The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968) ***1/2
Historically this may be the first country-rock album, but who really cares about that - the style seems to evolved so naturally, from the Byrds' initial ventures into the territory, that it hardly matters and who-got-there-firsts are difficult to pinpoint as so many musicians were working in the style. Fronting a duo with banjo man Doug Dillard, the album is evenly split between traditional melancholy Clark balladry and more straight-up country songtwangs, and that's the problem: for every lovely heartbreak as "Train Leaves Here This Morning," (covered enough that it sounds like and deserves to be a standard) there's a shitkicker like the hillbilly gospel stomp, "Git It On Brother," that does absolutely nothing for this small-town slicker 40 years removed from '60s rednecks. Perhaps I'm not being fair, but music is subjective, and the country songs do less than nothing for me. That said, the surfeit of excellent songwriting when Clark's in the mood to brood pop-melodically over failed romances (as opposed to kicking the shit or praising jay-zus) allows me to overlook the country leanings. Yeah, I know, I'm supposed to appreciate those leanings as groundbreaking, but country is simply a genre that Gram Parsons handled a lot better; Clark's forte is pop, most decidedly so. On the other hand, the countryish songs are the only rousing tunes here; with the exception of the A-side, "Why Not Your Baby," which combines banjos and syrupy strings to slightly odd but pleasant enough effect, the pop songs are all crawling ballads. "Why Not Your Baby," is the only track that would have fit in the style of his debut solo album, as Clark ventures into more lethargic melancholy territory for many of the other tracks. Some listeners might fall asleep without getting past the glacial pace of the opener, "Out on the Side," but just bite into the darklit thrummings of the haunted "The Radio Song," which finds Clark driving the backstreets of Memphis on a Kentucky rain night. Speaking of the Elvii, the album ends with an incongruous cover of "Don't Be Cruel," that doesn't fit in here at all - as a rocker, Clark makes a great country-rocker. Guitarist Bernie Leadon later went on to help found the Eagles, but don't let this album setting those foundations hold you against it; it's a really good album, better than I've let on so far, as several of Clark's ballads are dash-darn essential. It's just that several of the hick numbers are just too hicky for me.