Chris Darrow: A Gift Unheralded
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.
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.
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“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.”
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.”
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 Krauss‘ Raising 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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