Chris Darrow’s death on 15th January from complications following a stoke received coverage across the American music press reflecting his involvement with some of the most influential artist of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Recognised by those in the know as one of the architects of west coast country rock and by a wider audience for his founding of Kaleidoscope with David Lindley and his membership of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, his lasting claim to fame was as one of the most sought after studio multi-instrumentalists of the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Born on July 30th, 1944, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he moved with his family to Southern California which remained his home for the rest of his life. Like many of his peers he took a keen interest in the music of the folk revival forming a bluegrass band, The Dry City Scat Band, with David Lindley, renowned guitarist, and Richard Greene, leading session violinist. It was while he was with this band he met a musician who had just returned from England who was raving about a group called the Beatles. The musician was Roger McGuinn and the Beatles soon became an additional prime influence for Chris.
Building on his multiple influences, Chris put together Kaleidoscope with David Lindley, who, while not a commercial success, raised Chris’s profile to a national and international level. The group’s debut album, ‘Side Trips’, melded Beatles influenced pop with country, folk, blues, jug band music and world music styles and is often cited as one of the most representative albums of 1967. However, it’s eclecticism meant that while it proved popular with critics and other musicians, it did not do well commercially. Chris then answered a call to join the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band following the departures of Jackson Browne and Bruce Kunkel playing on ‘Rare Junk’ and ‘Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy’. His multi-instrumental skills helped to move the group’s sound to a more electric rock-orientated fusion of country, bluegrass and pop epitomised by their successful cover of Jerry Jeff Walkers ‘Mr Bojangles’. Additionally, Chris had a cameo in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Paint Your Wagon’ with the rest of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
During his time as a band member, Chris was also developing a successful career as a session musician with notable appearances including playing bass on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Songs Of Leonard Cohen’, John Stewart’s ‘Willard’ and James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’. On top of all his band and session activity, Chris was also a member of Linda Ronstadt’s touring band when she co-opted his then current band, The Corvettes, through the urging of ex Monkey Mike Nesmith. While the Corvettes only issued a couple of singles their members included Bernie Leadon before he joined The Flying Burrito Brothers and drummer John Ware who went on to play drums with Mike Nesmith, Emmylou Harris amongst many others.
In 1972 Chris recorded his first of 10 solo albums. His first album ‘Artist Proof’, while not a lost classic, is pure Californian country-rock of the time and is more Flying Burrito Brothers than The Pure Prairie League in that the music is real rather than over-polished. For his second album,‘Chris Darrow’, he enlisted the support of Fairport Convention among other backing musicians for another eclectic country-rock album that picked up on the European folk-rock of the time. While Chris continued recording until 2006, his lack of commercial success was due in no small part to his eclecticism, honesty and loyalty to his musical ideals rather than focusing on building his own commercial career.
While Chris Darrow never attained commercial success as an artist he was appreciated as an excellent roots musician by his fellow musicians and recognised as one of the early architects of country rock which is still influencing the music of today over fifty years later. An example of this is that he was a major influence on Ben Harper who cites Chris as being a key influence and who included Chris’s ‘Whipping Boy’ on his break through album.