Kenny Rogers and The First Edition
The Ballad of Calico

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No rain and the weather got warm
Broke down and I sold the farm
Headed for the silver strike,
I took my wife,
Calico silver, gave us life.

The Ballad of Calico cover

Thus begins The Ballad of Calico. Of all the albums in my desert island 10, this is the one that the least number of people are likely to recognize. It's never been released on CD, and the album isn't very easy to find (even if you still own a turntable to play it on). I'm aware of some of his hits, but I'm not really familiar with most of Kenny Rogers' work. From what little I know, I would consider Kenny Rogers a country artist, but this album goes far afield from what I'd consider country. Don't get me wrong, there are a few country songs here, and a couple of roots rock tunes, but there's also a lot of rock and roll, a little bit of gospel, and a couple of good novelty tunes as well.

The Ballad of Calico booklet cover I first heard this album when I was about 10 or 11, when my mom picked it up in a rummage sale. It came with a booklet that included all the lyrics and some of the background story. The images you see on this page either came from there or the album cover. At the time, I was listening to top 40 (93 KHJ) and I didn't really have a notion of a whole album as a musical unit. This album and some of the early Elton John albums changed all that.

For a couple of years, I played the grooves off of side II and played side III just a little bit less, but almost never played sides I and IV. Two of my favorite songs on the album at the time, School Teacher and Dorsey the Mail-Carrying Dog were both on side II. School Teacher is a folk-rock song, and in the booklet Micheal Murphey introduces it like this:

"Calico had a one-room school house and a one-room school house teacher. Her name was Virginia. What went on in her head?"

Virginia, the school teacher in Calico

Open the windows, Virginia
Let the wind blow the papers away
Don't know if you've got it in ya'
Just like a dunce in the eighth grade
You'll soon be an old maid
School teacher
Rule preacher
Cool creature
School teacher

This is a picture of Virginia in her school room...

Dorsey, the Mail Carrying Dog! And here is a picture of Dorsey. Dorsey was an actual dog who would deliver the mail between Calico and Yermo, and to some of the miners at the more remote parts of Calico. It's a novelty song with an old-timey turn-of-the-century tin-pan alley feel. In addition to liking the story of the song a lot, I was very impressed by the trick they did on the album of leaving the song hanging at the end of one side and finishing it at the start of the next side.

End of Side II:
Talk about (abrupt cut)

Start of Side III:
yer carryin' dog (end of song)
(immediate start of Harbor for my Soul)

After I'd had the album for a couple of years, I got into punk and new wave and jazz and other stuff, so I really didn't listen to the album for a long time. A few years later, I was going through some records and came across it. Not only did the music hold up as well I remembered, but I now could appreciate the rest of the album as well, and it's become one of my favorites.

The town of Calico, circa 1880

The Ballad of Calico is a concept album which tells the story of the town of Calico. Calico was an actual silver mining town near the turn of the century (1900, not 2000) in southeastern California. It's now a ghost town, but a very well preserved one, and you can go and visit it and see how hard the life must have been for the people who lived there. The album starts with how people were lured to the town by the promise of riches (Calico Silver), and then proceeds to tell what it was like to live in Calico. It has both songs about general aspects of living there (e.g. The Way It Used to Be, Harbor for My Soul, One Lonely Room) and specific legends of people and events (Dorsey the Mail Carrying Dog, Madame DeLil and Diabolical Bill, School Teacher, Epitaph for Sally Grey).

The Ballad of Calico booklet cover The music was composed by Michael Murphy and Larry Cansler, and Murphey also wrote the words. The band playing it (ignoring orchestra stuff) consists of Kenny Rogers on bass, Mickey Jones on drums, Terry Williams on lead guitar and dobro, Kin Vassy and Michael Murphey on rhythm guitars, Larry Cansler on piano, harpsichord, and organ, and John Hartford on fiddle. I think all but the last 3 are considered to be "The First Edition." Despite his top billing, Kenny Rogers only sings lead vocals on about half of the songs (I'd say 8 songs). Kin Vasay sang the lead on School Teacher, Madame De Lil and Diabolical Bill, Write Me Down, Sally Grey's Epitaph, Harbor For My Soul, Empty Handed Compadres, and Old Mojave Highway (chorus), Mary Arnold sang lead on The Way It Used to Be half of Epitaph for Sally Grey, and part of Madame De Lil.

There's not a bad song on the album, and it's an excellent album to listen to straight through. It doesn't really tell a continuous story, but there is a flow to the ordering of songs. The opening Sunrise Overture paints an excellent image of sun rising over the desert. After that, Calico Silver begins with a plaintive Kenny Rogers singing about moving to Calico. As the song progresses, it gets more hopeful.

Pave the streets with silver
Let the wagons roll
Don't those mountains look just like

This song flows right into Write Me Down (Don't Forget My Name), a lament for all the unmarked graves on Boot Hill in Calico, those who lived and died in obscurity. After that comes The Way It Used to Be, which is a collage of images of the sort of things you would experience if you were living in Calico:

Strawberry, fire engine, ice cream party,
May Day festival, too?
Wooden sidewalk, happy birthday, undertaker,
Blacksmith wearing big boots
That's the way it used to be

After that, the album shifts into the more specific topics, starting with Madame De Lil and Diabolical Bill, which is a legend told in the Calico area, that is claimed to be true. DeLil was a tough Madame who ran one of the local saloons and she fell in love with a bad guy called Diabolical Bill. Eventually, she found out he was ripping her off. The last verse of the song tells how she got rid of him.

Oh Madame DeLil loved Diabolical Bill
She wanted to scare a man she couldn't quite kill,
So one night he was sleepin' and he closed his eyes
So Lil put blanks in his big forty-five
The next day when a big Swede insulted his pride,
He shot him down and said, "Damn your eyes."
He stole a horse and he left that town
He didn't know he never shot that man down.
And nobody railroads Madame DeLil
The joke was on Diabolical Bill

After that comes School Teacher, which I've already described, then Road Agent, a sort of eulogy for outlaws, which were obviously common in the West. After that comes Epitaph for Sally Grey, half of whose lyrics are mostly lifted from a tombstone.

Here lies Sally Grey
She came to town one day
Wasn't long `til she went astray
She leaves this town today
for a better place we pray, Sally Grey

The other half of the lyrics suggest Sally's feelings of herself

If they only knew the way I used to think about
being something more than used up by men
I might have been something more than what I am to them
As they lay me down
I say many women are not what they seem to be
They are something more than part of some scheme
Some strong man's dream
Something more than what she is to him
as he lays her down.

I've seen this theme of the sadness and loneliness of the life of a prostitute who's humanity is only seen after her death a couple of times. Notably, in the song Louise by Bonnie Raitt (pretty much the saddest song you'll ever hear) and the book "Rosa May: The Search for a Mining Camp Legend" by George Williams.

So after these three progressively gloomy songs, the album lightens up with Dorsey, the Mail Carrying Dog (see above for a description)

You could hear the people cheer
three hundred and sixty five days a year
the dog who never tired.
The postman who was sick and did it
(Dorsey really did it quicker)
sat home by the fire.
Ah, Dorsey the mail carrying dog.

Side III starts off with Harbor For My Soul, a gospel-rock song sung as if by the preacher. The chorus is a rousing call and response

Do you need it? (Yes I do)
Do you believe it? (Yes I believe it)
do you want it? (Yes I do)
Harbor for my soul.

Following a spirited instrumental, Calico Saturday Night, is the one true hard-core country song on the album, Trigger Happy Kid. It's got your whiny lap steel. It's got your slow-walkin' bass line. It's got Kenny singing with more of a drawl than on the album's ballads or rock songs. It truly rocks (or countries, as the case may be)

When your six-guns are empty
Empty just like your eyes
Oh, your friends they won't speak then
they won't tell no more lies
Oh you won't have to fight then
you'll have money to spend
But a little boy who hid
saw what you did
He's a trigger-happy kid.

Vachel Carling's Rubilator is a country-folk song with a bit of novelty element to it. It doesn't really say exactly what the "rubilator" is, but it does tell how it took over the imaginations of the town.

All of God's children got to get a rubilator.
All of God's children can't be wrong.
All of God's children got to get a rubilator.
Listen to the rubliator singing it's song
(sound effects of some sort of steam engine thingie)

Most of side 4 goes back to focusing on broader themes, starting with Empty Handed Compadres and One Lonely Room. These two songs focus on the facts that most of the people who came to mining towns like Calico trying to get rich didn't. They lived in poor conditions hoping for a payoff in silver that never came.

I paid the rent, I came and I went,
my life was spent in one lonely room.
Restless and tired, I lay by the fire,
I build my empire in one lonely room

Rocking Chair Theme is a short instrumental commemorating those who sit in rocking chairs on their front porch and look out over the Mojave desert and remember what it was like to live in those times. Next, Old Mojave Highway celebrates the old road that runs through the desert.

You take all of the time that it takes to get practically nowhere.
Your mountain sisters would like to weave you some new clothes.
But you're just a loose thread that's ragged in all the right places.
Or do you mind if I put on the cloak of the cactus with you.
Old Mojave Highway I'm finally going your way
I dont know why I stayed away so long now
Old Mojave Highway I say I'm going your way,
My feet know where my heart belongs

The penultimate song on the album, Man Came Up From Town, celebrates the relationship between humans and civilization, how people create and build up towns and then towns build up the people who live there. The album closes with the same plaintive theme it began with, Calico Silver, only now it's people moving away from Calico as the silver strike has dried up.

No ore in the richest mines,
Railroad closed down the line;
Nail up your windows and your doors,
And close the stores,
Calico silver is no more.
Got the wagons ready to go,
It's been a hundred years or so,
since we hitched up our teams;
and it seems,
Calico silver was a dream.

Sadly, I can't point you to anywhere where you can buy a copy of this. As I said, it has never been pressed on CD and it's long out of print on vinyl. You can take this as proof that my choice of albums is not entirely hedonistic. I'm not just trying to get you to buy CDs so I get a comission, these are all albums that I really really (really really really really, etc. :-) like.

All I can suggest is that you search all of the online used record stores for a copy. It'll be worth your hunt. (Kenny or Larry, if you're reading this, get on the ball and release this album on CD. It's got platinum written all over it :-)

Here are a few MP3 files of snippets of songs,to give you an idea of some of the range of this album.

Calico, 1889

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