Me, I’d like to fire up the Wayback Machine, blast myself back to the early ’70s, throw a fresh ribbon into the old Underwood and type out the following: “Having listened to Goose Creek Symphony, there is only one phrase I can come up with for their music: alternative country music. ‘Alt-country,’ I think I’ll call it … that has a nice ring to it.”
Yep, that’s what I’d do – and I’d be hailed as a genius and a trailblazer of music scribe culture. And it would be a righteous thing all the way around (well, except for me using the Wayback Machine). Because no matter whatever “alt-country” means these days – or whatever it did mean – the best example of what it should have meant existed long before the phrase did. And that, my friend, was Goose Creek Symphony.
With roots that reach back into the late 60s, ‘Goose Creek were true pioneers of throwing an armload of musical genres into a burlap bag, driving it around in the back of a pickup on a rutted-up dirt road during a midsummer rainstorm, and then dumping the whole works out on a flat rock to dry in the sun. The resulting sweet, tarry, funky goodness was true headneck music: just when you thought you had it pegged as sittin’-on-a-fence-post-with-a-geetar goodtimey country stuff, it would neatly jump three steps sideways with a complete time signature shift into a jazzy passage that would turn itself inside out into some fuzzed-out guitar riff zipping back and forth between the speakers before somehow morphing into a down-the-backside-of-the-mountain-with-no-brakes banjo and fiddle breakdown.
Dizzy yet? Well, don’t be – the Goose Creekers have always made the whole thing happen so seamlessly that you go from this world to that without even knowing it. You end up sitting on the front steps of the local VFW hall with a PBR in your hand wondering where the curry powder that’s all over the front of your shirt came from – and why am I wearing a … Viking helmet? The truth of the matter is, Goose Creek Symphony’s music probably has more in common with Frank Zappa than Uncle Tupelo – except the instrumentation leans more toward Kentucky than California.
Which is all the long way around to bring the uninitiated up to speed for the matter at hand: the release (or re-release, of sorts) of Goose Creek’s Head For The Hills. A product of an on-their-own recording session in 1975 (the very thing that made GCS great – their eclectic sound – made it hard for the average label to understand them), Head For The Hills spent the next almost-35 years drifting around as an “official” and unofficial bootleg … sort of their version of Phish’s White Tape. (There was a Goose Creek hiatus in there that lasted almost 17 years, but the band is back and active these days.)
How do you describe the sound of Goose Creek Symphony? I guess a few blow-by-blow accounts of tracks off Head For the Hills is as good a way as any. (The album is a fine place for a Goose newbie to begin.) One thing to be noted: oftentimes with a vault release like this, you’d probably preface things with a “Remember now – this was 1975,” just to cut the sound quality, instrumentation, and studio technique a little slack. No need for that here. I’m not sure when these older GCS recordings will finally start sounding dated – but it ain’t yet.
Right off the bat, we have a version of the old chestnut “Goin’ Down The Road”. The Goose Creekers start off slow with a sweet acoustic-guitar-on-the-tailgate intro and leader Charlie Gearheart growling out the vocal. Anybody else probably would’ve done a verse or two and then ripped into a double-time stomp – but Gearheart and company opt to keep the tempo slow and layer on the instruments and voices. Interesting, but nothing too wild there, right?
Yeah, well … Then there’s “Number One Gravy Band”, which probably could’ve stood alongside of “The Cover Of The Rolling Stone” on AM radio playlists back in the day as far as tongue-in-cheek “What do I have to do to make it big around here?” attitudes go. The similarities stop there, though. “Number One” features more tempo changes than Buffalo Springfield’s “Broken Arrow”, although the goofy, upbeat mood remains constant. (Including the refrain: “Well I’ve always been a leader/I ain’t never been no back-seater/I’d do anything but cut off my peter/I wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star.”) At the end of the second chorus, Sgt. Pepper horns step in, bow, and walk back off – giving way to chicken-picked guitars and down-home fiddles – which make way for a disco bass line, which evolves into … aw, you get the idea.
Or, how about “Pretty Mama”? Things bounce along in a good-timey way (acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle, and country boy chorus over top of cascading hand percussion) until about the two-minute mark when all goes silent except for a stark drum riff that might possibly be leading us to a version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or something – except off we go into a full-roar take on ol’ Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’”.
There’s weirdness (of course) in the opening moments of the title song – the guitars are a little stretched out and rubbery – but they seem to settle down by the second verse when a smiley-faced banjo joins in. Which is all well and good and solid until the squealing guitar solo, followed by more of that “Jesus – what’s wrong with me?” elastic stuff … followed by a pretty straight version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” – except for the vocals being mixed so they sound like you’re hearing a choir on a far mountain while the pickers are right up under your chin. It’s sort of like Pink Floyd in overalls and flannel shirts.
There’s more (nine tracks in all, including a newly-unearthed track from the original sessions), but we’ll leave it at that for now. Is it jamband? Yep, you could call it that. Is it Americana? Sure – that, too. Country (both alt- and unalt-)? Jazz? Rock? Uh-huh; a little bit of some, a lot more of others. If it were me, I wouldn’t waste a lot of time trying to put a label on Goose Creek Symphony. I’d just lay hands to a copy of Head For The Hills, put it on, and turn it up.
You might just learn ya somethin’.
Brian Robbins is a musician and former offshore lobsterman who lives on the Maine coast.