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Off the Beaten Tracks: A last request

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IN A recent email exchange with a knowledgeable country fan from Ballymoney, Co Antrim, I mentioned that I had just about run out of favourite artists to write about. Came the trenchant reply: ‘You can’t abandon ship without something about (a) The Amazing Rhythm Aces (the great Russell Smith) (b) Jesse Winchester (c) Pure Prairie League and their two great albums of 1972.’

OK, then, save my place in the lifeboat while I give the memory another trawl.

One of the most famous draft dodgers in US history, Louisiana-born Jesse Winchester fled to Canada in 1967 after being called up to serve in Vietnam. Settling in Montreal, he started writing songs and was encouraged by Robbie Robertson, of The Band. Jesse’s eponymous debut album was released in 1970. This contained several of his most celebrated songs, including the homesick classics The Brand New Tennessee Waltz and Biloxi, both of which would be memorably covered by Britain’s Ian Matthews.

In 1972, bassist Jeff ‘Stick’ Davis and drummer Butch McDade moved from Tennessee to Quebec, where they became part of Winchester’s backing band, the Rhythm Aces. They were later joined by singer and guitarist Russell Smith, who made a strong contribution to Jesse’s 1974 LP Learn to Love It. It includes Smith’s superb songs Third Rate Romance and The End Is Not In Sight,  as well as Winchester’s delightful Defying Gravity, which displays a certain astronomical confusion.

I don’t even know where we are
But they tell us we’re circling a star
Well, I’ll take their word I don’t know
But I’m dizzy so maybe that’s so
.

This sweet song would later be covered by Jimmy Buffett, on his 1976 album Havana Daydreamin’, and Waylon Jennings on 1987’s Hangin’ Tough.

Although Winchester was accepted by now as a major league songwriter, he was hampered commercially by his inability to perform in the US. He had become a Canadian citizen in 1973, which precluded him from an amnesty for draft dodgers announced by President Jimmy Carter in 1976 which did not apply to those who had since changed their nationality. However his manager Barry Bozeman, who had connections in the Democratic Party, lobbied on his behalf. At one of Carter’s inaugural balls, Bozeman turned up with a Winchester album under his arm. He showed it to the President who assured him: ‘That’s all taken care of.’ Indeed it was, and the singer was allowed back into his native country. He performed his first US gig, a sell-out performance in Burlington, Vermont, in April 1977. He settled in Memphis, Tennessee, and continued to record into the 21st century. His final album, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble, was released in September 2014, four months after his death from bladder cancer at the age of 69. It was nominated for two Grammy awards.

Back to the mid-Seventies, when the Rhythm Aces added Amazing to their name on the way to becoming stars in their own right. Leading lights were Smith and guitarist Barry ‘Byrd’ Burton, who also acted as producer and engineer. In 1975 they released their country-tinged debut album, Stacked Deck. Best track by a long way is the aforementioned Third Rate Romance, the story of a tacky liaison between a couple who meet in a restaurant and end up heading for a cheap motel, the Family Inn. She says nervously: ‘I’ve never really done this kind of thing before – have you?’ Yes, he says, ‘but only a time or two’. Released as a single, this excellent song did well in the US and hit the number one spot in Canada. Another track, Amazing Grace (Used To Be Her Favourite Song), also dented the charts. This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of alcohol. The narrator admits that he spent too many nights out on the sauce while his loyal and angelic wife waited for him to stagger home. Eventually she takes to the bottle herself and walks out on him. ‘Lord, where has my good girl gone?’ Two further tracks, The Ella B and Emma Jean, also stand out. All were written by Smith, whose The End is Not In Sight (The Cowboy Tune) would prove to be the prime track from the Aces’ next album, Too Stuffed to Jump, which has a memorable cover featuring an obese frog sitting on a toy motorbike. The song features wonderful guitar from Byrd Burton throughout, concluding with a sublime solo which Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits would later acknowledge as a major influence on his own playing. Russell Smith would go on to become a successful solo artist with hits including I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight.  He died of cancer in 2019, aged 70.

And finally, Pure Prairie League, who started out in 1970 and were named after a 19th-century temperance union featured in the 1939 Errol Flynn cowboy movie Dodge City. Their singer was Craig Lee Fuller, whose high, clear voice would later invite comparisons to one of my great favourites, Lowell George of Little Feat. Their eponymous debut album was released in March 1972 with a Norman Rockwell cover from the Saturday Evening Post featuring a knackered old cowboy called Luke. It is a short and sweet collection of country pop songs, beautifully played. The opener, Tears, is despite its title a jolly-sounding rocker written by Fuller, as are the next two tracks. Take It Before You Go continues in similar vein while the slightly slower You’re Between Me features sturdy guitar but is marred for me by too many choruses of La-la-la-la-la-la. 

Woman is an extremely English-sounding number which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Big Star album. Longest track is the seven-minute Country Song, which does what it says on the label, while Harmony Song and It’s All On Me both remind me of the great Michael Nesmith.

In October that year came album No 2, Bustin’ Out. Following a brief opener, Jazzman, we have Angel#9, a guitar workout guaranteed to strike a chord with the then growing number of Southern Rock fans. Leave My Heart Alone is along similar lines. String arrangements by Bowie sidekick Mick Ronson rear their head on Boulder Skies  and Call Me, Tell Me. The Crosby, Stills and Nash-influenced Falling In And Out of Love  segues into Amie, which was released as a single and was initially unsuccessful but hit the charts in 1975, bringing belated success to the album. By that time Craig Fuller had left owing to his own set of problems with the draft board. He returned to the music biz with the band American Flyer and, following the death of Lowell George, was hired as soundalike singer by Little Feat. However the refreshing sounds of the first two PPL LPs remain his enduring legacy. He is still with us, at the age of 71.

From next week, by way of an extended farewell, I will embark on a breakdown of my 100 favourite albums in, of course, reverse order.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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