with my list of favorite live albums). The list quickly ballooned to almost a hundred before I started whittling it back down to 50. I then found myself adding, deleting and substituting the other nearly 50 albums, so… what’s a music lover to do? The answer was obvious: Make the list a firm Top 100, regardless of the massive undertaking. If you wanna call this a “guilty pleasures” list, if that’ll help you sleep better at night… that’s okay with me. What I hope to accomplish with this list is to get you to take a closer look at some albums you may have crossed off after a spin or two or to get you to check out something that you may have never even been familiar with. It ain’t rocket surgery, kids; it’s just me telling you what I like and, why – maybe – you should like the stuff (or at least give a listen), too. With that said, and heading from the bottom of my humble list to the top of the heap, here’s…
(98) JERRY JEFF WALKER: RIDIN’ HIGH
(MCA RECORDS; 1975)
RIDIN’ HIGH was the fourth MCA release from upstart country artist Jerry Jeff Walker, the man who may forever be best known as the author of the classic tear-jerker, “Mister Bojangles.” My brother liked Jerry Jeff’s music, which was sometimes traditional to a fault, especially the live VIVA TERLINGUA, released two years before RIDIN’ HIGH; I, however, was a hard-headed 16 year old who, the year before, had quite stupidly purged my record collection of everything that wasn’t the hardest of rock (the one exception being anything by Frank Zappa). One day, my brother handed me a stack of MCA releases, a copy of this record included; I’d heard enough Jerry Jeff to know what to expect but, I was feeling expansive once more toward certain types of music and thought, “Okay… just the first song. That way I can say that I at least tried to listen to some country music.” It took me a whole lotta years before I opened my arms (and mind) wide enough to allow country music a little corner of my music room… the one exception being Jerry Jeff Walker’s RIDIN’ HIGH. I listened to the album all the way through that first day and for several days after that, until I’m sure that everybody around me was sick of it; it had achieved a vaunted status amongst Alice Cooper, the Who, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and all the rest. And, now, some 40 years later, it sits at number 98 as one of the greatest albums of all time.
Jerry Jeff took his Lost Gonzo brethren, mixed in some Nashville veterans and recorded what is, arguably, the best album of his career. The first song on that album is “Public Domain,” written by the bass-playing Gonzo, Bob Livingston. The song is sort of a Texan’s (while Jerry Jeff hailed from upstate New York, Livingston was Texas born and bred) take on New Orleans jazz, with acoustic bass and a ragtime piano. Deep down, this is a protest song (against the government; against the music industry; against the return policy at the local Woolworth’s; against… something): “Don’t be concerned if the song sounds familiar/Don’t be concerned if it all seems the same/Just be concerned that your policies will kill you/And it’s all just public domain.” Don’t let that bother you too much… just enjoy that progressive cosmic cowboy groove. “Pick Up the Tempo” is a more rockin’ Texas stomp from Willie Nelson. It’s closer to what we’ve come to expect from the Lost Gonzo Band when they back Walker. Jerry Jeff gets sentimental with Guy Clark’s “Like a Coat From the Cold.” The cracking, world-weary voice and sparse accompaniment make the song all the more effective. “I Love You” is more of the same, but much more personal, as the track was penned by Walker himself. It features a really nice bass line and one of those pedal steel parts that just makes you feel so lonely. Side one finishes with “Night Rider’s Lament,” a real live cowboy song by Michael Burton, with a pretty fiddle solo and Jerry Jeff’s yodeling… sorta.
On to side two and “Goodbye Easy Street,” a Texas waltz with a lilting melody, written by another backing Gonzo, guitarist John Inmon. The waltz estimation is heightened by a bouncy bass line and augmented by some nice harmonica and a touch of banjo; toss in some very Beatle-esque (no… really!) backing vocals and you have another winner on an album full of ’em. “Pot Can’t Call the Kettle Black” has kind of a weird Irish reel feel to it. I could actually envision this as one of those quirky tunes that Faces were so adept at; the piano could come straight out of Ian McLagan’s playbook and the number has that easy rolling feel that would have suited Rod quite well. It is definitely one of the better fast tunes here with equally impressive vocals from Jerry Jeff; to top things off, there’s a unique harmony break with guitar and pedal steel. Jesse Winchester’s “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind” is kind of a Texarkana cowboy blues, with some fine guitar pickin’ and great backing vocals. I’ve never been a big fan of Winchester… maybe it just took Jerry Jeff and the Gonzos to open my mind a bit. Another Lost Gonzo Band/“London Homesick Blues” type of tune, “Jaded Lover,” is country to the bone, but with a meaty progressive outlaw marrow. The Chuck Pyle tune holds up amazingly well and would probably be a hit if it were released today. Finally… it’s the reason we’re here, the song we all came to hear: Jerry Jeff Walker’s very own “Pissin’ In the Wind.” The song trumps “Friends In Low Places” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” by at least a decade. The word play comes fast and furious, with lines like “I called this Guy,” and “this Nunn called me up,” and “some Gonzo buddies would like to play,” references to Guy Clark and Gary Nunn and his Lost Gonzo cohorts. Even if the rest of RIDIN’ HIGH wasn’t as over-the-top good as it is, this song alone would be worth the price of admission.
This particular set of songs and this particular group of players, along with one of the best voices in any genre of music, make this record indispensable and one of my greatest albums of all time. I’ve got a feeling that my brother is looking down on me and saying, “I told you so!” To which, I can only smile and say, “I love you, too.”
As far as I can tell, the latest edition of RIDIN’ HIGH comes from Australia’s Raven Records and was released in 2012. It’s packaged as WALKER’S COLLECTIBLES/RIDIN’ HIGH… PLUS, with Jerry Jeff’s previous release, WALKER’S COLLECTIBLES, as a two CD set featuring six bonus cuts. You can check it out and order it here: www.ravenrecords.com.au.