Carla Olson

BUSTED FLAT RECORDS, Ontario (Canada)’s independent, roots-music label, will extend its repertoire to “the singular Americana talent of Carla Olson,” with its April 30 release of HAVE HARMONY, WILL TRAVEL.

The CD is a set of twelve compositions from the enduring catalogs of Del Shannon, Buddy Holly, Gene Clark, Steven Van Zandt, P.F. Sloan, Chris Jagger, James Intveld, Moby Grape, Paul Kennerley, and opening with the very-American, Sons of the Desert classic, “You Can Come Cryin’ to Me” (written by Radney Foster, of country-pop fame with the eighties-era band Foster and Lloyd), a duet that beautifully melds the authentic vocals of Olson and the CD’s sole female, singing partner, Juice Newton.  Backed by in-the-pocket performances from the track’s guest band, James Intveld (electric guitar), Cindy Cashdollar (lap steel), Tony Marisco (bass) and Tom Fillman (drums), Carla introduces the CD’s production integrity.  It is no accident that the singer-producer (who also handles acoustic guitar throughout the recording) openly acknowledges such inspirations as the Everly Brothers, Ian and Sylvia, Richard and Mimi Farina -- all of whom share a reputation as “cutting edge” in their respective fields of country-flavored rock, folk, folk rock and, especially, original harmonies.  Carla Olson belongs in this league.

 “Look What You’ve Done” actually enjoyed Top 40 status, as recorded by the Pozo Seco Singers (a discovery of Columbia Records in its mid-sixties heyday), and co-written by fascinating producer Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, etc.).  Carla’s choice of Rob Waller (I See Hawks In LA) to lead this duet is perhaps one of the recording’s true strokes of genius.  They are that terrific merge of earnest, cerebral dedication and pure, emotional country.  Interestingly, in her ability to allow the band’s individual musicians (Rob and Carla on vocals; Mike Clinco and Carla on guitars; Pat Robinson on bass; Rick Hemmert on drums) to do their own thing, Carla’s production, here, is akin to the breathtaking spirit of Johnston himself.  Thus emerges an engaging harmony, both visceral and visual.  In any case, Olson remembers this tune as “the coolest duet to sing along with... the back-and-forth parts of the guy and the girl who are singing their hearts out” -- during the late sixties, amidst the rich, roots-music scene of Austin, TX, her home.  The other song for which Rob carries the melody, with Carla, is a bright rendition of “Til the Rivers All Run Dry,” which closes the CD with a fitting cowboy reprise.  Really, if a singer is to interpret a Don Williams country & western hit, who better than Rob Waller?  This is a bonafide, country music production (kudos on the genre, Carla), with Skip Edwards an endearing stand-out on piano (Clinco, Olson, Robinson and Hemmert again rounding out the band).

 Buddy Holly’s music comes on like an explosion, belying the traditional understanding of Texas roots; the native wasn’t satisfied with country and blues purity.  His “Texas-stubborn” pursuits ultimately saw him becoming a pioneer of the derivatives -- that high-volume, guitar-driven, thunderous beat of roots-rock music that helped enable rock ‘n roll, itself.  Carla Olson says “Buddy knew what Elvis proved -- that a scene stealer begins with a singular style.”  Like one of her Texas peers, the late Bobby Fuller, Carla delivers the power of a Holly-like explosion, in her stellar production of “Love’s Made a Fool of You.”  She says, “For any of Buddy’s songs, I knew James Intveld would be the ideal duet partner.  When we cut this song, it was completely natural to borrow Bobby Fuller’s rockin’ arrangement, which ended up as the punctuation of a long and satisfying day in the studio.”  This is clearly a vocal and production “moment” of the entire set, with Carla’s roots fully intact; like Fuller, she made the jump from Texas to Los Angeles, carrying a sparkling musical presence to the new horizon.  Intveld’s redoubtable electric guitar skills prove also to be the faultless choice for this charming burner that just shouldn’t stop.  Carla rocks her acoustic guitar, while Marisco and Fillman again drive the rhythm on melodic bass and serious drums.    

 Olson delivers a signature performance as lead vocalist, in her rendition of Intveld’s “Stringin’ Me On,” a groove that spotlights her fierce and sultry confidence:  “You say you don’t but you do/ What’s the matter with you.”  The song is further graced by Juice Newton’s backing-vocal prowess, Intveld’s swampy guitar -- trading with Carla’s own electric work.  Joining the controlled rhythm of Marisco and Fillman is Pat Robinson on piano, all of it delivering a fearless (Stones-like) production from Ms. Olson.

 With harmonies travelin,’ the late Del Shannon shows up in kindred spirit, offering one of his edgier, Top 10 hits, “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun),” to this powerful recording; the poignancy is not lost.  Just as Buddy Holly fronted authentic, roots-rock in Texas, so did Shannon, another explosive force of nature, in (Los Angeles) California.  Enter Peter Case, beloved L.A. icon, direct from Carla’s era and sensibility; he led the Plimsouls, and she, the Textones.  They sing in exceptional harmony, and play their dazzling guitars, as plaintive sister and brother: “With my baby by my side… There’s only one thing left we can do.”  Peter’s thrilling, lead vocals are flawless -- How does one “sing” the elegiac, Del Shannon catalog, anyway?  Carla is no stranger to the careful intentions of a sensitive, midwestern transplant to western shores, just this side of Mexico.  She pays homage, without fail, to Del Shannon, in a soaring rock ‘n roll production:  It’s the blessing of genuine soul, wrapped in relentless rock ‘n roll, and released as a divine hit; dig it.  In a band that means business, Barry Goldberg handles Hammond B3 organ, as it virtually “sings along” with those blazing guitars -- highlighted by Case’s baritone solo -- and Marisco’s empathetic bass lines; but this time it’s Hemmert at the vital drummer’s chair, power-steering a hammering pulse.

 Peter Case now makes San Francisco his home, so it’s fair that he picks up that City’s fine, psychedelic representation in HARMONY – an enchanting incarnation of Moby Grape’s “8:05.”  The song remains fresh, an uncluttered, folk-rock production of fine musicianship and heart-tugging lyrics that originally found itself mid-way through the Grape’s self-titled album; but this was an uncommon collection with no filler, insuring none of the songs were skipped over (as was becoming a consumer trend).  Carla decided to use the cut, toward the end of HAVE HARMONY, WILL TRAVEL,” because “it’s a song where you feel like you can take a breather.  The energy is real, but it’s put to a specific use -- to fade down.  It’s bewitching and provocative and calm and soothing, all at the same time.  I love that.”  A sixties-punctuated tambourine helps set the stage for the ever-creative Richard Podolor, as he imparts tender, nylon-Spanish guitar picking and solos, joining Carla’s classically rhythmic acoustic, and melodic electric; the vocals are led by Peter, with Carla’s harmonizing throughout, while Marisco on bass and Hemmert on drums, faithfully drive the groove and fill in the bottom of this tasty production.   

 HAVE HARMONY, WILL TRAVEL is, in no way, a “tribute collection;” rather, it is a “gathering of songs” on Carla’s enchanted journey with allied musicians.  Having said that, just as she honors Del Shannon, so does Carla celebrate the music of Gene Clark -- her fellow recording artist on their own duet-foray, the critically acclaimed SO REBELLIOUS A LOVER (1987) -- whose early identity as co-founding member, and most prolific writer of the Byrds, has been surpassed by the overall body of his irreplaceable work, solo and otherwise.  “She Don’t Care About Time” is quintessential Gene Clark (harkening to “Set You Free This Time,” often performed live by Carla and Gene).  Clark was humble about his undeniable gifts with both lyrics and melody; he was known to express gratitude for the ability to “channel” the art of music.   Easily, this is a song about channeling (evidenced by the title), especially in the context of Gene’s early death.  “To go up to my white walled room/ Out on the end of time/ Where I can be with my love…”  

 His writing was adventurous and disciplined, but Gene’s real charm was the ease in which he stood, a full-fledged, mid-western gentleman, singing a simple love song.  There’s that “transplant” backdrop, again -- a big one for Gene Clark of L.A., via the plains of Kansas and Missouri.  Carla knows the meaning of this material, full well, claiming that Gene “pulled poetry from the ether.  When he was really involved in performing, no one could top his charisma.  A profound aura is what he had.”   Her harmony steps back a bit from the lead, a male story-teller, on this cut.  Carla arrives as a would-be country doctor, eager to soothe with a gentle song that lets the rough side drag. There would be no better choice for lead vocalist than singer-songwriter Richie Furay, an impeccable pioneer of country rock (Buffalo Springfield, Poco and the Souther-Hillman-Furay band), to bring this track its good feeling, preserving the song as a classic.  A superb pairing of 12-string guitar and mandolin encourages the flavor of love.  The former is handled, in sixties-glory, by one-time Byrds’ bassist, John York; and the latter, surprisingly, comes from Souther-Hillman-Furay producer, Richard Podolor.  Olson’s production is a compelling thing of beauty, winding those exquisite instruments through the vocal performances, and among a dynamite rhythm section, with Carla on acoustic guitar, Hemmert at the drum set and Robinson on bass.

 The CD’s hardest rockin’ tune is probably “All I Needed Was You,” a great selection to include within the overall Americana presentation.  The roots are strong among SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY AND THE ASBURY JUKES, as this (Steven Van Zandt) Jersey-style love song reflects.  This is a good point to note that Carla’s manager (and spouse), Saul Davis, is responsible for the album’s concept and A&R direction.  Again, the team has made an amazing and fitting choice for the lead vocals –- Scott “Top Ten” Kempner, founding member of the Del-Lords (previously with the Dictators), a band that successfully merges a bonafide garage rock sound with the feel of other roots influences -- folk, country, blues.  “This song is really special for me,” Carla offers.  “When I was a founding member of the Textones, Little Steven’s publisher suggested we record it.  This is such a full circle, and it makes me very happy.  I like the idea that Saul and Scott, like Van Zandt, are visionaries.”  The band smokes, starting with saxophone, handled by the ferociously talented Tom Junior Morgan, the blues player who recorded “Midnight Mission” with the Textones.  He is augmented by Chicago-blues export, Barry Goldberg (once produced by Bob Dylan) whose keyboards enable the groove.  Olson and Kempner are victorious vocalists, and share both electric and acoustic guitars.  The great Clem Burke (Blondie) and bassist Greg Sutton (Lone Justice) are fierce.

 John York shows up again on the 12-string, also handling nostalgic, lead vocals on Paul Kennerley’s elegant, authentic country song, “The First in Line” and P.F. Sloan’s “Upon a Painted Ocean.”  Kennerley (of British roots) wrote the former, for The Everly Brothers’ comeback studio-CD (1984).  It would seem that P.F. Sloan (iconic, in-your-face, L.A songwriter who penned “Eve of Destruction,” “Secret Agent Man,” etc.) might require a more raucous-style coupling, but York is brilliant at segueing the two, for HARMONY.

 The wonderful (and sadly missed) American music journalist, Darryl Morden, recognized Olson’s place in contemporary country and its crossovers.  He once told her that her collaborations with Gene Clark were like “an Everly sister and brother.”  Carla had this in mind when she decided to record the Everly tune, and to dedicate the album to Darryl.  York and Olson carry the song’s plea in royal, country tones.  Once again, Carla unveils her talent and skill, as a very pleasing country music producer, one of the CD’s rich surprises.  Her selection of frequent, Bruce Springsteen-accompanist, Marty Rifkin, to exude sorrow and beauty via the pedal steel, is a testament to Carla’s production prowess.  She joins the rhythm section on acoustic guitar; selecting songwriter Pat Robinson (Percy Sledge, Joe Cocker, etc.) for double duty on piano and bass guitar; while the gifted drummer’s identity remains a secret (for contractual reasons).  All compose a flawless country band.  Well done.

 John York switches to a splendorous folk-rock vocal delivery, with Carla contributing a seamless, onomatopoeic harmony, for “Upon a Painted Ocean."  “C’mon C’mon, let’s sail upon a painted ocean/ Captain set your wheel of love a-spinnin’…”  Like Gene Clark, Sloan achieves high poetry in structured lyric, leaning on syllabic correctness, and steady meter, here led by the duo’s worthy vocals and jangling guitars, and supported by stalwarts Hemmert on drums and Robinson on bass.

 Much like his legendarily, honky tonk-variegated brother, Chris Jagger (producer of the BBC documentary on Britain’s blues era pioneer, and one-time Charlie Watts employer, the bandleader Alexis Korner) has traveled the global music landscape with keen inspiration from the American roots.  His singing, songwriting and guitar work reflect elements of blues, country, folk, rock, even cajun/zydeco. “Chris has incredibly diverse chops, as a performer, but especially as a songwriter,” Carla explains.  “Recording ‘Still Waters’ was an easy decision to make.  With its mystical charm, it’s always been one of my pet songs.”  Straightaway on this cut, the Delta-soaked, electric guitar riffs (and lap steel) from an equally-traveled (L.A. by way of Dallas) virtuoso, Gary Myrick, imply caution, as the shores of a clandestine bayou loom.  Carla’s expressively poised vocals are enough to carry the story and its simile, but also vividly enhanced, when she trades the mike with Myrick (Big Audio Dynamite, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, etc.), who excels at a tasty talking-blues-folk style.  “There’s a date I have to keep, A hand to shake, A face to greet, Where many talk but few can speak, But still waters run deep.”  Here, as producer, Olson attains a creative zenith, transmuting a cult-folk milieu into apt pop-rock classic, without losing a whit of the searing originality that draws her to the song in the first place.  A 4-piece unit is tight and atmospheric, also including Carla’s electric and acoustic guitars, Robinson’s bass and Hemmert’s drums.  May a noble pair of radio ears run with this jewel.

 The world got to know Carla Olson with the major-label debut, MIDNIGHT MISSION, from the rootsy group she co-founded, the Textones.  In All Music Guide, Thom Owens praises the album as “an excellent, low-key collection of roots-rock distinguished by terrific support from the likes of Gene Clark and Ry Cooder, as well as Olson’s remarkable vocals.”  “In 1985, there was a real Midnight Mission in Los Angeles, and we used authentic footage of its potential, homeless clients, in an empathetic vision of hope, for our music video of the title song,” Carla reports.  Serendipitous events, including the popular re-posting of that video in social media, have led to this year’s booking of Carla Olson and band at The (“real”) Midnight Mission’s annual “Golden Heart Awards” event, Monday May 6, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.  (TMM is the 98-year-old L.A. organization, which started as a ramshackle dining hall, located on skid row, offering shelter, and a bridge to self-sufficiency, for every homeless person who requests it.  No man, woman or child is turned away from today’s massive, state-of-the-art facility, handling the growing diverse populations now served, 24/7).  For Carla, this event (open to the public) is “very special, and a real full circle.”

 The week before, on Sunday April 28, Carla, and star-studded guests (TBA) from the recording of HAVE HARMONY, WILL TRAVEL, will perform in a long-awaited concert at McCabe’s in Santa Monica, for the actual CD release party.  The public is invited.  Meet ‘n Greets will be the order of the day, and media should quickly schedule their needs, by contacting KJPR Publicity via email, kjprar@aol.com.

 In the early days, music critic Mikal Gilmore (who since became Rolling Stone’s Contributing Editor) said, "Carla Olson… combines John Fogerty-style (and) populist politics with a grand, Rolling Stones-inflected bent for hellfire rock 'n roll, then manages to make both influences seem secondary, with a raw, growling irruptive vocal style that owes acknowledgement to no influence other than its own zeal and compassion."  That’s a truism that hasn’t changed.  Two decades hence, All Music Guide critics Mark Deming and John Bush offer that “Carla Olson was one of the best roots rockers to emerge from L.A.'s new wave scene in the '80s, and with the possible exception of the Long Ryders, no one slipped into the groove of folk-rock and country-rock with as much elan and commitment as Olson (she may well have been the best collaborator Gene Clark had outside of the Byrds)… Olson is a great talent (whose) passionate, soulful vocals earned her a loyal following for all the right reasons… (as) a gifted songwriter (and) good judge of other folks' material.  Olson has also found success on the other side of the studio glass, producing records for Barry Goldberg, Dona Oxford, Jake Andrews, Joe Louis Walker, Davis Gaines, Mare Winningham, and Phil Upchurch.”

 Carla Olson is a mainstay in the history of American roots music.  She has been intimately involved with recording artists who have changed the course of history.  An obvious example is P.F. Sloan’s catalog -- His lament, “you’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’,” all but ensured enactment of the 26th Amendment.  On another powerful level, Carla’s “era” and sensibility gave her the opportunity to align, famously, with the likes of an original Byrd, Gene Clark, at a time when her “duets” made all the difference in his resurgence.  But she is more than a cult figure or iconic partner.  As exemplified on HAVE HARMONY, WILL TRAVEL, Carla’s music, whether she is performing or producing, all on its own, is music that matters.

 

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