Best Local Rock Songs Ever, Part 14 [Rob Galbraith, Tony Joe White, Larry Jon Wilson, Mac Gayden, Billy Swan]



R&B-flavored pop was a staple of the Nashville music scene of the early '70s. In this 14th installment of Best Local Rock Songs Ever, we take a look at the way that Caucasian R&B mutated into songs that were often about Southern identity and the tension between rural roots and big-city temptations. In the hands of Billy Swan — a Missouri-born singer, songwriter and keyboardist whose “Lover Please” became a 1962 hit for Clyde McPhatter — this pop synthesis took in elements of rockabilly. Swan made three classic albums for Nashville’s Monument Records between 1974 and 1976, and he was a pioneer of the absurdist, roots-conscious pop that fans today associate with Nick Lowe, Moon Martin and Ian Gomm. Meanwhile, Tony Joe White also recorded some Swan-produced albums for Monument in the early ‘70s, while Georgia singer and songwriter Larry Jon Wilson made 1975’s New Beginnings for the label.

An East Tennessee native who came to Nashville in 1968, Rob Galbraith worked as an A&R man for country producer Billy Sherrill, and cut 1970’s Nashville Dirt, a classic of Nashville R&B. Galbraith had already brought soul singer Clifford Curry to the attention of Music City producer and guitarist Mac Gayden, who co-wrote Curry’s 1967 pop-soul hit, “She Shot a Hole in My Soul.” Gayden would go on to play guitar with two groups composed of Nashville studio musicians, Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry. As a solo artist, he released 1972’s McGavock Gayden, which featured his funk-country rocker, “Caney Fork River Daze,” along with impressionistic, banjo-driven instrumentals.

Rob Galbraith, “Mudflap Cadillac” [Appears on Nashville Dirt]

Galbraith’s Nashville Dirt track “Corner of Spit and Whittle” appeared on Country Got Soul Volume 2, a 2005 compilation that also included songs by Wayne Carson, Eddie Hinton, Jim Ford and the duo of Dan Penn and Chuck Prophet. “Mudflap Cadillac” features a lazy acoustic-guitar riff and Galbraith’s Mose Allison-inspired singing. It’s a song about driving back to Nashville after learning a few hard lessons on the road and getting some mud on that shiny new music-biz Cadillac. “Now I’ve seen it, and I’ve seen more than I’ve told,” sings Galbraith. “So I think I’ll head this machine home.” Galbraith would go on to produce records for soulful country singer Ronnie Milsap, as well as helming the sessions for Larry Jon Wilson’s New Beginnings and Let Me Sing My Song to You.

Tony Joe White, “High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish” [Appears on Tony Joe]

Listen: YouTube

There is no Calhoun Parish in Louisiana, although the small, unincorporated community of Calhoun lies within Ouachita Parish in the northern part of the Pelican State. That may be why White chose to spell parish in the idiosyncratic way it appears in the song’s title. Produced by Swan, “High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish” sports a funky riff and a self-amused vocal by White, along with a narrative about a man who catches the eye of the sheriff’s voluptuous daughter. The hapless narrator ends up in jail, courtesy of the sheriff, and finally breaks out, making his way to a cabin in the woods.

Larry Jon Wilson, “Broomstraw Philosophers and Scuppernong Wine” [Appears on New Beginnings]

Listen: YouTube

I first learned about Larry Jon Wilson and New Beginnings from Robert Christgau’s review of the album. “The record is as original as you might hope, catchy and fresh-sounding despite overlays of schlock designed to hook the country audience,” wrote Christgau in 1975. “The drawback to rediscovering home truths, which is definitely Wilson’s calling, is that when the excitement fades — and even a modest career takes it toll — the reaffirmations turn back into platitudes.” That’s accurate, but I’ve loved New Beginnings ever since I found the LP for a dollar in a Memphis record store. (Australia’s Omni label reissued it and Let Me Sing My Song to You on one CD in 2011.) “Broomstraw Philosophers” finds Wilson in New York City, where he tells various Big Apple denizens — a taxi-cab driver, a pawn-shop owner and a heroin pusher — how he draws strength from his Southern upbringing. It's a fascinating moment in the history of Southern liberalism.

Mac Gayden, “Caney Fork River Daze” [Appears on McGavock Gayden]

An excellent slice of hard-edged funk, “Caney Fork River Daze” is another song about Southern identity. Gayden & Co. play it in a style similar to Little Feat’s, and the track has a stop-and-start rhythm that puts me in mind of Captain Beefheart circa The Spotlight Kid. Gayden wishes for a celestial world in which there are no “sheriffs in the sky,” but he’ll settle for a trip down into the holler with his holy-roller woman and some devil weed.

Billy Swan, “Vanessa” [Appears on Billy Swan]

Listen: YouTube

We end our tour of oddball ‘70s Nashville soul-rock-pop with this song from Swan’s 1976 self-titled album. Having already hit with 1974’s rockabilly-flavored “I Can Help,” Swan released the pleasant but somewhat flat followup Rock ‘n’ Roll Moon before delivering his masterpiece. Billy Swan is Pure Pop for Then People, complete with a couple of fine covers of Carl Perkins songs. Written by Swan and Dennis Linde, “Vanessa” is both frantic and relaxed, and I love the way Swan sings the chorus: “Vanessa, it ain’t necessary / For you to keep on hurting me.” Swan never again made anything quite as fine, although I like his 1978 Booker T. Jones-produced You’re OK I’m OK.

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