Of all the artists whose work fits the qualifications for this column, Gene Clark’s albums are the archetype, the inspiration for this endeavor. His work is absolutely essential, and all but forgotten. Honestly, any record from his slim solo output could have been spotlighted here. However, for any curious reader, the best place to start would be the record that could be considered the most accessible, the one that represents an overview of all the artist’s strengths. So, for your reconsideration, here is Gene Clark’s excellent Roadmaster.
First, a bit of background. While his solo work may be woefully neglected, Clark will always have a place in rock history as one of the original members of The Byrds. He was, during his short tenure, the group’s strongest songwriter, penning “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better,” “The World Turns All Around Her,” “She Don’t Care About Time,” and “Eight Miles High,” just to name a few. The problem was, at that time, as well as being the band’s best writer, he was also the only writer, which led to Clark making more money than the other members of the group. This led to resentment by the others, particularly Roger McGuinn and David Crosby. Add in a serious fear of flying, and Clark was out of the group by early 1966, just a year and three albums into the life of The Byrds.
After several excellent but overlooked albums, in particular his self-titled album (also referred to as White Light by fans), Clark entered the studio in 1972 to work on his next record. These sessions were eventually aborted, but the eight songs composed during that period make up the bulk of what would eventually become Roadmaster. By this point, Clark had been one of the originators of country-rock (although contemporary work by his former band and Bob Dylan, with Nashville Skyline, overshadowed his albums), and this album is definitely rooted in that style. It’s also apparent that Clark had a true gift for this style. All of the songs are fantastic and cover a wide range of emotions and styles within the confines of country-rock.
“Full Circle Song,” which would be re-recorded a year later during the ill-fated Byrds reunion sessions, is a beautiful tune with great lyrics about how life is just an endless loop of cycles, or as Clark put it, “first you’re up, and then you’re down again.” With it’s impassioned vocal delivery and tasteful instrumentation, it’s a true lost classic. “In A Misty Morning” follows that song up nicely, a country ballad with impressive dynamic, starting quietly and building to a great ending, with Clark adding emotion to his vocal, but never resorting to histrionics.
Elsewhere, the title track tells the well-worn story of life on the road, and rolls along on a laid back, but definitely rocking, rhythm, and “She Don’t Care About Time” updates his classic Byrds track into a touching country ballad, giving the poetic lyrics a bit more gravity than in the original version.
As great as these songs are, tensions between the record label and Clark resulted in the sessions breaking down and the songs being shelved. However, Clark’s producer, Jim Dickson, not wanting the album to gather dust, dug up three more tracks that had been recorded in 1970 and never used, and added them to the track listing. One of those, “Here Tonight” has The Flying Burrito Brothers backing Clark on another classic country ballad, with his former Byrd member Chris Hillman adding great harmony vocals. The remaining two songs, while the album is consistently great throughout, provide its greatest moments, as they are both full Byrds reunions, recorded to help Clark’s flagging solo career, but, once again, problems with labels preventing their release before this record. “She’s The Kind Of Girl” and “One In A Hundred” are simply fantastic songs, featuring Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker jangle and David Crosby’s plaintive harmonies in their full glory. The vocal combination of Clark, McGuinn, and Crosby is just beautiful. When Crosby’s voice cracks during the bridge of “One In A Hundred,” followed by McGuinn’s guitar jangling just as the line “hear the bells chime” kicks in, you know you’re listening to a great band.
Gene Clark was a man who should have had it better than he did. He had all the talent in the world, but outside influences and bad luck always seemed to get the better of him. He died in 1991, having never truly gotten the credit he deserved. Luckily, Roadmaster is still here, as are at least four other records that represent a truly great artist. Genius, even.