Classic Americana Albums: John Stewart “California Bloodlines” (Capitol, 1969)

It’s February 1969 and while Woodstock is yet to happen, the sixties have peaked, psychedelia is a busted flush and Dylan and The Band are leading a return to more traditional American music. Dylan in fact is recording ‘Nashville Skyline’ and in the studio across the street, John Stewart, a folk singer who has spent six years with The Kingston Trio, is recording his first proper debut album with his producer, Nik Venet slyly stealing players from the Dylan sessions as he pulls in favours.

Stewart had recorded an album with his wife Buffy Ford in 1968 but it sank without trace. Venet, a bit of a whizz kid at the time (reportedly he “discovered” The beach Boys and produced Fred Neil, Karen Dalton, Glen Campbell and Linda Ronstadt), was given the job of producing this one. Familiar with Stewart and a big fan he persuaded him to come out to Nashville reckoning that the pickers there would bring out the rawness of Stewart’s songs. With most of the selections recorded in one take, after Stewart ran through the song so they could get their charts together, Venet’s decision was inspired.

Having written ‘Daydream Believer’ for The Monkees, Stewart had proved his writing chops but ‘California Bloodlines’ far outstrips that ditty as he delivers a set of songs which are romantic and yearning, underpinned by the spirit of pioneering and the American dream. The songs span a bridge between Greenwich Village folk and the nascent Texas scene with whiffs of both Fred Neil and Guy Clark to be heard within the grooves. The westward ho drive is captured in the sublime title track which opens the album with a wonderfully delicate ripple of acoustic guitars and harmonies while the blissful joy of ‘July You’re A Woman’ (with its wonderful key change) is perhaps one of the best combination of road and love songs you will ever hear. Almost baroque folk in its delivery, ‘She Believes In Me’ is one of the last flowerings of sixties troubadouring and ‘Missouri Birds’ has some of the tremulous grandeur one expects from Jimmy Webb.

At the heart of the album are a set of songs which paint a picture of an America fading away by then. ‘Razor Back Woman’ with its churchlike organ is like a condensed Flannery O’Connor tale but it’s the astounding ‘The Pirates Of Stone County Road’ which really delves into a mythical past. On paper the song might seem to be sentimental but Stewart’s performance gives the song a hefty lift as he nails childhood nostalgia. ‘Mother Country’ is the centrepiece as Stewart narrates a tale suffused with American pride played by a taut and gradually swelling ensemble which is just astounding. According to Stewart in an interview with Zigzag magazine, his tale of a dying man’s wish to have one last ride on his favourite horse was given an extra emotional boost by his assembled Nashville pickers as producer Venet had made up a story that the song was actually about Stewart’s recently departed father.

The winsome ‘Omaha Rainbow’ – aside from being the inspiration for an excellent music magazine in the seventies –  is a swell slice of country rock not dissimilar to Mike Nesmith’s outings at the same time and is dedicated to Ethel Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy’s widow, Stewart having campaigned with Kennedy in 1968. Finally, there are a couple of rambunctious outings. ‘Shackles And Chains’ rattles along like a freight train on fire and the closing ‘Never Going Back’ has one of the liveliest pedal steel solos ever, played by Lloyd Green. Inspired, Stewart says, by the spoken word credits at the end of the movie ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (directed by Francois Truffaut), he name checks all the musicians as the band jams on, a great end to a grand album.

Stewart had a lengthy career releasing several albums in a similar vein to his debut before finding unlikely chart success in the late’70s with a couple of glossy albums  featuring global superstar chums, Stevie Nicks and Lyndsey Buckingham. It was a short lived fame however and he retired to his songwriting folk roots. Opinions vary as to what his best album was but they all focus on the early career and for this writer it’s ‘California Bloodlines’ which comes up trump.

About Paul Kerr 439 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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Martin Johnson

Great article Paul and you won’t get an argument from me that this is his best album. I can’t believe it was so long ago that this was issued. I have great memories of the Omaha Rainbow magazine which, for a time, was a rare source of information on similar artists. Ken Hunt’s Swing 51 was also another great source of pre internet information.

Clint West

Great appraisal of an album that is truly worthy of the ‘classic’ tag. I will be delving through my vinyl to give it a spin tonight – too long since I last listened to it!

James Rice

One of my favorite albums and artists of all time. Superb review.

Alden Cook

The great John Stewart, an American legend to many but ignored and overlooked by the masses . Their loss

Paul Kerr

Thanks for the comments, makes this writing malarkey worthwhile and so nice to see that John is still appreciated.

Thom Hickey

One you can keep looping back to and find more delight each time.

Regards Thom

[…] usually get the attention he deserves – fortunately Paul Kerr has recently written this album up, thereby shining a much needed light on one of the finest Americana albums of all time.  It has […]

John Savage

Thanks for the review, brings back happy memories of ZigZag and Omaha Rainbow magazines. Was fortunate enough to have seen him in performance a couple of times. Never thought he got the recognition he deserved, as he was slightly ahead of the Texan songwriters.
A great album with some inspired playing.

Philip Hayes

So many songs on this album give me the chills. I play Mother Country for my kids at every opportunity. Hearing the band respond to the callout on Never Going Back – wow. And Lloyd Green’s solo on Never Going Back?! Insane! John made his best music with this crew, led by Fred Carter Jr, with whom he made another classic, “Cannons in the Rain” in 1973.