From the Vaults – Bobby Charles; Self-Titled (1972)
I’m not sure how I came across Bobby Charles’ self-titled album from 1972. I think it was a random discovery through an Amazon search about a year ago. Since then, this album has burrowed itself into my brain with its lazy, patient melodies, earthy love songs, and political anthems infused more with exhausted compassion than anger and indignation. It seems somehow appropriate to write this review on the 4th of July as Charles’ music offers a hazy view of America as rich and deep as the Louisiana soil from which he came.
Known best for writing classic tunes such as “See You Later Alligator,” and “Walking to New Orleans,” Charles was a reclusive songwriter who rarely made public appearances (he passed away in 2010 at the age of 71). His songs have been recorded by artists ranging from Kris Kristofferson to Ray Charles to Muddy Waters. He was friends with Bob Dylan, Dr. John, and The Band. In fact, one of his last public performances was at The Band’s Last Waltz concert in 1976. Bobby Charles even sounds a bit like The Band, though a mellower 4 AM version as a party winds down from heavy drinking. The affinity to The Band should be no surprise given it was produced by Rick Danko, features Garth Hudson on organ, and Levon Helm on a few drum tracks. Dr. John also contributes some keys and guitar. Bobby Charles is imbued with the smoky fog of the 70s, and one can almost feel the sweaty humidity of the south in an era when regional cultures were more distinct, before cable television, chain restaurants, and a relentless saturation of information began conspiring to make a bland monoculture of a once diverse nation.
From the opening high hat shuffle and drowsy slide guitar on the album’s first track, “Street People,” I’m transported back to my early childhood, riding along the dusty roads of east Tennessee, looking out the window of my parents’ station wagon at the orange dirt hills, pickup truck watermelon stands, and shirtless hitchhikers meandering about. The song is an ode to unemployed drifters and sets the tone for the album’s celebration of relaxed introspection while questioning a nation just realizing its destiny of devout consumerism and hyper-militarism. “Save Me Jesus,” is a funky, mid-tempo jaunt full of bluesy New Orleans piano fills and guitar riffs that is an irresistible foot-stomping lament with a home-spun simplicity that masks the depth of Charles’ world-weary cultural critique.
They got satallites and spaceships flying ‘cross the universe
They killed before and they’ll kill again, just so they can say they first
They build monuments and churches and things I ain’t seen yet
And they’ve signed them all with their autograph in case you might forget
Save me, Jesus, save me Jesus
Save me Jesus, Jesus save me
From this God-forsaken place
And, Lord, when it’s all over, they’ll think you should be proud
And they’ll be a few who’ll offer you anything for your job
So when you take me, Jesus, please put me among friends
Don’t put me back with these power-crazy money-lovers again
Charles’ swampy political rants continue with the slow burning, almost drone-like, “All The Money” which distills his cultural distress down to skeletal, repetitive one-liners like “He got all the whiskey, and he won’t give me none; He got all the power and he won’t give me none.” It’s a rollicking song that builds in intensity as riff upon riff is stacked before a frenzied chorus of horns plays the song out. Bobby Charles doesn’t just explore social angst, but is also rounded out with mellow songs of gratitude and wonder. “In A Good Place Now” betrays the overly earnest ethos of the flower generation with lines like “I saw a butterfly and named it after you; your name has such a pleasant sound.” In the throat of another singer, such lines might be cringe-worthy, but Charles manages to get away with it given his raspy southern drawl and the sleepy, behind-the-beat piano that conjures the drowsy euphoria of a Sunday nap in August.
The album closes with “Homemade Songs,” another slow tempo track that celebrates a love of place and bemoans a lover lost by “staying stoned and singing homemade songs.” If the recipe for crafting songs as humbly soulful as those of Charles were so easy, a quarter bag of weed should come packaged with every guitar sold. Of course, such sensitivity can’t be stuffed in a pipe or rolled up in papers, but Bobby Charles is its own naturally mellowing intoxicant. Whether you choose to amplify that buzz further is up to you, but I suggest giving this album a listen whatever your preferred state of mind.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.