By Richie Unterberger

The 1972 album Of Rivers and Religion represented a major career move for John Fahey on two fronts. Although Fahey had very occasionally recorded with other musicians during the previous decade, this marked his first album to feature accompanists -- no less than seven altogether -- on much of the material. Too, it was his first venture into major-labeldom, as the first of a pair of LPs he did for Reprise. Any suspicions of sellout were dispelled by the result, which expanded his sound while retaining the languid, dark, and mysterious moods he had explored on his numerous prior acoustic solo guitar releases. Though recorded with clarity on modern technology, the record effectively re-created the sort of music you might have heard while traversing the Mississippi River as the nineteenth century rolled over to the twentieth, as alluded to on the first cut, "Steamboat Shrine 'Round de Bend."

    Denny Bruce, who co-produced the album with Fahey and managed the guitarist at the time, remembers how the ideas that shaped Of Rivers and Religionwere first mooted. "In 1970, we saw The Travelling Executioner, a black comedy starring Stacy Keach as the guy with the first traveling electric chair, that was scored by Jerry Goldsmith. We really liked the cheesy flavor he got of the rural south.

    "My initial feelings about producing Fahey reminded me of how much I liked the introspective feel Van Morrison achieved on Astral Weeks. John had mentioned he met a standup bass player he wanted to try out. The first song we tried was 'Old Man River' and I knew then we better bring in the big boys."

    Fahey was still a Vanguard recording artist at this time, and according to Bruce, that company was unwilling to budget a Fahey album that would include other musicians. "His deal was that he could record for Takoma 'experimental records,' but to try and make commercial recordings for Vanguard, with their approval of the budget. My asking for $4,000 was the beginning of World War Three. The answer was 'no, The Yellow Princess [Fahey's 1969 Vanguard LP], which had other musicians on it, didn't sell,' etc. The company's hot-headed bottom line was, 'We didn't have to give Joan Baez a nickel, she wanted to be here.'" After Fahey made phone calls to the label's owners in the middle of the night, as well as sending them ten-page handwritten letters about the situation, the guitarist was given his release from Vanguard.

    Instrumental acoustic guitar recordings of Americana with an avant-garde tinge were not (and never have been) hot tickets to airplay and chart listings. Yet Bruce managed to land Fahey a deal with Reprise, and begin assembling Of Rivers and Religion's supporting cast in earnest. "After I started doing my homework on all the good jazz New Orleans guys from the '20s living in L.A., we were able to conceptualize working with men who played with Kid Ory, Count Basie; real traditional jazz guys.

    "The first guy I tracked down was Jack Feierman, a great trumpet player and arranger, who was able to listen to John and write for whatever we wanted. Jack played with Count Basie for many years, yet on my first day with him he did the studio musician rap of how contemporary he still is because he has been been working steady with a 'motherfucker' of a vocalist, Andy Williams. Joe Darensbourg on clarinet was a tremendous treat. The magic for me was hearing Nappy La Mare plucking on his banjo. That's when I felt like singing 'Zip-A-Doo-Day.'"

    Among the other session musicians were a couple of esteemed rockers. Multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow had been in the fabled late-1960s folk-rock-ethnic-psychedelic band Kaleidoscope, the most eclectic rock group of the era, as well as doing time with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and playing on early albums by the likes of James Taylor and Leonard Cohen. Double bassist Joel Druckman had served briefly with England's Bonzo Dog Band before returning to his native United States, and was also, according to Bruce, the son of Fahey's shrink. "I was able to be sort of the folk-country-jazz link between Fahey and the guys that were playing the old-style music," says Darrow, who played second guitar, fiddle, dobro, and mandolin on the sessions. "Somebody who was playing modern music, but had an understanding of the old stuff."

    As it turned out, the embellishments were very much on the low-key side on this mixture of Fahey compositions and traditional tunes. Fahey's expressive guitar lines, adept at both delicate picking and swooping slides, were still very much at the forefront on about half the pieces, such as "Steamboat Gwine 'Round de Bend" and "Funeral Song for Mississippi John Hurt." It was on "Dixie Pig Bar-B-Q Blues," "Texas Pacific Blues," and "Lord Have Mercy" that the New Orleans jazz vets added a Dixieland/riverboat flavor that was rather more lighthearted than Fahey's usual somber, placid soundscapes. Like all of Fahey's best recordings, it was music of reflection and subtleties that took patient listening to fully absorb; as Darrow notes, "I remember the first time I ever heard [Fahey], I thought they'd turned the record from 45 to 33 or something, 'cause I couldn't believe how slow he played."

    For all its old-time feel, Of Rivers and Religion "wasn't an attempt to make a 78, like something maybe R. Crumb would have done," explains Darrow. "It was an attempt to make an LP with the essence of the old stuff, with the technology of the new stuff, and still incorporating his particular style of playing. It wasn't about flash. It was more about style and tempo."

    It was a combination that struck a chord with critics, such as famed musical/cultural commentator Nat Hentoff, who wrote the liner notes, and Time, which picked it as one of the Top Ten albums of 1972. It was also a difficult album to market, both because of its unsuitability for commercial radio formats, and less than total enthusiasm at Fahey's own label. "Both Jack Nitzsche [another Bruce client who had just done an instrumental album for Reprise, St. Giles Cripplegate] and Fahey had 2,000 units of their albums pressed," remembers Bruce. "I booked John at the Boarding House in San Francisco, and Warner Brothers sent about four people to the show. When it was over, Gary George, head of Artists Relations, leaned over to me and said, 'He's boring.'"

    This ringing endorsement behind them, Fahey and Bruce teamed up for another album on Reprise, 1973's After the Ball, which took a similar approach to Of Rivers and Religion, but with more expanded arrangements. That story continues on Collectors' Choice Music's CD reissue of After the Ball, Fahey's second and final Reprise release. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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