LATE-'60s L.A. SINGER-SONGWRITERS: The Roots of the Sound of Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne

In late 1966, Nik Venet had discussed the formation of a Capitol subsidiary, FolkWorld, in Billboard. Venet, like Lou Adler, was a producer whose early successes had been in clean-cut pop-rock, his credits including the Beach Boys, Bobby Darin, the Lettermen, the Four Preps, and Glen Campbell. Folk-rock had opened his eyes to more message-oriented music. The label, he said, would work "with the concept of creating albums by these [folk-based] groups, which are an extension of their artistry and may not necessarily be tied to an initial single."

    While FolkWorld never got off the ground as a major imprint, in the late 1960s Venet produced numerous folk-rock acts for Capitol that served as antecedents of Southern California country-rock and soft rock. These included records by Fred Neil, the Stone Poneys, Hearts & Flowers, John Stewart (formerly of the Kingston Trio), Mary McCaslin, Vince Martin, and Karen Dalton. Some of them never could have recorded for a major label, or perhaps wouldn't have recorded at all, had Venet not been in a position to help. Martin's 1969 album, If the Jasmine Don't Get You the Bay Breeze Will, was recorded in a few hours after the door had been opened by his participation in a Fred Neil session. It came as little surprise that the record by Neil's ex-duo partner was something like a featherweight counterpart to Neil's own Sessions album, with a similar musical milieu but less force. Dalton, a Billie Holiday-with-a-twang Village folksinger who had been a peer of Neil and Dylan in the early 1960s, had been totally ignored by the folk and folk-rock boom on record, much as she had totally ignored contemporary trends. Dalton was never comfortable in the studio, and Venet virtually had to trick her into making her 1969 debut album by asking her to record a cover of Fred Neil's "Little Bit of Rain" for his private collection, building upon that to coax an entire LP of songs out of the singer.

    Dalton's album, like most of Venet's folk-rock productions, had a dry ambience that crossed the line from low-key to laidback. "Nik wasn't a strong producer," says Larry Murray, who was produced by Venet as part of Hearts and Flowers. "He hired incredible musicians to play on sessions. He would hire some kind of obscure people. Like Cyrus [Faryar] wasn't your basic studio player, but he had a style, played a lot of kind of peculiar instruments, and knew what to do with them. He played on a lot of our stuff. But all of a sudden, the chemistry of that session really didn't work out. It was kind of vanilla, you know?"

    Still, Venet was able to work that territory with much more commercial results than he got with uncompromising projects like Dalton's album, which became an instant collector's item. Foremost among his clients were the Stone Poneys, with a young Linda Ronstadt. Their charming first LP (Stone Poneys, released early 1967) was in a way one of the first "back to basics" folk-rock albums, streamlining the instrumentation so that it sounded like coffeehouse folk with far greater color and rhythm. Several of the same musicians who had made Fred Neil such a triumph were also on board for Stone Poneys, and the set combined strong originals by Stone Poneys acoustic guitarists Kenny Edwards and Bob Kimmel with well-chosen covers of songs by Neil, Tom Campbell, and Linda Albertano. It was an album that was rather like Peter, Paul & Mary, but with a fresh vigor that drew from the best of folk-rock's advancements, rather than coming off as a forced-sounding attempt to keep up with the times (as Peter, Paul & Mary's late-1960s folk-rock tracks often were). It was running against the general bigger-louder grain of the era; when the Stone Poneys played the Cafe Au Go Go on an early tour, laughs Edwards, "The air conditioner was louder than we were."

    Continues Edwards, "Nik Venet was trying to jump on that bandwagon, and we were the ideal sort of vehicle for him as far as he was concerned. There was a time, right about there, that the folk music thing was somewhat associated with almost like a jazz, late-night cocktail feeling. I think he related to that. His personal taste was more towards the smoky jazz-folk, like Odetta, that kind of feeling. I know with the Fred Neil record, he liked the sort of contemplative side of that whole sound. Much more laidback, not aggressive.

    "The first record was just basically bass, drums, and us: the live representation of what we did, with the addition of a rhythm section. I don't think that we had any radio play. In fact, the band sort of briefly broke up in between the first and second record. Then Nik Venet said, 'We can make another record, we can make this happen. If we're going to do anything with this, we gotta make something that sounds commercial and get on the radio.' I probably was the least pleased with that approach, 'cause I had a kind of more of a purist approach at the time, although he was probably right. He did get something on the radio."

    That song was "Different Drum," a Mike Nesmith song that ended up being a bigger hit than anything he wrote for the Monkees. The Greenbriar Boys had already recorded their slower, more whimsical version of the the tune on 1966’s Better Late Than Never!, after hearing Nesmith sing it in the Los Angeles folk club the Ash Grove before he joined the Monkees. "We actually learned that song off of a bluegrass Greenbriar Boys album," reveals Edwards. "We cut a version very much like that, with mandolin, kind of a jug bandy, bluegrass-lite version. That's when Nik Venet sort of took an executive position and went, 'This could be a hit song, and we need to sort of have an arranger arrange it.' So none of us actually played on the record version of that." As originally recorded by the Greenbriar Boys, Edwards adds, it was "a very kind of a tongue-in-cheek, funny song. I think one of the things that makes Linda's version of it so interesting is that it's this angst, and a driving vocal, expressing this lyric that is kind of whimsical and noncommittal. There's an interesting dissonance that actually helped it out."

    The Top 20 success of "Different Drum," however, also signaled the breakup of the Stone Poneys as Ronstadt was groomed for a career as a solo artist. "Nik Venet, when he first heard us, the thing that drew him was her," says Edwards. "She was cute, a great singer, and a natural star. From the record company's point of view, immediately they wanted to push Linda as a solo artist. And frankly, Linda's taste in songs was really growing away from what Bobby was writing. He was four years older than us, but seemed more mature, and he had fleshed out his artistic vision a lot more than we had at the time we all got together. By the time we'd met these other writers, I think her taste was, 'I want to do the songs I want to do, and here's people writing them.'

    "So there was a spontaneous growth toward her being a solo artist, and by the time the third record came out, the band had really broken up. I don't even know how much I took part in any of the third record." Steve Gillette, who sang on the Stone Poneys' cover of one of his songs, was an eyewitness to the others getting frozen out: "While we were in the studio and just after having finished the duet vocals of Linda's and my version of 'Back On the Street Again' there was a scuffle and some noise just outside the door. When we opened it, there was a sad and for some, tearful scene in which it became clear that Kenny and Bobby had not been notified of the session, and had heard about it indirectly and showed up full of anger at the betrayal. Capitol really did try to break the group up."

    Edwards's high opinion of Ronstadt's gifts is undimmed by such incidents. "She had -- and she still does -- a great sensitivity to great songs. She was just beginning to form that then. She can pick songs, in the same way [as] Emmylou Harris, that are perfect for them, as if they'd written them. Almost as an art form, of finding people who write songs that are saying what you want to say. I don't think that people now, or even before then, had those kind of personal relationships with the songwriters." Indeed the second and third Stone Poneys albums are dotted with covers of songs by several talented singer-songwriters who hadn't quite gotten the breaks that would have allowed them to get them widely heard via their own releases: Nesmith (a star as part of the Monkees, but not yet able to record as many of his songs as he would have liked, or always record in the way he liked), Gillette, Tom Campbell, Pam Polland, John Braheny, and on Stone Poneys Vol. III, no less than three Tim Buckley songs. Ronstadt thereafter abandoned any pretense of being a part of the Stone Poneys and began a solo career that found her the pre-eminent pop singer of the 1970s to became a superstar solely on the basis of her interpretations of other people's songs.

    Gillette puts Ronstadt's empathy for the vibe of a tune in quite colorful perspective: "I played guitar on the session where we recorded 'A Number and a Name' [which he co-wrote with Tom Campbell, and Ronstadt recorded on her first solo album]. "I still remember with some excitement that Linda removed her blouse in the dimly lit studio, to get into the right mood for the song. Linda had the ability to be sensually present in a perfectly natural and honest way. It wasn't a ploy, just good fun. Something that is almost always overexploited in these soulless days in which we now abide."

    The tight in-crowd of young, reflective, easygoing Southern California songwriters steeped in acoustic roots music was an incestuous scene that saw many of the acts covering each other's songs. In addition to those Ronstadt interpreted, there were also, from Orange County alone, Jackson Browne (whose early works were done by Tom Rush, Nico, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), Steve Noonan, and Greg Copeland. Even Gregg Allman, then struggling in Hollywood with the Hourglass prior to the formation of the Allman Brothers, got in on the action, penning a beautiful, tender folk-rock ballad for the Sunshine Company, "Sunday Brought the Rain." ("Gregg really liked that whole folkie sort of traditional and contemporary acoustic music," confirms the Sunshine Company's Maury Manseau.)

    Today Los Angeles seems like one unholy ribbon of superhighways in which no one walks and everyone drives, and interpersonal contact is kept at a minimum. It can be difficult to imagine a simpler, funkier time and town, when many of the singers and songwriters actually lived within walking distance of each other in communities like Venice, dropping by unannounced to jam, smoke joints, or try out songs on each other. "The old Ocean Park area [near the Santa Monica-Venice border] and the old Venice Canal area were the world's chicest slums, if you will," says Roy Marinell, then playing with the Gentle Soul. "There were these wonderful old homes that were built as beach houses that you could rent relatively cheaply, right on the beach. There were a couple of coffeehouses in the area. Ocean Park wasn't developed like it is now. Main Street is now one Starbucks after another. But in those days, it was all soup kitchens and bums sleeping in doorways." Some of that overflowing communitarian spirit seeps into the photograph on Stone Poneys Vol. III, where a couple dozen or so friends, kids, and dogs pose in front of Ronstadt's house in Venice, including Tim Buckley and his then-girlfriend Jainie Goldstein.

    The carefree California hippie vibe spilled over into their records. Yet their lack of volume and assertiveness, and their sheer numbers, made it impossible for all of them to get the hearing they deserved. Steve Noonan's sole Elektra album, recorded when he was 20, was bland and nervous, and he in fact never put out another. Gillette made just one modest album for Vanguard, with Bruce Langhorne on electric guitar. "I think I did kind of fit at Vanguard," he acknowledges. "Because [I] was a kind of an artsy folk throwback traditional songwriter, but songwriter working with traditional context, traditional elements. Very much like what Ian & Sylvia had been doing at that point." But he, like several, found Vanguard had shortcomings in artist development: "I never felt that Maynard Solomon really understood who I was, or what I did, or what merit there might be in the work that I was doing. I actually declined to make a second record, very foolishly." Especially because it turned out Vanguard was able to tie him up anyway, as his release from the label "wasn't actually a release at all. It gave them four options for future albums, and they wanted to call them in. And of course, when I went to Capitol with that, they said, 'Oh, well, there's no way we can do anything with you.' So that was a great mistake on my part, to sign that."

    Jackson Browne was already skilled at crafting precariously delicate songs ("The Fairest of the Seasons," recorded by Nico on Chelsea Girl, was the best of them). But he never even got to make his first record in the 1960s, and a wealth of unreleased publishing demos he recorded as a teenager in 1966 and 1967 unveil the cause. His voice was timorous and callow, rendering the songs not so much into works of delicacy as the sound of a man scared of getting eaten alive by the studio microphone, let alone able to color his voice with enough feelings as the songs themselves contained. Marinell remembers telling Browne that Jackson wasn't going to be able to join the Gentle Soul on a permanent basis, softening the blow by advising the dejected youngster to do his own songs with his own band: Browne later told Roy "it was the best advice of his career," according to Marinell.

    Browne was even part of a costly Elektra experiment, overseen by Frazier Mohawk, to develop a band at Paxton Lodge, an isolated dwelling in the Northern California mountains. "The concept was to get rid of all of the stresses that were on these people, so that they would be free to create," explains Mohawk. "What I didn't realize at the time was that those stresses were in fact the motor that made them go. As soon as we took the pressure away and took care of everything for them, a lot of the creative juices didn't need to flow. So it didn't work. The creative juices that make for great songs weren't there.

    "The people who were there were urban people. This was a country environment, and sometimes when that 60-cycle hum of the city goes away, people's motors wind down. Some people need New York, and they need some evil influences. Otherwise they have nothing to write about. Everything is beautiful, everything is fine. So who cares? That's kind of what happened." Although an album called Baby Browning resulted from the communal band, it wasn't released since, as Jac Holzman bluntly states, it "sucks. It really wasn't very good." It took about five years, and a considerable improvement in his vocals, before Browne made his album debut; it wasn't until the mid-1970s that he became a star.

    "He wasn't a very good singer in the '60s," confirms John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. "It was always comical: 'Yeah, Jackson's gonna sing?' But he took singing lessons. He was like the first guy that anybody knew [to do that]. His lyrics were so complicated, his chord changes were new. His singing caught up to his other talents." When he was informed that Browne had a record deal, McEuen laughs, "I says, 'Oh yeah, Who's he gonna have sing for him?' But he shocked everybody. It came out really cool."

There's much more on singer-songwriters and 1960s folk-rock of all sorts from the last half of the 1960s in Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock.

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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