Blue-eyed Soul?: Ben Atkins' Patchouli and Jim Ford's Harlan County

Wikipedia defines blue-eyed soul as "rhythm and blues and soul music performed by white artists . . . and first used in the mid-1960s to describe white artists who performed (such music) that was similar to the music of the Motown and Stax record labels." The term has been increasingly used to describe many white artists who take a soulful approach to music or sing certain kinds of torch songs. I was surprised to not find an entry concerning the form in The Rock Snob's Dictionary but the style doesn't seem to hold the cache of such genres as Americana or 70's AM folk. Even so, the entry for Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham shares some anti-hipster disdain for the "Memphis-based song writing duo invariably praised for being 'real soulful for white boys'" with tongue firmly entrenched in cheek. While the style does have its share of detractors, there is no mistaking that such songwriters as Penn and Oldham wrote some of the best soul songs of the 60's and 70's, and, in the case of Dan Penn, could sing them like nobody else.

While I'm not going to praise the form unjustly as there have been many singers and songwriters, especially in the last few years, that give blue-eyed and regular soul a bad name, there have been quite a few songs and albums that dip into this well that are phenomenal and should get a bit more traction with music fans of all stripes, be ye snob, be ye hipster,or just be ye new to the game. One of these records I've been meaning to write about for a long time but I just didn't know where to fit it in. This blog has often covered artists who sometimes fall into the category while other times tread what could be called the country path. Jason Isbell has been known to write a great soul song or two, Charlie Rich dabbled in soul, and I've been meaning to write about Tony Joe White, the swamp fox. An appreciation of his works will hopefully show up soon, but I have been increasingly enamored with an obscure figure in the soul network for awhile, the inscrutable Ben Atkins and his 1971 LP, Patchouli. (Somebody needs to reissue it.)

I found it in a thrift store bin some years ago and often play it. It first attracted me because it was on Enterprise Records, an offshoot of Stax. Once I scanned the personnel I knew that it wasn't a common record. Not only are there songs penned by Dan Penn, but the players are a veritable who's who of Muscle Shoals and Stax sessions players, including David Hood, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson Jr. The songs seemed fairly light weight on first listen, but Atkins' clear and passionate voice, the sweet backup vocals, and the tight instrumentation quickly won me over. "Shine On" is particularly resonant from the first moments of Wayne Perkins' guitar licks and Barry Beckett's Jerry Lee-esque piano, it seems like a lost gospel classic until Perkins' guitar enlivens the choir. "Cross My Mind" and "Holding On To Friends" are hopeful yet anchored to the sad realities of relationships, dwelling on loss and eventual acceptance while the music remains joyful and Atkin's vocals are filled with yearning. The album is filled with solid hooks and catchy choruses. Ballads, such as "That Brings Me Down" are great, but the record really cooks on the faster fuller band numbers. Just listen to "A Long Way To Go," as it is surely a lost classic. Interestingly, the gatefold sleeve opens to a picture of Atkins sitting in an outhouse with a cigarette in one hand with the door hanging open. The homegrown allure of the album is not hampered by this odd choice -- it adds to the everyman feeling of the album. The music is certainly much sweeter than the album's packaging.

Another record flirting with soul, but adding the definitely tighter crunch of country, and what some would call pubrock musings, is Jim Ford's single LP, Harlan County. This one has been reissued by Bear Family with extra tracks as The Sounds of Our Time: The Harlan County Album, Rare Singles and Previously Unreleased Masters. The label has also issued a couple of other collections of his work, but Sounds certainly captures most of his best, besides songs that he wrote for others like "Harry Hippie" which is known mostly because of Bobby Womack's version. Ford was a quintessential songwriter's songwriter writing poignant, country-flavored songs about love and hardship. Harlan County kicks into full gear right away with the title track, which should be featured on Justified as it is set in the same county. Ford sings " the cold winds blow and the crops don't grow / a man's tired of living when he's twenty / I was digging hard coal at twelve years old." The song chronicles not just the hardships of the coal mines, but also the protagonist's father's death. Ford's soulful vocals mesh well with honky tonk guitar lines. On "I'm Gonna Make Her Love Me," the hardships transfer in a fun, yet less substantial way. Ford often trades on certain cliches, yet he usually makes them seem fun and new adding a bit of schtick to what could otherwise feel heavy handed. He recorded with Brinsley Schwarz as his backup band and you can hear the influence he would have on Nick Lowe on many of the tracks. In fact, "36 Inches High" is included in the extras (Lowe recorded a version of the song on his first record). Sometimes Ford misses. "Dr. Handy's Dandy Candy" feels like a bad Sweet outtake, albeit a much funkier and countrified one. Others like "Workin' My Way to L.A. are perfect 70's country rockers with quirky lyrics. "Spoonful" takes a Suzy-Q rhythm and transmogrifies it into a bluesy hard rocker in which a "spoonful of your good precious loving woman is more than a man can stand." Ford always sounds self-assured and right except when he is mining the very silly. Harlan County has an excellent mix of styles; it is eclectic and forward looking. Its blue-eyed trappings sit nicely next to its musical chameleonism. Country and soul, at least on this record, make better bed partners than might be expected. In fact, "Long Road Ahead" makes a good counterpoint to Atkins' "A Long Way to Go;" both revel in the feelings of regret and hopefulness that are found in all good soul songs. Blue-eyed? Does it really matter?

Comments

  1. Since you bought Patchouli in a thrift store, I'm assuming it was a used copy that had lost its fragrance since you make no mention of the fact that the album cover was heavily perfumed by patchouli oil, often used in the old days to deodorize outhouses, hence the picture in the gatefold. Quite a good album, blending soul,country, folk,gospel, and swamp blues.

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