Country Funk: 1969-1975
Light in the Attic
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Before seeing advertising for this album, I’m not sure I had read the term “country funk” anywhere. I may have, but I don’t recall doing so. Country soul, yup. Country swamp. Memphis country. Delta country. I had heard of them all, but country funk is as good as any of them, I suppose. I knew what type of music would be on an album called Country Funk: 1969-1975: a bass throbbing, guitar-riff rich, sultry and lusty amalgam of reality, equal parts inner city blues and Chickasaw County kissin’-cousin country.
Larry Jon Wilson’s performance of “Ohoopee River Bottomland” in Heartworn Highways may have been my gateway into this music, but having spent 30-plus years listening to country, rock, and soul music, I was more than primed to fall under its spell. Following paths from Clarence Carter, Kate Campbell and Bobbie Gentry to Spooner Oldman, Charlie Rich and Tony Joe White, I’ve amassed a huge appreciation for music that combines the grittiness of real country with the effortlessness of thoughtful soul.
I resisted downloading Country Funk simply because I decided early on that this was an album that I wanted on vinyl. It just seemed to be appropriate to hear this album on a turntable. I’ve not ‘gone back’ to vinyl with the enthusiasm others may have for two simple reasons. One, I never completely left vinyl behind: it is tough for me to pass by a garage sale without looking for a box of records. I don’t know if vinyl sounds better than digital versions of music, but I know I appreciate it more and have recently lugged my twelve or thirteen boxes of records around the new basement more times than I should have. Secondly, regularly spending $25 or $30 for a vinyl album has never made sense to me. I have bought a half-dozen contemporary releases on vinyl—Mark Davis’ Eliminate the Toxins and the Del McCoury Band’s Bill Monroe tribute immediately come to mind—but it is still a special occasion when I buy new vinyl.
Based on my experiences with the Karen Dalton and Kris Kristofferson packages of a few years back and their more recent Louvin Brothers album, I knew Light in the Attic releases were well done. It therefore made sense to me that I would lay down $24.99 plus tax for this rather concise examination of a music I’ve felt a kinship toward.
Before we get to the music contained on this two-album set, a word about the package. Gatefold sleeve with an illustration that absolutely does justice to the 12×12 format; Jess Rotter’s line drawings and colours work beautifully to set the scene for these (mostly) early ‘70s recordings. Jessica Hundley’s notes provide some context, most importantly pointing out that no one was setting out to make music within a genre: people were just making music. She highlights Bobby Darin’s place within the compilation, and uncovers insights from artists including Dennis Caldirola, Dick Monda, Jr., and Tony Joe White. I would have liked more information about Larry Jon Wilson, Bobbie Gentry (whose name Hundley misspells as Bobby), Johnny Adams, and especially Gritz and Jim Ford, but what is contained provides a starting place.
The music is ’bout what you would expect. Album cuts and singles from various labels. Sixteen tracks, from the familiar and readily available (Jim Ford’s “I Wanta Make Her Love Me,” Tony Joe White’s “Studspider,” and Bobby Charles’ “Street People”) to entirely new, to me at least. Dale Hawkins, who I only know from “Susie Q,” gets things started with the shout-out “L.A. Memphis Tyler Texas.” Choice cuts include Johnny Adams’ brilliant “Georgia Morning Dew” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone,” a track that reveals more in four minutes than every version of “Rumble” I’ve ever heard. While Cherokee’s “Funky Business” doesn’t really go anywhere, it is a cool little tune, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more from them.
An album project such as this one should introduce listeners to under-appreciated artists, and this set does that through the music of Gray Fox (Dick Monda, Jr.), Dennis the Fox (Dennis Caldirola), Gritz, and John Randolph Marr. Caldirola’s “Piledriver” captures the drive-in movie sensibilities that I recall from the early to mid-seveneties, and yes, I went to a lot of drive-in movies with elder siblings and cousins in those days: the song doesn’t really come together into a coherent song, but seems ideal as written for a trucking exploitation movie that was never made: I can see Susan George as the “mean, mothertrucker of a girl.”
Like “Piledriver,” some of these songs have novelty appeal. Others, like Larry Jon Wilson’s “Ohoopee River Bottomland” and Johhny Jenkins’ “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” are timeless. The Bobbie Gentry track, “He Made a Woman Out of Me” was the second most successful single off her Fancy album, but never came close to the country top 40 and isn’t likely to be heard on classic country radio. Its sophisticated arrangement seems at odds with ‘country funk,’ but her voice and what sounds like an amazing band pull off this “Strawberry Wine” forerunner; I would love to know who was playing on this- and every- track, but no session notes are provided.
The biggest surprise on the album for me was the inclusion of Mac Davis, who I am only familiar with from a couple country hits and as a guest star on various 70s and 80s variety shows and movies. “Lucas Was a Redneck” is culled from Davis’ most successful album Stop and Smell the Roses, and is a killer track. Here, singing unsympathetically of a Tupelo boy born “one half stupid, the other half dumb,” Davis sounds a little like Larry Jon Wilson. This scathing indictment of southern bigotry and self-limiting behavior makes me want to investigate a singer I’ve never given more than a passing thought toward.
I was very satisfied with my purchase of Country Funk: 1969- 1975 on vinyl. I will enjoy listening to the album several more times and I know I’ll be sent on wild journeys as I seek out the music from most of the included acts. As mentioned, information about the backing musicians would have been appreciated, and I was especially disappointed that a download code wasn’t included with the album, a feature that I mistakenly believed was a ‘given’ with modern vinyl releases as I’ve received one with every other recently purchased vinyl package.