Monday, November 26, 2007

Ozzie and Harriet's Son

Here's an old Fusion piece from 1972 that I really enjoyed "researching" and writing (edited now to remove much of the record reviews stuff); if you read it, you'll understand why...

Like most other aging rock 'n' roll enthusiasts, I grew up watching Ricky Nelson grow up. As a TV actor, Ozzie and Harriet's youngest may never have been a blooming precocious Olivier, but he was about my/our age, he dressed right, and he displayed a clever/serious mien that turned out to be more than a little charismatic. I don't think we ever really believed in the platitudinous, Eisenhower Era good life the Nelsons and their chums professed to live--I mean, Ozzie and Thorny and them goofing on the tube while we huddled in the halls for school A-bomb tests, right?--but Ricky was okay: he seemed to be one of us, much less awesome and godlike than, say, Elvis.

Well, me and the world are a decade-and-a-half older now ((make that several decades!)), I'm nearing thirty though I don't feel particularly "grown up" ((nor at 64)), and terra's still going to hell in a handbasket or applecart or Volkswagen (even if we've given up on the Civil Defense bit--you can crouch in my shelter if I can crouch in yours; I said that). As for younger-than-that-now Rick, he's still growing--as a musician, I mean, as well as merely older. Eric Nelson's landed square in the middle of country rock 'n' Western roll, and on him it looks, and sounds, mighty good.

Actually, nobody should be surprised by that Late-Sixties development. After all, Rick admits he got interested in music during Presley's rockabilly Sun-days; subsequently, besides the hit ballads and Fats Domino covers, he cut numerous tunes penned by other solar celebrities like Cash, Perkins, and Lewis, plus stuff from Hank Williams and the Burnette Brothers (by the way, anybody want to sell me a copy of Johnny and Dorsey's old album together, on Coral?); and, of course, Rick's back-up band in those days was built around the high-class country picking of the ever-inspirational James Burton. As a result, many of Rick's hits had a Southern twinge if not twang, up to and including the pair of straight country albums he did for Decca during the middle-Sixties' eclipse of his stardom.

So where's the big surprise? It's 1972, and over-thirty Rick just keeps churnin' out good-feelin', good-knowin', good-ol'-boy, close-up-the-honks rock 'n' roll. Let's talk about his Stone Canyon Band instead: some rock youngsters like Allen Kemp, Pat Shanahan, and Randy Meisner, longtime musical cohorts from the Denver area (Randy's bass, of course, was featured in Poco for a while), plus Missouri-bred pedal steel guitar wizard-king Tom Brumley, who joined Rick after six years backing Buck Owens. Needless to say, the group's views on grass, peace, and police are widely divergent, but the members have managed to coexist and cohere for about three years now.

And in that time have backed three quite nice, rather rocking releases with headman Eric. The album that signaled the arrival--or return--of Rick Nelson, Country Rocker, was one recorded live at the Troubador (Rick Nelson in Concert, Decca 75162), on the heels of his smash engagement there that set the L.A. scenesters to hopping and marveling and good-mouthing. And the one cut that best announced the "new" Rick--he wrote it too--also opened the album with a welcome bang: "Come On In." While the guitars jangled and Brumley's steel danced, Rick and the dudes with their version of high lonesome harmony issued this clarion invite: "Come on in, look around/ Try to see what's goin' down/ We're gonna sing our songs for you/ Hope they make you feel good too..." With a whoop and a holler, a swoop and a foller-me-boys, there he was, back and proud....

Then too, another Dylan tune demonstrated the Nelson touch with ballads--in this case, a live version of his out-of-nowhere AM hit, "She Belongs to Me," with bubbling acoustic and cascading steel and the now-mature Nelson voice releasing all the "wonder, hurt... and love" (the phrase is Eric Anderson's) from Dylan's strange and striking song. An even better example of Rick's fresh, confident vocalizing was Anderson's own "Violets of Dawn"--starting with a soft acoustic flow, drifting through the steel's chiming like a fourth harmony part in the vocal, building at last to an overpowering rush, molten auroras of sound and light.

Yet even "Violets" was topped by Rick's incredible "Easy to Be Free"--acoustics and sticks and Tom's steel skipping and slipping up and down your spine: great, glimmering bursts of instrumental beauty while Rick's voice simmered with promise: "Did you ever want to go where you've never been before?/ Did you ever want to know things you've never known before/ I'll take you there with me/ And maybe then you'll see/ It's easy to be free/ It's so easy to be free..."

Who'd have believed it possible a decade ago--the best songs on Rick Nelson in Concert actually composed by the ex-wunderkind of TV himself? But the proof was in our ears. And added proof for the skeptics lay ahead with Rick Sings Nelson (Decca 75236), a whole album of originals....

((Part 2 in a few days, detailing how I got to meet and hang out with Nelson during a remarkable club engagement in suburban Seattle.))

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