Chris Gantry

At The House Of Cash

Drag City DC686LP
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“In 1973, I had come out of ten years of non-stop songwriting street life in Nashville. I had been busted by the Feds for growing marijuana on my farm. Johnny Cash called me and asked me if I wanted to come live at his place on the lake till the heat blew over, which I did in that time, we talked and he agreed to let me write for his publishing company and gave me the green light to do an album in his studio. I was exhausted from burning so hard from the previous ten years, In ’69, I stood on stage with Tim Hardin at Woodstock, singing Bobby Darin’s “Simple Song of Freedom.” It was the end of an era, burnout time for endless troubadours who had ridden the waves of the sixties. I had been experimenting with multiple guitar tunings and had given myself up lyrically to what a free form jazz sax player experiences when they play their spontaneous solos. I was burned out on the traditional pop lyric art form—thus, the songs on this record, At the House of Cash. When I finished it, John and June listened to it one night. A few days later he sidled up to me and said in his iconic Johnny Cash voice, “Chris, June and I listened to your record last night and I don’t think even the drug people are gonna understand it.” WOW. To me that was a compliment. I had transcended the culture that had been driving the world for the last 12 years. I had succeeded.”

At the end of ’73, Chris Gantry had in the can one of the weirdest records ever cut, on or off Music Row. A songwriter, storyteller and original Nashville outlaw, Chris started the wild new wave of young talent in town, a few years before Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Tony Joe White, Dan Penn and dozens more. He’d already been writing for years when, at the age of 25, his song, “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” was a Billboard Pop Top 40 hit and a #3 Country record for Glen Campbell. He’d made his own records too—but so far, Chris Gantry hadn’t done anything like this—and that was kinda saying a LOT.
His music was a stylistic fusion: his 1967 album debut Introspection sounded a little bit folk, a little bit pop and only a little bit country, with smooth melodies and verdant string charts. But the 60s were afoot, and by the time of Chris’ second LP in 1970, Motor Mouth, his approach had radicalized into a wide-eyed, hard-edged delivery. The critics dug it, and Chris played on Johnny Cash’s TV show, but the next Gantry record didn’t appear for five more years. And herein lies a tale: of dropping out, of a vision-quest and an exorcism of sorts, and of sessions for a bunch of songs so far out from Nashville norms that it’s only now they’ve seen release. This is the story of At the House of Cash.
High on the waves of the times, Chris had pulled apart the tropes of traditional voice-and-guitar singer-songwriting, pushing them into fevered, eclectic, entirely personal territory. He took in the scope of the freedom generation with whom he’d been riding shotgun, and turned it back out again with unhindered lyrical expressions reflecting both disillusionment and a deep sense of transformation, with deft gestures and songwriting chops nailing down the tunes.
Settled at Cash’s studio with a band of heavy Nashville cats, Gantry extemporized his songs with sleek self-confidence, even while plunging through the hippie mirror of confusion. The opener, “Away Away,” gives entrée to the rambling journey, with mentions of flying saucers and spacey synth notes subbing for steel—then, “Different” pits his rasping pipes against mellow orchestration, evoking debauched Nilssonesque vibes. Finally, the raving spoken-word-scape “Tear” is rife with flutes and woodwinds, touches of sitar, tabla and violin, courtesy of the group Oregon. And that’s just the first three songs! A mood of ecstatic intoxication prevails throughout the album, whether in stark rock n roll performances or celestial ballads, with Chris’s croon at times rivaling Tim Buckley’s wandering vocals. Religious ripostes and lysergic lyric miniatures abound. Had At the House of Cash seen release in its day, it would have been a shot of earthy surrealism straight into the heart of Music Row.
But the album didn’t find a backer, so Chris Gantry shrugged and moved on. He’s kept on with singing and writing, doing books and plays too, appearing in the film Trash Humpers, and making three new records over the last few years—but At the House of Cash stands tall with its outlaw brethren from the golden age of Nashville, and it is damn fine having it out in the open air with the rest of us at long last.

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