By Richie Unterberger
Unlikely albums devoted entirely to covers of Beatles songs were nothing new when the Charles River Valley Boys recorded Beatle Country in Nashville in September 1966. Beatlemania may have only been about three years old, but the Beatles -- and particularly their chief composers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney -- were already among the most frequently covered songwriters in popular music. Some of these LP-length projects were exploitative, such as the Hollyridge Strings' The Beatles Song Book, an instrumental easy listening recording advertised on the back of several early Beatles albums on the Capitol label. Only a few of these early endeavors showed much imagination or empathy with the source material. As it happened, a couple of them were on the Elektra label, and Beatle Country, on which the Charles River Valley Boys gave a dozen Beatles classics a bluegrass treatment, wasn't even the first of these.
Beatle Country, if only in hindsight, was a well-timed confluence of the right musicians, the right producers, the right songs, and the right record company. Although the very notion of giving Beatles songs bluegrass arrangements might have seemed absurd, in fact on closer inspection, the Beatles and bluegrass might have had more to do with each other than many would have thought. There had always been a good deal of country influence in the Beatles' music and vocal harmonies, albeit absorbed more through rockabilly -- a form of early rock'n'roll soaked in country roots -- than through country or bluegrass themselves. Lead Beatles guitarist George Harrison's style was heavily indebted to rockabilly pickers (particularly Carl Perkins), and particularly on their fourth British album (Beatles for Sale), a country influence had been felt in songs like "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" and "Baby's in Black." The following year, with Ringo Starr on vocals, they covered Buck Owens's "Act Naturally," while Ringo also sang lead on a Beatles original, "What Goes On," that was one of their most country-flavored items to date.
In addition, the US version of their Rubber Soul album led off with "I've Just Seen a Face," which even in its original Beatles version had a strong bluegrass feel. The song caught the ear of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based bluegrass band the Charles River Valley Boys, who performed their own arrangement of the tune at Boston's Winterfest folk concert to an enthusiastic reception. It was that success that sparked them to reconnect with an old friend, producer Paul Rothchild, who'd known the band since the early 1960s, when Rothchild was a salesman for Dumont Record Distributors. Rothchild produced their debut album for his own Mount Auburn label (in fact, it would be that imprint's only release), and when Rothchild got a job as a producer with Prestige Records, he recorded more material with the group. In the mid-1960s, Rothchild moved on to Elektra Records, where he further established himself as a folk producer, also moving into blues-rock and folk-rock with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Fred Neil, Love, and the Doors.
It was around the time that Rothchild was between the folk and rock worlds that the Charles River Valley Boys sent him a demo tape of four songs, including the Beatles numbers "I've Just Seen a Face" and "What Goes On." Rothchild, a fan of both bluegrass and the Beatles, got the idea to do an entire album of Beatles music with the group, which was green-lighted by Elektra president Jac Holzman. As it happened, Elektra had just experienced a good deal of success with another unusual LP of Beatles covers, The Baroque Beatles Book, where Beatles songs were given baroque classical arrangements overseen by Joshua Rifkin (who would soon be responsible for arranging some of Judy Collins's most popular recordings). So concerned was Holzman that The Baroque Beatles Book avoid any music publishing obstacles that he had flown to London to get personal permission to use the material from Lennon and McCartney themselves.
"Once I had their permission [for] that, doing Beatle Country wasn't going to be a problem," says Holzman. "It probably all came under the fair licensing division of the copyright act, which was in effect at that time. But still, it was nice to ask, and know I wasn't going to have a problem. It was very smooth, very quick sessions, everybody had a lot of fun."
At the time they cut Beatle Country, the Charles River Valley Boys were a quartet comprised of mainstay Bob Siggins (banjo, vocals), Jim Field (guitar, vocals), Joe Val (mandolin, vocals), and Everett A. Lilly (bass). Prior to joining, Field had been in a New York group, the New York Ramblers, with the young David Grisman; Lilly was the son of Everett Lilly from the Lilly Brothers, a respected bluegrass act in their own right. For these sessions, they were augmented by Buddy Spicher (on fiddle), Craig Wingfield (on dobro), and Eric Thompson (on lead guitar), while the production duties were split between Rothchild and Peter Siegel. While Beatle Country could in no way be considered a folk-rock album, the climate of 1966 -- by which time folk and rock had mingled for about a year, to great commercial success and enormous controversy -- no doubt also greased the wheels for such an unconventional approach to Beatles material.
"A lot of the folkies were into the Beatles big time, on the sly if nothing else, including us," Siggins told me in a 2001 interview. "We just thought a lot of [their songs] would adapt themselves to a country sound. They had a unique drummer sound, which no one in the States was doing, I thought. Plus they were copying all American stuff, in some form. A lot of blues, and we thought they had a lot of country twang going too in some of the songs they did, like 'I've Just Seen a Face.' The one that Ringo did, 'What Goes On,' to me was perfect for country. As we got into learning the songs, we discovered that the singing they did lent itself well to bluegrass harmonies, which we liked to kind of layer on top of the lead vocal. And they did some kind of similar things. Then as we got into it, we discovered we liked the ones that weren't so country too -- some of the more complicated ones that they came out with a little later. Even after we did the album, we learned a couple of extra ones, like 'Yes It Is,' that never ended up on our album.
"We just had a lot of fun with it. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun work. Working out the harmonies, especially. We weren't like super-hot, hard-driving instrumentalists, really, although we tried. And that's, in a sense, why we hired some of the guys we hired for the record. 'Cause we were more into vocalists, vocalizing. That was the fun part for us, I think."
Certainly the Charles River Valley Boys did not simply do the songs the way the Beatles had done them, only adding bluegrass harmonies and instrumentation. New licks and tempos were introduced that were found nowhere in the original versions, with "Ticket to Ride," for instance, starting with a long, languorous instrumental passage most unlike the ringing circular guitar riff that anchored the Beatles' hit single of the same name. "And Your Bird Can Sing" was changed from a pounding chunky rocker to an almost wistful lament; "What Goes On" was invested with a speedy briskness; "Paperback Writer" became a fiddle-driven hoedown. And while it was occasionally striking how well a signature Beatles riff translated to bluegrass terms without much adaptation -- check the opening banjo spiral of "I Feel Fine," for instance -- the group went far beyond the portion of the Beatles repertoire with obvious country connections, such as "Baby's in Black," "I've Just Seen a Face," and "What Goes On." All of those songs were included, but so were others -- such as the aforementioned "Paperback Writer" and "And Your Bird Can Sing," as well as "She's a Woman," "I Saw Her Standing There," "Yellow Submarine," and "Norwegian Wood" -- that many musicians or listeners would have thought unworkable in a bluegrass context.
Beatle Country was recorded at a time when there was much debate in the folk community about the suitability of mixing folk with rock. Was mixing Beatles and bluegrass something that upset the folk purists that comprised much (or at least some) of the audience for bluegrass music, even if the arrangements themselves were a long way from rock'n'roll? According to Siggins, "I didn't hear too much about it [from purists]. The only flak we got was from Joe Val initially. He was kind of edgy about it. I think he was worried about what some of his friends might say, some of his hardcore bluegrass fans. Our approach was to do it as hardcore bluegrass as we could. And I think that kind of settled his mind on it a bit, and his friends too, for that matter.
"It's funny, I think the scene around Boston, the bluegrass scene -- they weren't from the South, you know? So they were a little sensitive about not being southern hardcore bluegrass. I think that's where Joe was coming from a bit. But he got over it real fast, especially when the album started doing well, and I think he got into singing it a lot, too. He had fun with it too. Other than that, we got only approval, basically, as near as I could tell. Especially on the west coast, when we come out to play some of it on tour." Holzman has no recollection of negative reaction to the LP from folkies either, and admits that although he sent copies on to the Beatles themselves, he never heard from anyone in the Fab Four regarding the record.
It's been suggested that the way Elektra marketed the album -- with a cover of cowboys in London, and promotional materials pushing the album toward a mainstream country market rather than a specific bluegrass one -- was peculiar, and perhaps even inappropriate. "I thought it was kind of strange too," Siggins felt. 'Cause we didn't know that was going on, although we should have guessed. I mean initially at least, we should have guessed, because they really fell in love with the title 'Beatle Country,' although I don't think they had that in mind when we named the album. 'Cause we kept knocking around different kinds of [possibilities like] 'Beatlegrass' and that kind of stuff, and it didn't really sound good. Then we hit on ['Beatle Country'] and everybody said, 'Oh yeah, that's it.' But it wasn't truly bluegrass, other than the instrumentation. It was almost more like country anyway, 'cause the songs were more country, like 'What Goes On' and 'I've Just Seen a Face' and so on. They were more like country songs. So in a sense, it didn't bother me when we named the album that.
"I found out they
it to country people later. I thought that was very funny. But we
have any pretensions about it being a country album, 'cause we knew
country was. I didn't know really what went on in the back smoke-filled
rooms, you know? Having never really talked to Paul [Rothchild] about
much, 'cause he by then had gone off to California." Call it country,
or something else, however, Beatle Country remains one of the
successful all-Beatles cover album projects -- and one that succeeds as
a first-class bluegrass album as well. -- Richie Unterberger
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