Chris Darrow: A Gift Unheralded

By: Jim Welte

Chris Darrow by Steve Cahill
Ben Harper first started playing guitar when he was 18, spending countless hours toiling away at the Folk Music Center, the music shop owned by his grandparents in his hometown of Claremont, California. Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix had dominated much of Harper’s musical edification to that point, and he had been playing a ton of acoustic blues music, particularly Robert Johnson. But there was another artist, someone right in Harper’s backyard and far from the iconic stratosphere of those other influences, that Harper had his eyes on: Chris Darrow.

A long-time friend and high school classmate of Harper’s mother Ellen, Darrow, now 64, served as a small town reminder of the promise that lay ahead. Darrow had been a member of country-rock mainstay the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and co-founder of Kaleidoscope, a psych-rock precursor to many jam bands and world fusion acts that was lauded by Jimmy Page as “brilliant.” As a multi-instrumentalist with proficiency on the guitar, bass, fiddle, violin, banjo, Dobro, lap steel and mandolin, Darrow also landed a slew of session and touring work with the likes of Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, John Stewart, Sonny & Cher and Linda Ronstadt. Darrow released several solo albums, two of which, Chris Darrow and Under My Own Disguise, were reissued last month by Everloving Records (see the JamBase review here).

“Chris was a deserved myth, a legend of Claremont,” Harper says. “He was one of the guys who had done it – he had gotten his music on record, out for the world to consume. It gave me something to attain, and it brought ambition, a goal and a dream into visible tactile terms, which is really important to a kid growing up. And with Chris, I could connect the recorded music with the man himself.”

Out of the countless songs Darrow had performed on over the years, one in particular stood out to Harper. “Whipping Boy,” a sinewy, fiery slide guitar blues track written by Darrow and featured on his self-titled 1973 album, captivated Harper as he became engrossed in slide guitar himself. At the time, Harper was playing mostly blues covers, and had yet to land a record deal with Virgin.

Chris Darrow 1972
“That song drew me in because that could have been Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House or Skip James, but it was Chris Darrow, and when I started looking for my own musical direction with confidence, Chris showed me that song and he said, ‘This is what you’re reaching for.’ I recorded it and placed it at his feet,” says Harper. “He was saying, ‘Congratulations I am going to teach you this song. You are now ready to learn this song.’ I’ll never forget him sitting me down and showing me that song lick for lick.”

Flash-forward nearly 20 years to March 2009, and Harper is holding court before a packed house at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, blasting through the opening slide riffs on “Whipping Boy.” Next to him is Chris Darrow, the subject of an Everloving sponsored tribute show that leaves him overwhelmed, knowing that tribute shows usually focus on the legendary or recently departed.

“I was really humbled by the whole thing,” Darrow says. “Usually things like that don’t happen until you die. It was better than I could have ever imagined.”

Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family was in the house, leading his band through a few of Darrow’s tunes. Olinsky had just returned from a trip to Ghana, and he and his bandmates knew little of Darrow’s music, having been invited to play by Everloving, their management firm. Olinsky was drawn to Darrow’s “A Masquerader,” initially thinking it “was about people fronting or putting on a mask and written in a Lennon snarky way,” he says. “Once I started learning the song, it was a much sweeter song and Chris’ personality came out. It was a really cool experience to get inside someone’s songs and learn a whole lot more about it than you actually heard the first few times.”

Olinsky compares Darrow to Woody Guthrie in the sense of how deceptively simple their music is and how it leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

Continue reading for more on Chris Darrow…

The better the music is the harder you have to put it through the machine and force it out into the public eye. Chris was just never really altogether interested in that and I applaud him for that. It never owned him. He’s a true rebel for that.

Ben Harper

Photo of Chris Darrow at Stonehenge 1972

“With Chris, the songwriting is just so strong, the simple structure, the words and the melody,” Olinsky says. “You can play a reggae version, you can play a punk rock version – you can take it any which way. You get all these colors of the same song.”

Chris Darrow
Darrow’s solo albums are exercises in packing as many of those colors as possible onto a single sonic canvas. He recorded his self-titled album and half of Disguise at Trident Studios in London, where he arrived with a horde of instruments. He recorded with members of Fairport Convention, the Jeff Beck Group and Elton John‘s band, among others. He multi-tracked vocals, guitar, slide guitar, Dobro, fiddle, mandolin, piano, hammered dulcimer, banjo and bass. Celtic harpist Alan Stivell plays on “Faded Love” and harpsichordist Dolly Collins adds a medieval vibe to “That’s What It’s Like to Be Alone,” while “Take Good Care of Yourself” features Darrow wielding some Cajun fiddle over a bouncy rhythm from British reggae act Greyhound.

But, Darrow wasn’t simply a “world music” artist decades before that stultifying genre tag existed, he was a songwriter first and foremost, and one that pre-dated the explosion in country rock in the early 1970s by artists like Jackson Browne and the Eagles. Mudhoney‘s Steve Turner, a lifelong crate digger, first discovered Kaleidoscope at a thrift store and soon tracked down Darrow’s solo work.

“I liked his rough vocals right off the bat,” Turner says. “For that early ’70s time period, so much of that Southern California country rock was getting smoother and smoother, and Chris still had some rough edges and some experimental touches to a lot of the music. It seemed very psychedelic to me, and it seemed more real than a lot of that stuff.”

Chris Darrow by Jamie Midgley
“Holy smokes, what a writer,” Harper adds. “And while I always knew that Chris was one of the great California songwriters, I didn’t appreciate the production enough until I realized that I had taken on a lot of that production subconsciously all along.”

Darrow has long since reconciled why his music didn’t catch fire like it did for many of his contemporaries. In his estimation, he wasn’t linear enough, serving up a bit too much experimentation and eclecticism. “I have followed my nose a little more,” he says.

Harper suggests that Darrow, who continues to make music, take photographs and paint at his home studio in Claremont, simply never subjected his art to the machine.

“The better the music is the harder you have to put it through the machine and force it out into the public eye,” Harper says. “Chris was just never really altogether interested in that and I applaud him for that. It never owned him. He’s a true rebel for that.”

At the tribute show, Akron/Family took the reins for the all-hands jam at the end of the night, a raucous rendition of Darrow’s “Take Good Care of Yourself,” with Darrow himself joining in on vocals. Olinsky says the night had a communal feel that reminded him of his hometown of Williamsport, PA.

“There is this spirit of a small town, weird, once-in-a-lifetime thing that just feels special in a very kind of small community way,” Olinsky says. “There is something sweet about that.”

For a guy that has every right to be jaded and cynical about the music business, Darrow seems genuinely thrilled at the recent attention, and is pondering his next move, which may include more live performances and even a new album. He says he has seen the music industry swing back and forth between what he calls “flannel” and “polyester” periods over the years, and reckons that the recent five-Grammy stampede by Robert Plant and Alison KraussRaising Sand is a good omen for roots music.

“We’re in a period of flannels,” Darrow says. “The ears must be tuned to the stuff that I do, and since I am at a time in my life when the cycle may not come around again, I’ll try to take advantage of it. People have been saying things that I always wanted people to say about my music. This has certainly put a new twist on my career and my life.”

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