Graded on a Curve:
Chris Darrow,
Artist Proof

Up to this point the career of Chris Darrow has been far from front-page news, but the overdue reissue by Drag City of his terribly overlooked 1972 solo LP Artist Proof should underscore his small but substantial placement in the history of early-‘70s country-rock. While the album’s laid-back glory ain’t perfect, it is much more rewarding than many of the more prominent examples of the style, and those with an appreciation for the genre should definitely investigate its charms.

It’s really quite surprising that Artist Proof, released by the Fantasy label in 1972, is just now seeing reissue. For starters, while he’s a somewhat minor figure in the numerous growth spurts rock music underwent during the late-‘60s/early-‘70s, Chris Darrow does indeed possess an interesting background. And secondly, it seems this LP’s straightforward and quite accomplished slab of country-rock could’ve easily found an appreciative audience anytime during the last twenty-five years or so.

For lots of folks looking to fill historical gaps in their record collections would’ve found Darrow’s story quite attractive, with this versatile personality first making waves as a founding member of the Los Angeles psych-folk/proto-world-music unit Kaleidoscope.

A cult outfit perhaps most notable as the starting point for prolific multi-instrumentalist David Lindley and for contributing songs to the soundtrack to Michelangelo Antonioni’s still divisive 1970 film Zabriskie Point, the band also cut some very solid albums for Epic; the first two, ‘67’s Side Trips and the following year’s A Beacon From Mars featured the participation of Darrow.

Along with his Kaleidoscope mates Lindley and Max Buda, Darrow also contributed to Songs of Leonard Cohen, though due to their roles being uncredited on the album sleeve it’s always been a pretty well-kept secret (some tracks from the sessions also appear on the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s ’71 film McCabe and Mrs. Miller). After leaving Kaleidoscope, Darrow then worked with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their Rare Junk and Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy albums.

With the Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna, Darrow also formed The Corvettes, the act knocking out a couple of nifty and rare (and very much in need of reissue) Mike Nesmith-produced 45s for the Dot label before essentially becoming the backing group for Linda Ronstadt’s post-Stone Poneys live engagements (Hanna returned to the Dirt Band to be replaced by future Flying Burrito Brother/Eagle Bernie Leadon).

Had Peter Asher actually managed to sign The Corvettes to MGM, the history of country-rock might’ve developed quite differently. But he didn’t, the band split up and Darrow ended up playing fiddle on James Taylor’s second album smash Sweet Baby James. And in 1972 he recorded Artist Proof, a record that even considering its lack of big-label muscle should’ve been a lot bigger than what it was.

For right off the bat the LP makes clear that it’s in sweet consort with the alternate descriptor for so much of this era’s country-rock, that being Hippie Country. To be blunt, the C&W stuff that informed this movement had very little in common with the vibes of peace, love, and understanding that wafted all over the globe from the American West Coast during this period (indeed, the strains of hardcore honky-tonk were often derided as “shitkicker music”).

The longhairs that were getting turned on by such names as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Johnny Paycheck were busy adapting those artist’s musical strides into a sensibility that was both kinder/gentler and at times decidedly more rocking, in turn making it more palatable to an audience that was getting a bit fatigued with the trippy indulgence of long-form outward-bound jams.

Along with the indispensable Gram Parsons and the obvious entries from Dylan and Neil Young, some of the most interesting country-soaked stuff to spring from the hippie scene included The Beau Brummels’ masterpiece Bradley’s Barn, The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, The New Riders of the Purple Sage’s self-titled debut, the underrated Brewer & Shipley’s Tarkio, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen’s Lost in the Ozone, a handful of killer records from Nesmith’s First National Band, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a crucial 3LP document that bridged the divide between the members of the bluegrass and trad-country scene and the new jacks that held them in such lofty regard.

This is frankly some high quality work (though that doesn’t mean individual flaws don’t creep up on occasion), and if Darrow had done nothing but release Artist Proof’s “Beware of Time” as a single, he’d still belong in their impressive company. In fact, the song did make it to 45 via The Corvettes, with that early version landing squarely in the Parsons-era Byrdsian zone and missing the charts by an um, country mile.

The take that opens this album retains some of the same aura but enhances it with the sure-handed playing of studio pros and a liberal touch of the laid-back manner that was just getting ready to sneak attack the charts through the debut album from the Eagles. That effort hit stores the same year as Artist Proof, and it’s something of a drag that Darrow didn’t reap even a fraction of its explosive success.

Now folks friendly to country-rock that have never found the Eagles to be much more than a pain in the ear shouldn’t hesitate over sauntering right up to this LP’s contents. “Beware of Time” might share some of the more sophisto aims that came to afflict the genre, but in this case it presents a highly listenable alternative to the overproduction and obnoxious songwriting that rose to the surface not long thereafter.

If the group’s prowess is immediately on display, “Beware of Time” never shoves this adeptness down the throats of the listener, electing instead to kick up a little dust under Darrow’s strong but appealingly plain vocalizing through sly tempos shifts and rigorous soloing. But the best element in the tune is easily the leader’s outbursts of keening (yet not a bit discordant) fiddle during the chorus, establishing sonic terrain that accentuates the essential differences between country-rock and the uncut C&W that influenced it.

Likewise, the following track “Lovers Sleep Abed Tonight.” While it’s got some nicely utilized mandolin and pedal steel to underscore the general direction, in the end the song hits a spot somewhere between The Band and the more twangy moments of The Rolling Stones. Upon consideration, that’s quite a good spot. And the qualities of Darrow’s voice might not blow anybody’s mind, but very much in his favor is a general disinclination to prove to the world just how soulful he can be, a tendency that plagued many a hippie-era vocalist.

Darrow simply sings with unaffected feeling, attempting to present his songs in the best light possible. And this fact helps quite a bit when Album Proof leans toward the less attractive singer-songwriter-ish approach of his cohort James Taylor. This nod to the MOR is indeed prevalent on “Shawnee Moon,” but it’s also counteracted substantially by Ed Black’s pedal steel and the punch in Mickey McGhee’s drumming.

Additionally, the hard-luck resignation of “Move on Down the Line” almost positions Darrow as a country-rock counterpart to Runt-era Todd Rundgren. And the fragile air of “Song for Steven,” featuring just acoustic guitar and voice, should please plenty of those smitten by the wispy strains of recent alt-folk.

A take on the standard “Cocaine Lil” does err a bit, brandishing a showy arrangement with some overdone rollicking piano, but the main problem is the song never really catches fire, being a tad too polite. With this said, it’s by no means a total botch, and the following track “Alligator Man” throws some welcome Cajun qualities into the stew, with Darrow’s fiddle playing being quite a treat.

“Keep on Trying” returns to singer-songwriter mode but is again matched with a strong musical backbone, and it’s followed by the quite rocking “New Zoot,” a tune that could gain some appreciative nods from fans of early Little Feat. With its high quotient of pedal-steel, “The Show Must Go On” is a prime example of the classic country-rock sound, and Darrow’s lyrical waxing over the performer’s life is happily lacking in romanticism and self-importance.

The album begins to wind down with “The Sky is Not Blue Today,” a tune that should satisfy many a current alt-country fan. Fiddle provides some trad bedrock, but slide guitar, congas and marimba lend it a rich atmosphere of contemporaneous motion. Closer “We Can Both Learn to Say I Love You” finds Darrow alone at the piano for a ballad of unexpected sweetness. It’s not really the zone to best display his talents, but as a tender end note it registers as just right. So give your lover a hug.

Drag City’s LP edition of this reissue comes with a compact disc of the record that includes five highly enjoyable and equally enlightening alternate versions of album tracks. That’s what’s called bonus value, the additions bringing some stripped-down depth to Artist Proof’s very good, at times quite superb core.

If it hails from a genre that catches its share of contempo guff for contributing to the oft-ridiculed state of mind that was the Mellow ‘70s, Darrow’s fine effort should be excused from all the opprobrium since hardly anybody bought the thing when it was offered the first time around. And these days we all need to unwind and relax a little bit, so the reappearance of this album is a swell addition to the shelf.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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