Back in the ’60s at the height of their popularity, The New Christy Minstrels were often snubbed by the folk music purists. Their very popularity—they were a fixture on Andy Williams’ TV show—proved they were little more than commercial panderers. Even as late as 2003, Christopher Guest could poke some fun at them as the New Main Street Singers, one of the vocal groups in his folk music mockumentary, A Mighty Wind. And clearly there is much about their music that justifies their critics; authenticity is not one of the group’s priorities. They were not like many of the stalwarts in “the folk song army,” not much interested in political posturing. Slick production and catchy arrangements, combined with a little cute patter, were more their style.
Still, it is hard not to listen to their best work and smile. There is reason they were so popular back in the day. When they were good, they were very, very good, and when they were bad—well, you get the idea. The best thing about A Retrospective 1962-1970, the new CD from Real Gone Music, is that it separates the wheat from most of the chaff. There are 25 tracks on this single CD and hardly a clinker in the bunch. Sure there are some songs—especially those from the later date—which will rub the folkies the wrong way, but for the less pedantic listener, even these will be welcome reminders of a happy past.
The group, founded by Randy Sparks, underwent many personnel and some management changes over the years and the compilation illustrates the variety of its manifestations. The interesting thing is that through all the changes, the ensemble managed to maintain its signature sound, even after the departure of a gravel voice as distinctive as that of Barry McGuire. Extensive liner notes running 16 pages documenting the group’s journey complete with archival photos by Christy historian, Tom Pickles, are included with the disc.
The album includes all of the Minstrels’ greatest hits: live recordings of “Denver” and “(The Story of) The Preacher and the Bear” from 1962, McGuire’s featured vocal on “Green, Green,” a 1963 recording of “Saturday Night,” and the sweetly mellow “Today” from the next year. It demonstrates the ensemble’s versatility. There is a bit of gospel in a rousing version of “Beautiful Day” and an unreleased version of “Walk the Road.” There are examples of the story ballads “Jimmy Grove and Barbara Ellen” and “Julianne.” There’s a little blues with live versions of “Listen, I’ll Sing You the Blues,” featuring Karen Gunderson, and the Billie Holiday classic “God Bless the Child,” featuring Nick Woods. Cute patter is illustrated in the Sparks send-up of the Aussie favorite, “Waltzing Matilda.” The earliest tune on the album is a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
The Christy’s attempt to broaden their repertoire when they began to sense a decline in the folk market is represented by cinema favorites “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” There is a 1965 cover of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Highflyin’ Bird,” with a solo by Bob Buchanan, who later worked with Gram Parsons. The latest piece on the album is “You Need Someone to Love” recorded in 1970 for an album which the notes indicate used a group of session singers under the Christy name. Although the album was reasonably successful, it never became part of “the Christy heritage.”
The folk revival of the ’60s created its share of legends. If in retrospect the New Christy Minstrels haven’t quite measured up to the likes of Bob Dylan or maybe even the more commercially oriented Peter, Paul and Mary, they were still one of the key voices of the decade. This Retrospective shows why.