These days, not many people are aware of Leon Russell’s music and while fans of americana may recognise the name of one of the architects of the genre, even most americana fans are more familiar with the name than the actual music. Back in 1973 things were very different. At the time Leon Russell was the official biggest-grossing touring act in America, he had had a number 2 album in 1972, ‘Carney’, written two songs that would join the ranks of the Great American Song Book, ‘A Song For You’ and ‘This Masquerade’, appeared on George Harrison’s ‘Concert For Bangladesh’, produced Bob Dylan and, in the spirit of the times, released a triple-disc live album, ‘Leon Live’. In addition, he was also the joint owner of a record company, Shelter Records, with UK producer Denny Cordell. What his millions of fans hadn’t yet heard was Russell’s true country heart, though there had been glimpses of it on his 3 solo albums. All this changed with the release of ‘Hank Wilson’s Back Vol. 1’.
Leon Russell’s career really started to build with the 1970 Joe Cocker tour and live album of the tour ‘Mad Dogs & Englishmen’ and accompanying movie. Willie Nelson heard the ‘Mad Dogs’ album when his daughter was listening to it, and he recognised Leon Russell as the session pianist who he had recorded his early United Artist’s sides with in the early ‘60s. At the time, Willie was looking to develop his own career in a way that better suited his artistic ideals and he picked up his friendship with Russell again. For his part, Russell was happy to use his growing celebrity to support his old friend. When Willie left RCA and signed with Atlantic and got the artistic freedom he craved, he included two Leon Russell songs, ‘A Song For You’ and a song written about Nelson’s drummer Paul English ‘You Look Like The Devil’, on his New York recorded 1973 album ‘Shotgun Willie’. Some at the time may have been surprised by the musical friendship but one thing that made it work was that they both had the same musical grounding of western swing, honky-tonk and black blues growing up in Texas and Oklahoma. Russell and Nelson finally recorded together in 1979 releasing an album of country favourites and songbook standards ‘One For The Road’. This was Willie returning the favour of support as Russell had just opened Paradise Studios, a new recording and video facility in Burbank California, and was dealing with the financial impact of an expensive divorce.
Leon Russell and Willie Nelson in 1974
Leon Russell has said “Hank Wilson came about on a road trip. I was bringing a car back from LA, and I stopped at a truck stop that had about 500 country tapes for sale. I bought a bunch and listened on the way back home to Tulsa. I don’t really listen to records very much, except for research. I liked some of that stuff, though, and thought it would be fun to do a record like that”. When you have a whim like this it does help if you own your own record label. With the help of his partner, Denny Cordell, and Nashville based DJ, producer and manager of J J Cale Audie Ashworth, three days were booked at the home of the Nashville Sound, Bradley’s Barn, in February 1973. The sessions caused a buzz among the studio musicians in Nashville who were all aware of Russell’s reputation as an ace session musician himself with the LA-based Wrecking Crew. Russell brought his bass player Carl Radle and fellow Okie J J Cale to the sessions which were produced by Russell, Cale, Ashworth and Cordell. Various country and bluegrass hits of the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s were recorded including Flatt and Scruggs’ ‘Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms’, Hank William’s ‘Jambalaya (On The Bayou)’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, George Jones’ ‘The Window Up Above’, Hank Thompson’s ‘A Six Pack To Go’, Bill Monroe’s ‘Uncle Pen’, Buck Owen’s ‘Truck Drivin’ Man’ written by Terry Fell. As can be seen from the list, they were all genuine hardcore country songs and Russell played them straight with a lot of feeling and affection. Cale and Radle helped bring a rock influence and the sessions were very free with the musicians contributing what they felt appropriate. A lot of the musicians had played on the original records and represented the cream of Nashville musicians, players such as Billy Byrd guitar, Pete Drake steel guitar, Hargus “Pig” Robbins piano, Buddy Harman drums and more. Rhythm guitarist Ray Edenton has said that the Russell sessions were the most fun he had had as a Nashville player.
From a rock star’s personal whim and 3 days of studio fun, ‘Hank Wilson’s Back Vol 1’ has become a true cornerstone in the foundations of americana. The reason for this was it was the first time that the hippy world had meshed with the Nashville establishment on an equal footing. While rock stars had recorded country, The Byrds and ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’, and rock stars had recorded in Nashville, Bob Dylan and ‘Blonde On Blonde’, the rock world had never meet country on its own terms with genuine respect until this album. It is true the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ in Nashville with bluegrass and country musicians the previous year, but those musicians were no longer at the forefront of country music with its then-popular countrypolitan sound and the sessions were seen as more folk-based rather than the leading country sounds of the day. It was definitely a gateway to real country for many rock fans and it introduced rock sounds to country musicians which bore fruit in subsequent decades. Many country acts cite ‘Hank Wilson’s Back Vol 1’ as a major influence. However, while the album was a hit on the country charts, it barely scraped into the top 30 albums on the pop chart which, given Russell’s previous albums’ positions, was a commercial failure. While the album cover was a visual joke with a picture of Russell’s back superimposed on a picture of a western swing ballroom scene from the ‘40s or ‘50s, it wasn’t clear that Hank Wilson was actually Leon Russell. Retailers quickly added stickers making it clear who Hank was in an attempt to protect sales. Russell had picked the alias Hank Wilson as a homage to Hank Williams and Hank Thompson and has used him to maintain a parallel country career releasing 3 further albums and a Best of.
Russell never repeated his commercial success of 1972 and many cite ‘Hank Wilson’s Back Vol 1’ as the start of his commercial decline. While this may indeed be true, it is a great album that shows the genuine joys of country music played straight by country musicians for both non-country and country fans. The album is full of country soul, brought out by someone who really understood where the music came from.