1970: The Year Ringo Starr Went Country
On his second LP, the Beatles drummer headed to Nashville to channel his inner George Jones
Throughout 1970, the Beatles were busy staking out their terrain as solo artists.
John Lennon and George Harrison had already been releasing experimental records (Lennon’s Unfinished Music series, Harrison’s Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sounds), and Paul McCartney finally tossed his hat in the ring in April 1970 with the release of his solo debut, McCartney.
Ringo Starr nearly outdid them all by releasing two solo albums in 1970 (Harrison edged him out by releasing the triple LP set All Things Must Pass the same year). In March, he’d served up Sentimental Journey, an album of standards (“Night and Day,” “Stardust,” the title track), becoming one of the first out of the gate as far as rock personalities tackling the Great American Songbook. “I did it for me mum,” he said by of explanation.
Then he set his sights on doing a country album. It was actually a more understandable undertaking than covering the likes of “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” After all, he’d long been a fan of the genre, having covered Carl Perkins (“Matchbox,” “Honey Don’t”) and Johnny Russell (“Act Naturally”) while with the Beatles. He first considered working with John Wesley Harding producer Bob Johnston, but Johnston wanted too much money.
Then, while driving guitarist Pete Drake to an All Things Must Pass session, the two got to talking about the project. Starr had wanted to fly musicians to England, but Drake encouraged him to record in Nashville, the heart of the country music industry. Drake could put together a top band to back him, guys used to working fast; the sessions wouldn’t take more than a few days.
Starr agreed, and when he arrived at Music City Recorders on June 25, he was welcomed by a top flight crew of talent, including guitarists Jerry Reed and Charlie Daniels, Roy Orbison bassist Buddy Harmon, and Elvis Presley’s drummer DJ Fontana, among others. Presley’s favorite backing group, the Jordanaires were also on hand, and the record was even engineered by Presley’s former guitarist Scotty Moore.
Over the next three days, Starr recorded 15 numbers, 12 of which made the original album. He was nervous to start with, prompting producer Drake to tell him at one point, “Hoss, if you don’t get loose, I’m going to come in there and stomp on your toes!” Never the strongest singer, you can hear Starr’s trouble in reaching the high notes, especially on the songs recorded on that first day: the title track, “Woman of the Night,” the last notes of “Without Her.” The Jordanaires sound positively robust next to him, and at times threaten to drown him out (in Alan Clayson’s biography of Starr, he says a Jordanaire was drafted to sing along with Starr, who listened over his headphones, to help him stay on pitch).
But Starr’s sad sack persona (“I haven’t got a smiling face,” he once admitted) works well for a genre so devoted to heartbreak. “Love Don’t Last Long” is a morose recounting of misfortune: a pregnant woman left abandoned, a son who chooses suicide when his father rejects him, a husband who shoots his wife and her lover before turning the gun on himself. “Fastest Growing Heartache in the West” details a crumbling relationship. “I’d Be Talking All the Time” has an “Act Naturally” lyrical twist: “If talking now of other things would get you off my mind/I’d be talking all the time.” “Wine, Women and Loud Happy Songs” don’t provide the solace they promise (in later years, Starr would have better luck with another number along the same line, “The No-No Song”). And “Loser’s Lounge”? Nuff said!
The bigger issue is that Starr just doesn’t sound fully engaged with the material. Perhaps the lack of time spent on the album worked against him. It was easy to throw himself into an oldie like “Matchbox” with the Beatles, a song he’d known for years and could probably rattle off in his sleep. In Nashville, he recorded a song immediately after learning it, which doesn’t seem to have given him enough time to get comfortable with the material. As a result, the songs on the album are noticeably devoid of energy.
One exception is “Coochy Coochy,” originally the B-side of the “Beaucoups of Blues” single, and added as a bonus track on the CD. It’s a jam that Starr knocked off with the boys in the band just for fun. Great solos pop in and out of this rollicking number that jumps and swings in a way that none of the other songs come close to. This is the kind of spark the album should’ve had, something that would have helped make it a more substantial record, one with some heft. (The CD also serves up another bonus track, the meandering “Nashville Jam.”)
The album was released in September. Even at a time when any news about a former Beatle guaranteed a headline, the general public didn’t warm to a country-fried Starr. Beaucoups of Blues only reached No. 65 in the US, and failed to chart at all in Starr’s native UK (though it did peak at No. 21 in Norway). The album soon went out of print, not reissued on CD until 1995. Interestingly, Chip Madinger and Mark Easter’s definitive reference work, Eight Arms to Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium, says that on the CD, “tracks 1 through 3, and 7 through 12, run at a faster speed than the original LP, while tracks 4 through 6 are slower than the LP. This leads one to believe that there was some tinkering prior to the final LP mastering which was not followed when the CD was being prepared.” A similar lack of concern is seen on the album’s cover, which misspells the name of “Scottie” Moore.
Beaucoups of Blues was quickly forgotten in the wake of success that followed the release of Starr’s first big hit the following year, the single “It Don’t Come Easy.” But he wouldn’t release a full album again until 1973, bringing in his former fellow Fabs to help him create what would be his highest charting US album, Ringo. His recording fortunes would vary over the years, and in 1970 he was still trying to find his way.
And when you consider that his recorded output not only encompassed Beaucoups of Blues and Ringo, but also the likes of Stop and Smell the Roses, I Wanna Be Santa Claus, Times Takes Time, Bad Boy, and Ringo Rama (to name few), you have conclude that Mr. Starr has had one of the most idiosyncratic careers in rock.
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One thought on “1970: The Year Ringo Starr Went Country”
No mention of “$15 Draw”? It’s the best song on the album! One of my favorite solo Beatles songs, period!
Hearing that song on Breakfast With The Beatles finally convinced me to give that album a try. Glad I did. It’s so much fun! Great musicians backing Ringo too (Even though Daniels became a jerk as he got older).
Very underrated album.