Graded on a Curve:
The Beau Brummels,
Bradley’s Barn

The Beau Brummels are mostly remembered for the exemplary folk-rock of “Laugh Laugh” and “Just a Little,” both Top Twenty hits in 1965. But they also crafted one of the earliest and best examples of country-rock, the masterful 1968 LP Bradley’s Barn.

I find it hard to not be somewhat conflicted about The Beau Brummels. Not in terms of quality, for they were one of the USA’s finest (and earliest) acts to emerge in the wake of the British Invasion, but simply in defining their historical legacy. For starters, they were signed to disc-jockey Tom Donahue’s small Autumn label during their early period of widespread popularity, a circumstance that limited the distribution of their two biggest hits (“Laugh Laugh” stalling at #15 and “Just a Little” at #8 respectively). And yet they were considered legitimate teen idols of the time, appearing not only in two motion pictures but also on TV’s The Flintstones (as the uh, Beau Brummelstones). It’s enough to make a mind contemplate what might have transpired had the band been in the hands of a more capable label, for their first two LPs Introducing The Beau Brummels and Volume 2 stand amongst the best records issued by American acts in the immediate post-Beatles aftermath.

But when the group made the switch to Warner Brothers, they were initially mishandled. Beau Brummels ’66 was an ill-advised (if not at all bad) covers-only LP conceived because the label didn’t initially control the band’s publishing. Their first “real” record for Warners, ‘67’s outstanding slice of baroque-psyche Triangle, remains one of the better psychedelic excursions of the period, an effort that unfortunately got buried in the year of Sgt. Pepper’s. Bradley’s Barn followed in ’68, and after it floundered commercially (Triangle only managed to briefly squeak onto the Billboard Album Chart at #197) singer Sal Valentino and guitarist Ron Elliott (the band having been reduced to a duo after bassist’s Ron Meagher’s induction into the Army Reserve during the recording of Triangle), called it a day.

If The Beau Brummels’ later work struggled in the marketplace, it also seems they haven’t gotten the accurate level of critical due. Sure, the reissues of their ‘60s material have garnered positive and sometimes glowing assessments, but I can’t shake the impression that the band’s true status as folk-rock, psyche-rock, and country-rock innovators (to say nothing of the Brummels’ status as harbingers of the late-60s San Francisco rock scene) continues to be slept upon. And in some corners the assessment of the group as a mere post-Beatles pop footnote continues to linger. I guess that’s what associating with Hanna-Barbera gets you.

Released just two months after The Byrds’ country-rock masterpiece Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Bradley’s Barn is safe from any insinuations of stylistic imitation, and this fact is further emphasized by the marked differences between the two records. If Sweetheart is the better album (and it is, but not by that wide a margin), it’s also quite bold in how it appropriates its honky-tonk aura, featuring steel guitar and fiddle that could find many of its eleven tracks on a mix-tape nuzzling with ‘60s vintage material from Johnny Paycheck and George Jones with no one (save for Ralph Emery) expressing disapproval. This sharp reverence for the C&W sound extended to Sweetheart’s track-list; with the exception of two songs by Gram Parsons’ it was all covers, four of them from legitimate and revered country songwriters.

Bradley’s Barn is a somewhat different kettle of fish. Lacking Sweetheart’s frank sense of homage, Barn is instead a sort of laid-back culmination of The Brummels’ longstanding interest in country sounds. In addition to a palpable if restrained Everly Brothers influence figuring into their DNA, they also covered Don Gibson’s 1958 country chart smash “O Lonesome Me” on their first LP (notably before The Beatles’ classic Ringo-sung Buck Owens cover “Act Naturally”). And while Triangle is accurately assessed as a study in psychedelia, it also included a take on pre-honky-tonk country great Merle Travis’ “Nine Pound Hammer.” So it should come as no surprise that Bradley’s Barn radiates with a comfortable, knowing atmosphere in how it blends two disparate styles.

Named for the recording facility of famed Countrypolitan producer Owen Bradley, Bradley’s Barn finds Valentino and Elliott interacting with a tight coterie of Nashville session greats including keyboardist David Briggs, bassist Norbert Putnam, drummer Kenny Buttrey, and guitarist Jerry Reed. The employment of experienced, authentic sessioneers keeps the record from ever sounding awkward, a quality it shares with Sweetheart. However, Barn eschews the deep fiddles and steel-guitar ambiance of The Byrds’ effort for a folkier, more introspective approach. It’s actually much closer in spirit to Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, which was released the following year.

It’s also notable that in contrast to Sweetheart, Barn features ten originals and only one cover, Randy Newman’s “Bless You California.” Opener “Turn Around” finds Valentino’s deep, ragged voice working in fine counterpoint with cascades of gorgeous finger-picking and brilliantly unfussy percussion. The song is a textbook study in how to blend downbeat subject matter and weary vocal delivery with contrasting yet apposite musical accompaniment, a lesson in restraint that sadly eluded many producers of the era. And “Turn Around” gives way to “An Added Attraction (Come and See Me),” a wickedly subtle bit of hung-over yearning that’s made priceless by Valentino’s serrated baritone and the gradual rise in assertive instrumental commentary, particularly from Brigg’s astute piano. It’s my pick for Bradley’s Barn’s high-point, and happily none of its subsequent tracks register even a hint of letdown.

The rock side of the equation is eloquently expressed through tracks like “Deep Water,” “Long Walk Down to Misery,” and “Love Can Fall a Long Way Down.” Like the rest of the LP, all three are tasteful without feeling calculatedly so. Rather than conceiving the set as a sort of tribute or bid for acceptance, the Brummels along with ace producer Lenny Waronker were instead truly focused upon making the best album possible from a rich group of songs, with Barn’s country inclination possibly inspired by Dylan’s John Wesley Harding from the previous year. Kenny Buttrey contributed to both Harding and Skyline, so his participation here is a pointer to this record’s low-key feel.

“Cherokee Girl” was released as a single in ’69, and with its string section accents it feels that way. But instead of detracting from the album the song actually succeeds in complementing its tapestry of understated invention. Along with “Bless You California,” a closer packed with well-layered instrumental diversions and Newman’s typically expert songwriting, “Cherokee Girl” shows the participants as quite invested in making not just a great record, but also a commercial one. It’s too bad listeners didn’t respond.

Considering how well Bradley’s Barn still holds up, it’s hard to resist designating The Beau Brummels, their early chart fling aside, as one of the more underappreciated acts of the ‘60s. Their output provides a unique perspective on the quickly changing norms of the decade, and most importantly it continues to serve as fine listening.

Graded on a Curve: A

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