Folk Rock – James Taylor, John Stewart, Al Stewart & Merle Haggard

My last post was about a fellow who has written some lovely Folk Rock songs but is unsure what direction to take them. Does he alter his songs to try to make them fit the current fashion or does he stick to his guns (well maybe not guns seeing as this is Folk) and develop his songs as they were conceived?

This has made me think a lot about what makes music truly great (remember I am trying to ignore personal preference here). I don’t own a lot of what most people would consider Folk or Folk Rock. I don’t own Cat Steven’s “Tea For The Tillerman”, no idea why actually as it is a really good record. I don’t own any Bob Dylan as I have never felt the desire. I do have a Simon & Garfunkel, best of collection. I listen now and again. They were really my brother’s thing but there are some really good songs in there.

I figured I’d look at the things I do own and actively listen to, so what I write is genuine and heartfelt like a good Folk song should be. No doubt half of the purists will be dying to write and tell me I am a idiot because this isn’t Folk etc. These records are good music because:

James Taylor – Greatest Hits

James Taylor - Greatest Hits
James Taylor – Greatest Hits

There was no specific point at which I became a fan of James Taylor. His songs were on the radio. However I can tell you exactly why I bought this record – “Carolina In My Mind”. I was working as a function DJ and it was tiring working show after show pleasing everyone else when I was not feeling pleased myself. I listened to AM radio in my car because it sounded better than the FM reception and also because I needed that easy listening thing. I heard “Carolina” a few times and it was where I was at. I bought the record as medicine.

James’ delivery is so easy and smooth but not in a shiny, polished way. This is a fellow who feels and I feel it too. The songs and music are pretty simple. This is a great thing here as he wants us to focus on his stories. We do that. The music carries it all along but never at the expense of the lyric. That is great musicianship right there, no matter what the kids who want to make a big noise think. In marketing speak it’s the old adage of the product being king.

To me the common thing here in James’ work is the sense of loneliness relieved by there being a friend. I guess that is probably true as James did have his issues. None of that matters though; as I listen his sweet pain lightens mine as few others have.

John Stewart – Bombs Away Dream Babies

John Stewart - Bombs Away Dream Babies
John Stewart – Bombs Away Dream Babies

I loved the song “Gold” when it was on the radio as a kid. I didn’t know any of the words or even who sung it till three decades later when I head the song in a restroom in a shopping center and I just had to Google it. There is something about this song that just lodges in your soul. I know I am not the only one to have forgotten all the detail but still had the feeling of the song sitting there. In fact the message of the song is quite at odds with the lovely West Coast delivery. Good songwriting.

“Bombs Away” is a strange title and to be honest the first time I listened to this record (after finding it a in crate at a market) the whole thing seemed strange. But never wrong or bad. On the surface the record presents like 70’s Rock but there is a quirk. Reading the sleeve notes I see Lindsay Buckingham produced, added some guitar and even brought over Stevie Nicks for a couple of vocals. It then starts to seep out that this is really a Folk sort of record and it all makes sense. John was in Kingston Trio so he knew a thing or two about Folk.

Lindsay brings interesting takes on Production and playing but never does the song get swamped by the instruments. A lot of the songs may be simple ideas but there is an intricacy to the whole delivery that makes it special. John however never tries to play it interesting. He delivers his vocal and leaves the stage.

I love this record and wonder how it took so long to come to me. This is a different record, it isn’t what anyone expected but it is so lovely and makes me so intrigued I have to keep coming back. That is good music.

Al Stewart – Year Of The Cat

Al Stewart - Year of the Cat
Al Stewart – Year of the Cat

Another Stewart. To be honest I debated on this one as it doesn’t ever show up on anyone’s Folk lists. But bugger it, this is my party and I will include this cat if I want to. Al was in fact a Folk singer, it was just that his breakthrough record seems so layered and sounded so un-simple (courtesy of Alan Parsons) that few saw it as anything other than Al Stewart. Great Production right there.

The other thing about Al is that most of his songs are different. The lyrics express emotions and situations through the lens of historical events. He uses other people and places to have us reflect, ever so softly, on ourselves. That is strange in the usually blunt and narcissistic world of Rock & Pop. Initially the lyrics are easy to miss as overall the sound is sort of shimmery, like looking through sheer curtains at a fantastic place. But you want to listen again, and as you do the lyrics become clear. They were never hidden it just takes quite a few visits because there seems so much to see in this magical place. That is good music because the whole is actually far greater than the parts – four instruments playing simply with a voice can create a whole Damascus.

Merle Haggard – 20 Greatest Hits

Merle Haggard - 20 Greatest Hits
Merle Haggard – 20 Greatest Hits

The Hag is Country and Country isn’t music and if all them twangers were to walk to the Grand Canyon and take a few more steps no one would miss them but yokels. Well don’t say that narrow minded rot round me. Unless of course you are happy to lose The Eagles, Creedence, Lynnard Skynnard, Steve Earle and Shania Twiddly too. Didn’t think so.

For a few decades I thought Merle was a Crooner, one of those oldies artists like Engelbert Humperdink and dismissed him. It wasn’t till I started listening to Country in the mid 2000’s that I really learned that Merle was one of the elder statesman of Country. It was the song by Alan Jackson & George Strait that started me to revise Merle. That and whilst DJing I had actually listened to some Engelbert and realized he was a cool cat. Turns out Crooner wasn’t remotely a bad thing to be but narrow minded was.

Merle was one of the Outlaws of Country but really that was just marketing speak for staying with what matters: the Songs. Merle sang some spritely tunes but the heart of him as a performer was always in the story songs, whether that was about his prison bound days, sleeping with a lady of the night, or my personal favorite “What Have You Got Planned Tonight”. The sense of having this man share his story is something that only a few people have done so consistently through a lifetime.

I think in reality the song itself tells part of why this stuff is still so great today.

Background to this song is that Alan & George were neo-Traditionalists in Country; a new crop of singers wanting to get back to the songs and the story that makes music great. Reality is I now realize I am taking the position of being a neo-Traditionalist myself. I’m not limiting myself to a particular genre but music overall I just don’t want to to hear another fashionably disinterested singer ignore the melody whilst trying to be cool. That ain’t cool. Stuff above, that is cool. I hear it and I like it. That is very cool indeed.

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