Released early in 1972, a time when concept albums were regularly being delivered to record stores, The Ballad of Calico checked all the boxes. Narrative storyline with songs sung in the voices of characters? Check. Cover packaging that made it look more like a scrapbook than an album? Check. Accompanying booklet laying out the concept? Check. Symphonic fanfare that opens the album and is reprised at the end? Check. All of it spread over two LPs, just like Tommy and Jesus Chris Superstar? Double check.
Early in his career, long before his velvet rasp was nestled in a bed of MOR country hits, Rogers (who died on Friday at 81) knew when to hold ’em, fold ’em, and occasionally startle ’em. The First Edition, his breakthrough band, exuded a young-America decency even as its male members grew their hair over their ears. But Rogers, who had bolted from the folk harmony band the New Christy Minstrels to co-found the New Edition, had loftier goals; he wanted to be seen as far hipper than a group like the Minstrels. (In 1965, the Minstrels embarked on a campaign to combat campus protests, calling its participants “the easily led democracy knockers.”)
Rogers’ objective emerged in the First Edition’s hits: “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” the tale of a veteran in a wheelchair who watches hopelessly as his wife leaves to see other men, or “Reuben James,” the sympathetic tale of an African American man who cares for a white child when the baby’s mother dies. The band also recorded generalized calls for peace and harmony (“Tell It All Brother,” “Heed the Call”) and, in “Something’s Burning,” startled some with what seemed like an erotic love song (“I cup my hands to touch your face/And once again I feel your fire”). Not exactly “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but close enough.
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But The Ballad of Calico, which predated equally large-scale double records like Quadrophenia and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, was Rogers’ grand statement, his shot at artistic immortality. In an interview at the time, he maintained the album wasn’t a “rock opera” — “We didn’t want to do that,” he said — and he was right; the music wasn’t rock. But in its structure and musical eclecticism, it did share plenty with the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar, and God knows it’s the strangest, most forgotten, and certainly most ambitious record Rogers even made.
Years before he became a star in his own right with “Wildfire,” songwriter Michael Martin Murphey was intrigued by the California ghost town of Calico, and soon enough he’d written about two dozen songs inspired by real-life people who lived, worked, and died there during its heyday as a silver-mining town in the late 1800s. Murphey and keyboardist Larry Cansler wrote the music, Rogers pared it down to 18 songs, and he and the First Edition — which included drummer Mickey Jones of ’66 Dylan electric tour fame — spent 10 months at Nashville’s Glaser Sound Studio turning it into an album. Brian Wilson would have been proud.
Even knowing that background, or seeing the back-cover shot of Rogers and the First Edition as Mathew Brady-style frontier dwellers, doesn’t fully prepare you for the what the…? aspect of The Ballad of Calico. Not at all country, the album amounts to an alternate-universe time capsule of late Sixties and early Seventies pop. “Write Me Down (Don’t Forget My Name)” opens with trippy, drawn-out vocal effects and works its way into a “Hey Jude”-style chant finale. The tale of a woman who moves to Calico to become a teacher and ends up a hooker, “Sally Grey’s Epitaph” showcases First Edition singer Mary Arnold and goes all “Close to You”-era Carpenters; an organ at the end of the song is meant to signify the sound of her casket hitting the ground. (Trivia aside: Karen Carpenter auditioned for the female singer role in the band that eventually went to Arnold, who replaced original female singer Thelma Camacho.)
Looking for a replication of Joe Cocker-influenced gospel rock? Check out “Harbor for My Soul,” one of Rogers’ solo spots. For some period hard-rock boogie, there’s “Madame De Lil and Diabolical Bill,” about a female saloonkeeper and brothel owner who learns that her bartender is stealing money from her and eventually chases him out of town. There’s more than a hint of Tumbleweed Connection in “Old Mojave Highway,” the Rogers-sung lament about the moment when the town starts dying.
And that’s not to forget the ballad about the dead stagecoach robber, the vampy rocker about a schoolteacher (“who realizes she had better start thinking about courting rather than about erasers,” Rogers explained at the time), and the overture that sounds like Aaron Copland guest-scoring an episode of Gunsmoke. The squeaky sounds heard throughout “Rockin’ Chair Theme”? Meant to convey the sight of older women rocking their chairs on a porch and taking in the sights and sounds of Calico.
Back then, every band seemed to want to make its own Sgt. Pepper’s — the First Edition included. In the way it spans genres and allows different members of the band to sing lead on various tracks, there’s also a White Album aspect to The Ballad of Calico. The retro vaudeville of “Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog,” about a canine who comes to the aid of his sick owner, is very “Wild Honey Pie.”
With its story-songs, characters, and morality tales, The Ballad of Calico pointed to the directions Rogers would go once the First Edition broke up a few years after its release. “One Lonely Room,” Rogers’ spotlight moment, previews the sage-crooner style he would parlay into solo fame. (That “room” has something to do with miners closing off spaces in mountains and the women who try to visit them there, or something along those lines, but concept-album lyrics can be a little vague, as Who and Genesis fans will attest.)
Rogers predicted that “One Lonely Room” — which ends with him pushing his baritone into aching-high-note territory — would be the album’s hit single. But neither that nor the album’s other 45s took, and The Ballad of Calico was a commercial flop. Copies of the album were regular occupants of record-store cutout sections (those bins jammed with $1.99 or so copies of bomb records, their corners cut off to indicate they were discounted). It’s so rare that it’s not currently available on any leading streaming service, nor are any of its tracks included on First Edition anthologies. It’s the Kenny Rogers album that has been wiped out of existence.
Rogers gambled big and lost on The Ballad of Calico, at least in career terms. But as the coronavirus shuts down major cities, there’s something eerily prescient about the story of a once bustling town reduced to a shell of itself by a busted economy and a con man. Rogers and his collaborators rang an alarm bell that, in an eerie way, is still clanging.