Musical archeology rewards. Look hard enough and you could discover each day until you die a mind-blowing record from any era of recorded music. This 1972 self-titled Bobby Charles album is one of those. It faded upon release and has only in recent years earned a word-of-mouth cult fan base; hence this three-disc deluxe reissue.
But this Louisiana-born singer-songwriter started long before that: At 15, he wrote "See Ya Later Alligator" and signed to Chess Records, but because he was the only white guy on that label's tours he received death threats. He then chose a private life below cultural waterlines, embraced songwriting and in ensuing years saw his songs covered by many, from Fats Domino to Kris Kristofferson.
By '72, Charles, on the lam from a Nashville pot bust, had landed in Woodstock, N.Y., a place that still seduced Dylan, and where Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson from the Band, and Paul Butterfield, Amos Garrett and others, would plug in and play sweat-soaked, drunk and sleepless until sunup.
The album features those guys, plus Dr. John, and pedal steel great Ben Keith, and it's helmed by Danko and Band producer John Simon. So it's at once wild-eyed and afternoon-nap lazy; the Deep South courted by hesitant piano melodies and backwater beats, shambling organ, roadhouse accordion, guitars and occasional knee-slap rhythms. It's easy to be hypnotized by Charles' talky, Southern-compliant croon and effortless-sounding narratives.
Day-to-day joys and sadness inform the songs, but listen deeper and it's sometimes the sound of Charles' ability to detect bullshit, or his quest for personal freedom, a place to lose those "Tennessee blues." He's both a sharp-witted stoner misanthrope and a man in love with everything around him. By that delineation, the singer defines the very idea of cool, and you can hear it — his is melody put to an earned wisdom told in deceptively simple folkish phrases: "It's all small town talk ... don't believe a word/ They'll try to do it every time." Charles finds beauty within reach too; on "I Must be in a Good Place Now," he sees "a butterfly and named it after you ..."
The album's frayed grace and blend of nomadic genres — gospel, rock, country, soul, R&B, folk and beer-drinker confessionals — sound as if Charles (who died last year) is unmoved by a world beyond the serpents of spliff smoke rising from his front porch in rural Louisiana.
This limited edition set is housed in a wooden case, complete with beautifully grainy photos and well-done Brian Baer liners; it features 25 songs beyond the original album's 10, most of which have never been released — outtakes from the original sessions, plus a an album's worth of songs recorded in '74 with Doors producer Paul Rothchild. (Including the jaw-drop beauty of "The Jealous Kind," on which the pedal steel drones a sunset melody as Charles' weathered vocal croons, "You wonder how I spend my time/ And how I get along/ Stayin' stoned and singin' homemade songs." The long version (on Disc 2) soothes like narcotics. No wonder Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Etta James and others covered it. Disc 3 contains an often hilarious 30-minute interview Charles did with Dr. Demento, in the argot of the time, shortly before the album's release.