Various Artists: Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music review – beautiful country rock from the fringes

This terrific collection of country-rock obscurities shows another side to the sound that dominated 1970s American rock

It’s one of the great ironies of 20th-century pop that the man who almost singlehandedly invented country rock hated country rock. The artists who sprang up in the wake of the pioneering albums Gram Parsons made with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers were, he protested in 1972, “a plastic dry-fuck”. He apparently reserved a particular loathing for the Eagles, whose music had “too much sugar in it”, but generally regarded the genre that became the dominant style of American rock in the 70s with the kind of horror evinced by Victor Frankenstein when gazing upon the Adam of his labours.

There’s a chance that Parsons might have been more kindly disposed to the country rock artists collected on Cosmic American Music, the title taken from his preferred name for the genre. If his problem with the massed ranks of cocaine cowboys was that their music was too slick, too soft, too far removed from the grittiness and sincerity of the country music he loved, well, there’s plenty of grittiness and sincerity on offer here, and nothing whatsoever in the way of LA studio gloss. But Parsons never got to hear these 19 artists and nor, for that matter, did virtually anyone else. As with the other volumes in the Numero Group label’s Wayfaring Strangers series, it documents what you might call the spread of a musical idea at grassroots level – what happened when Parsons’ concept caught the imagination not of his fellow rock stars, but ordinary American musicians. Crates at thrift stores and garage sales far and wide have evidently been scoured for demo recordings, the output of tiny local labels and privately pressed albums, the latter the vanity publishing of the music industry. The level of obscurity is pretty startling: the biggest name on it is – wait for it – White Cloud, who went on to form the core of Loudon Wainwright III’s backing band for a solitary album in 1972. Or possibly Arrogance, whose lead singer went on to co-produce REM’s first two albums.

But not everyone here can boast that kind of dizzying household-name status. The cast list is a cavalcade of blank stares and search-me shrugs, occasionally with tragic tales attached: Sandy Harless, who funded his own album via his “27-tank fish-breeding business” but then seems to have been duped into signing to a scam record label; Dan Pavildes, whose notion of a promotional campaign for his album Gambler involved trying to flog it to people who picked him up while hitchhiking; Kenny Knight, an ex-Marine whose solitary album’s rarity was bolstered when he despairingly threw all the unsold copies in a skip. Occasionally, the artists’ lowly commercial standing seeps into the music: there’s a bitter tang of authenticity about they lyrics of Mike and Pam Martin’s Lonely Entertainer, a saga of repetition and tedium at the bottom end of the music business.

Albums funded by fish-breeding businesses, scam labels, records heaved into dumpsters: these are stories suggestive of outsider music, made by eccentrics, too weird to exist in the mainstream. There are certainly a couple of odd moments here, particularly the infectiously dark, disturbing atmosphere of Vietnam veteran FJ McMahon’s Spirit of the Golden Juice, and the trembling vocals and faintly unsettling lyrics of Jeff Cowell: “I’ve got a family I had to leave way up north, I hope they think I’m dead,” he quavers, eerily, over Take It Easy-paced acoustic guitars and pedal steel on Not Down This Low, like a figure from the old weird, 1920s and 30s America found on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music who has been inexplicably catapulted into the age of the Eagles. But for the most part, what’s collected on Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music is notable for its sheer quality rather than its strangeness.

The Black Canyon Gang were weed-smoking Rocky Mountain ranch hands moonlighting as musicians – “the finest of Colorado country head music”, suggested the handwritten sleeve of their solitary album – but there’s nothing amateur about the songwriting on Lonesome City, a gorgeous acoustic ballad decorated with Neil Young-like electric guitar soloing. That said, there’s a potency about the artists who chose to interpret Parsons’ blueprint in a genuinely idiosyncratic way. The brand of cosmic American music on offer here is often audibly more cosmic than anything the major labels were releasing at the time: for all its clear-eyed lyric, Lonely Entertainer has a strange, woozy atmosphere, the pedal steel bolstered by bursts of fizzing synthesiser; Plain Jane’s You Can’t Make It Alone sounds like late-60s psych, a song that would once have been decorated with phasing and Whiter Shade of Pale organ; Allan Wach’s Mountain Roads is liberally sprinkled with stinging acid-rock guitar. Meanwhile, the album that Kenny Knight literally threw in the bin featured Baby’s Back, a bold and curiously effective attempt to meld country with trebly, reverb-heavy rockabilly revivalism.

Of course, how rich a seam of musical invention Numero Group has hit upon here is open to question: there’s a tantalising, unspoken suggestion that it might be the tip of an iceberg, just as the original Nuggets compilation turned out to be merely the entry point into a vast world of obscure 60s garage rock. But without hearing the rest of the albums these songs came from, there’s no way of knowing if we’re dealing with the work of lost greats, or just artists who had one fleeting moment of inspiration, three minutes of great music and nothing more. As it stands, Cosmic American Music is a fine bit of musical archaeology.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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