Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Bland Country

I found a small (still sealed) gem yesterday at the Brooklyn Record Riot, Get On Down With Bobby Bland, from 1975.  Bland was already well-established as one of the great blues and soul singers, but a list of some of the songwriting credits on Get On Down will give you a better idea of what he was up to on this album than the title or cover photo could: Dan Penn, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Billy Sherrill.  Yes, that's right, we're in country-soul (not to be confused with country blues) territory.

It seems like a few years ago, there was a slight surge in interest in the country-soul crossovers of the late-'60s to mid-'70s - I vaguely recall some compilations and reissues appearing all around the same time. It's a particularly rich vein of music, spanning from Joe Tex and Joe Simon to Gram Parsons and Charlie Rich.  Ray Charles' Modern Sounds In Country Music records are usually cited as the inspiration/prototype for this mini-movement, but of course the process of cultural borrowing (or stealing) across racial lines is the engine that's driven American music from the beginning. 

Charles (for some reason, it seems weird referring to Ray Charles as "Charles") may have demonstrated the commercial viability of r'n'b artists recording country songs and proved that he could sing the hell out of a country song (or at least convincingly Ray-ify it), but his project was all about taking hillbilly music way uptown - Hank Williams songs with a (lightly) swingin' orchestra, etc.  The field was still open for artists who wanted to engage with country music on a closer-to-the-ground level, down in the pasture where they might get some shit on their shoes.  Bobby Bland didn't get all the way there - he definitely walked out of the Get On Down sessions with clean shoes - but if the arrangements seem a tad smooth today, they're a heckuva lot more understated and, to my ears, listenable than Ray's.  And they don't ever threaten to overshadow Bland's voice, which is smooth in an entirely different way (single malt whiskey smooth as opposed to baby food smooth).

With Bobby Bland's take on country, there's very little feeling of novelty.  The material is well-selected, or at least he makes it sound that way.  You don't hear Bland straining to fit himself into the song or distorting the song to fit his style - the tell-tale signs of an awkward crossover attempt (see Willie Nelson's Countryman). In his B+ review of the album (in which, typically, he makes the key points in minimum space), Robert Christgau hears awkwardness on one track (Conway Twitty's "You've Never Been This Far Before"), leading him to ask, "...he seems a little ill at ease reassuring a virgin with bom-bom-boms, but wouldn't you?"

One of the standout tracks for me is the last one, "You're Gonna Love Yourself (In The Morning)" by Alabama Music Hall of Famer Donnie Fritts (how's this for a resume?: Muscle Shoals session man, longtime Kristofferson sideman/sidekick, widely recorded songwriter, Peckinpah actor).  Bland seems entirely at ease with the Hag classic "Today I Started Loving You Again" and while "Someone To Give My Love To" doesn't surpass the benchmark Johnny Paycheck version, it's another highlight on an album with no real duds.

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