Have you ever noticed how there is always some great musician that almost no one's ever heard of who supposedly is better at what he or she does than all those who have become famous for playing the same style of music? It's amazing how ordinary so many of these supposed hidden great ones turn out to be, and the reason they never made it big becomes obvious as soon as you listen to them. However, once in a while one of these folk turn out to be the real deal, which is the case with a guy named Chris Darrow.
I don't know about anybody else but I'd never heard of him before I read the press release announcing the Everloving label was releasing the Under My Own Disguise Box Set consisting of Darrow's first two solo releases, Chris Darrow and Under My Own Disguise (from 1973 and 1974 respectively) on both LP and CD, plus a forty-eight page 12 X 12 inch photo book. The review copy I received was a single CD without any of the bells and whistles, but it did contain what really matters, the twenty-one tracks from the original releases. While it's true what I said about having never heard of Darrow before, reading through his biography made me realize how many times I had heard him without knowing it.
Even the briefest summary of his career sounds like a whose who of the country/rock and folk genres as Darrow was one of the founding members of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in 1967, played with Linda Ronstadt and Hoyt Axton, was the basest on Leonard Cohen's first album, and played fiddle and violin on James Taylor's Sweet Baby James. When he wasn't doing country/rock he was experimenting with psychedelic rock by co-founding with David Lindley Kaleidoscope, playing bluegrass with The Dry City Scat Band (again with David Lindley), and even had a stint with The Flying Burritos. It appears that he hasn't met a stringed instrument he doesn't like for he plays guitar, fiddle, bass, violin (which is different from fiddle playing), banjo, Dobro, lap steel, and mandolin for a start.
However it's his own work that we're mainly concerned about here, and while there are a lot of great session musicians who can pick up almost any instrument and play it, very few of them ever go on to record their own music, or if they do it ends up not being that special. I wasn't sure what to expect from Chris Darrow; his press materials mentioned one of my personal favourites Graham Parsons, but also made reference to that mockery of country rock, The Eagles. Much to my relief Darrow's music from that period was far closer to Parsons then The Eagles, while at the same time being almost completely different from most anything else I'd heard before.
While some of the songs are pure country, like "Albuquerque Rainbow" or "We're Living On $15 A Week", there are others that veer over towards the psychedelic jug band sound of the Grateful Dead. "Take Good Care Of Yourself" seems to have four different melodic patterns going on, starting with the reggae derived beat that drives the song and finishing with Darrow's laconic, country tinged vocals on the off beat. Somehow, although it constantly feels like its on the verge of imploding, this strange mixture not only manages to find its way to the end of the song, but it sounds great.
The rest of the songs from those two early solo releases show off Darrow's virtuosity as he plays mandolin, banjo, dulcimer, bass, fiddle, slide-guitar, dobro, guitar, sings lead, and produced them as well. Probably the only stringed instrument he doesn't play is the Celtic Harp played by Alan Stivell. "Devil's Dream" is a beautiful instrumental with Darrow accompanying Stivell's harp with his mandolin. The harp shows up again on the next track "We Don't Talk Of Lovin' Anymore", which sounds like Darrow's reached back and grabbed the Celtic roots of country music and combined them with American folk to create this aching and haunting song.
Listening to Darrow's music one can't help feeling cheated, because you realize just how severely country music and so-called country rock have compromised themselves in their attempts to be commercially viable. The irony is once anybody listens to any of Darrow's music they're not going be satisfied with anything from either Nashville or the bland tedium of the Eagles. Darrow's music has the honesty and passion of Graham Parson at his best and the musical inventiveness of the Dead, while drawing upon traditional folk, blues, early rock and roll, and psychedelic pop for inspiration.
Today we'd probably try and fit him into the roots rock or Americana genres, but realistically you can't cram him into any of those neat little categories. I mean what are you going to do with a guy who covers Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues" and then latter on has a song like "That's What It's Like To Be Alone"; a plaintive lament whose lead instruments are cello, harp, what sounds like a kazoo, and harpsichord. The fact that medieval and renaissance instruments like the rebec (and early stringed and bowed instrument), sacbut (an early version of the saxophone) and others equally obscure show up to rub shoulders with mandolins and guitars only make him harder to pin down.
It's one thing to go back in time and re-discover music by someone who's no longer with us and mourn what's been lost and regret over what could have been. It's another thing altogether to look back on an artist's career to help put his current output into perspective. Chris Darrow is still alive and well and producing compositions quite unlike anything you'll see and hear anywhere else. The web site Chris Darrow's Art contains examples of both his photography and current music projects and shows that he's still drawing outside the lines and charting his own unique course.
While some have seen fit to lump Chirs Darrow's work from the 1970s into the same category as the Eagles and other California so called country/rockers, it doesn't take long to realize just how erroneous a judgment that is. Even one quick scan through either Chris Darrow or Under My Own Disguise will tell you how much more exciting and innovative he was than anything else from that era. The early 1970's might have been primarily a wasteland of commercial pabulum when it came to pop music, but there was at least one shining light being hid under a bushel, and his name is Chris Darrow.