Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Happy Birthday Gary Stewart

The early 70s was a good time to be a country-rock band. Hippie culture had been more fully absorbed into America's collective consciousness than it was in the 60s, and at the same time, the backlash against the trippy, psychedelic excesses of the earlier era had begun in earnest, with the ascent of groups like the Band and Poco.

Riley Watkins, Jim Snead and Gary Stewart at Bradley’s Barn.
For some reason, though, top-shelf country-rockers Riley never made any commercial headway. Their 1970 album, Grandma's Roadhouse, was the rarest of rarities until its reissue 40 years after the fact; the original LP was released in a limited edition of only 500. Riley, named for frontman Riley Watkins, was essentially a trio, but singer/guitarist/pianist Gary Stewart was an unofficial fourth member. Stewart, who would become a country star in his own right later in the decade, was writing songs in Nashville and working at Owen Bradley's legendary studio Bradley's Barn when he invited Riley to do some recording. Stewart became a crucial part of the sessions, singing (mostly harmony), playing guitar and piano, and contributing four songs with his Nashville writing partner Bill Eldridge (who added some guitar to the tracks as well).  

The resulting Grandma's Roadhouse is a raw-sounding, rough-and-ready affair with no production frills whatsoever. Even the relatively bare-bones contemporaneous work of the band's aforementioned peers sounds slick in comparison to the tough, gritty tones achieved here. Watkins' gritty, somewhat John Fogerty-ish voice is the perfect vehicle for his and Stewart's greasy, mud-soaked tunes, which combine country twang, rock & roll energy, and some Southern soul influences. There's a loose, freewheeling vibe to the record, but the tunes are all tightly constructed, and the arrangements are strictly low-fat. The closest thing to hippie-era excess is the Allman Brothers Band-esque Watkins/Stewart guitar duel on closing track "Gotta Get Away." Even if it had received wider distribution at the time, Grandma's Roadhouse probably would have been too rough-edged for the mainstream, but it stands as a solid example of what was going on in the early- 70s roots rock underground. Thanks to the fine folks at Delmore Recordings for reissuing it.

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