Here is John Fogerty doing what comes naturally. If he seemed immodest in the Creedence Clearwater Revival, he has justified himself and proven that he can make a fine, fine record without anyone’s help at all. The Blue Ridge Rangers may be the most successful one-man rock album yet, and if the general concept still doesn’t make sense at least Fogerty has made it work.
The entire album is devoted to reinterpretations of personal favorites; mainly country, some spirituals and early rock. It has practically nothing to do with current rock trends, be they singer/songwriter, heavy metal, theatrical, glitter or flash. Instead, the record is a crystal-clear distillation of one man’s view of the rock & roll past, the source of his strength and his faith. On it, each cut seems to flow into a river of feeling in which country and city, western and blues, gospel and secular blend together in a complete body of indigenous American music.
The center of this album’s art is Fogerty’s singing. He walks that line between concessions to the original style and maintaining his own identity as well as any white singer can. He affects appropriate accents with charm but doesn’t overwork them. He sings black material with country inflections, and country tunes with black ones. And as carefully thought out as this album is, it contains not a hint of contrivance or excessive self-consciousness.
Instrumentally, he has licked the biggest bugaboo of the one-man band — the drumming. He plays in a stiff, energetic style that pins the entire arrangement down without becoming excessively simplistic. On “Jambalaya” he just plays the song, but his extra kicks on the bass drum and firm touch with the snare are the source of his version’s unusual drive. His guitar playing is unchanged from Creedence days, with “Workin’ on a Building” featuring the guitar part first heard on the great “Green River.” And then there are odds and ends, a taste of competent fiddle, some extra nice steel playing, some unfortunately uninteresting banjo, and some very convincing trio singing.
“Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” is a sort of country standard that John says he took from the J.E. Mainer version, although he added the resounding bass drum work. It’s a perfect theme song for this kind of album, very specific in lyric, but very general in overtones. “You’re The Reason” and “Jambalaya” are country & western rather than old timey, bluegrass or straight country. He plays them harder than the originals, especially the latter.
Fogerty learned “She Thinks I Still Care” from a Merle Haggard album and it reveals his knack for picking songs with striking lyrics. Its broad irony is enhanced by John’s deadpan delivery. And the seriousness with which he approaches all the material is another aspect of his style that I very much appreciate. He does some very sentimental things but never even seems tempted to camp around with them. Every track reveals the intensity of his respect for the sources of his own work, but a respect that shies away from useless reverence.
“California Blues,” a Jimmie Rodgers tune, is closer in origins to “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” than the other country material, but he gives it a near Dixieland treatment, holding it together with a wonderful bottom and some of his best singing. “Have Thine Own Way Lord” is straight bluegrass and good as he does it, it invites comparison with the Country Gentlemen’s original, which he has, in this case alone, copied too precisely.
“Please Help Me I’m Falling” and “Today I Started Loving You Again” are both modern country songs done with firmness and conviction. The former was the first country song to make an impression on me and John’s version may be a bit too understated.
Then there is the counterpoint material, the black oriented interpretations. “Somewhere Listening (for My Name)” was written by Archie Brownlee, leader of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. I don’t know the original, but Fogerty gives it a very impressive interpretation, paying sufficient attention to the nuances of the genre to establish his authority at the same time he places the song squarely within the parameters of his own style. He learned “Workin’ on a Building” from a Stanley Brothers record but performs it here like black gospel. “I Ain’t Never” had country origins as well but Fogerty has modified it sufficiently so that it comes out closer to gospel-R&B than to country music — it goes out on a rousing drum roll. And finally “Hearts Of Stone” is a perfect companion piece to “Jambalaya,” with its booming bass drum and harder-than-the-original vocal. In this case the firmness of the delivery is mixed with some early Elvis Presley-Scotty Moore country guitar, providing us with yet another example of how Fogerty successfully mixes sources, styles and history with his own personality.
Blue Ridge Rangers works better than I expected it would because Fogerty is not only a talented artist, but also an exceptionally mature one. He knows a great deal about the forms of music he uses, but he knows just as much about himself. He can reinterpret without generally inviting comparisons because he uses his imagination and pulls his identity into harmony with the material without ever condescending to it, treating it with excessive devotion or aping it. The old music is music to be first understood and then played, played in a way that feels right to him. And, I’m happy to add, feels right to me.