Heavy Harmony: Carla Olson’s Country-Rock Revival

Olson’s musical aviary brings Byrds, Eagles and other fellow travelers together

Carla Olson (Art: Ron Hart)

Carla Olson’s new album may have an all-American feel to it, but she’s hardly an Americana arriviste.

In the early ’80s, Olson introduced herself to the wider world with the twangy, roots-rock rumble of The Textones, coming off a bit like a distaff Tom Petty in the process. She shifted into folk-rock mode towards the end of the decade, cutting the 1987 cult-classic duet album So Rebellious a Lover with erstwhile Byrds singer/songwriter Gene Clark. She’s trod many a rootsy road since then, but her latest project, Have Harmony, Will Travel 2, connects the dots of country-rock history for a classic sound that’s fully fresh and vibrant.

The first volume of Have Harmony, Will Travel arrived in 2013 and found Olson harmonizing with everybody from Juice Newton and Peter Case to another ex-Byrd, John York. This time around, she’s assembled a cast that includes Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles, Stephen McCarthy of The Long Ryders, legendary British singer Terry Reid, soul icon Percy Sledge, and even the archival presence of the late Gene Clark. 

Carla Olson Have Harmony, Will Travel 2, Sunset Blvd. Records 2020

Between the tintinnabulation of the guitars and the sunny sparkle of the vocal harmonies, the album is dominated by the kind of warm, organic country rock The Byrds defined on their revolutionary 1968 album Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Talking about the cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “A Child’s Claim to Fame,” Olson observes, “Timothy B. Schmit duetting on a Richie Furay song with [founding Poco multi-instrumentalist] Rusty Young on three instruments. You’ve got the Springfield, Poco, the Eagles. That’s pretty much the origin of country rock right there.”

The ’80s country-rock generation is represented by McCarthy, who chimes in on a version of the galloping “Timber, I’m Falling in Love,” a country hit for Patty Loveless back in 1989. “Stephen McCarthy is one of the most under-recorded artists I can think of,” says Olson. “Why there isn’t a solo album let alone a series of solo albums I do not know. I simply wanted to hear him singing more. And we are planning more recording and are writing songs together.”

But contributors to the album come from all corners. Vince Melouney, for instance, may not be a household name, but he made an indelible mark on music as the lead guitarist on all of The Bee Gees’ essential ’60s albums. Melouney joins Olson in a stomping adaptation of “Shackles & Chains” by John Stewart. “Vince Melouney is a friend and has been in and out of Los Angeles over the past few years,” says Olson. “He indeed played on some of the best and most innovative songs and albums of the ’60s. I also had him play on a [Manfred Mann singer] Paul Jones album I produced a few years ago.”

Speaking of ’60s U.K. pop heroes, Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits fame pops up to sing on the Searchers tune “Goodbye My Love” with Olson. “Peter Noone is another pal,” she explains. “We’ve worked together before, plan to again, and he’s a hilarious story teller as well as a magnificent entertainer.”

 

AUDIO: Carla Olson and Gene Clark perform “Gypsy Rider”

Of course, even among all these stellar guests, it’s tough to top the posthumous Gene Clark appearance. Olson elected to include the recording of Clark’s border ballad “Del Gato” from So Rebellious a Lover on the new album. “Since Willie Nelson hasn’t recorded it,” says Olson, “or any contemporary country artists, I figured maybe a few new listeners would discover it. It’s a classic American Western song a la [Woody Guthrie’s] ‘Deportee.’ When Gene first played it to me I thought it was a standard that I simply wasn’t aware of. It’s beautiful, moving, and relevant. I learned so much about singing from Gene that he’s in my mind whenever I’m singing solo or with others. I sing on his son Kai’s upcoming album by the way.”

According to Olson, Have Harmony, Will Travel 3 is already in the works. But in the meantime, if you’ve got an ache for vintage-sounding country rock that still manages to say something new, she’s got you covered. 

Have Harmony, Will Travel 2 is out now on Sunset Blvd. Records.

 

 

 

 

 

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