Backstage Pass: Chris Darrow – A brilliant disguise

By  Peter Lindblad

Chris Darrow's second solo album,
Chris Darrow’s second solo album, “Under My Own Disguise,” was a more piano-based effort than his self-titled LP. Both are being reissued in 2009. (Courtesy of Everloving)

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.

I love the interplay of mandolin and fiddle on “We Don’t Talk Of Lovin’ Anymore.” It creates a mood that transitions from traditional country to an almost medieval British folk aesthetic and then back again. In hindsight, even though it was Kaleidoscope Jimmy Page was so in love with, you can understand why your music appealed to him because of how you were able to weave together elements of so many genres. Where did that worldly music education come from?

CD: My father, Paul Darrow, who is still alive, is a jazz musician and artist who plays clarinet and saxophone, so I grew up on Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, to name just a few. My grandfather, Lloyd Gunderson, was into Hawaiian music and country music, like Spade Cooley’s country swing, so I was exposed at an early age to a variety of musical forms. That’s where I got my early love of the steel guitar. I started playing ukulele at 4 years old and learned a lot of traditional American music at that time as well. The influx of Appalachian music entering into my vocabulary, with its Scotch/Irish influence, only helped to sew this pan-world, patchwork quilt together.

With Under My Own Disguise, and songs like “Java Jive” and “Miss Pauline,” was that an album that was perhaps more fun to make or that had more of a good-time vibe to it?

CD: Not really. I always try to impart a little lighthearted vibe into my albums to keep them from getting too cerebral, since I tend to write songs with an edge of seriousness to them.

The sound on Under My Own Disguise seems a little more clean and perhaps the instrumentation is a little more full and expansive than the first solo record.

CD: It is certainly a wider mix with a more expansive feel. The spatial aspect of it was what I was going for. I wanted the wide-open spaces of the American West to be felt. “Another Sundown” is a perfect example of that. I also mixed the vocal back in the track a bit to give the record a more panoramic feel. Under My Own Disguise is also more piano-driven and not so much guitar-based. I played piano on almost every song, which I had never done before, so the chordal aspect of this album has a different dynamic than Chris Darrow.

Going back to your youth, your family moved from South Dakota to California, and you were voracious as far as learning how to play as many stringed instruments as you could. What prompted you to want to become as proficient as possible on them, and which did you feel most comfortable with?

CD: My father was in the army when I was born in Sioux Falls, S.D., so I never really lived there. My mother took me back to Pasadena, Calif., my parents’ hometown, right after my birth.  

One of my great idols was Mike Seeger, of the New Lost City Ramblers. He and his compatriots, John Cohen and Tom Paley, were all adept at more than one instrument. They became idols to many of us who decided to take on the multi-instrumental challenge. When you don’t know any better, it doesn’t seem so daunting a task!  

Since I started on the guitar, that is certainly high on my list, but I think my mandolin playing and slide-guitar style are somewhat unique to me. I have invented a couple of instruments. One called the WMI, which stands for Weird Mexican Instrument, is really a four-stringed ukulele-type instrument with steel strings, tuned like a viola. I have an acoustic one and an electric one.

I have been using both of these for years now, and they have taken over a range of my playing that is certainly particular to me. I also had a slide sitar made with a buzz bridge that sounds like a sitar but is played like a lap steel. That and the electric WMI were made by my friend Henry “Kiki” Barnes.

Early on you formed a bluegrass band called The Dry City Scat Band, and you got a gig at Disneyland, of all places. How surreal was that?

CD: When you grow up in Southern California, nothing is as surreal as you might think. Disneyland, especially back stage, is like any other place, with dressing rooms and bathrooms and such. The surreal part was meeting the different musicians who played there at the time with us.  

The Young Men Of New Orleans, featuring Johnny St. Cyr, on six-string banjo, who played on the riverboat, shared a dressing room with us. They had all played in Louis Armstrong’s original jazz band.  That’s history!

There were many musical aggregations at Disneyland at the time, and we often played concerts together for the crowds. One memorable day was when we got to play for Walt Disney himself, and his wife, at the New Orleans Plaza area. I had a chance to shake his hand, which was a great thrill for me. Also on the bill were the Clara Ward Gospel Group and Olatunji, the great African dance and music ensemble.  

There were Hootenannies and shows all the time, and in addition to the park’s own talent, we did shows with Joe and Eddie, Steve Mann, Steve Gillette, Ry Cooder and Pam Polland and the Wellenbrook Singers, Mike Post’s folk group. Mike later went on to write theme songs for many well-known TV shows like “The Rockford Files” and “Hunter.”

How did Kaleidoscope come together and what, in your opinion, made the band great? Was it your ability to shuffle seamlessly through so many genres and blend them all so well together?

CD: I was asked to join up one night when I got a call from David Lindley, while I was working in the art gallery while I was in graduate school. He had put together some guys, and they needed another person to fill out the roster. I said sure, and that was it.

It was meant to be a leaderless band, with each member having the chance to lead the band when one his songs was picked to do. So it was a perfect chance for me to show my stuff and still be in a band.  Each guy had his own area of expertise, and each of us overlapped in some way or another. It was a steep learning curve for all of us, having to learn other peoples musical genres; however, we did prevail.

I was able to use some of the material from my former band The Floggs that eventually came out on the first album, Side Trips. Thank God we were young and eager. The group developed its sound as it went along.  There was no mold to use as a precedent for what we eventually became. We have been referred to as the first world-beat band, and I do think we were.

Did you feel like Kaleidoscope laid the groundwork for bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers?

CD: Not really. I think they were more into trying to be psychedelic cowboys, though we did approach that ideal ourselves on a number of our songs, like “Oh, Death,” “The Cuckoo,” “Louisiana Man” and “Greenwood Sidee.”

When did you first hear what Page said about how Kaleidoscope was his favorite band, and what was your response?

CD: We heard about it in an article in Zig-Zag magazine. I was good friends with both Pete Frame and John Tobbler, who ran the magazine. We were, of course, flattered, but I kinda thought that Page might have seen David and I bow our electric guitar and bass on the intro to “Taxim,” since he bowed his guitar as well. Could be coincidence.

He had seen us at the Avalon Ballroom on a particular night that I remember, and we were especially great that evening. We did a particularly long version of “Taxim” that night, with bowed instruments, complete with belly dancers dancing all over the stage.

What do you remember about the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s performance in the movie “Paint Your Wagon”?

CD: We were picked to be the “teen appeal” for this Broadway musical that was being made into a major motion picture.

As it turned out, we only did one song, “Hand Me Down That Can O’ Beans,” which I sing. Otherwise, we spent three months in Oregon filming and essentially doing cameo roles for the film. It was a lot of fun and a great experience. At that time it was the most expensive movie ever made.

Talk about your partnership with David Lindley.

CD: David and I go back to our teenage years. I had a bluegrass band in my town called the Re-Organized Dry City Players. David heard me play and asked if I would join his band, the Mad Mt. Ramblers. I said yes, if I could keep my band intact as well. We eventually merged the two bands and soon evolved into the Dry City Scat Band with David, myself, Steve Cahill, Pete Madlem and Richard Greene.  

We had gone our separate ways for a while when I got a call from David asking me to join a band with him that eventually became Kaleidoscope. That lasted for about two years, when I decided to leave due to musical differences. Since then we have gone down different roads. David became one of the most in-demand session players, while I followed my post-session work as a solo artist and songwriter. David is one of the most talented musicians of our generation and is now enjoying a solo career of his own. I continue to pursue my own solo experience, to record and to write.  

With The Corvettes, you released two singles produced by Mike Nesmith. What was he like to work with?

CD: Mike is a very multi-talented guy. His ability to see things that most people don’t is a rare and endearing quality. He understood The Corvettes and what our purpose was at the time, and he brought the best out of us. Unfortunately, we might have been a little too early in the game, or maybe we were on a label that couldn’t sell our type of music.

Either way, Michael did a great job, and it was at his suggestion that Linda Ronstadt come by to consider us for her band. At that time we were in desperate need of a job, as both our singles had failed and three of us were married. Suddenly we were working and out on the road.

Playing with The Corvettes as Linda Ronstadt’s backup group, and also serving as her road manager, did you enjoy working with her?

CD: Linda and I became very close, and I enjoyed working with her. I always thought she was a remarkable singer and one of the best interpreters in the business. Her ability to sell a song is one of her greatest strengths, not to mention the great tone she possesses.

… Her role in the development of country rock has been overshadowed by many of the men that worked in her bands. There would not be The Eagles if it weren’t for her. Enough said!

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