CD Review of Easy to Be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson by Various Artists

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Easy to Be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson
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Released: 2006
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Rick Nelson isn’t the unlikeliest person to score a tribute album in 2006, but he’s doubtlessly one who wouldn’t leap immediately to mind as a prime candidate for such an accolade. In fact, not only is he generally cited as a significant influence to many of today’s Americana artists, but – guaranteed – he was hipper than you thought he was. (His last studio album, released in 1981, found him covering Graham Parker’s “Back to Schooldays,” along with songs by John Hiatt, John Fogerty, and Ry Cooder.)

Nelson’s career is generally divided into two halves: the years in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that he spent as a teen idol – courtesy of appearing on his parents’ TV series, “The Ozzie and Harriet Show” – and the time he spent in the early ‘70s trying to escape from his past and develop a new career in the country-rock genre. Thing is, both of those halves resulted in some seriously good music…even if Nelson had to struggle during his later years to keep from throttling the people who kept demanding to hear the old stuff when he was trying to slip new stuff into his set. He managed to get little bitter in the lyrics to “Garden Party,” where he sang about an oldies show he played at Madison Square Garden with, among others, Chuck Berry:

Someone opened up a closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Goode / Playing guitar like a-ringin' a bell and lookin' like he should / If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lot of luck / But if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck

Ouch. But you can’t really blame the guy; he had 33 Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964…and only two after that. (It’s some consolation that one of those two was, in fact, “Garden Party.”)

While Nelson met an unfortunate death in a plane crash in the mid-‘80s, his music – particularly his later material – has continued to be appreciated. Now, Planting Seeds Records has corralled a mixture of old and new artists to pay tribute to Nelson’s work.

The Primary 5, led by ex-Teenage Fanclub drummer Paul Quinn, open Easy to Be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson with their take on “One x One,” recorded during Nelson’s underappreciated two-year stint on Epic Records during the mid-‘70s. It’s followed by the Voyces’ rendition of Nelson’s 1958 #1 hit, “Poor Little Fool.” The album mixes up its selections, providing as many hits (“Garden Party,” by Jeff Mellin,” “Travelin’ Man,” by 1888, Aaron Booth’s version of “Hello Mary Lou”) as it does semi-obscurities; a perfect example of the latter comes when Oed Ronne of the Ocean Blue tackles a Bacharach-David composition, “Take a Broken Heart,” a song that’s virtually impossible to find outside of a multi-disc box set. The most successful pair of tracks on the disc are the title track, covered by the Autumn Leaves, and Astropop 3’s take on “Life,” which the band liked enough to release a part of a 3-song EP earlier this year.

Of the bigger names appearing, Marshall Crenshaw’s version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (not, as you might already figure, the Thelma Houston disco classic) sounds like one of his own songs, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Blue gives “Believe What You Say” the twang it would’ve had if Nelson had recorded it in ’78 rather than ’58, and Jeffrey Foskett’s “Young Emotions” has an early Beach Boys feel…which you’d expect from someone who’s been touring with Brian Wilson for the past several years. Meanwhile, Nic Dalton, late of the Lemonheads, provides a Byrdsy jangle with “Alone,” and Allen Clapp of the Orange Peels gives “Lonesome Town” an almost gothic feel.

Easy to Be Free provides a nice glimpse of an underrated artist’s back catalog and, as is the hallmark of any successful tribute album, leaves the listener ready to check out the original versions. Lord knows there are plenty of Rick Nelson best-of collections to choose from; grab one and get started.

~Will Harris