Saturday, October 13, 2012

John Fogerty's 'The Blue Ridge Rangers' is an excellent but unusual album

John Fogerty = The Blue Ridge Rangers
As rock and roll entered the late 1960s, many artists were knee deep in psychodelia and intent on pushing music to its cosmic limits. Albums like the Beatles' Sgt Pepper in 1967 showed that almost anything was possible as musical concepts were getting more and more linear. But as surely as all things in life run in cycles, some artists began returning to a simpler approach to music while still standing in psychodelia's shadow.

Out of that return emerged what became known as 'country-rock' music. Ushered in primarily by Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline albums, rock musicians began showing how country music influenced them. It was in this setting that The Blue Ridge Rangers released their first album. 

The Blue Ridge Rangers name is actually a joke. John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame performed the entire album. He played all the instruments: guitar, bass, drums, fiddle, steel guitar, banjo, percussion, triangle and more. When originally released, the only place his named appeared was for the producer's credit on the back of the record jacket. All the songs were traditional country and gospel songs that he did not write. 

This was his first album after the hugely successful CCR broke up in 1972. Faced with making an album on his own, he found a way to make music without having to live up to the lofty expectations that his name produced. The music was the total focus and not the person making it. While he sacrificed commercial success by hiding behind the Rangers' moniker, he produced a gem of an album that is almost forgotten 40 years later. 

The album's high point is his version of the well-known Christian hymn 'Working on a Building (For My Lord).' At his peak, Fogerty's voice was one of the most potent forces in rock and roll history, and he used it with great success on this song. Multi-tracking his vocals so that it sounded like an entire church choir, he effectively communicated the song's message with the passion and fervor one would expect to hear at a revival service. 

His rousing version of Hank Williams' 'Jambalaya (On the Bayou)' was the only hit from the record, cracking the top 20. Kicking off the chorus each time with the cry of 'Well, Jambalie,' Fogerty's vocals made the song his own in a way countless folks who covered the song were unable to do. The song is a good illustration of how an artist can re-interpret a song in a new and vital way while not betraying the song's original essence. In other words, it is completely the opposite of Michael Bolton's assassination of the Otis Redding classic '(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay' a few years ago. 

Musicians are all inspired by someone or something. However, most times, they are unable to directly pay homage to the inspirations that helped mold them into what they became. This album is one of those rare instances where the listener gets to hear the musical influences that helped inspire a great musician to choose the life he chose. And that is pretty neat.

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