As you may have guessed by now, I’m a man of eclectic (and according to some fellow music nerds, arbitrary) tastes. While I’d love to say that was the result of my vast experimentation with music, the truth of the matter is that (along with most of my better traits), my love of music comes entirely from my parents, whose record collection and varied tastes opened my mind (and ears) to a world outside the borders of the new wave, synth pop, and arena rock of my youth. I could literally write thousands and thousands of words regarding the musical discoveries found in the (now mine) record collection of my childhood, but today I’m going to talk about a particular album that’s stayed carried a place of honor in my brain.
In 1979, English songwriter Paul Kennerly assembled an amazing lineup of musicians to work on a follow-up to his well-received 1978 country concept album, White Mansions, which brought together a number of Nashville stars with English blues/country rockers like
Albert Lee & Eric Clapton. Where White Mansions covered the breadth of the Civil War, this album would focus on a man made famous (and infamous) as a result of the war’s effect on the citizenry.
For 1980’s The Legend of Jesse James, Kennerly brought back White Mansions alum Albert Lee (Jim Younger) and added Levon Helm (Jesse James), Johnny Cash (Frank James), Emmylou Harris (Zerelda James), and Charlie Daniels (Cole Younger) to tell the sad tale of Jesse James via a collection of really, really great tunes. (As you might have guessed, Kennerly is pretty much the English (but American obsessed) version of Jim Steinman.)
With a great booklet filling in the historical detail song-by-song, the album starts in 1863 with a young Jesse pushed into the arms of Missouri partisan fighters due to the mistreatment of his family for their Southern sympathies and generally covers the major events in Jesse’s life, culminating in his assassination by Robert Ford in 1882 I shan’t recant Jame’s history here, as it’s easily found enough on it’s own. I just want to talk about the music.
In a perfect world, I’d just give everyone a beer and put the record on, but we’ll have to make do with a couple of choice selections. For starters, if there is a voice more perfectly American than Levon Helm’s, I’ve yet to hear it. As one reviewer from early in The Band’s history put it “If the faces of Mount Rushmore could sing, they’d sound just like Levon Helm”. (Listen to Quantrill’s Guerillas) Helms just sounds so quintessentially American (even if his Arkansas drawl doesn’t exactly jibe up with a Missouri accent) that he’s a perfect fit for the voice of the folk hero. Likewise, Johnny Cash lends an air of beaten down melancholy to the life of the old Frank James.
And who better to be voice of mournful reason than Emmylou Harris, as James long suffering wife? She’ got two really standout tracks on this album, with the ‘Heaven Ain’t Ready for You Yet’ (detailing Zerelda’s meeting with the then wounded Jesse) and heartbreaking ‘
Wish We Were Back in Missouri‘, in which Zerelda longs to go back to simpler times.
I can’t even begin to tell you how great this assemblage does with the material, with the songs ranging from gospel country stomp (Cash’s ‘Help Him, Jesus’) to full on late 70’s country rock (Albert Lee’s ‘Hunt Them Down’), with everything in between. I particularly love the ‘Riding with Jesse James’ and ‘High Walls’ tracks, detailing the gang’s view of their leader, and Jesse’s desire to never once be behind bars (respectively). The album closes out with (appropriately enough) the death of Jesse at the hands of former associates Robert and Charley Ford, with “One More Shot” covering both the assassination, and James lamenting his now-wasted life in the arms of his wife, and as the final notes fade out I’m always left with a satisfied mind.
Not an easy find on vinyl by any means, but The Legend of Jesse James is available on a CD reissue, which pairs the album with it’s predecessor White Mansions. If you’re a fan oddly esoteric country concept albums (and really, who isn’t?), I heartily suggest tracking this down.