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Book Excerpt: Ringo Starr Realizes a Dream With His 1970 Country Album

Read an excerpt from 'Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles' Solo Careers'

August 18, 2012 8:00 AM ET
ringo starr
Ringo Starr
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Ringo Starr had always loved country and western music. Back in 1959, he had joined an English group called The Raving Texans. He took the stage name Ringo not only because of the rings he wore, but also in honor of "Johnny Ringo," a real life cowboy involved in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

When the Beatles and Rolling Stones barnstormed across America in 1964 and 1965, many parts of the US only had country radio stations. The exposure deepened the bands' affection for the genre.

Coincidentally, at the end of 1964, Bonanza star Lorne Greene released an album called Welcome to the Ponderosa with a song about the gunfighter Johnny Ringo on it. Since it was during the height of Beatlemania, the label released it as a single. The song shot to number one by December, even though it had nothing to do with Richard Starkey. It must have been a hilarious capper to one of the best years of Starr's life to hear cowboys atmospherically harmonizing "Ring-go" to a two-step beat on the radio everywhere he went.

Starr went on to cover country artist Buck Owens' "Act Naturally" on the Help! album, co-wrote with Lennon-McCartney (supposedly) the country-inflected "What Goes On" on Rubber Soul, and wrote the country "Don't Pass Me By" on the White Album.

Thus when Starr met Nashville guitarist Pete Drake in 1970 while working on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, it was natural for the two to share a rapport. When Starr broached the idea of doing a country album, Drake replied everyone in Nashville would love to participate. Drake did hundreds of sessions a year and assured Starr they could complete the project in two days. With Starr's commitment, Drake rounded up his musician and composer friends and assembled a batch of songs for Starr to pick from.

Starr arrived in Nashville on June 22nd and cut the tracks on June 30th and July 1st. In order to keep Starr in tune, other vocalists sang just out of range of the microphone. For the album's title track, "Beaucoups of Blues," Starr selected a song by Buzz Rabin, a Nashville songwriter whose later credits included "If You'll Hold the Ladder (I'll Climb to the Top)," a tune used in Tender Mercies.

On a number of songs the incomparable Jordanaires provided the backing vocals as they had for Elvis on many of his classics, starting with "Heartbreak Hotel." They also sang for Ricky Nelson, among many others. Elvis' own original guitarist Scotty Moore engineered, and Charlie "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" Daniels played guitar. With so many authentic country contributors, the songs were not odd pastiches like "Don't Pass Me By," but bona-fide Nashville productions.

One stand out track is "15 Draw," a mellow song about a guitar player writing to his Mom, acknowledging how he could never settle down and stay married. The guy didn't take over his dad's hardware business because he thought he was going to make it big, but so far it hasn't happened and he needs to borrow $15. Still, he lets her know that he doesn't drink as bad anymore, and overall he sounds pretty content, though slightly wistful. Low key like lonely Texas highways, the song conjures a world like the country films Crazy Heart (2009) or Tender Mercies (1983).

It features the finger picking of Jerry Reed, in the Country Hall of Fame for both his singing and guitar playing. Elvis covered his 1967 song "Guitar Man" and brought Reed in to play in his own unique style on the track, and the song marked the beginnings of Elvis' rock and roll comeback after years spent making pop movie soundtracks. Reed then won the Grammy for "When You're Hot You're Hot," which is why Ringo quotes it in the "$15 Draw" fade out. Later Reed starred alongside Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit and sang its classic theme, "East Bound and Down."

The album didn't make the UK charts, and only reached number 65 in the US, so for the next two years Starr decided to focus on acting. But today, Blues is often rated by critics alongside 1973's Ringo (and perhaps 1992's Time Takes Time) as the Ringed One's best solo album. It depends upon whether you prefer country or slick pop rock.

From the book Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles' Solo Careers by Andrew Grant Jackson. Copyright 2012 by Andrew Grant Jackson. Published by Scarecrow Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

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