One day in 1973 or 1974, I went to the Mercer Island Public Library. I don’t recall if I was there for a school assignment, to look for something to read, or another reason, but while there I started to look through the bin of LPs. The pickings were slim, but one record jacket caught my eye, “Country Cassanova”, by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen.
On the front was a photo of a pretty rough looking guy leaning on a 60s vintage Lincoln Continental. Flip to the backside and the same guy is posing with seven others in front of an old Greyhound tour bus. They were a matched set with the one on the cover. Long hair, disheveled, a touch greasy looking, they looked like the guys mom warns you about.
Now, I had heard of Commander Cody due to a big hit a couple of years before, “Hot Rod Lincoln.” But that was it. The album in my hand was more recent, and contained tunes I didn’t know, with the exception of “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” which I had heard performed by another artist. But I checked it out, took it home, and slapped it on the family turntable.
What came out of the speakers was definitely not what I was used to listening to. I owned a few albums by such artists as Cat Stevens, Elton John, and Jim Croce, but that was pretty much it. I had been heavily influenced by popular radio like many my age.
The title track opens the album with a single strike of the snare and a steel guitar riff which initially turned me off. Steel guitar, that instrument which seemed to me designed simply to evoke weepy emotions, was the last thing I wanted to hear. Put simply, it wasn’t cool.
The funny thing is, I kept listening. As the tracks went by I heard a wide range of musical styles. I wasn’t used to that, as the albums in my collection were mostly by singer-songwriters and all in a certain style depending on the artist.
But Commander Cody had multiple songwriters and did numerous covers of songs by other artists. Plus, some members of the band were multi instrumentalists. Besides lead guitar, Bill Kirchen played trombone, and fiddler Andy Stein doubled on sax. Steel guitar player Bobby Black often added a third voice to the horns making it sound like a full horn section. Rockabilly, swing, country, gospel, and more than I can remember filled the record with a lively set of tunes.
On top of all that, four voices shared lead vocals. Cody’s proto-rapping of his numbers really didn’t define the band’s overall sound, but added to a diverse song catalog. Billy C. Farlow was essentially a rockabilly singer and nearly channeled Buddy Holly on a cover of “Rave On.” Bill Kirchen’s baritone is heard on a number of leads and backups, often the harder edged numbers. Rhythm guitarist John Tichy seemed to prefer the traditional country and gospel tunes.
“Country Cassanova”, in my opinion, is not the best of the albums produced by this crew. That honor easily goes to their first live album, “Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas.” But it started me on a lifelong journey with music.
I discovered that I didn’t need to listen only to what my friends listened to, or to what the Top 40 gurus deemed good enough to sell advertising. Sure, I bought popular music and saw concerts by popular artists, but I was open to just about anything. I also soon discovered that local musicians didn’t just do covers of what was being played on the radio.
I will continue this topic in future posts.