THE BALDWIN HILLS COWBOY RIDES AGAIN …
By Malcolm Searles
Some of the most maligned recording sessions by one of the most (unfairly) maligned recording artists of our time? A generous swathe of miscalculated musical direction … or a brave and oft-overlooked attempt at tackling a new musical path for one of California’s golden sons? The 1978 recording sessions undertaken by Mike Love and his host of musical compadres during that particular year revealed much about the man throughout that overtly nasal period of his career. Two complete albums were cut, one of which (First Love), taped under the production guidance of the multi-talented Paul Fauerso, continues to gain underground acclaim to those who have heard it circulating amongst the bootleg fraternity – and it’s not too difficult to locate either, despite its official release status reportedly being hindered by legalities, 40 years after the events. The second set of cuts, however, compiled under the dubious banner of Country Love, maintains an almost universal amount of vitriol hurled regularly upon its Stetson-hatted pate – despite the fact that that, too, remains a non-event in the official release stakes.
With production duties being overseen by veteran country music giant, steel guitar aficionado and former Burrito, SHF, Manassas and Desert Rose member, Al Perkins, the eleven strong Country Love collection does, notably, sit rather uncomfortably alongside Mr. Love’s other work from that period, be it The Beach Boys influenced summer anthems of “Almost Summer” (credited to his side project band Celebration) or the aforementioned First Love sessions.
Had Mike chosen the country-rock route, after all, he was the lead vocalist for one of America’s primo exponents of pop-rock, instead of out-and-out country music, he may well have touched a nerve with the record buying public and seen the concept succeed. LA’s former elite gang of desperadoes (Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, etc.) had all vacated that particular wagon train in previous years and were now seen plying their trade amongst a wider spectrum, and maybe the full impact of that particular outlaw genre had dissipated slightly, but there was still a huge market to be found out there. Sure, Mike didn’t have the sweeping vision or the country kudos of either Gram Parsons or a Papa Nez figure (although with former Burrito and Nez alumni contributing to the sessions there was a certain amount of credibility on display), but stepping directly into the rhinestone-encrusted boots where the mighty Sweetheart Of The Rodeo had gone before, and had notably faltered, was a brave step indeed for one so recognizable and open to condemnation.
From the opening piano-led refrains of the Merle Haggard-Bonnie Owens composition “Today I Started Loving You Again,” the album gently meanders through a tumbleweed-smothered gathering of mostly Love originals, some of which, to be fair, are truly unworthy of much of the criticism thrown at them. Following on from that opening number, which pretty much sets the mood of what is to follow, the self-penned “Dallas” isn’t half bad – in fact, at times it’s mighty fine, albeit one that lyrically struggles to go far beyond the uncomfortable cornball rhyming of Dallas, Palace and Chalice within the opening bars – and sadly, that lyrical factor is the cause for much of the subsequent downfall that continues to haunt the collection to this day – and yes, sooner or later we are going to have to mention “Wrinkles.”
The gentle sway of “Beth On The Mesa,” the infectious “Brand New Start” and the drivin’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll Country Bride” (all Love originals) suggest that Mike was taking this project seriously enough, and with Perkins’ countrified production, accompanied by steel guitar and tinkling ivories, it held all the fascination of a potentially successful notion. Accepted, Mike’s oh-so recognizable nasal delivery was never a match made in Nashville, and he lacked the deep-set guttural claw of what makes a country singer “country,” but it still held … something.
The reworking of the 15 Big Ones self-composed “Everyone’s In Love With You” greatly benefits from the updated country arrangement, as opposed to the sweetly saccharine coating that befell the earlier rendition, whilst “Some Sweet Day” could equally match many of the accompanying First Love cuts for its hummable hook. And then there is … that song. The one tune that this collection is notoriously attached to. It is the one song that hits the heartstrings of what country music is supposedly all about in the eyes of the unknowing – tragedy, lost friendships and dead dogs (cue recollections of “Ol’ Blue,” “Old Shep” and “Bugler” here). Not that “Wrinkles,” musically, is bad by any means. Melodically, it’s catchy, infectious and downright cheerful – in contrast to its rather insipid lyrical visualizations of pigtails and freckles, tiskets and taskets, bunnies and doggie heaven – but, each to his own, and the genuine charm it exudes outweighs the oft-jovial yet maudlin childlike effect. Or does it? A fine cover version by Beach Boys’ fan George ‘Junkster’ Faulkner remains (in my mind) a fitting tribute to the solo works of Michael Edward Love.
That all said, twangs of the dobro aside, what the album lacked was that one big hook line – the lead single, the headline act. The big one. Sadly, none of the chosen inclusions quite stand out enough in order to hang the Stetson off of. Maybe a reworking of the seventies concert staple “Okie From Muskogee” would’ve been the home run? What about “Country Pie”? Certainly, some of The Beach Boys own tunes from that early seventies period leaned themselves toward a country flavor. A new arrangement of the Love-favorites “Do It Again” or “Surfin’,” complete with banjo and fiddlin’ overtones?? The thoughts are endless … Or, had the moment now passed for Mike to don the cowboy boots and ride the rocky trails across the desert skyline? Probably so, but for that one fleeting moment he had the nerve to try, and I duly offer my respect.
Note: This album remains unreleased, although bootlegs have circulated for years.
Be sure to purchase ESQ’s Fall 2019 Mike Love Collector’s Edition featuring full interviews with Mike and Country Love producer and engineer Al Perkins. Click HERE to order.