The Ballad Of Calico

Kenny Rogers & The First Edition

Reprise, 1972

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Item the first: Yes, country superstar Kenny Rogers had a career before he became famous for such songs as “The Gambler” and “Lady.” This, of course, shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to music aficionados; anyone who’s ever heard “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” “Something’s Burning” or “Just Dropped In” knows about the group The First Edition.

Item the second: Rogers seemingly spent the last 30-plus years of his life denying that The Ballad Of Calico, the 1972 release from The First Edition, existed. He steadfastly refused to allow it to be re-issued on CD. To date, this album remains out of print.

‘Tis a shame, really, as it could be called the first country-rock concept album ever. Mostly the brainchild of Michael Murphy (who would later go onto his own solo fame with “Wildfire”), this two-record set tries to take the listener back to the 1880s and the city of Calico, California, as it grew and fell under the guise of miners making their fortune in silver—though most of the wealth went to the elite few. (Gee… sound familiar?)

A true group effort in that all members of the band shared in lead vocals, the overall concept of this disc is indeed noble—but, like many efforts before it and others that followed, the end result falls short of what the whole project was indeed about.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Over the course of the four sides, the listener is given the chance to not only experience the creation and growth in popularity of the city, but to learn the tales of some of the individuals who made up its history. I can’t say with any certainty how much of these tales were based in fact and how many were created by Murphy. “Sally Grey’s Epitaph,” for example, is taken almost word for word from her tombstone.

Stylistically, Rogers and crew dare to tackle numerous genres of music within these 18 songs. There are a few, such as “Vachel Carling’s Rubilator” and “One Lonely Room,” dare to suggest the path that Rogers’s career would eventually take him. Others, like “Dorsey, The Mail-Carrying Dog” and “Madame De Lil And Diabolical Bill,” have just enough whimsy to them to keep the listener’s interest. And others like “Old Mojave Highway” make the listener wonder why these tracks aren’t better known or weren’t hits way back when.

The biggest complaint with The Ballad Of Calico is that the project is overambitious. Telling the story of the rise and fall of what is now a ghost town was a great concept; however, trying to cram so much history into a relatively short period of time makes the listener feel like either certain songs don’t quite fit the narrative (“Road Agent,” “School Teacher”) or that tremendous chunks of the history have been glossed over.

The thing is, The Ballad Of Calico is not a bad album… and it certainly did not deserve the derision that Rogers might have felt when the album essentially failed on the market. An embarrassment, it is not—though it can’t quite be called a success, either. Concept albums have historically proven to be extremely difficult to flawlessly execute; I could probably count on one hand those I would say achieved their goals. But the songs on this one—like the town of Calico, itself—almost weep for what might have been for this album.

All of that said, it is worth spending about an hour of your time to check out… and I’d challenge everyone holding this back from the general public to think about it again, and let today’s listeners rediscover this album. Like what Murphy tried to do with the city of Calico and its inhabitants, it might help to resurrect some ghosts and give them another shot at life.

Rating: C+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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