Thursday, 3 October 2019

C.W. McCall - Black Bear Road (1975)

Having spent the first decade of my life in a rural area - specifically growing up on the farm which eventually became the set of Teletubbies - trucks, trucking, farm machinery, and country music loomed larger than they probably would have done had I grown up in some more urban setting. Amongst my school friends were a significant group of three - Paul and two other kids, both named Tom - who seemed particularly attuned to the rural automotive current and would spend hours yacking on and on about trucks, engines, mileage, differential gearboxes, and so on. They were quite naturally way ahead of the curve when CB radio kicked in.

To get to the point, Paul was one of the first kids I ever knew, living on the farm along the road from ours and so we were friends at a very young age, and he taped me a few tracks from this album once I got my first tape recorder. Having long since recorded over the tape, I spent years wondering what this music had been - admittedly without breaking much of a sweat in my efforts to find out given that it was clearly the work of the guy who recorded Convoy - only finding out in the late nineties that it was an album called Black Bear Road, because er… Nigel of Nocturnal Emissions kindly ran me off a tape of the record, somewhat substantiating his claim of never having been particularly industrial.

Now finally, I've splashed out on my own copy of the fucking thing; and I knew it wasn't my memory playing tricks. I knew it was worth getting hold of.

Peculiarly, it turns out that C.W. McCall may be considered an early form of idoru, a virtual entertainer, an image serving as a front for the men behind the music. He began life as a trucking character in a television commercial for Old Home Bread, eventually developing a life of his own as the creation of William Dale Fries Jr. with music written by Chip Davies. The strangest realisation for me is that it could be argued that Black Bear Road - which sounds so ruggedly authentic that I've actually had to wash the dust and grit from myself after listening to the thing - is actually so manufactured as to make the New Kids look like Bob Dylan; therefore fuck!, beyond which I guess it doesn't matter. The first six tracks, side one plus Convoy, represent what country music does best, or did best before it turned into that rhinestoned spangled autotune shite we have now: crafted, populist, full of soul, genuinely funny and witty when it's cracking the jokes, homespun and sentimental without quite tipping over into parody - what white people had instead of blues music and very much a parallel to the extent that it's difficult to miss the common ground now shared with rap: urban folk tales told amongst a small community using a language very much exclusive to itself, private jokes, quick talking, plenty of blues and telling it how it is.

Unfortunately, whilst none of the last four numbers - tracks seven to ten on side two - are terrible, the drop in quality following Convoy is weird and dramatic. We start with a record where no two tracks sound the same, powerful heartfelt music which makes you feel as though you're there, songs so strong that you forget you're listening to any particular genre; then suddenly we have four b-sides, songs which do a job and tick certain boxes, but which sound like every other seventies country record you've ever heard whilst channel hopping past a commercial break for some fifty disc golden oldies boxed set aimed at retired persons.

I don't know how the album could end as it has, but maybe it doesn't matter, because few artists have ever recorded anything as powerful as McCall's Ghost Town, and probably never will.

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