No rain and the weather got warm
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The other half of the lyrics suggest Sally's feelings of herself
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)
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.