BLUEGRASS AND COUNTRY-WESTERN music have long been like gin on the rocks--either you're born with a taste for it, or you get nauseous every time it comes near you. For the majority of people, who fall into the latter group, it has looked like a long dry rock season. With Dylan and The Band leading the industry to Nashville, and groups like The Pentangle and The Incredible String Band spawning a return to acoustical instruments, one had a hard time repressing visions of The Grand Old Opry on WMEX.
People who have watched popular music for any length of time know that it tends to move in circles. Once the decadence of a particular form of music has been generally recognized, there is a return to the basics, a rediscovery of roots. This period of retrenchment is necessary before a new form can take over. It happened about seven years ago, when the initial momentum of R&R died and was temporarily replaced by "folk music," à la early Dylan. Now that the excesses of the Gilded Age of psychedelia have become boring, the same thing is going on, with a revival of Country music. But just as the purist's folk music (Lonnie Johnson; Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes) never quite made it in '62, it is unlikely that anything you might hear on somebody's front steps in Kentucky can make it now. Music has gone too far in other directions to simply accept a traditional form as complete. The results of polarization will undoubtedly be a synthesis of the essential elements of the original and the technology of the later. All of which brings us around to The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark (A&M SP 4158).
Even the name Dillard is enough to provoke a shift in the mind frame to "fiddle and banjo"--the guts of bluegrass. This and the acoustic guitar also make up the insides of Expedition. But the trimmings here, electric harpsichord, dobro, drums and harmonica, put the whole album in a different cast. Willie Dixon called the music of the Chicago Blues All-Stars "Modernated blues," and the term "modernated" fits this record well, It jumps from Lester Flatt's "Git It On, Brother" to the almost-rock of "Out On The Side," maintaining a uniformity of tone which reflects its dual parentage. And it ends up in a very new, and good place.
The C&W music which forms the baseline for the record is best typefied by Bill Munroe, who coined the term "bluegrass." (Actually a sub-division of Country & Western, Appalachia as opposed to Texas.) It is instrumentally dependent on banjo and guitar, with an occasional mandolin or harmonica. The nasal vocals revolve around lost love and mother, both topics being kept quite separate.
The contemporary elements in Expedition are the minds of Gene Clark, Doug Dillard, and Bernie Leadon, who wrote all but one of the songs. While keeping the traditional framework, they have thrown in an electric guitar and drums on one cut, electric harpsichord on several, and more importantly, a sense of the absurd.
BUT JUST AS Expedition rejects the maudlin sentimentality which is the point of C&W, it is also turned off to the missionary impulse which ties down a great deal of popular music. Dillard and Clark are not out to convert anyone; they are having an easy-going good time with their music, and that in itself is enough. "From Don't Come Rollin'"
I got a five dollar bill and I tell you that I feel like a time you thought there never could be.
My ol' car ain't new, but it'll take you where there's something to see
We can roll downtown, I been around and I know a thing or two to do,
I'll do a little bit slower 'cause I want to take a ride with you.
Now if you ever think you want a little taste, a little see,
I'll fit you in forever, if I thought that it ever could be.
Well, talking trash and concealing that hash is established that it should not be,
So don't you come a'rollin' if you think of rollin' over me.
If the cover photo doesn't show you how far Expedition has moved from bluegrass (Did Homer and Jethro ever pose on motorcycles, passing a joint?) just listen to a couple of cuts. The lyrics put a far greater emphasis on the entire thought-world than one finds in C&W, and a better understanding of poetics.
I have fallen through black nights it seems with the times that are blind.
And I've watched your thoughts stray into dreams When you're not satisfied,
But when the door closes before my eyes Oh, I will cry,
Just to know you are going to stay Out on the side.
One of the main ties to C&W is that many of the songs seem fixed in a rural atmosphere. Rolling downtown with a five dollar bill to show your girl a thing or two, or getting hung-up in New Orleans on a chick with "cold, evil eyes" are nothing but country.
The record sets high instrumental standards, avoiding banjo-picking contests, but showing absolute competence. The songs are carried by guitar, banjo and mandolin, with some very nice blues harp (Gene Clark) and electric harpsichord (Andy Belling) mellowing down the strings.
Just how relevant Dillard and Clark are to actual trends will probably show up in a couple of months, after the initial impact of the new Dylan album. But in the meantime, if you're tripping, go with The Fantastic Expedition.