Classic Americana Compilations “Silver Meteor – A Progressive Country Anthology” (Sierra Records, 1980)

What makes a great compilation? Good music is a must obvious, the historical importance of some of the tracks, certainly, rare and forgotten tracks and artists that nevertheless capture an elusive something that was in the air for a golden period definitely helps. All these apply to ‘Silver Meteor – A Progressive Country Anthology’ and if there is any lingering doubt as to how great this compilation is then the fact that it came in at number eleven on Uncut magazine’s list of the 50 Greatest Lost Albums is the clincher.

There was something very special happening in Los Angeles from the late ’60s to the early ’70s. Chris Hillman has talked about hearing country rock everywhere he went in the early ’70s in Los Angeles and it is this special period and genre that is covered by this compilation.

The stars were aligned in California for the rise of country rock due to a number of reasons, but the influence of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos with their electrified country and Don Rich’s lead telecaster licks driving the Bakersfield sound and the progressive bluegrass of the Kentucky Colonels with Clarence White’s lead acoustic guitar were key ingredients. Clarence White’s subsequent electric guitar work with the latter-day Byrds really drove the genre forward. When you add the fact that Los Angeles was a mecca for a host of southern musicians due to its indigenous music industry then country rock seems almost inevitable with hindsight.

Silver Meteor’ was originally released in 1980 on the Sierra Records label founded by John Delgatto to keep the wider legacy of The Byrds alive. The big attraction at the time of its release was that it contained the four tracks that Clarence White had recorded before he was tragically killed by a drunk driver while he was loading his equipment into a car after a gig in Palmdale, California, on July 16th 1973. Clarence White is now seen as a giant of  country rock and bluegrass and his early death at 29 raised questions of What If? which gave the four recorded solo performances added poignancy. Clarence went into the studio with a core band of Herb Pedersen, guitar and vocals, Byron Berline, fiddle, Alan Munde, banjo, Lee Sklar, electric bass, Roger Bush, acoustic bass, Ed Greene, drums, and brother Roland White on mandolin and vocals. The cuts show what a fine vocalist Clarence was and how he had a vision that mixed country, bluegrass and rock and roll. The songs include Delaney and Bonnie’s ‘Never Ending Song of Love’, Tom Paxton’s  ‘Last Thing On My Mind’,  ‘Alabama Jubilee’ which sees Clarence’s love of ragtime and swing come to the fore and ‘Why You Been Gone So Long‘ by Mickey Newbury, featuring Ry Cooder on slide guitar.

While the Clarence White tracks are the motherlode of ‘Silver Meteor’ there are more musical gems. Casey Kelly had a long career as a Nashville based songwriter and here he is represented by two self-composed tracks ‘Silver Meteor’ and ‘A Good Love Is Like A Good Song’ . The country rock sound is enhanced by the Burrito’s Sneaky Pete’s pedal steel on ‘Silver Meteor’. Clarence White and Gram Parsons appear on ‘I’m On My Way Back Home Again’ and the traditional ‘Cuckoo Bird’ by The Everly Brothers. While these two tracks did nothing commercially as a single when released in 1969 they show what a good country rock band the Everlys could be and Clarence’s guitar is well to the fore with the use of his and Gene Parson’s patented B-Bender device. ‘The Bramble And The Rose’ is now a folk standard and it is included here in its original version by its writer Barbara Keith supported by Spooner Oldham among others. The sounds of the time are captured in the Levitt and McClure instrumental take on Pete Seeger’s ‘Living In The Country’. The final cuts are by The Blue Velvet Band who recorded an album in 1969 which contained ‘The Knight Upon The Road’ and ‘Hitch-Hiker’. The band is notable for including Bill Keith, banjo and pedal steel, Jim Rooney, guitar and vocals, Eric Weissberg, electric and acoustic guitar, and Richard Greene violin and viola all renowned bluegrass and folk musicians on a major label with a country rock sound.

There is an addendum to the ‘Silver Meteor’ story. Following its listing as the 11th Greatest Lost Album by Uncut magazine it was re-released for a short time on CD with an expanded track listing. It is still available in its original form for streaming or as a download but without the original liner notes by Dr Bill Koon which really gave a cultural and geographical context to the music.

Author: Martin Johnson

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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