Grateful Dead – Anthem of the Sun

Grateful Dead – Anthem of the Sun

Released: July 18th, 1968

For a band that apparently didn’t really care about studio recording, the Grateful Dead embraced its possibilities quickly and effectively. Their second album, Anthem of the Sun, solidified the musical language and sensibility that – in one way or another – defined the remainder of their records and live career for the rest of their long strange trip. Building on the freak-out boogie of their early days as a premier live band of the San Francisco hippie scene, and gazing towards a recorded career that used the tangled threads of American music with an improvisatory sensibility anchored somewhere between free jazz and lysergic drone, Anthem of the Sun was perhaps the Dead’s first fully-formed recorded statement, a conscious attempt to assert creative control after a debut that felt compromised. Learning the possibilities of the studio, and spending a ton of record company money in the process, these anointed leaders of the already-fading “Summer of Love” suggested to listeners that counterculture rock was less about a set of defined lyrical or musical gestures and more about the embrace of a musical process that decentered traditional song structures and favored instrumental conversation.

This approach makes Anthem of the Sun a bit shaggy and aimless, as the happy wanderers don’t always back their drifting with compelling musical statements. But, when it works, Anthem of the Sun is striking in its inventiveness and sophistication. Particularly powerful is “That’s It For The Other One,” a multi-part suite that traces both a lyrical and musical origin story. The lyrics – particularly in Bob Weir’s jumping second section – present a whimsy-myth account of early adventures in Haight-Ashbury. Musically, “Other One” jumps between sounds and textures, with Garcia’s airy folk in the first section transitioning into bustling, Weir-driven rock and circular jazz that throws the spotlight on bassist Phil Lesh before dissolving into musique concrete sound burns near the end. The production approach matches these sonic shifts, with distorted vocals and instrumentation that blurs the boundaries between effects-heavy layers of sound and seemingly unvarnished sections of live improvisation.

They take a similar approach on the second side’s opener, “Alligator,” which matches the first track’s creative starburst. This time, the band grounds in the strutting R&B and rock that made them live draws, with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan offering his trademark amiable growl in a phasing multi-tracked vocal (just out-of-sync enough to reveal the studio trickery) as the band struts through some hippie-soul outlaw surrealism scored by bleating kazoos and cascading background vocals.  Then the planets shift into an extended, polyrhythmic breakdown where drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart head into drum space before being pulled back into orbit by a rave-up jam driven by McKernan’s swampy vocals and soul-revival organ. Dynamic and daring, “Alligator” is a fitting demonstration of how the Dead’s facility with their sonic material allowed them to develop a singular vision for how those origins might get freaky and fried. The climactic build of “Alligator” transitions into the noisy after-party of “Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks),” where McKernan shouts the blues over a groove spliced together from multiple performances. McKernan’s soulman patter gets a little gimmicky and mimicky here, but  touches of avant weirdness keep it from feeling too reductively cliché. At the end, the song trails off in a squall of feedback and studio noises. Anthem of the Sun thus closes with a final demonstration of the way that the Dead would honor the distinctiveness of their live and studio approaches while demonstrating the way that they could be linked in an unbroken chain.

The songs would get better. The performances would get more consistently electrifying. The trips would get both longer and stranger. Although it’s more a peek than a peak, the best moments on Anthem of the Sun successfully suggests the creative vision that made the Grateful Dead – reluctant and defiant as they may have been – into powerful wielders of studio magic.

Best tracks: “That’s It For The Other One,” “Alligator

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Tammy Wynette – D-I-V-O-R-C-E

I’m thrilled to welcome Anthony Easton for this guest post on Tammy Wynette’s second album of 1968. Easton is a writer and artist in Hamilton, Ontario, and their work has appeared in SpinThe Atlantic OnlinePitchforkNashville Scene, City Pages, Bright Wall Dark Room, and other publications.

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Tammy Wynette – D-I-V-O-R-C-E

Released: July 8th, 1968

I always wonder why Tammy Wynette has not reached legend status outside of country music circles, why she has not become a pan-cultural icon like Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton. Talking to other country critics, there was some discussion about politics–that Ms Wynette’s work was less ambivalent, too conservative, not universal enough, or inspiring enough to be won over by the non-Nashville massives. Listening to her 1968 album D-I-V-O-R-C-E, I had another thought.

Tammy Wynette is too country.

The thought came to me when realizing how ubiquitous the album’s title track was–in the eighteen months after its release, there were at least a dozen cover versions, and even two parodies. Part of this is how Nashville works–country music, like the blues or hymn singing, has always been an interpretive medium, one whose tradition works by the slow reworking of tropes and ideals. (David Cantwell, who co-wrote the literal book on country music singles, notes that something similar happened with Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again.”)

So, an audience would fall in love with a song, or the song would be shopped around Nashville, or there would be small regional hits, then national hits by Nashville stars, and finally the work would become ubiquitous enough to earn a sophisticated parody from Homer & Jethro. (This process has returned somewhat with the covers and riffs that end up populating Spotify or YouTube playlists.) This practice revolved around respecting the particularities of singers – listeners who were curious what Connie Smith, for example, sounded like singing “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” – while sometimes they played with gender (Conway Twitty) or genre (Hourglass, which contained at least two Allmans). Sometimes, the covers seemed to be a little craven, like when Porter Wagoner encouraged Norma Jean to cover it for television—this was before Jean was replaced on the show by Dolly, who also covered it. Thinking about what happened to “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and listening to the album the song contained, Tammy is playing the same game with different songs.

The album is rife with cover versions of country hits, with different readings of what became standards, and countryfied attempts at working through other genres. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” was one of Wynette’s biggest singles and first signature song before being eclipsed by the next year’s “Stand by Your Man.” These two singles–both of which play with the history of country music and the domestic melodrama with a kind of exhausted, stoic sadness—did very well with audiences, perhaps more of a populist than critical favourite.

Listening to the late-1960s Tammy albums, and all of the cultural production afterwards, D-I-V-O-R-C-E feels like the apex of Wynette being taken seriously. George Jones, who had similar skills as a formalist and interpreter, continued into the 1970s and even 1980s. Wynette demonstrates the same gifts as her famed musical and romantic partner — how her voice plays against the lush arrangements of producer Billy Sherrill, how she crafts stories and characters, and how well she selects which songs to cover and how to cover them.

Thinking about this from the very first track, the album exemplifies how a voice becomes part of a larger production. Her cover of “Gentle on My Mind,” contrasts the smooth production style of Al De Lory in the Glen Campbell hit, with Campbell’s voice slotting into a placid sadness, and with Wynette’s voice bucking against Sherrill’s attempt to mimic De Lory. Her version of “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” tries for the rail-track ratcheting of Merle Haggard’s original, but moves slightly slower, against the instrumentation, letting in less space for instrumental or choral breaks. It doesn’t have the anxiety of Haggard’s take, but both versions do a good job of making robbery sound more like an adventure and less like a tragedy. However, her version of “Sweet Dreams” cribs and extends Patsy Cline’s heartbreak, pushing and extending a narrative of female suffering, noting who her sources are and – in an act of audacity for a young performer – claiming that heartbreak as her own.

There is also a version of “Yesterday,” because of course there is.

Listening to this tight album, even before the title track, is to be immersed into a kind of high country aesthetic, a late baroque form of riffing, covering, borrowing and lending. Its eleven songs are variations on the theme that Wynette has made her own–heartbreak, adultery, the domestic, children, sexual longing. I can understand how the title track could be read as camp, the pedal steel underlining every detail of a song that features details that might be a bit over the top – does she really need to mention both a birthday and Christmas? But it redeems itself from being too saccharine or silly by limning genre conventions. The song that follows the title track is “Come On Home,” a torch song to domesticity, a song that with a kind of high stoicism tells her husband that he can return from his “new love”. She talks about having a breakdown in the song, but the work never breaks. Just as the whole of D-I-V-O-R-C-E has a catch in her voice, but never quite collapses into tears.

This control of material is a formal choice. It is one of the things that marks her work with George Jones, and Jones’ solo work, as well. This close work with a producer becomes an act of mutual trust. Wynette knows how to play against the material, because the producer is right there with her, buttressing this formalism. She pushes Sherrill as much as he pushes her.

I think figuring out how to replicate the feeling of never quite breaking down is the key to Wynette’s skills. I think her playing with that feeling over lush production has an incredible sophistication. It is one of melodrama, and–if one is not a careful listener, one who can pay attention to the ebb and flow of a form, and a genre–a kind of melodrama that suggests the lack of female sexual autonomy. However, it is autonomy that allowed a generation of other women, both performers and audiences to claim an identity within a genre that could be welcoming. That this is the last one, foretold an ebb, where “authentic” country was again men’s stories told by men. What was lost was not only the genius of Wynette’s own working out of that autonomy, but her role as an interpretive curatorial voice, and her ability to craft narratives for other performers to graft their voices to.

This means that Wynette’s skills are often thought to come from a deep well spring of emotion, while her aesthetic choices are less recognized, particularly when compared to her male cohort. All of this talk about the ineffable sadness of George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” or “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was because of the recognition of Jones as a singular voice. The collective heartbreak of Wynette singing “Come on Home” or “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and throughout this album, is not only real country to me, but it’s far less respected than it needs to be.

Best tracks: “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Come On Home

The Band – Music from Big Pink

The Band – Music from Big Pink

Released: July 1st, 1968

In a particularly consequential moment of music criticism, Eric Clapton was so affected by Music from Big Pink that he decided to quit his group Cream and try to convince The Band to let him join. Deeply inspired, and perhaps a little scared, by the album produced by the musicians best known as Bob Dylan’s touring band and “basement tapes” collaborators, Clapton even traveled to the group’s headquarters to make his case. “I wanted to be part of it. But there was no way in,” he remembered later. “So, all I could do was admire it from afar and long for something similar.”

Clapton’s words – like the broader story of his pilgrimage – offer an effectively tidy assessment of The Band and their astonishing debut album. Released six months after Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, which offered a similar intervention, Music from Big Pink is a compelling act of speculation that uses the tangled roots of American music to frame enigmatic parables of pilgrims and penitents. And, as Clapton’s words also suggest, the album’s immediate and enduring influence has not dulled its unique impact. Fifty years later, it still challenges its admirers to find a way in.

For me, right now, the primary way in is through the album’s mysterious and unsettling visions of a world gone wrong. Music from Big Pink teems with moments of deep mourning – like the opening cry of “Tears of Rage” or the stately cover of “The Long Black Veil” – and justified fear, as we await the explosions promised in “This Wheel’s On Fire” or the strange magic outlined in “Caledonia Mission.” Even the moments of seeming salvation (the longing for community in “The Weight” or the blessed assurance of “I Shall Be Released”) reveal a troubled now inside the calls for a more hopeful future. Reflecting the influence of gospel as both sound and sensibility, The Band’s songs bear witness and bear the cross – or perhaps “The Weight” – through refracted lyrical symbolism of Nazareths and Independence Days and an ongoing negotiation of desperate hope and weary understanding.

The music on Big Pink hold as many mysteries as the lyrics. The group’s voices join in seamless call-and-response – another gospel influence – while spotlighting the exquisite sadness of Richard Manuel, the restless nerves of Rick Danko, or the knowing skepticism of Levon Helm with equal effectiveness. Behind these vocals, the group constructs arrangements that reflect their road-tested chops and interest in studio experimentation. Robbie Robertson’s fiery guitar rides atop the rumbling of the Danko/Helm rhythm section and the two-keyboard interplay between Manuel and Garth Hudson, while country fiddle, jazz saxophone and electronic distortion all make notable appearances. Hudson, in particular, offers beautiful disruptions as he sounds the alarm on the sex panic of “Chest Fever” or sets the eerie scene on “In A Station.” In the closing moments of “I Shall Be Released,” Hudson’s electronic keyboard offers a final ghostly whisper as the song and album echo into the darkness.

Those echoes are particularly powerful for me as Music from Big Pink celebrates its 50th anniversary. As we mark another Independence Day soaked in tears of rage and on the brink of explosion, the most resonant prophecy of Music from Big Pink might not be its musical template, but instead its presentation of a troubled world that its remarkable music tries to express and understand. “It’s the same old riddle, only starting from the middle,” they sing on the R&B strut of “We Can Talk.” And, they admit, “I’d fix it but I don’t know how.” I don’t either, but Music from Big Pink helps me reckon with the paradox and envision a world where we all might earn our release one day. Before we can find a way out, though, we have to find a way in.

Best songs: “Tears of Rage,” “Chest Fever

The Beach Boys – Friends

The Beach Boys – Friends

Released: June 24th, 1968

The Beach Boys wish you were here. They encourage you to catch a wave to the mythical shores of California, Kokomo or wherever the sun’s out and the surf’s up. They call your name from car windows, dance parties and quiet corners. They beckon you to worship loving angels or angelic lovers from atop a shimmering wall of sound. On Friends, though, they’d love it if you just came by the house. (Brian Wilson even offers you accurate driving directions to that house on “Busy Doin’ Nothin’.”) This brief, lovely greeting card of an album is an invitation to join some old friends – who, the waltzing title track reminds us, have “been together through the good times and the tears”- as they enjoy each other’s company.

Trading studio-created pop symphonies for cozy, muted arrangements, the songs on Friends engage listeners in a lazy and loving conversation. The Beach Boys tell us what they’ve been up to, what they’re into, and what they’ve noticed recently outside their windows. They talk about their kids, their dreams, and even this great massage therapist they know. (Given the album’s informality and specificity, it’s actually kind of shocking that they don’t give you contact information for “Anna Lee, The Healer.”) It’s all a bit corny, but it’s suffused by good intentions and filled with affecting moments.

Friends was the third album released after the collapse of the Smile sessions, which led to Brian Wilson ceding the group’s creative center while the other members filled the gaps left by their dear brother. They did this both by amplifying their individual approaches – from Carl Wilson’s R&B influences to Al Jardine’s genial folk-rock to Bruce Johnston’s smooth sweetness – and by cohering a new group identity around shared production duties and songwriting credits. Friends is filled with musical dialogues between the group’s members (assisted by studio players) as they craft songs contributed by every Beach Boy except Johnston. They circle each other’s voices on the urgent call of “Be Here In The Morning” and the sunshine daydream of “Wake the World,” while the sharp grooves and dissonant harmonies of “Transcendental Meditation” turn a clunky Maharishi mash note into a stomping gem. They go further on two essentially instrumental songs: “Passing By” blends Booker T.-style organ with easy-listening “ooh-aahs” and subtle synthesizer drones, while “Diamond Head” is a multi-part reverie that covers the waterfront from woozy surf to spare polyrhythm. Brian Wilson contributed significantly to Friends, including the quietly unsettling mundanity of “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” so the album’s collectivism seems less like evidence of declining genius and more like an affirmation of equal partnership.

While the group successfully shares the spotlight, the album’s most striking moments come from drummer Dennis Wilson. Friends is the first Beach Boys album to feature compositions by Wilson, whose sweetly gruff voice anchors two songs that appear back-to-back on the second side. The jazz-inflected “Little Bird” finds him describing the titular visitor who arrived outside his window to offer a bit of wisdom – illustrated by the group’s chiming background vocals – before flying away and leaving Wilson (assisted by brother Brian) to hope for his return. Wilson’s description of the bird’s message is vague, but it might’ve sounded something like the graceful “Be Still,” the organ-drenched benediction that he sings in hushed and comforting tones.

The suggestion to “Be Still” seemingly symbolizes the Beach Boys’s larger departure from pop’s center stage. Friends was a commercial failure, and – though it’s been reclaimed in re-appraisals of the Beach Boys’s post-Smile work – it’s rarely discussed as an important 1968 release and it contains no songs that remained part of the group’s repertoire. More broadly, particularly when paired with narratives about Brian Wilson’s transition into “busy doin’ nothin’” stasis, the album’s small scale seems to suggest a kind of musical retreat. But Friends contains striking and subtly daring performances that honor their previous work and signal the music they’d make in their still-underappreciated next decade. Beyond this, and more importantly, the album is animated by an overarching spirit of warm generosity that renders it a welcome and delicate gift. At the very beginning, as the sun rises on “Meant For You,” Mike Love offers a gentle invocation: “As I sit and close my eyes, there’s peace in my mind, and I’m hoping that you find it too.” Let’s be friends.

Best tracks: “Little Bird,” “Be Still

Aretha Franklin – Aretha Now

Aretha Franklin – Aretha Now

Released: June 14th, 1968

In August 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded the crowd to embrace and understand the “fierce urgency of now.” He called for immediate and transformative action in the pursuit of racial justice, telling his audience to keep moving forward in the face of resistance and apathy. In April 1967, King returned to the image of the “fierce urgency of now” when declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War. “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history,” King said, “there is such a thing as being too late.” One year later, King was dead, the war had escalated, and those who believed in freedom wrestled with how to keep going in a moment that mixed triumphant breakthroughs with unspeakable tragedies.

Within this, one of the most important voices was King’s friend and collaborator Aretha Franklin. The “Queen of Soul” released three acclaimed hit albums in 1968 (including Lady Soul, which I discussed earlier this year), and she was honored in publications from Ebony to Time as a key voice in the assertive cultural politics of Civil Rights and Black Power. In June, two months after her friend’s murder, she released Aretha Now, an album that answers King’s call for honest reckoning and affirmed his commitment to the beloved community. Franklin refuses to reconcile the tension between desperation and determination – that “unfolding conundrum” that King talked about – and instead plumbs the paradox as she responds to a community in need of reassurance and committed to moving forward.

The fierce urgency of Aretha Now is announced from the very beginning, with the insistent Franklin piano chords that open “Think.” Recorded shortly after King’s murder, the thunderous track (written by Franklin and then-husband Ted White) pulses with the catastrophic impact of the killing and the heated energies of its aftermath. This is most explicit on the soaring, searing bridge, with Franklin’s ascending cries of “freedom,” but it more broadly imbues her demand for truer partnership. As Craig Werner writes, the song “rang out as a desperate plea to a nation” and “clings desperately to the gospel vision” that structured much of Franklin’s and King’s shared terrain. She still believes in that vision, but her voice signals that her faith may be reaching its limits. Earlier this year, she warned you that the chain would break one of these days. On “Think,” that day sounds even closer.

As she’s done throughout her career, Franklin locates a model for building and maintaining that community in the music itself. Aretha Now contains numerous songs made famous by other artists, and – while Franklin certainly confirms her reputation as a master interpreter or even song-slaying “copyright killer” – the covers here honor a soul continuum that stretches across regions and generations. She calls back to pioneers like Ray Charles (“Night Time Is the Right Time”) and Sam Cooke (“You Send Me”), and acknowledges contemporaries like Dionne Warwick (“Say A Little Prayer”), Don Covay (“See Saw”) and Sam & Dave (“I Take What I Want”). The Sam & Dave cover includes a clear and clever reference to “Sweet Inspiration,” the contemporaneous hit by the Sweet Inspirations, the vocalists who ably support Franklin throughout the album. (The group’s involvement tangles the family tree gets even further: the Sweet Inspirations included Warwick’s aunt Cissy Houston, whose young daughter Whitney was learning and listening at Franklin’s feet during these years.) Beyond song choices, the remarkable interplay between Franklin, the Sweet Inspirations and the expert crew of studio musicians helps demonstrate and deepen the dialogue. Here, the version of “See Saw” is particularly effective and illustrative. Franklin’s vocals stab alongside horns and guitars like the pain from raw nerves as she injects a steely resolve to Covay’s lyrics about a partner whose inconsistency makes them impossible to rely on.

Franklin turns the reckoning inward as well, particularly in the album’s compelling final songs. She returns to the theme and energy of “Think” on “A Change,” where she stands inside an instrumental whirlwind to insist that her lover stop playing games. Unlike Sam Cooke’s anthem, which she’d already recorded, Franklin isn’t so sure that a change is gonna come, but – particularly when emphasized on the chorus by the forceful accents of the Sweet Inspirations – she wants you to know that there will be consequences if it doesn’t. “If you don’t,” she promises, “this girl is gonna make you pay.” But the album’s closer, “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You,” complicates this assertive demand, as Franklin bluesily admits that she’ll stick by her flawed lover despite the fact that he isn’t changing, or thinking, and that her work will have to continue.

 

Like the album more generally, these songs suggest that this is less a decision to give up as a determination to get on. It’s a recognition of individual complicity and shared responsibility. It neither precludes the possibility of change nor assumes its inevitability. It foregrounds the importance of community while also insisting on the work it takes to make them meaningful. On Aretha Now, and in the fierce urgency of summer 1968, Aretha Franklin illustrates why all of these are necessary. Don’t be too late.

Best tracks: “Think,” “See Saw

Single-Minded: May/June

Any discussion of the music of 1968, or any other year, is incomplete by solely focusing on albums. So I thought I’d offer some assorted (jumbled) thoughts on some of the singles that reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, Country and R&B charts during the year. Here’s the third installment. This is just a smattering of the hits, of course. There are some that I’ve avoided because I’ll talk about the albums on which they were included, or some because I don’t have much to say about them, and still others that I left off for no good reason. But these capsule portraits hopefully reveal some of the individually noteworthy moments on the upper reaches of the Hit Parade, as well as some surprising connections between them.

Friend and Lover – “Reach out of the Darkness”

(#10 Pop)

I’m not sure how this bit of well-intentioned piffle sounded in the context of the summer 1968, but – listening back – it’s an agreeable breath of air freshener that signals its period kitsch to such a degree that it’s almost admirable. (Here, it may have been helped by its rather remarkable behind-the-scenes pedigree: produced by Joe South and Bill Lowery and featuring session work from Ray Stevens and other pros who worked the country-pop axis from Atlanta to Nashville to Muscle Shoals.) It all sounds almost unbearably sad in its naive hopefulness, although the chorus – sung with tremulous clarity by Cathy Post – sounds more desperate with every repetition.

Archie Bell & the Drells – “Tighten Up”

(#1 Pop/#1 R&B)

A different, and more substantive, kind of reaching out is audible here. As they announce at the beginning of their masterpiece, Archie Bell & the Drells are here from Houston, Texas to rep their hometown and call out their contribution to the land of 1,000 dances. The song owes some of its celebratory tone and push-and-pull sound from a constellation of soul stars, but it also emerged specifically from the particularities of the Houston scene.  As historian Tyina Steptoe notes in her astonishing history of race and culture in Houston, the spare funk workout of “Tighten Up” (developed by the college-based group the T.S.U. Toronadoes before being turned over to Bell and company) was anchored by a horn section inspired by Mexican orquesta bands. Thus, Steptoe notes, “the most popular soul song to emerge from Houston in the 1960s…bore the sonic imprint of a developing cultural relationship between Mexican Americans and African Americans” who challenged the boundaries of segregation through soul-era collaborations. With local roots and global impacts, “Tighten Up” offers a bustling tribute and brand-new beat.

The Rascals – “A Beautiful Morning”

(#3 Pop)

The Rascals – when they were “Young” and afterwards – understood better than many of their “blue-eyed” contemporaries that soul was less about a set of musical characteristics and more about a sensibility or mode of communication. In this, a doors-opening invocation of possibility and reassurance, Felix Cavaliere’s vocals glide across an airy arrangement that bathes in the tender glow of a new day.

The Irish Rovers – “The Unicorn”

(#7 Pop)

Despite big dreams and best-laid plans, we’ll never ever make it back to the garden. In this parable of lost innocence, writer Shel Silverstein pulls a puff-the-magic-dragon trick, hiding an existentialist farewell to youth inside a folk sing-a-long that the Irish Rovers deliver with a perfect mixture of pathos and playfulness. Although musically one of the odder hits of the year, its theme – part cautionary tale, part woeful lament – is right in time with the moment’s dreams and realities.

The Troggs – “Love Is All Around”

(#7 Pop)

The Troggs are probably most famous as the knuckleheads behind the glorious blurt of “Wild Thing” or the screaming match captured on the widely-bootlegged “Troggs Tapes.” But they clean up pretty well, too, as demonstrated by this lilting ballad. Shy and hesitant, singer Reg Presley and the band glide through a first dance that trades the pounding pulse of the garage for the subtler interactions that will be required if the party moves elsewhere.

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass – “This Guy’s In Love With You”

(#1 Pop)

The simmering intimacy of Burt Bacharach and Hal David so convincingly blurred the line between easy listening, pop, jazz and R&B that it revealed the distinctions between them to be flimsy or even nonexistent. Here, Herb Alpert and the Brass prove that squares still have edges with a vulnerability that seamlessly blends Bacharach/David’s sublimated emotion with the pristine precision of Alpert and his crew. Alpert leveraged his success as an artist into the creation of A&M Records – a story told brilliantly by historian Eric Weisbard – for which this was the first #1 hit and which specialized in a particular brand of smooth, adult-minded pop. Alpert’s version of “This Guy’s In Love With You,” which he sings as supply as he wields his horn, is a fitting choice for an early label triumph.

Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 – “The Look of Love”

(#4 Pop)

One of the early artists signed to A&M was Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, whose blend of jazz, pop and bossa nova was personally endorsed by Alpert and became an important part of the label’s late-60s ascendance. Listening to their own version of a Bacharach/David standard, it’s easy to hear why. The song builds from restrained smolder in the opening section – where vocalist Janis Hall bobs and weaves through waves of syncopated percussion and subtle interjections from Mendes’ keyboard – through a climactic second half with full orchestration before fading out with increasingly frayed cries of “don’t ever go.” Like Alpert’s “This Guy’s In Love With You,” Mendes’s take on “The Look of Love” is the soundtrack of trying – and not necessarily succeeding – to hold it all together.

Merrilee Rush – “Angel of the Morning”

(#7 Pop)

Merrilee Rush’s protagonist probably hopes you’ll still love her tomorrow, but her faith is slipping. There’s a sadness here in the recognition that both participants are “old enough to face the dawn” after a one-night stand, but also a resolve that doesn’t deny its pleasures. Rush’s thin soprano is perfectly tuned for this tension, flickering across pitch and volume as she leads the band at American Studios in Memphis through the repeated destruction and reconstruction of the wall of sound.

Sweet Inspirations – “Sweet Inspiration”

(#5 R&B)

Speaking of the American Studios musicians, here they provide the backing for The Sweet Inspirations – the Cissy Houston-led group who started as gospel singers before transitioning into secular recordings and back-up work – as they testify atop a supple electric-guitar riff and bubbling arrangement. A definitive example of southern soul’s mix of gospel roots and pop ambitions, “Sweet Inspiration” erases any lingering boundary between Saturday-night revelry and Sunday-morning redemption.

Roger Miller – “Little Green Apples”

(#6 Country)

Roger Miller’s brilliance as a songwriter shouldn’t overshadow his gifts as a singer, since his warm and tender vocals cover the waterfront from good humor to sad mood as effectively as his compositions. This is particularly showcased on his original version of a Bobby Russell ballad that became a cross-genre hit for several artists. Sitting back in love and wonderment, Miller’s vocal (supported by a warm bed of plucked guitar and orchestral strings) is bathed in playful contentedness, with a joyful teardrop that could easily turn lonesome if his partner ever went away.

Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson – “A Lover’s Holiday”

(#8 R&B)

Their moment in the spotlight was fleeting, but Peggy Scott & Jo Jo Benson made some really wonderful records in the late-1960s, including this joyous message to love. “Love is reassuring,” they remind us, as the two lovers build a new world (kinda like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell did earlier in the year) around their shared affections and their mutual belief that “we don’t care what people say.” In 1968, as alliances frayed and new fissures emerged, the necessity of finding such spaces in a divided and often violent world became even more essential. Even if they were only between two people. And even if they were only a temporary reprieve, a holiday that might never turn into a longer-term escape.

Waylon Jennings & Anita Carter – “I Got You”

(#4 Country)

A similar testimony is offered here, as a pre-Outlaw Waylon Jennings and a post-Family Anita Carter insist that those who may be forgotten by society – “two unnoticed people” who can’t afford the finer things and don’t get invited to the cool parties – aren’t ignored by each other. Over deliberate rhythms, with stabs of horns and bopping background vocals, the duo offers a call to acknowledge the invisible that miraculously avoids both “Silent Majority” acrimony or bleeding-heart sermonizing.

Hugh Masakela – “Grazing In The Grass”

(#1 Pop/#1 R&B)

The musical dialogue across the Black Diaspora radiates off the grooves of Hugh Masakela’s strutting instrumental, which he recorded while in exile from South Africa and was later covered (with added vocals) by U.S. pop-soul group The Friends of Distinction. A joyous combination of relaxation and excitement, Masakela’s trumpet rings alongside Al Abreu’s tenor sax and atop bubbling rhythms that point the way toward the funky fusions of the 1970s and offer a musical reconnection across oceans and traditions.

Conway Twitty – “The Image of Me”

(#5 Country)

It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels. It was Conway Twitty, and he’s really sorry. His purring Romeo tactics turned a “simple” girl into a fallen woman, placing her on a barstool and in the throes of sin. There’s a good bit of mansplaining here, with Twitty assuming that the woman secretly hates herself and claiming that her story’s important because of what it says about him, but the vulnerability in Twitty’s delivery and the gently weeping melody undercuts the patronizing tone. Especially because Twitty understands that he’s right there next to her, both literally and figuratively, getting lost in the bright bar lights.

 

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

Released: May 24th, 1968

At Folsom Prison is one of the key documents in the creation of the legend that continues to define Johnny Cash’s presence in the cultural imagination. It is here as much as anywhere where the grave and portentous “Man In Black” takes shape, rumbling through songs of the downtrodden and sinful with a mixture of Godlike gravity and “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” intimacy. The album – which became a massive hit and helped revive Cash’s career – deserves its esteemed reputation. Cash and the band deliver a performance that, even in its slower moments, crackles with an energy so immediate that you can almost hear the electrons jumping onto the recording equipment. He pushes or even rushes tempos as the Tennessee Three – along with guitarist Carl Perkins – pull behind with propulsive freight-train boogie. His voice is fluid and flexible, with June Carter, the Statler Brothers and Perkins adding their voices to the family circle to enact a loving and complementary vision of musical community.

But the most important part of this musical community are the prisoners themselves. He seizes the opportunity of the setting to consider the comedy and tragedy of prison life and assert the overriding dignity and humanity of those imprisoned. As Michael Streissguth writes, At Folsom Prison “paradoxically celebrated prison and outlaw life while creating a damning portrait of the prison experience that pricked the era’s concern for society’s outcasts.” Engaging country’s long fascination with crime and punishment in the direct context of a wave of prison reforms that Cash supported, At Folsom Prison finds Cash in tender and playful dialogue with Folsom’s inmates in ways that affirm his singular talent and provoke empathetic and joyous interplay.

Cash curates a selection of songs that address the breadth of his catalog and assess the tension between freedom and imprisonment that was a central theme to his work long before he actually set foot inside prison walls. “Folsom Prison Blues” sounds appropriately perfect here, its opening electric riff ringing out in invocation, but the lonesome wail of “I Still Miss Someone” or reckless regret of “Cocaine Blues” are equally fitting. Cash explores heartbreak in several songs – “Send a Picture of Mother,” “The Wall,” “Give My Love To Rose” and “Green, Green Grass of Home” – that articulate the difficulty or even impossibility of fully escaping even after one’s sentence has been completed.

But he also knows that his audience is there for a good time, whether or not they’re at Folsom for a long time. So he offers blues-humor parallels to the sadness in the literal gallows of humor of Shel Silverstein’s “25 Minutes to Go,” right up to his exaggerated vocal swings emulating the death throes of the condemned man, and the Statler-assisted sing-a-long of “I Got Stripes.” Cash turns the funhouse mirror on himself. On the pairing of “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog” and “Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart,” both written by rascal genius Jack Clement, he parodies country tropes. He joshes around with the musicians, asking for his “idiot sheet” before “Orange Blossom Special.” And he flirts with June Carter; after she jokingly greets the audience by saying “it’s great to be back in Folsom,” he purrs that “I love to watch you talk.”

The mood is so jovial that Cash even starts laughing during three of the most ostensibly serious songs. The somber tones of “Dark as a Dungeon,” “The Wall,” and ‘The Long Black Veil” are all interrupted by Cash’s laughter in response to prisoner interjections that cause him to lose focus. These interruptions feel like interventions, with inmates offering footnoted commentaries on Cash’s narratives and microcosmic demonstrations of larger prisoner discontent. On the existential blues of “The Wall,” for example, he seconds an inmate’s supportive reaction to a lyric about the meanness of guards. (“They’re mean bastards, ain’t they?,” Cash chuckles.) By ceding control on stage and leaving these moments on record, Cash reinforces the importance of the inmates as dynamic participants in the presentation, rather than simply accessory markers of outlaw authenticity.

This is perhaps most clear in the album-closing performance of Glen Sherley’s “Greystone Chapel.” Sherley, a Folsom inmate, only learned that Cash was going to sing his composition from his front-row seat, a touching moment documented on the recording. More than just a feel-good gesture of solidarity, “Greystone Chapel” is a perfect addition to Cash’s repertoire. It chugs along with hand-clapping spirit, giving Cash a perfect vehicle to explore the interlocking aspiration and resignation that Sherley expresses in a pledge of spiritual transformation is leavened by the realization that a physical escape may never be possible. Sherley had a brief moment of fame and even toured with Cash after his release, but his erratic behavior got him fired and he ended up shooting himself while on the run for killing another man. He never made it over the wall.

After “Greystone Chapel,” the album closes with nearly two minutes of crowd noise and announcements (including the lusty boos that greet the mentions of a lieutenant and associate warden, on hand to present Cash with a gift). The final announcement reminds the prisoners of the proper way to return to their cells, and the album’s final sounds are the rustling of bodies moving towards the exits. By the end of this long postlude, you could almost forget Johnny Cash and his crew were there. But you’ll always remember the men who remain behind the walls.

Best tracks: “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Greystone Chapel

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PS – Beyond the article cited above, Michael Streissguth wrote an essential book about the album’s contexts and consequences. Check it out.