Long before the idea of punk-inspired DIY, musicians of all hues who couldn’t secure a contract would sometimes book themselves into a studio, record a single or album and press them up for promotional purposes, to have something to sell after bookings at supper clubs and bars or simply to show the grandkids. Such private pressings have long been a treasure trove of outsider musics, but they also serve as a – literal – record of thwarted ambition and lost potential. Given the tear-strewn and bar room heartache of country music, it’s no wonder crate diggers have begun to explore the gloomier thrift stores of the American west in search for new material.
On their latest release, Numero Group have done a lot of the dirty work, uncovering 19 tracks recorded between 1968 and 1980. Not everything here was untouched by the mainstream: White Cloud’s 1972 cut ‘All Cried Out’ features the picking of Eric Weissberg (who did the Deliverance soundtrack) while Mistress Mary’s ‘And I Didn’t Want You’ features the fretwork of the Byrds‘ Clarence White, but for the most part we’re talking local acts making music for local audiences.
Coined by Gram Parsons to describe a blend of country, rock and soul, the term ‘cosmic American music’ suggests a trippier experience than most of what’s on display here – pedal steel fans needn’t worry too much. There are hints of Dylan and Neil Young in places (Mike and Pam Martin had clearly heard ‘Like A Hurricane’) but if there were any peyote being imbibed, it doesn’t particularly show. Even so, the yearning ‘Sleep A Million Years’ by the mysterious Kathy Heidemann (Numero were unable to track down any information about her at all) and Mamas-and-Papas-swing of Deerfield‘s ‘Me Lovin’ You’ are shiny buckles in the dust of neglect. Kenny Knight‘s brooding, rockabilly-tinged ‘Baby’s Back’ and the Black Canyon Gang (a bunch of farm hands with no-one for company except their steeds – “Got no woman I can call my own”) bring a touch of the night to proceedings, while the vaguely histrionic Ethel-Ann Powell claims to be ‘Gentle One’ but sounds a little scary, to be honest.
Cosmic American Music is just the latest volume in the label’s on-going exploration of the field. With no particular decline in quality over previous titles, this engaging collection suggests it could well continue, Pebbles-like for years to come.