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Reissue CDs Weekly: Choctaw Ridge - New Fables of The American South 1968-1973 | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Choctaw Ridge - New Fables of The American South 1968-1973

Reissue CDs Weekly: Choctaw Ridge - New Fables of The American South 1968-1973

Must-have collection celebrating the revitalisation of country music story telling

Billie Jo Spears looks happy to have left the New York secretary’s life

“Saunders' Ferry Lane” elegantly paints a picture of revisiting an empty, out-of-season neighbourhood to reflect on an old relationship. It’s cloudy and begins raining. The grass where the couple lay is dead. Birds have flown away. The gentle arms which held the narrator are gone. “I find no present comfort for my pain” sings a forlorn Sammi Smith.

Swelling strings darken the mood, as does a plaintive pedal steel.

Discomfort of a different kind is addressed by Billie Jo Spears’ up-tempo “Mr Walker, It's All Over.” After leaving Garden City, Kansas for New York to work, she fetches coffee for Walker and helps him dodge his wife. Office guys have “overfamiliar thoughts on their minds....a lot of hands reaching out to grab what I consider mine.” The company president pursues her even though his hair is turning white. Her Greenwich Village apartment is infested. She doesn’t like the New York secretary’s life with its sexual harassment, squalor and being treated like chattel. A return to Kansas is inevitable.

Choctaw Ridge - New Fables of The American South 1968-1973Both pithy vignettes crop up on Choctaw Ridge – New Fables Of The American South 19681973, a 24-track collection exploring “a golden era for an atmospheric, inclusive and progressive country music.” Specifically, it’s a sound “that emerged at the end of the 60s in the wake of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe’.” A fantastic collection and defining statement, nothing on it is throw-away. All the singers had something to say. Every song is a winner. The inspirational Gentry is here with “Belinda.”

Compiled by Martin Green (last encountered by this column through his double-CD Super Sonics - Martin Green Presents 40 Junkshop Britpop Greats) and Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, Choctaw Ridge makes so much sense it’s impossible not to wonder why it hasn’t been done before. New context is brought. In this setting, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s overfamiliar “Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town” is given a new gravity. It also sounds weirder than ever – the sparse, percussive arrangement adds to the unsettling atmosphere as never before. In a Southern Gothic way, about half the collection's songs shock.

There are singers and singer-songwriters central to Nashville’s ecosystem: Dolly Parton (with her own song, the devastating “Down From Dover”), Jeannie C Riley, Sammi Smith and Billie Jo Spears. Others had brushes with pop, in its widest sense: polymath music biz insider Lee Hazlewood, ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith and former New Christy Minstrels’ bassist Kenny Rogers. They join singer-songwriters carving their own, cross-genre, paths: the Queens, New York-raised Chris Gantry, future Sly & The Family Stone associate Jim Ford, the uncategorisable John Hartford, who made an album with Miles Davis bassist Dave Holland, and swamp-rock innovator Tony Joe White. As the liner notes point out, Charlie Rich “was, at heart, a jazz pianist.” All created music chiming with the “Ode to Billie Joe” vibe; moody songs explicitly telling stories.

Choctaw Ridge - New Fables of The American South 1968-1973_Dolly PartonThis wasn’t new. Lee Hazlewood’s 1963 debut LP Trouble is a Lonesome Town spread such tales over a whole album. The ballad – in its original meaning: a narrative song with lyrics telling a story – had been pervasive in country since it was defined as a genre, and before too. The song “Little Mary Phagan” recounted how in 1913 a 14-year-old factory worker in Atlanta, Georgia was assaulted and murdered by her supervisor. It was first performed c. 1915. Earlier, “The House Carpenter” – sung by women – had arrived from Britain and originally conjured a Demonic, tempting title character. Though credited to Hoyt Axton and a hit for The Kingston Trio in 1963, “Greenback Dollar” recast the earlier songs “East Virginia” and “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister,” which told of a young woman who left the mountains for love. It did not work out.

What was new as the Sixties closed were songs composed to reflect the themes of the day, and then recording them in styles which – although country – didn’t fit or reflect Nashville templates. The arrangements of the 1968 hit versions of the Jimmy Webb songs “MacArthur Park” and “Wichita Lineman” are critical to what’s on Choctaw Ridge, as is their lyrical ambiguities. It's not obvious what they are about, and the pay-offs aren’t explicit. In 1967, “Ode to Billie Joe” had already delineated this thematic opacity.

It all added up to records which were fresh, records which didn’t replicate the familiar. Fittingly, Choctaw Ridge - New Fables of The American South 1968-1973 is a compilation with a fresh perspective, one which doesn’t replicate the familiar. So far this year, it’s the best multi-artist – Linda Smith’s Till Another Time is the reason it’s “multi-artist” – archive compilation to hit the shops. A must-have.

In this new context , Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s overfamiliar ‘Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town’ sounds weirder than ever

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