By Richie Unterberger

Released in April 1962, the self-titled album by Dave Guard & the Whiskeyhill Singers was doomed to be primarily remembered by Kingston Trio collectors. Guard, however, had actually assembled a formidable array of talent for the lineup of his new group. Half of the quartet had yet to truly reach musical maturity; the other half would only be known by posterity for work in the Kingston Trio.  It's perhaps appropriate, then, that the record had obvious similarities to the Kingston Trio's sound, yet also explored directions that would probably have never been presented by the Kingston Trio within one album.

    Along with Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane, Dave Guard was one of the three original members of the Kingston Trio. He performed and recorded with the band from their inception through early 1961. Those three years or so saw them score a half-dozen Top Forty singles and an even greater number of hit albums (including five Number Ones), as well as play a vital role in popularizing folk music in the pop market. As the most musically adventurous of the threesome, though, Guard began to feel his musical ambitions somewhat stifled by the Kingston Trio formula. That, combined with some dissatisfaction with the way their publishing earnings were handled, caused Guard to leave the band, to be replaced by the highly capable singer-songwriter John Stewart.

    Guard took his time auditioning and assembling a new ensemble, teaming up with old high school friend Cyrus Faryar and standup bassist David "Buck" Wheat, who had worked with the Kingston Trio as an accompanist. The final place in the quartet was assumed by Judy Henske, whom Faryar had come across while playing a solo gig in San Diego on which Henske was also on the bill. The presence of a woman singer alone ensured fulfillment of Guard's wish, according to Faryar, to make the act "an absolute departure from the Kingston Trio. She represented [the] perhaps most persuasive element, that what he was doing was a departure: a woman in the group, a whole different set of voices."

    Elaborates Faryar, "He was grateful that the Kingston Trio accomplished what it did, and gave him financial resources to continue doing his work. But what the Kingston Trio was musically capable of, or chose to do, was something that no longer satisfied him. He was just busting to break loose and find interesting, esoteric music with complicated harmonies.

    "When the Whiskeyhill Singers performed, we really frightened people as much as entertained them. Buck Wheat was years-plus older than all of the rest of us, about my height, five-foot six. David [Guard's] six-foot-four, and Judy, in her heels, [was] six-foot four. Judy was statuesque, to say the least, and very vigorous. We actually had to have a stage reinforced in some places, because she pounded a hole right through it. She would keep time not by tapping her foot, but by pounding her heel."

    For all the strangeness the preceding comments might imply, Dave Guard & the Whiskeyhill Singers sounds in many respects like a typical early '60s harmony pop-folk crossover album. It was cleanly arranged and, if only in retrospect, innocent, though Faryar counters, "perhaps a better expression would be raw." Not too radical a left turn from the Kingston Trio, in other words, save for the presence of Henske's bluesy, at times almost raunchy vocals, and an eclectic assortment of material that many commercial folk acts would not have presented on a single LP in that era. Woody Guthrie's "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)" and "The Bonnie Ship, the Diamond" (learned from British folk giant Ewan MacColl) may have fit into many folk repertoires of the time. But there was also the Fijian love song "Isa Lei"; "Shine the Light on Me (Salomila)," a nod to the Hawaiian music that Faryar and Guard heard while attending high school in Honolulu; and the bluegrass of "Ride on Railroad Bill." The highlight may have been the Bessie Smith blues "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," a showcase for Henske's solo blues-folk meltdown, and a preview of sorts for much of the music found on her early Elektra solo albums in the following two years. In contrast, broad comedy (the element of the record which has perhaps dated most poorly) ruled the day in "We're the World's Last Authentic Playboys" and "When the War Breaks Out in Mexico."

    "David had been a constant sort of musicologist from the days of the Kingston Trio on, and had in his home an astonishing variety of music from around the world," points out Faryar. "His interests were very far-ranging, and he loved and pursued music of every genre. He found in-the-field recordings by musicological archivists. He had Gregorian chants, he had African didjeridu music. This is when that kind of music was hard to come by. The hard part was distilling this collection of interesting material down into a manageable form. There is so much music, and so many songs, from around the world and cultures that were never used, [that] there just wasn't time for, or we couldn't do justice to, in terms of beating it into shapes that we could sing."

    And the Whiskeyhill Singers would not have time to refine them more, as they didn't even put out another album, although Faryar confirms that enough material for a second LP was recorded. Containing some of the "funniest, weirdest crap in the world" in his estimation, it would have not been entirely graced by Henske, who was in the process of leaving the act as the material was recorded; some of the tracks featured her replacement, Liz Seness, as the female singer.

    "This is an era when a record company was not fond of the idea that any of their artists would evolve," explains Faryar. "A company of that era demanded that an act would gain prominence and then repeat itself over and over and over again, singing and doing the same kind of material. It wasn't really until the Beatles came along that no two songs were the same, and no two albums were the same.

    "The Whiskeyhill Singers started off in a weird, sort of outrageous, slightly outlandish mode, and David was able to sell Capitol Records on the idea. It was really an ongoing, continual experiment. But the second album was either none of the same, or too much of the same for them to really be content with it. They simply couldn't figure out how to market it; there was no market for this strange, exploratory oddness."

    The Whiskeyhill Singers were puttering to a halt around then, anyway, with Henske leaving for a solo career that saw her explore many interesting blues, folk, pop, rock, and even psychedelic avenues over the next decade on several solo albums, and collaborations with Jerry Yester and the group Rosebud. Faryar went on to join the Modern Folk Quartet; play on sessions by Fred Neil, the Stone Poneys, and others; and make singer-songwriter solo LPs for Elektra in the early 1970s. Guard, who died in 1991, would be only sporadically active in the music business for the rest of his life, never becoming nearly as visible as he was in his Kingston Trio days. This release finally restores the most interesting footnote to his career to print. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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