Backstage Pass: Chris Darrow – A brilliant disguise

In certain circles, the name Chris Darrow still carries a certain cachet. At least it does with Jimmy Page.

It’s been said that the Led Zeppelin guitarist once remarked that Darrow’s late-’60s group Kaleidoscope, remembered mostly as “world beat” pioneers with an acid-country bent, was his “favorite band of all time.”

Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman also sang Kaleidoscope’s praises, noting in his book “Follow The Music” that the group’s debut, the eclectic Side Trips, was his favorite record ever. And noted music authors, including Barney Hoskyns and Richie Unterberger, have trumpeted Darrow’s essential contributions to Southern California country-rock.

With such a star-studded cheering section, how is it possible that Darrow is not at least as famous as some of the artists he’s recorded with, such as Hoyt Axton, Helen Reddy, Gene Vincent, Leonard Cohen or James Tayor [on the classic Sweet Baby James, no less], among others?

Everlasting Records hopes to solve that mystery by reissuing a pair of beloved Darrow solo albums: 1973’s Chris Darrow and 1974’s Under My Own Disguise. Released as a deluxe two-CD, two-LP (180-gram vinyl) set with a 48-page photo book on March 3, Chris Darrow/Under My Own Disguise features the weathered, but artfully rendered, traditional-country sketches — tinged with exotic folk and muted psychedelia — that have gained him such a cult following.

The two records were made after the dissolution of The Corvettes, formed by Darrow and Jeff Hanna in the wake of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1969 hiatus. Darrow had replaced Bruce Kunkel in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band around 1967, playing guitar, mandolin and fiddle and singing on the band’s Rare Junk and Alive LPs.

The Corvettes recorded two singles for Dot that were produced by The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith and then became the backing band for Linda Ronstadt. Darrow also served as Ronstadt’s road manager. But one by one, members of The Corvettes left, with Hanna rejoining the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and his replacement, Bernie Leadon, lured away by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

A brief reunion with Kaleidoscope, recording work with Nesmith and interesting collaborations with producer Kim Fowley and The Surf Punks’ Dennis Dragon would come to pass as Darrow’s career marched on. His long, fascinating journey is the subject of this interview.

With this reissue [project], what was the driving force behind it and in what way did you want it to enhance the originals?

Chris Darrow: These albums are considered seminal works by many music aficionados. They have not been available in the U.S. as reissues, ever, and Under My Own Disguise was originally released only in England, so it is a great time to have them come out again. I feel that they both hold up after all this time.

Listening to the reissues, I can’t help but be struck by how authentic and traditional songs like “Take Good Care Of Yourself” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” are to country music. Even at that time, you seemed to be more in touch with the roots of that music than most of your contemporaries. I guess that comes from your bluegrass background.

CD: Yes, very much so. I started out in folk music at the age of 13 and continued on with my study of American traditional music. As a teenager, I evolved into bluegrass and old-timey music. That certainly had a great effect on me as a musician, writer and performer.

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