Classic Americana Albums: Ian Matthews “Valley Hi”

Elektra Records 1973

Ian Matthews, or Iain as he became later in his career, has been on a personal musical odyssey all his career which started when he was asked to be an original member of Fairport Convention by Ashley Hutchings in 1967. At the time, Fairport were an English version of the great American West Coast bands like Jefferson Airplane, and Ian Matthews left as they moved to a more English influenced folk rock. The American influence was maintained as he started his solo career which saw him cover emerging songwriters such as Jackson Browne, Jesse Winchester,  Al Anderson, Paul Seibel, and Ric Cunha together with his own songs. He even managed a number one single with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ when it was covered by Matthews Southern Comfort. As well as American songwriters, Ian Matthews added more than a touch of real country to his musical palette with the help of Gordon Huntley who joined Matthews Southern Comfort on steel guitar. Ian Matthews had made enough of a name for himself that his new band Plainsong was signed to Elektra Records for 1972’s ‘In Search Of Amelia Earhart’ but they broke up before their second album was released. Elektra Records wanted an Ian Matthews solo album and this is where things got very interesting, resulting in ‘Valley Hi’ which is a significant milestone in the development of West Coast country rock, and the epitome of UK-influenced americana.

When Michael Nesmith left The Monkees and started his First National Band he also became a major influence on the development of the country rock genre. The First National Band morphed into the Second National Band and for a little while, Michael Nesmith had his own label, Countryside Records, which he owned jointly with Elektra Records’ Jac Holzman, and which was intended as a platform for artists that shared his vision for the new country influenced music. Ian Matthews agreed to record his first Elektra solo album at Nesmith’s Countryside Studios with Nesmith in the producer’s chair. Nesmith provide not only the production but the musicians who were largely those that had backed him on his own ’Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash’ record.  Matthews himself felt that he had developed his own musical vision sufficiently to go toe-to-toe with the southern Californian songwriters and so the scene was set for an album that was an important building block in the development of southern Californian country rock with the distinct echoes of Nashville to be found in the overall sound.

The opening track ‘Keep on Sailing’ with the legendary Red Rhodes’ steel guitar to the fore sets the scene for the album, and this Ian Matthews original shows that he need not fear competition from Californian songwriters. Next, we have the traditional ‘Old Man At The Mill’ which the Dillards covered on their 1963 debut album and had been set to be included on the second Plainsong album. Ian Matthews then covers an obscure Richard Thompson song, ‘Shady Lies’, that hasn’t been included on any official Richard Thompson studio album, and the arrangement and Red Rhodes’ presence ensure this is a great country rock version. Jackson Browne was just starting his solo career when Ian Matthews recorded his version of Browne’s now classic, ‘These Days’. Ian Matthews’ own lament on the life of a traveling musician, ‘Leaving Alone’, is next.  We are then treated to a little piece of music history. Steve Young issued ‘Seven Bridges Road’ on his 1969 debut album, ‘Rock Salt & Nails’, and Ian Matthews and Michael Nesmith’s arrangement on ‘Valley Hi’ was copied note for note by the Eagles for their 1980 version. Next, we have some echoes of late ‘60s whimsy added to the country rock mix with Matthews’ own ‘Save Your Sorrows’, another song originally intended for Plainsong. The pop of Randy Newman’s ‘What Are You Waiting For’ as covered by the We Talkies is given a more mature country treatment. Nesmith’s own ‘Propinquity’ which he wrote for the Monkees and recorded with his First National Band, is feature next, and Red Rhodes again makes his instrumental presence felt.  ‘Valley Hi’ closes with a cover of Don Gibson’s 1958 hit ‘Blue Blue Day’ which underlines Matthews and Nesmith’s commitment to country.

Elektra terminated their arrangement with Michael Nesmith and his Countryside Records just after the completion of ‘Valley Hi’ which means that the album is also an important part of Michael Nesmith’s discography, further expanding his vision of country rock. From Ian Matthews’ perspective, it is one of his best recordings and is probably his most countrified recording and is clear evidence that his own musical journey, which started out in the UK copying and covering the sounds of West Coast America, was complete. ‘Valley Hi’ may not have been a massive commercial success, but it became extremely influential on other musicians as they looked to explore the emerging country rock genre. With his Countryside Records gone, Michael Nesmith’s own music became more exploratory and moved away from the basic country rock that first made his name post Monkees, which means that ‘Valley Hi’ is not just an important early country rock album and a jewel in Ian Matthews’ discography, but a significant addition to Michael Nesmith’s discography. It deserves to be heard by anybody who claims to have any interest in the development of country rock.

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Erwin from Germany

Great review of a great album. For me, the four albums he made in the early to mid 1970s are the best of his long carrer: ‚If you saw thro my eyes‘ with Sandy Denny & Richard Thompson, and ‚Tigers will survive‘ already indicated his move towards americana, ‚Valley Hi‘ has that countryrock vibe as you said and the follow-up ‚Some days you‘ll eat the bear…‘ was more into the californian singer-songwriter stuff and/or pop.
All in all a very underrated artist. Thank you for bringing him a bit into the spotlight again!