California Bloodlines by John Stewart


During our second road trip across the USA, Paddy and I stayed in Flagstaff on Route 66. Old Flagstaff is wonderful; a small town with some great bars and a train station with a constant stream of freight trains heading West along with a couple of Amtrak passenger trains every day. Staying in the Monte Vista hotel, we felt obliged to visit their basement bar which had several pool tables. As Paddy struggled to pot a ball, a local guy came up to me and said that he loved everything British, especially Benny Hill and Budgie. I thought he meant the Adam Faith TV series but he meant the Welsh heavy metal band.

Budgie were a three piece heavy metal band from Cardiff who released 10 albums between 1971 and 1982. Their first two albums were released on Kapp Records.

Kapp Records was formed by David Kapp in 1954. His brother, Jack had formed Decca Records twenty years earlier. In 1964, Louis Armstrong’s version of “Hello Dolly” was released on Kapp Records. Other artists on Kapp included Cher, Miriam Makeba, The Searchers and Bob Wills. In 1967, David Kapp sold his company to MCA and the last Kapp release was in 1973.

David Kapp’s son, Mickey, became president of the label, having produced “Hello Dolly” as well as a live comedy album that featured Bill Dana, who often appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, pretending to be a Bolivian character named Jose Jimenez.

One of the sketches on the album involved Jose Jiminez being chosen to be the first man in space. The record was sent to the Mercury astronauts at NASA and when Mickey Kapp heard that two of the astronauts, Wally Schirra and Alan Shepherd, were quoting lines from the sketches, he reached out and formed a friendship with several of the astronauts. Realising that being an astronaut was mentally gruelling, he offered to help reduce stress by providing cassette tapes of playlists containing their favourite songs.

NASA supplied their astronauts with small cassette recorders for the Apollo 7 mission in 1968. They could use them to dictate mission notes but also use them as entertainment. When Apollo 11 took off for the first moon landing with Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong, Mickey Kapp had provided them with a selection of their favourite recordings. There were “Fly Me To The Moon” by Frank Sinatra, “Galveston” by Glen Campbell, “People” by Barbara Streisand, “Three O’Clock In The Morning” by Lou Rawls, “Angel Of The Morning” by Bettye Swann, “Spinning Wheel” by Blood Sweat And Tears, “Mist Of The Moon – Music Out Of The Moon” and “Moon Moods” by Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman, Harry Ravel and Les Baxter, “Everyday People” by Peggy Lee, “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon” by Jonathan King and “Mother Country” by John Stewart.

That’s a very eclectic collection but most of the songs are well known popular songs. The choice of “Mother Country” by John Stewart is very surprising. The song is the opening track on Side Two of “California Bloodlines”, released just two months before Apollo 11’s blast off. Buzz Aldrin had heard the song and asked for it to be included.

“Mother Country” is a wonderful song and displays a huge love for the USA, in the best possible way. There are two verses which each build and build to a deeply emotional musical climax. The first verse recounts the story he had read in The San Francisco Chronicle about a lady who felt that people who lived in “the good old days” were “just a lot of people doing the best that they could”. John Stewart wonders what happened to the faces in the old photographs. As he describes the terrible events of The Johnstown Flood, he sings how he loves “Mother Country”. The second verse is even better. It’s about a man called E.A. Stuart, “spelt S-T-U and A-R-T”. He liked to ride horses and his favourite was called “Sweetheart On Parade”. She was “easily the finest horse that the good Lord ever made”. Before he died, E.A. Stuart decided to ride the horse for the last time. A huge crowd gathered to see. “And the people cheered. Why, I even saw a grown man break right down and cry”. The producer, Nick Venet, told the musicians that despite the different spelling, E.A. Stuart was John Stewart’s father and this was a story about his death. As the musicians played the song for the first time, they responded emotionally to the story and the playing becomes intensely emotional. I never tire of hearing this song and, if you ask me nicely, I could “sing” the song to you, word perfect.

The album was recorded in Nashville at the same time that Bob Dylan was recording “Nashville Skyline” and uses many of the same musicians. “Gentleman” Lloyd Green plays pedal steel guitar, “First Take” Hargus Robbins plays piano, Fred “The Flash” Carter Jr plays guitar, “Good Time” Charlie McCoy plays harmonica, Kenneth “Down Wind” Buttrey plays drums and Norbert “Hometown” Putnam plays bass. The film “Fahrenheit 451” had just been released and John Stewart particularly liked the part of the film where the cast list was read out rather than appear on the screen. The back cover of “California Bloodlines” has no musician credits but refers us to the final track “Never Going Back”. Towards the end of the song, John Stewart says “We’d like to thank all the people who played on this” and he then reads out all the names along with their nicknames. He hadn’t told the musicians that he was going to do this and their response as they hear their names read out is moving, providing a great ending to the album. Fred Carter Jr was an exceptional guitarist and had a particular connection with The Band, especially Levon Helm. Before “Never Going Back” was recorded, he approached producer Nick Venet and John Stewart, saying that he had a guitar solo that he had been wanting to record for a long time and could he play it it his song? They encouraged him to do so and the result is terrific.

John Stewart also gives spoken credit to Nick Venet who produced the album: “in there, out of his mind and God bless him”. Nick Venet was a staff producer for Capitol Records and had signed The Beach Boys, producing their early albums. Brian Wilson had said that he learnt the art of production from Nick Venet.

In 1968, John Stewart and his wife, Buffy Ford, toured with Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968, which ended by Sirhan Sirhan’s murderous attack. At one point, John Stewart was sitting in a car, about to leave a rally when a guy popped his head through the open window of the car and said “Remember the name Ernesto Juarez”. John Stewart used this phrase as the chorus on “Omaha Rainbow”, a song about a long road ahead to achieve change.

There are plenty of beautiful songs on this album. “The Pirates Of Stone County Road” is a song of memory, recalling his much younger days pretending to be a pirate on his back porch, sailing to glory until his Mum called him in for tea.

The next album that John Stewart released was called “Willard” which consisted of some good songs but would not rank as one of my favourite John Stewart albums. However, the next album was nearly as good as “California Bloodlines” and was called “The Lonesome Picker Rides Again”. It included his own version of “Daydream Believer” which The Monkees had recorded. The title of the album refers to the stunningly beautiful “Lonesome Picker”, the second song on Side Two of “California Bloodlines”. It starts by describing how he often feels alone, unloved and unappreciated until he starts singing at which point “the music makes the whole world feel like home”. Two further verses describe the feelings of two women, Lily McLean and Julie, who are struggling with their lives. He hopes that the power of music can help them. “I’m believing that even when I’m gone, maybe some lonesome picker will find some healing in this song”.

Well, I can’t play guitar, but I can find plenty of healing, love and comfort from this wonderful album. It’s certainly more appealing than Budgie.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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