By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
Aside from containing Gene Autry's best recorded work--that is, those songs cut long before the Tioga Springs, Texas, country boy kicked his dirt-farm past to become the sort of sterile singing cowboy only Hollywood could create--Blues Singer 1929-1931 (subtitled Booger Rooger Saturday Nite!) also illuminates the influence both black and white Southern musicians had on each other a century ago. It's a vital peek into forgotten history, an aural document linking black blues and white country and, perhaps, an album that rescues Autry from kitschy nostalgia and places him in the canon somewhere between Jimmie Rodgers and the others, besides Autry, who imitated the yodeler to perfection.
Exactly how the blues came into being in the late 1800s remains to be suitably documented, but Southern whites were probably singing them years before Frank Hutchinson and Rodgers began recording them in the 1920s. To many country singers at that time, both black and white, the blues were just one song form among several they employed, despite the tendency of record producers to try to make black "songsters" concentrate on blues in recording sessions. Rodgers gained a great deal of popularity and had a tremendous influence in the late 1920s with his Victor series of "blue yodel" recordings, on which he not only yodeled but also sang the blues.
Columbia originally hired Autry to cover Rodgers' songs and compete with him on its budget-priced labels. Autry had been a telegrapher, not a cowboy, in Oklahoma prior to cutting these selections; yet he wrote 10 of the 23 cuts on this disc, while Rodgers penned only seven (though Autry did lift a couple of lines from Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 9" for his own "Do Right Daddy"). Autry's lyrics are often bawdy and humorous--usually about killing time behind bars or high-steppin' wildcat mamas and the bearcat papas who love them.
Autry turns in laudable vocal performances here: His singing is more nasal and penetrating than it became during his days as "America's Favorite Cowboy," and, unlike his later work, the songs themselves are completely unsentimental. After becoming a movie star with a bunch of little-kid fans, he couldn't very well cut such tunes as "In the Jailhouse Now No. 2" and "High-Steppin' Mama Blues" ("She shakes her shimmy as wide as can be/Shoots dice and gambles, she drinks the corn and smokes").
Another thing worth noticing about these recordings is the instrumental work. Autry (on guitar) and Roy Smeck (banjo and steel guitar) lay down a rock-solid beat; Smeck, a longtime studio man, in fact, turns out to be one of the unsung heroes of American music, a guy who could do jazz or Hawaiian music at the drop of a hat--cowboy or no.
If Davy, Micky and Peter think having Mike Nesmith back on board after 27 years completes the Monkees reunion, they need to think again. The PreFab Four should have also extended invites to Screen Gems songwriters like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill and Jeff Barry, who penned the group's hit singles and many standout album tracks, even after the Monkees won their independence from "musical supervisor" Don Kirshner. On the band's best albums (1967's Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.), these Brill Building song docs augmented the group's best self-penned efforts and quality control was at an all-time high.
As a writer, Mike was always good for two or three great tunes per album, and Micky usually had a couple of good ones in him, but getting even a half decent song from Davy and Peter was pushing the envelope. Mr. Jones is still a problem, as two of his tracks on the new album bear the dreaded pop crutch word "fantasy." Peter fares a little better with his hippie-jazz devotional "I Believe in You," with what's-a-meta-for imagery that's even funnier than reruns of the TV series ("Then the trap door drops, I'm plummeted into quicksands of despair/I'm consumed by flames of agony 'til you tell me you care"). Paul Kantner sound-alike sweepstakes fans, we have a winner.
Micky's '50s-style rockers sound like a carryover of the Vince Fontaine role in Grease he's held down for two years, and only make the group seem even more old hat. Where's the Wool Hat, you say? Sadly, Nesmith emerges as the prominent lead vocalist only on a remake of "Circle Sky," his flashy number from the Monkees' 1968 motion picture Head.
As the recording's title indicates, it's just the four Monkees singing and playing on every track, with no session guys whatsoever. Rhino's spectacular reissue campaign on behalf of the band has already won it the respect pop culture failed to bestow the first time around, so consider Justus a glossy, well-recorded, but forgettable footnote, like American Dream was for CSN&Y.