C-grade Christian

Johnny Cash sometimes described himself as a “C+ Christian”. Robert Hilburn, in his wonderful biography of Cash, observes:

Most thought this American icon was just being humble. To those who’d been close to him at various points, it appeared he was being a bit generous with his evaluation. But there was  no question Cash believed. He wasn’t using his religion as commercial strategy.

Cash was a flawed man, and he knew it. His honesty about those flaws were part of his greatness. He made a gospel song, even one which was perhaps a bit twee, meaningful precisely because of that.

Cash ISAMThis is one of those songs. The arrangement could be better. No need for the backing vocals! Simple, spare would suit the song. But Cash’s voice carries it. It is the voice of a common sinner, the C-grade Christian, asking for forgiveness. Again.

Just listen.

  • Artist: Johnny Cash
  • Album: Hymns of Gold (compilation of various artists)
  • Track: B1 “I Saw A Man”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: K-Tel
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: NA451
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1975). Song recorded 1958.

The name suggests a gangster

Muggsy Spanier. The name suggests a gangster from the Al Capone era, but Francis Joseph “Muggsy” Spanier was a musician. Given that the mob controlled all the best nightclubs in those days, and that, like Capone, Spanier was a native of Chicago, they might have crossed paths.

Muggsy played the cornet. The what? It’s a cousin of the trumpet – same basic design but a bit smaller, and the tube is differently shaped, and has a mellower sound. For many years it was the preferred instrument in jazz bands. The trumpet was all a bit bold and, well, brassy.

Spanier was just outside the absolute top flight of jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s. He played with the big guys: Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, Bob Crosby, many more. Just didn’t quite crack the A-list, but surely not through lack of talent.

Trumpet playing evolved, and that instrument became king in jazz. The cornet – well, it’s still around, but a minority thing. But, man, does it sound great? Certainly in the hands of Muggsy Spanier it does. This is a 1941 recording, a shellac cutting of a sort of Dixieland-meets-swing version of a gospel tune, “Little David, Play Your Harp”. Actually, no harp is played, but there are lots of horns, played with skill and exuberance. Just listen, especially to Muggsy on the cornet.

  • Artist: Muggsy Spanier And His Orchestra
  • A side: Little David, Play Your Harp
  • B side: Hesitating Blues
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: Y5972
  • Year: 1941

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

The firehose effect

Probably the fastest way to disperse a crowd of Australians, short of turning a fire hose on them, is to invite them to church.

There is no oppression, just compartmentalisation. You are allowed to sing “Amazing Grace” on Sundays and at funerals, but gospel struggles to reach a wider audience. There is a lot of fine Australian contemporary Christian music – Hillsong in its many manifestations, Newsboys, Sons of Korah, heaps of others – but not too many of these acts are able to cross over. Real passion and fine musicianship, but sectional still.

0027 Label

Consequently, when Christian musicians try to sneak a bit of spirituality into a popular song, they tend to do it by the side door. It’s the U2 approach: exploit the ambiguity in words such as “love”, “spirit”, “sacred”, “eternal”. It can work well – “I did what I did before Love came to town” – though it is sometimes hard to work out if the singer is devoted to the guy upstairs or the girl next door.

One of the pioneers groups of this style in Australia was Family. Not a great choice of name for a band: there have been at least 25 other groups with the same or very similar names. Apart from anything else, it makes them hard to research: most search engines lead you to the Family which hung out with Charles Manson. If you don’t know who they were, let’s just say gospel was not their go.

0027 Label sleeveThis particular Family, though, were a much nicer bunch. Two of them were genuinely family, the brothers Ian and Phil Truscott. They were Queenslanders, and came together in 1972. They enjoyed modest mainstream success, and a stronger following in charismatic Christian circles. Several of their LPs were released in the US. They were, as you will hear, genuinely talented: lovely tight-harmony singing in a country pop style.

This track is from a single released in 1973. The lyrics are a bit lightweight, but as an early example of the U2 approach to Christian music, I think it stands up well. The B-side is out-there, no apologies gospel, and beautifully sung, but we will go with the A-side. Don’t want the firehose effect.

  • Artist: Family
  • Single Title: Just Another Song About Love / They’ll Know We Are Christians (One In The Spirit)
  • Track: Side B “Just Another Song About Love”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: M7 MS-032
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1973

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Lotta hair

You know her, even if you don’t know it.

You know her voice.

If you have listened to Emmylou Harris’s albums, Luxury Liner and Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, or Neil Young’s Comes a Time, American Stars and Bars and Rust Never Sleeps, or the Doobie Brothers’ Minute by Minute, or a whole stack of albums and singles by Rodney Crowell, Billy Joe Shaver, Christopher Cross and other luminaries of country-rock-pop in the 1970s, then you know her voice.

Nicolette Larson was an aspiring folk singer in San Francisco who got some singing work which lead to other work, and in time she attracted the attention of Neil Young, and from that became a star backing vocalist. On everyone’s records. Which is nice – hey, I’d take it – but of course she wanted a solo career.

It started well, with this album.

The first single from it, the Neil Young composition “Lotta Love”, was a huge hit, a soft rock masterpiece. (Yes, oh sneering trendoids, there is such a thing. On Planet Vinyl at any rate.) Larson’s version of “You Send Me” also did well. But if you were expecting, and I admit that I was, an LP full of the same kind of thing – well it isn’t. It is an eclectic mix. A bit of soft rock, a bit of R’n’B, a song in French in waltz time, and some hardcore bluegrass gospel.larson

Larson’s story, at least from this album on, is a sad one. After her initial success with this record, she never quite caught the flame again. Continued singing, alone and behind others, but she was on a downward path. She died of liver failure in 1997, aged only 45. Fair to suggest, I think, that liver failure so young suggests a lifestyle neither happy nor healthy.

I knew nothing of any of this. I remembered “Lotta Love” from the radio in the 1970s. I did not remember the name, but I do remember seeing her on television and thinking that she had an awful lotta hair.

This album is not a masterpiece. It’s good, sometimes brilliant, but like Larson’s musical journey more generally, it somehow falls just a little sort of its promise. I can relate to that. So can most of us. None of that changes two core truths.

First, Nicolette Larson had the voice of an angel. Second, she was brave. It is precisely that much of this LP sounds nothing like “Lotta Love” which I admire. This track, “Angels Rejoiced” is a hokey bluegrass gospel number first released in 1957. Larson performs it as a duet with Herb Pederson, and somehow this temperance-pamphlet morality play of a song acquires a delicate magic. Just imagine a coked-up Warner Bros exec railing against including this track on the album of a singer they hoped would be major star.

Angels rejoice.

  • Artist: Nicolette Larson
  • LP Title: Nicolette
  • Track: Side 2, Track 3 “Angels Rejoiced”
  • Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Warner BSK 3243
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1978