Long overdue addition to top-grade Americana, but well worth the wait.
When a US singer-songwriter with enough mileage on his clock to have been arrested at an anti-Vietnam demonstration and received his first guitar lesson from no less a legendary 1960s folk singer than Tim Hardin finally makes his own debut album in 2021, you can be pretty certain it’ll make for an intriguingly varied listen. But in the case of Frank Richard’s ‘Rough Enough’, it’s also a massively rewarding one.
You’d imagine some artists coming relatively late in life to the challenge of making their first album might focus on producing something overly elaborate, a kind of definitive ‘statement’ to try and sum up their career. Instead, Richard opens up on his personal backstory by pulling together various unassuming but well-wrought threads of homespun folk-rock, folk and Bakersfield country, faultlessly performed by Richard and his backing musicians but in a notably relaxed, slightly rough-shod spirit, very similar to the early output of The Band. The resulting hotchpotch of easy-on-the-ear roots music is all crowned by Richard’s creaky, warm-hearted voice, which the album publicity notes describe as “beautifully burnished and travel-worn… adding gravitas”, and for once the publicity people aren’t exaggerating.
Even when Richard hits a couple of wonky-sounding notes (and it is only a couple) on the 13 tracks on ‘Rough Enough’ it only adds to the album’s attractively laidback approach, and its organic, unforced feel is further strengthened by the adaptations of the two most famous cover versions, John Prine’s ‘Some Humans Ain’t Human’ and Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. Rather than being overly reverential, Richard adds in a couple of verses to both songs: as a result, in ‘Some Humans..’ it’s Donald J. Trump, rather than George W. Bush, cast as the new villain in the White House screwing up your life, while ‘Heaven’s Door’ morphs from being a lament for a dying cowboy into a bleakly effective condemnation of the USA’s obsession with gun culture and shambolic failure to get to grips with the ongoing destruction of the environment.
What Richard’s done is hardly new: as he points out on the sleeve notes, it’s always been an integral part of the folk music tradition process to adopt and adapt other writers songs so they reflect more contemporary concerns. Within that kind of communal work ethic it makes sense, too, that there are just four original songs on ‘Rough Enough’, with many of the remainder passed on by friends or colleagues, who often had heard them elsewhere in the first place. ‘Dead End’, for example, which digs deep into the classic predicament of the lonely traveler pounding up and down the highways was written by the well-known film actor and left-wing activist Peter Coyote, who also introduced Richard to the first and last songs on the album: the ‘traditional’ ‘All These Blues’ and ‘Red River. Equally, ‘I’m Talking To You’, originally a 1980s collaboration between jazz great Jimmy Bruno and Boston folk singer Mary Lou Lord, is revived in style here. Yet another highlight cut with the same kind of cloth would be
‘Mills of Lawrence’, a wrenchingly powerful anti-war song about the factories making military clothing
“on the Merrimack River
Where the water color changed depending on
The color of the uniform”
by Massachusetts writer Frank Cable, and learned by Richard from another singer, Bruce King. And so the confluence of influences and pooling of resources goes on: ‘Rough Enough’ isn’t simply one artist’s take on life, then, it’s more of a meeting place or nexus for different pieces of americana and roots music to be reworked and rechannelled out again – and gain new interest and energy in the process.
On the album’s more downbeat songs, time and again Richard’s singing flawlessly walks the line between over-exaggerating the pain behind each line of a track and letting us know precisely how much potential it has to hurt. For evidence of that, take your pick from ‘1-900 Mary‘ a hauntingly atmospheric take on drug culture and urban desolation with knockout one-liners like .“The powder angel is the higher power in this world now” or ‘East West’, which explores how it feels being on one coast of the US while missing somebody on the other. Equally, ‘River Girl Blue’ is a bitter lament for the love of his life, whom Richard can neither live with nor without.
But ‘Rough Enough’ is far from being downcast throughout. A track like ‘Praise to the Sun’ is a firm-hearted but uplifting insistence on our collective need to respect Mother Earth, and there’s also space for a raunchy, raucous interpretation of his and the planet’s “renewable resources” (yes, that is a double entendre) on a rock’n’roll number of the same name.
So for all ‘Rough Enough’ ventures far and wide into Americana and folk music’s history and is a late arrival in Richard’s own career path, it contains more than enough new life, potent content and raw musical energy to earn itself instant landmark status, too.