In the mid 1960s, Woodstock, New York was increasingly becoming a haven for musicians who wanted to escape the grind of New York City (or elsewhere) and draw inspiration from the wooded surrounds and the burgeoning creative community that was thriving there. The town of Woodstock had long been a focal point for artists, since the The Arts and Crafts Movement was established there in 1902, with the arrival of artists who formed the Byrdcliffe Colony – the oldest operating arts and crafts colony in America. That spirit and endeavour continued on through the century until the explosion of popular culture intersected with it in the 1960s.
Bobby Charles had been a songwriter for a long time before he recorded his debut, self-titled solo album in Bearsville Studios outside of Woodstock in 1971. An ethnic Cajun, Charles was born in Abbeville, Louisiana and as such, grew up listening to both the music of Hank Williams and Cajun music. As a result he became a key figure in creating what became known was swamp pop and from the mid 1950s to the early 60s he wrote some timeless classics such as ‘See You Later (Alligator)’ (Bill Haley), ‘(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do’ (Clarence “Frogman” Henry) and ‘Walking To New Orleans’’ (Fats Domino). Those early hits showed that even at that stage of his career, Charles already had the ability to blend soul, rock n roll, country and Cajun sounds.
Fast forward to his arrival in Woodstock (reportedly at the encouragement of the infamous manager Albert Grossman), Charles was able to draw on a veritable dream team of of musicians to produce and play on his first album under his own name. Co-produced with John Simon and The Band’s Rick Danko, and featuring the playing of his bandmates Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel, alongside Dr. John, David Sanborn, Bob Neuwirth, Ben Keith and others, the album is a near perfect encapsulation of languid New Orleans-infused country grooves and easy going melodies.
There’s the bluesy sway and swing of ‘Tennessee Blues’, the country funk of opener ‘Street People’ with it’s amazing punchy bass line, rousing country rock in the form of ‘Grow Too Old’ and the sprightly, light-stepping New Orleans piano-led pop of ‘I’m That Way’. Some songs, such as the snaking low-down groove of ‘He’s Got All The Whiskey’, take their time, stretching out to five minutes as the musicians ride the rhythm with spirit and soul.
The stone cold classic moment comes with ‘Small Town Talk’, which would lend its name to Barney Hoskyns’ excellent 2016 book about the music of Woodstock in the 1960s and 70s. Opening with a charming whistle it leans straight into the warm, intimate, loping and unfurling sound, riding Helm’s backbeat with spacious guitar, bass and organ. It’s earthy and organic as it contemplates the disruptive nature of gossip and rumour.
In 2011 Rhino Handmade released a comprehensive three-disc reissue featuring the original album remastered and expanded with out-of-print and unreleased recordings, plus a rare 1972 interview with Charles. Both the original and reissue can be found on the usual streaming services. Currently nearing completion is a feature-length documentary called In a Good Place Now: The Life & Music of Bobby Charles which promises to shine a fascinating spotlight on Charles’ long and varied life in music.
Charles’ contemporary J.J. Cale would build a career on a similar vibe and sound but though Charles would go on to perform with The Band at The Last Waltz and release another half dozen albums before his death in 2010, he never reached the lofty heights of this masterpiece. If you haven’t heard it and you’re partial to The Band, Randy Newman, Dr John, Jerry Jeff Walker, blue-eyed soul, Southern R&B and 70s roots rock then I can highly recommend you check out Bobby Charles.