For this FORGOTTEN ARTISTS feature our esteemed Interviews Editor, Martin Johnson, has dragged himself away from his questioning of the great and good to look back on the career of the late Californian singer/songwriter, Larry Hosford.
A true Okie from Salinas, California, the lettuce capital of the world
The story of West Coast country rock and that of all the main players has been told, quite naturally, many times on Americana UK over the last 20 years. However, there is still one bye-way that hasn’t been covered and that is the story of Salinas legend, Larry Hosford. Salinas is a city between San Francisco and Los Angeles in Monterey County located about 8 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Its main claim to fame is as the lettuce capital of the world, due to its $2 billion agricultural industry, and as the birthplace of John Steinbeck. It is the lettuce connection that gives us the clue as to why Salinas should be mentioned in an Americana UK feature on West Coast country rock and that is because the local agricultural industry provided ready employment to the migrant Okies of the ‘30s and their story provided the basis of Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes Of Wrath’ published in 1939. The book featured the trials and tribulations of the Joad family as they migrated from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression and was the best selling book in America in 1939.
Larry Hosford was born in 1943 to Okie migrants and his father, Earl Hosford who was also an old-time fiddler, taught his son Larry guitar so he would always have a sideman. In 1965 he joined the local Central California garage band The E-Types who were popular on the local circuit and as many similar bands did at the time, they played music that was heavily influenced by The Beatles and the British Invasion. They recorded various singles for numerous labels including songs written by Larry Hosford. After leaving The E-Types, Hosford played in other local groups before being signed to Shelter Records in the ‘70s. Shelter Records at the time were owned by Okie and Wrecking Crew musician Leon Russell and English record producer Denny Cordell and were based in Los Angeles and Tulsa. Artists on the label included Leon Russell himself and fellow Okie J J Cale, Tom Petty, Don Nix, Willis Alan Ramsey, Freddie King and Dwight Twilley among others. It is the two records Hosford recorded for the artist-friendly Shelter Records in Nashville and Los Angeles’ legendary Capitol Studios that form the basis of his reputation.
His first album, 1975’s ‘AKA Lorenzo’, is considered a classic by everyone who heard it and it had one of the best country-rock album covers of the ‘70s. The only problem was that while a couple of the tracks made the Billboard Hot Country Chart, ‘Long Distance Kisses’ got to 62 in January 1975 and ‘Everything’s Broken’ to 78 in May of the same year, few people got to hear the album. What made Hosford special was that while he was a typical west coast young musician of the ‘70s he also had, through his family’s history, knowledge and understanding of real Oklahoma and Texas country particularly the music of Lefty Frizzell and the western swing of Bob Wills. This hippie boy’s country twang was real rather than simply learnt from records. ‘AKA Lorenzo’ was recorded with local, Nashville and LA musicians, including label boss Leon Russell and produced by Shelter staff producer Dino Airali. The songs have great tunes and also novelty lyrics that show a debt to Harlan Howard as well as plentiful references to local Salinas places and people. A prime example is ‘Wimmin’s Got Me Swimmin’ and it goes on “….in a pool of tears”. Among his small, but dedicated fan base, tracks ‘Kings and Queens’ and ‘Taking Applications’ are also highly thought of. Hosford had that rare ability to bring both humour and real emotion to his music and his vocals were pure ageless country.
His second Shelter album, 1976’s ‘Cross Words’, maintained the momentum of the first with a similar mix of musicians but with the added attraction of Leon Russell’s buddy and ex-Beatle, George Harrison. This time the album’s title referenced Hosford’s ability with words and the album itself was bookended with acoustic crossword puzzle clues. Despite the quality of the songs and the performances and the presence of an ex-Beatle, the album was not a commercial success. Why this should be is a difficult question to answer but my own preferred explanation is that Hosford was too country for the ‘70s rock audience and his lyrics too idiosyncratic for the ‘70s country audience and additionally, Shelter, being essentially a rock music label, couldn’t effectively market Larry Hosford’s albums to the country audience.
Larry Hosford’s Shelter albums are also interesting for the spotlight they shine on two other musicians. The recordings for these two albums are some of the first sessions to feature guitarist Frank Reckard who went on to record and tour with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Guy Clark in the ‘70s and ‘80s before becoming an Attorney and leaving the music business. The second is that they featured famed steel guitar player Ernie Hagar. Hagar was a Canadian born in 1938 who continued the western swing style of steel playing, rather than the Nashville sound, and as such is highly regarded by other steel players. As well as playing West Coast sessions he also joined Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen when original steel player Bobby Black left in 1974.
The two Shelter albums represented the total of Larry Hosford’s major label releases. It is unclear why he was dropped from Shelter Records after 1976’s ‘Cross Words’, but 1976 was a difficult time for the label as Denny Cordell and Leon Russell fell out and Russell left the partnership to found Paradise Records which was distributed by Warner Brothers. Larry Hosford did release what is considered to be one of his best songs, ‘Salinas’, in 1977 on Warner Brothers Records but no album followed. ‘Salinas’ is a celebration of being an Okie and it also bridges the gap between two of the local communities by saying if you are from Salinas you are “Okie or Mexican”. Shelter Records had the reputation of being an artist’s label and it could be that Larry Hosford’s clear view of how he saw his career and music developing that was at odds with what Warner Brothers had planned for him, particularly as he had a reputation of being a difficult artist to manage.
It was at this point that Larry Hosford disappeared from the wider public view. He released a cassette-only album ‘Right On Time’ in 1987 which was released on CD in 1996 on Heart-Throb Productions. It included tracks recorded at various times and while it didn’t reach the heights of his first two albums, the album included good music and an ode to Lefty Frizzell ‘Lefty’s Love’. ‘Windjammin’ ‘ followed in 2000 and was influence by the music Hosford was playing at the Windjammer Bar in Santa Cruz. It has a more polished sound than his earlier records but his idiosyncratic songwriting is still in place. 2007’s ‘High On Livin’ ‘ was made up of material recorded in the ‘80s plus the ‘Salinas’ single of the ‘70s and as such, fits in fine with his earlier albums. Hosford released ‘Momentarily Yours’ in 2012 and while this was recorded with local musicians, it again was of a piece with his ‘70s albums, which was amazing given that Hosford was now nearly 70 years of age.
Larry Hosford’s death in 2016 did not receive any national or international coverage but was featured heavily in the local Salinas and Santa Cruz press reflecting the high regard he was held in his home area. While he was alive, Larry Hosford sold CDs from his website, including CDR versions of his two Shelter albums, but unfortunately, this closed with his death. Except for a download version of ‘Momentarily Yours’, his albums are now very hard to find but anyone who likes traditional texas country with an idiosyncratic twist and who also wants to complete the picture of West Coast country-rock should grab a listen to anything by Larry Hosford if and when they get the opportunity to do so. I will let Larry Hosford himself have the last word “It’s easy to get into music, but I looked around one day and found it is very hard to get out. So I just kept doing it”.