Listen to this track by one-time wool-hatted Monkee and recognized country-rock pioneer Michael Nesmith. It’s “Harmony Constant”, a deep cut taken from his tongue-in-cheekily titled 1972 album And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘, his fifth as a solo artist.
That title was applied in a characteristically wry manner by Nesmith, a response to his record company. They had given him a mandate to put out another album quickly after his more experimental Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1, this time preferably with a hit song or two included in there somewhere. Even if it didn’t set the charts on fire, the result wasone of Nesmith’s most celebrated works as a solo artist. It also includes his version of an actual hit song he wrote for The Stone Poneys, “A Different Drum”. So in a sense, Nesmith kept his promise to his record company! Despite all that, a burgeoning number of country-rock songwriters by the early seventies would enjoy much greater chart success than Nesmith himself would, comparatively speaking.
Apart from any (ridiculous) snobbery around his association with a TV pop group, maybe this is down to Nesmith’s unconventional approach to writing country songs. In “Harmony Constant” specifically, there is a distinct contrast between how he presents an eminently hummable tune to lyrics that are high-minded, even touching on the metaphysical. There’s also a curious subtext to be found here that isn’t exactly run-of-the-mill for the standard love song, either. Read more
Listen to this track by beloved Canadian singer-songwriter and Orillia Ontario favourite son, Gordon Lightfoot. It’s “Carefree Highway”, an international hit as taken from his 1974 album Sundown. This song was one of several in his catalogue that scored a top ten placement on the US Billboard Hot 100. Otherwise, this song made the easy listening charts and the country charts in his home country of Canada, where he’d become rightly held as a national treasure.
Like Bob Dylan, Lightfoot was managed by Albert Grossman during the 1960s, and was on many of the same scenes. During that time his material was covered by many, including Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, among others. By the early 1970s and after defecting from United Artists to Warner Brothers, Gordon Lightfoot settled into a sound of his own that mixed acoustic folk-rock with a smooth country feel, along with a dash of sorrowful strings for good measure that gave his output a heavy shot of melancholy. The period between 1970 and 1978 is looked upon by many as his golden period that had him enjoying massive exposure on Canadian radio across the dial. For all of his ubiquity, it was easy to take him for granted.
On “Carefree Highway”, it was also easy to miss what lay beneath his gentle, made for radio play, and easy on the ears sound, to wit; an ocean of bittersweetness, much of that fueled by what seemed to be personal regret, not to mention the songwriting savvy it took to deliver it so poignantly to listeners. Read more
Listen to this track by outlaw country herald and transcendentally gifted, underexposed Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. It’s “Tower Song”, first featured on his 1971 album Delta Momma Blues, with this particular version being re-positioned as an aged gem on the 1999 album Far Cry From Dead.
On this song, it’s the starkness on display that outlines the sheer magnitude of Van Zandt’s command of melody, lyrics, and the raw human experience that burns right through it all. It’s no wonder that his friend and musical disciple Steve Earle would famously proclaim Townes Van Zandt as the “best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Perhaps Bob, after clearing up Earle’s bootprints, would agree, particularly in the light of this song, which is certainly one of my favourites.
This latter-day version was recorded under inauspicious circumstances, later to be added to a project that would prove to be something of a tribute to a career that had been troubled, and financially unfruitful for the artist at the center of it. This lack of career traction is contrasted with his artistic influence that made lasting waves in the careers of others, including Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, both having recorded Van Zandt’s material.
Far Cry From Dead is effectively a compilation album of re-recorded work. It showcases a choice selection of songs over a twenty-five year career, after the artist had passed. And there is something in this new version of the song that strikes a stronger chord, showing new dimension to an already first-tier talent that went largely uncelebrated while the man himself was still with us.
Listen to this track by quirky Texan country-folk singer-songwriter, ‘Large Band’ honcho, and sometime actor Lyle Lovett. It’s “Skinny Legs” a 1994 track from his album I Love Everybody.
Here’s a tale for the non-rock star if there ever was one, a grass-is-always-greener narrative that many guys find themselves in the middle of when comparing themselves unfavourably to others. In some ways, Lovett is like a gentler, country-folk answer to Randy Newman‘s more abrasive sense of cynicism and irony. Where Newman laughs at the world and it’s absurdities, it’s easy to get the impression that Lovett laughs along while throwing himself in there with it.
That’s one of the things that makes this song so endearing; it has a softer side, a sense of innocence to it that provides an emollient to the spiky themes that it deals with so subtly; envy, self-hatred, and living in a culture that very often values appearances over substance. Being in Hollywood circles as an actor must have given Lovett some sense of this in very personal terms. Yet, that’s another ironic twist to be found in the background of this song, and the record off of which it comes. Read more