Review: Riley – Grandma’s Roadhouse (Delmore, 2010/1971)
Record thrifters know the thrill of discovering a previously unknown recording that’s both a missing piece of history and worthwhile spin on its musical merits. Crate diggers and vault anthropologists continue to make incredible discoveries, and such is this obscure 1971 album. Pressed by the band in an edition of 500, it was sold at shows in upper Michigan and quickly disappeared into the collections of band members, families, friends and fans. Its claims to fame are several: it’s an early example of country, rock and soul fusion, it was recorded in the famed Bradley’s Barn studio in Nashville, and it marks the recorded debut of then-future country star Gary Stewart.
The group was named for its leader, Riley Watkins, and started out as a late-50s instrumental band backing first generation rockers who toured through Michigan. They relocated to Florida in 1963 to play the beach circuit, and there met the Kentucky-born Stewart. Stewart sat in and eventually joined the band (then called the Imps) for six months of shows in the wintery North. By decade’s end Watkins had formed a new trio with bassist Jim Noveskey and drummer Jim Snead, while Stewart had signed on as a songwriter in Nashville. One of the perks of Stewart’s songwriting gig was a sideline as an engineering assistant for Bradley’s Barn. Thus the connection was made, as Stewart invited Watkins to record tracks at the Barn. Stewart may have thought this an opportunity to put a band behind his songwriting demos, but Watkins jumped on the opportunity to record many of his originals.
Over the course of a year Watkins’ trio would race to Nashville to record their original songs, along with demos of tunes written by Stewart and his partner Bill Eldridge. As in the Florida days, Stewart sat in with the band, adding lead and rhythm guitar and harmonica, and singing lead on a couple of tunes. The band played emotional country rock that mixed elements heard in the Band, Poco, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Moby Grape and the Allman Brothers, as well as the southern soul sounds of Tony Joe White and Joe South. The band distinguished their sound with powerful guitar, bass and drums and strong multipart vocals. Watkins and Stewart sing a duet on the title track, and the harmonies on “Love, Love You Lady” suggest CS&N. Stewart steps to the front for the Creedence-styled “Drinkin’ Them Squeezins,” and the gospel sound and brotherhood-themed lyrics of “Listen to My Song” bring to mind Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes.”
The turn from the late ‘60s into the early ‘70s was a special time for pop music, mining the late 60s underground for nuggets of invention while shucking away the ponderous ballroom jamming. The ease with which this band combined rock, country and soul follows the heavier experiments of FM, but the conciseness of their compositions would have sounded at home on AM. It’s a shame these tracks didn’t get into the hands of someone at Capitol, as no one in Nashville at that time could have known what to do with this “headneck” music. Riley and Stewart write of greasy roadhouses and cheating lovers, but also love, brotherhood and fine weed. The entire album feels warm and familiar, as if it’s been sitting on the shelf next to Cosmo’s Factory, Don’t It Make You Wanna Go Home, Black and White and The Allman Brothers Band all these years.