The Derailers,
Under the Influence of Buck
(Palo Duro, 2007)

Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding,
It's Now or Never
(Ryko, 2007)

To me, though they are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, Elvis Presley and Pete Seeger have one thing in common -- besides, I mean, their obvious, albeit differing, influences on American popular music. As far as I'm concerned, they're more interesting to read about than to listen to.

A few years ago, I had a hard time putting down Peter Guralnick's extraordinary two-volume biography of Elvis. I say this even though my sizable CD collection houses not a single Elvis album, and probably not more than two or three cuts on assorted anthologies. I'm old enough to remember watching his notorious first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and following the national hissy fit with which non-teenage white America (in a day when "white" and "America" were generally assumed to be synonymous) greeted those great early rockabilly records. In due course, our moms and dads took Elvis to heart as his music got crappier and ickier. If you want to know, Guralnick will tell you, in gruesome if riveting detail, the whole sordid story of how Elvis managed to squander a magnificent talent.

From time to time after those exhilarating first years, Elvis had a hit -- it came to feel as if by accident -- that wasn't painful to listen to, but by then it also felt like a guilty pleasure to enjoy it. One such guilty pleasure is the title tune ("O Sole Mio" with dopey English lyrics) of Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding's enjoyable Elvis tribute. Not all of the pleasures take their toll in conscience, of course -- "Don't Be Cruel," "You're So Square" and "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" (actually a hopped-up, slightly rewritten version of the African-American folksong "Corinna") are wonderful rock 'n' roll songs by any standard.

The New York City-based Gordon, a rock 'n' roll classicist, came out of the punk-rock scene in the late 1970s and early '80s with some albums that rekindled my passion, its flame still burning in this heart, for the rockabilly that scared the hell out of me as a dorky pre-adolescent in 1957. In the company of able British-born guitarist Chris Spedding, Gordon joins forces with the Jordanaires, who often crooned smooth harmonies behind Elvis, to recreate -- as opposed to reimagine --15 of his best songs. One improvement, though, is that the arrangements here seem less cluttered and less slapdash than their counterparts in some of the originals.

In the 1960s Buck Owens had an incredible run of singles that -- both literally and metaphorically -- electrified country radio. He has been a much more consequential presence in my life and record collection than Elvis Presley ever was or will be. Thus, I'm sure my intimate familiarity with the original records explains why the Derailers' tribute Under the Influence of Buck fails to excite me much. It is, however, entirely possible -- especially if you're coming to Owens' music for the first time -- that you won't care that the covers here of classics like "My Heart Skips a Beat," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail," "Under the Influence of Love" and "Cryin' Time" sound like the sorts of as-close-to-the-source versions you'd hear from a good bar band. (Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, on the other hand, sounded like a bar band in hillbilly heaven.)

The Derailers, whose home is in Austin, Texas, have been around since the first part of the 1990s. In their early records Owens' twangy, hard-rockin' Bakersfield sound largely defined their approach. Since then, they have evolved into a sort of '60s pop/rock/country outfit, in which the influences are both detectable and diffuse, not to mention fully shaped into a distinctive, if retro, musical persona. On the other hand, Influence is simply a labor of worshipful adoration, a deep bow to an outstanding American musical innovator and to a man who in his last decade (he died in March 2006) became a personal friend of the band.

If not terribly original, Influence is well-intentioned, warm-hearted and capably performed. I suspect its purpose is a noble one: to turn Derailers fans into Owens fans, too.

[ visit Robert Gordon's website ]

[ visit Chris Spedding's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

17 November 2007

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