Author Archive: jb

A Ghost of Christmas Past

I have had the album Merry Soul Christmas by George Conedy in my library since at least 2007. I downloaded it from somewhere, back when vast numbers of pirated albums were available online, back before the feds took down Megaupload. It’s a churchy and swinging album of keyboard quartet jazz arrangements, with enough R&B grease to make it tasty.

And it might also be the single most obscure album I’ve ever come across.

Merry Soul Christmas was released on the Kent label out of Los Angeles. Kent was a subsidiary of Modern Records, the R&B label founded by the Bihari brothers. This Kent singles discography shows releases beginning in 1958. B. B. King was its most prolific artist over the life of the label; in the late 50s and early 60s, it put out singles by Etta James, Jesse Belvin, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy McCracklin, and Bobby “Blue” Bland. In the mid-60s, it released singles by Ike and Tina Turner, Lowell Fulson, and Z. Z. Hill while continuing to put out King releases. It even put out a version of “Merry Christmas Baby” by Charles Brown (versions of which appeared on other labels, too). The last listing on the Kent label is dated 1971.

The only single I can find with George Conedy’s name on it was released on the Kent Gospel label, which mostly distributed recordings made by other, smaller labels. The single is a strange one: it has Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” on one side and Conedy’s “El Niño del Tambor” (“The Little Drummer Boy”) on the other. It’s Kent Gospel 3003; a brief Kent Gospel discography I found shows releases 3002 and 3004, but not 3003. “El Niño del Tambor” is, as best I can tell, the same performance as the track labeled “Drummer Boy” on Merry Soul Christmas, although it’s about 30 seconds longer. (The Holiday/Conedy single is obscure enough to have stumped our man Larry Grogan, and that takes some doing.)

For a long time, I suspected that the 1972 release date most commonly given for Merry Soul Christmas was incorrect. If Kent didn’t release singles after 1971, it seemed unlikely they’d keep putting out albums. But the Kent Gospel discography notes that the label operated between about 1971 and 1973. So I guess it’s halfway plausible that it could have brought out Merry Soul Christmas on Kent at that time. But Merry Soul Christmas is Kent 573, and this incomplete Kent album discography doesn’t show a Kent 573. To complicate dating matters further, it shows Kent 568, a B. B. King album, as being released in 1973. But my skepticism about the date was also based on nothing more than the vibe of the album, which feels a lot like similar recordings from the mid-to-late 60s.

A listing at something called the Hammond Jazz Inventory names the musicians on Merry Soul Christmas. But searching for information on them—bassist Horace Jones, drummer Elliott McKenzie, and guitarist Joe Youngblood—turns up nothing useful. There was a Chicago radio DJ named Joe “Youngblood” Cobb who recorded a bit around 1972, but there’s nothing to connect him directly to Conedy.

Hell, there’s nothing to connect George Conedy to anybody. If he ever recorded anything else, under his own name or as a sideman, there’s no Internet evidence for it. He’s a damn ghost, is what he is.

I am mildly surprised to note that Merry Soul Christmas is available at all the big streaming services. It’s packaged with the 1963 organ-jazz album Christmas With McGriff by Jimmy McGriff, but shown as copyright 2012 by Holiday Classic Records. The Holiday Classic Records page at CD Universe shows several compilations, all listed as “no longer available;” there’s a Facebook page for the label with nothing on it. My suspicion is that the label, while it existed, may have been doing manufacture-on-demand discs at the ragged edge of copyright infringement. There’s a thriving subculture of this kind of thing, especially involving artists or albums likely to appeal to a tiny number of listeners. Copyright holders often decide it would cost more to sue than they’d be likely to win, so they just let ’em be. (I’d expect them to care more about being pirated on the streamers than on a CD a dozen people might buy, but perhaps the money is too small there also.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve never seen a physical copy of Merry Soul Christmas, so maybe it really is a ghost. You can hear it at YouTube or listen to the version that includes the McGriff album on Spotify.

December 6, 1969: Let It Bleed

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(Pictured: Mick and Keef perform on the barely raised stage at Altamont.)

(A version of this post has appeared at this blog previously, and at the late One Day in Your Life site. This version has been revised quite a bit.)

December 6, 1969, was a Saturday. In what is billed as college football’s “game of the century,” #1 Texas comes from two touchdowns behind to defeat #2 Arkansas 15-14. President Richard Nixon attends the game in Fayetteville, Arkansas, along with congressman and future president George H. W. Bush. There are two pro football games today. In the AFL, Joe Namath throws two touchdown passes and the New York Jets hold off a late rally to beat the Houston Oilers 34-26. In the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers beat the Chicago Bears 42-21. The Bears’ record falls to 1-11-1; the 49ers are 3-7-2. Sonny Liston is knocked out by Leotis Martin in Las Vegas; George Foreman fights on the undercard. The University of Dayton opens its new arena with a basketball game against Bowling Green. Future actress Torri Higginson and future stripper Alyssa Alps are born. The man who kidnapped Cindy Birdsong of the Supremes and two friends earlier this week turns himself in to police.

Kids’ shows on TV this morning include The Pink Panther, H. R. Pufnstuf, The Banana Splits, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, and Cattanooga Cats. Tonight, NBC airs a Hallmark Hall of Fame special titled The Littlest Angel starring Johnnie Whittaker. It’s followed by the 1965 theatrical movie The Hallelujah Trail, a comedic western starring Burt Lancaster. ABC’s lineup includes The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, The Lawrence Welk Show, and the variety show Hollywood Palace. CBS starts with The Jackie Gleason Show, followed by the special With Love From Hollywood starring Ann-Margret and her guest Lucille Ball, and ends with episodes of Petticoat Junction and Mannix.

Jethro Tull plays the Fillmore East in New York City, Led Zeppelin plays in France, and Pink Floyd plays in Wales. Bill Cosby performs in Des Moines, Iowa, and the Monkees, now down to a trio of Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, and Michael Nesmith, play Salt Lake City. Ten Years After plays Copenhagen and Janis Joplin plays Charlottesville, Virginia. The Rolling Stones, whose new album Let It Bleed was officially released yesterday, conclude their American tour at Altamont Speedway in California with Santana, the Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and the Grateful Dead. Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, with Eric Clapton and George Harrison on guitar, play the Empire Theater in Liverpool. It’s Harrison’s first performance in his hometown since 1965. Tomorrow’s show in London will be recorded and released next year as Delaney and Bonnie and Friends on Tour With Eric Clapton.

At WSPT in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, “Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond is #1 this week, replacing “And When I Die” by Blood Sweat and Tears, which falls to #3. “Take a Letter Maria” by R. B. Greaves is #2. Four songs are new in the Top 10, including “Someday We’ll Be Together” by the Supremes, which will be the last Hot #100 #1 of 1969, and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by B. J. Thomas, which will be the first Billboard #1 song of 1970. Other songs more popular in central Wisconsin than they are in other places include “Morning Dew” by the Las Vegas group Sound Foundation, Chicago favorites the Cryan Shames with “Rainmaker,” and “Ready to Ride” by Southwind, country-rockers from Los Angeles, featuring singer/guitarist John “Moon” Martin.

Perspective From the Present: Studying events from late 1969 from 50 years’ distance, the sensation of an impending ending is impossible to ignore. It may have felt that way at the time, just a little. Everyone knew how momentous the 1960s had been, and if a person had a sense of mingled relief that the decade was ending and nagging fear that the 1970s might be even wilder, nobody could have blamed them. Looking back now, certain songs popular in the last couple of months of the year give me an end-of-days vibe—“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” “Eli’s Coming,” “Fortunate Son,” “Yesterme, Yesteryou, Yesterday,” “Cherry Hill Park,” “Baby It’s You”—but that’s cherry-picking. There were just as many songs not dark at all: “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Backfield in Motion,” “Down on the Corner,” “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Jam Up Jelly Tight,” and on and on.

On this particular day, I watched the Texas-Arkansas game, and I would probably have looked in on the pro football games, too. I did not feel like the end of days was coming. What was coming was Christmas, and nine-year-old me looked forward to it like Ralphie Parker.

What a Fool Believed

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(Pictured: the Doobie Brothers and Kenny Loggins celebrate their Record of the Year and Song of the Year Grammys for “What a Fool Believes” in 1980.)

For a brief time in college, I was a music columnist for The Exponent, the campus paper at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. And for the last edition of the fall semester in 1979, I ranked the top singles and albums of the year. I wrote about those rankings at this website in 2005 and 2016. After the last time, our friend HERC wondered how and if my perspective has changed so many years down the line. Given that the stuff first appeared 40 years ago this week, it’s a good time to respond to HERC’s query.

My 1979 album list was as follows:

1.  Candy-O/Cars
2.  The Long Run/Eagles
3.  Minute by Minute/Doobie Brothers
4.  In Through the Out Door/Led Zeppelin
5.  52nd Street/Billy Joel
6.  Breakfast in America/Supertramp
7.  Rickie Lee Jones
8.  Get the Knack
9.  Time Passages/Al Stewart
10.  Spirits Having Flown/Bee Gees

That’s a pretty reasonable list even now. I wouldn’t mess with the very top at all. 52nd Street and Time Passages were released in the fall of 1978 and should probably be disqualified, and I put the Bee Gees on just to troll my readers. I’d keep the rest. Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes should be on here, although in December 1979, we’d just started playing it on the college station and I didn’t recognize its impact yet. Pink Floyd’s The Wall came out the week before I wrote. The biggest omission is probably Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.

You will notice that the album many critics name today as the best one of 1979 is not here: London Calling by the Clash. First, it was released in mid-December, after I made this list. And second, as I’ve said several times over the life of this website, I grew up in a world where punk rock didn’t happen. The vast majority of the people I knew weren’t interested in the Clash or the other bands that had come out of the UK in the late 70s—or the Ramones either, for that matter. Given our choice, my friends and I were far more likely to put on Tusk or The Wall or Foreigner or Bruce Springsteen.

The singles list as originally compiled went like this:

1.  “What a Fool Believes”/Doobie Brothers
2.  “Cruel to Be Kind”/Nick Lowe
3.  “Heart of Glass”/Blondie
4.  “Goodbye Stranger”/Supertramp
5.  “Rise”/Herb Alpert
6.  “Bad Case of Loving You”/Robert Palmer
7.  “Let’s Go”/Cars
8.  “Tragedy”/Bee Gees
9.  “Goodnight Tonight”/Wings
10.  “Sail On”/Commodores

Were I to formally re-rank these today, I would no longer include “Rise” and “Goodnight Tonight” on the list. (“Tragedy” stays, though.) Also, I am not sure that “What a Fool Believes” would stay at #1—I’d be inclined to bump Nick Lowe up there now, or maybe even the Commodores—and “Heart of Glass” wouldn’t be so high, either. Today, I would have to consider the two Gerry Rafferty singles, “Days Gone Down” and “Get it Right Next Time,” “Gold” by John Stewart, “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” by Elton John, and “Is She Really Going Out With Him” by Joe Jackson. Other possibilities might be “Life During Wartime” by Talking Heads or J. D. Souther’s “You’re Only Lonely,” and how I missed including “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears I cannot imagine. In 1979, I shared with many other young white guys a severe anti-disco prejudice, and so I would not have been caught dead endorsing what I would have considered a disco record. (Never mind that there were disco remixes of “What a Fool Believes” and “Goodnight Tonight,” and that “Tragedy” got some dancefloor action too.) I would not have considered “Good Times” by Chic or “September” by Earth Wind and Fire for my list, but they’d both make the semifinals today.

However interesting it might be to revisit more of these columns (and I have clips), we aren’t going there. They are almost without exception miserably bad, badly written and badly argued, and I come off utterly foolish in many of them. These 1979 lists were the best of the lot.

Doin’ the Christmas Shuffle, Vol. 20

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(Pictured: Darlene Love on stage, 2014.)

A lot of people welcome the expansion of the Christmas season to early November. The music and the decorations make them feel good, and I’m willing to accept pretty much whatever you have to do to get through the day in hopes you’ll grant me the same privilege. And I suppose there’s an argument that people are busier now than they used to be, and maybe it takes longer to get all of the seasonal stuff done than it used to. Maybe a seven or eight-week Christmas season is a kindness.

Maybe. But at my house, we do not permit Thanksgiving to be a speed bump on the way to bigger things. We do not bust out the music or the decorations until the day after Thanksgiving at the earliest. (The decorations may stay up until Valentine’s Day, but the point is, we don’t get ’em out early.) Since today’s the day, here’s the first installment of a tradition we started back in 2007.

“Daddy’s Christmas”/Albert Brooks and Little Kristi. “Daddy’s Christmas” is a 1974 single written and produced by Brooks and Harry Shearer featuring a dialogue between a mean-spirited father and his little girl. It’s supposed to be funny, I guess.

“This Christmas”/Diana Ross. In 1993, Motown released Christmas in the City, a compilation with 10 tracks from the label’s 1960s Christmas output and six previously unreleased tracks, including this perfectly fine 1974 version of “This Christmas,” and perhaps of greater interest, both sides of a proposed 1972 Marvin Gaye single that was never released.

“Deck the Halls”/Moog Machine. Fifty years ago, Switched-On Rock by the Moog Machine featured 10 covers of then-recent hits, from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Hey Jude” to “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Christmas Becomes Electric appeared in time for Christmas 1969. Like the rest of the album, “Deck the Halls” was highly futuristic then but sounds fairly primitive and dated now. That is, however, part of its ongoing appeal.

“Please Come Home for Christmas”/Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise. The story goes that a group of Detroit musicians heard Bradley singing through an open window, invited him to record with them, and eventually made the blind street musician the namesake of their group. They made four albums between 1996 and 2009; this was on a Christmas EP in 2001.

“What Christmas Means to Me”/Darlene Love. Forty-four years after A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector, Darlene Love released a full-length Christmas album that avoids carols in favor of songs not often covered: Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again,” the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles,” and “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” among them. Her faithful version of “What Christmas Means to Me” is every bit as good as Stevie Wonder’s original.

“Silent Night”/Starland Vocal Band. In 1980, the Starland Vocal Band reconvened to make a Christmas record. I have not heard the whole thing, but at least one track has a children’s choir on it, which is often a giant blinking red light warning “run away.” Their “Silent Night” is fine, though, with tender vocal harmonizing over acoustic guitars and somebody blowing on a recorder.

“Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”/David Qualey. From the first Windham Hill collection, A Winter’s Solstice, released in 1985. None of its ten songs has the first thing to do with Christmas, but I’m guessing most people who have it store it with the Christmas records, as I do. Qualey is an Oregon-born guitarist who lives in Germany and who recorded his first album in 1975.

“Black Christmas”/The Emotions. In 2007, the reconstituted Stax label released Christmas in Soulsville, featuring holiday songs cut in the 60s and 70s, both famous (Otis Redding’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” Booker T and the MGs doing “Winter Wonderland”) and not, including “Black Christmas.” It was written by Pervis Staples and co-produced by David Porter and disappeared on its release in 1970 (although a version by the Harlem Children’s Chorus has one listing at ARSA). [See comment below.] And holy smokes is it great.

“Stone Soul Christmas”/Binky Griptite. In 2007, the master of ceremonies and guitarist with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings turned the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” into “Stone Soul Christmas,” ditching the surrey and easing on down.

“Here Comes Santa Claus”/Elvis Presley. That Elvis would release a Christmas album in 1957 was a conclusion as foregone as tomorrow’s sunrise. Its most familiar performances (this one, “Blue Christmas,” and “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”) have been anthologized everywhere. It’s less well-remembered that the album features four gospel songs, including a version of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

We could do this again before Christmas Day, but the season is as short as it can be this year. You’ll have to wait and see.

Spikes of Joy

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(Pictured: ABBA says hello from 1976.)

Up here in Wisconsin, we got our first snow a month ago. On a gray day last week, a cold rain took the last of the leaves from the trees. The best part of autumn is behind us now. It’s bittersweet to see it go, but before it did, I spent some time in bygone autumns, with a couple of American Top 40 shows.

This stretch, as heard on the show from October 30, 1971, provided another motherlode of AM radio pleasure:

28. “Everybody’s Everything”/Santana
27. “So Far Away”/Carole King
26. “One Fine Morning”/Lighthouse
25. “Stagger Lee”/Tommy Roe
24. “Only You Know and I Know”/Delaney and Bonnie
23. “Birds of a Feather”/Raiders
22. “Ain’t No Sunshine”/Bill Withers
21. “Have You Seen Her”/Chi-Lites
20. “Easy Loving”/Freddie Hart
19. “Inner City Blues”/Marvin Gaye
18. “Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey”/Paul and Linda McCartney

A person such as I, who grew up in the supercharged AM radio atmosphere of boss jocks and call-letter jingles, can live for a mighty long time in the headspace created by those 11 songs. Or these seven:

10. “I’ve Found Someone of My Own”/Free Movement
9. “Peace Train”/Cat Stevens
8. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”/Joan Baez
7. “Do You Know What I Mean”/Lee Michaels
6. “Imagine”/John Lennon
5. “Theme From Shaft”/Isaac Hayes
4. “Superstar”/Carpenters

By the time I got this far on the list, I had long since left 2019. It was 1971 again, and I was in the bedroom I shared with my brother, across the hall from Mother and Dad, with my green plastic Westinghouse tube-type radio, the one with the big dial, with a tiny bit of masking tape on it to mark WLS, since the thing had a tendency to drift. That fall, in the afternoons home from school, evenings after supper, weekend days, all the time, I devoured the radio joyfully, not just the songs but the jocks and the jingles and the atmosphere, because I already knew that radio was my calling.

As I listened to these songs again, I was there, and I had no desire to come back.

But I had to, because you have to.

Not long after, I listened to the show from November 13, 1976. It, too, has a stretch of songs that I find seriously pleasurable, but in the end it evokes an entirely different feeling:

25. “You Don’t Have to Be a Star”/Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.
24. “I Never Cry”/Alice Cooper
23. “Play That Funky Music”/Wild Cherry
22. “I Only Want to Be With You”/Bay City Rollers
21. “A Fifth of Beethoven”/Walter Murphy
20. “Magic Man”/Heart

19. “The Best Disco in Town”/Ritchie Family
18. “Nights Are Forever Without You”/England Dan and John Ford Coley
17. “She’s Gone”/Hall and Oates
16. “You Are the Woman”/Firefall
15. “More Than a Feeling”/Boston
14. “Fernando”/ABBA

The average onlooker probably considers this a load of forgettable cheese, and some of it certainly is, but I am incapable of hearing it that way. These songs took me to a place I’ve written about before, where 16-year-old-me had the world by the tail. I had my day-to-day concerns, but nothing I couldn’t handle. All good things were mine, or eventually would be. The road to the glowing future was smooth and wide and straight, and all I had to do was keep to it and I’d get there.

I hear this stretch of songs now, and the clash between the two people, the boy who didn’t know what he didn’t know and the older man who does, drowns out most everything else. I can’t live in that country the way I can live in my 1971 bedroom. The most I can get is the occasional spike of joy—like at the climax of “More Than a Feeling,” just as the wall of guitars gives way for that Louie-Louie bass line to kick in for the last time, and where for just a moment I remember everything—but it doesn’t stay.

Which is why I keep going back, like an addict in thrall to another kind of spike.

These shows have some fine moments beyond these stretches. The top 10 of the 1971 show is a list I’ll never get tired of hearing. (Even “Yo-Yo.”) The top of the 1976 show is harder to love, as anything with “Muskrat Love” and “Disco Duck” would be, but there’s “Rubberband Man” and “Rock’n Me” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to take the curse off. And even “Muskrat Love” and “Disco Duck” are indispensable. Without them, the fall of 1976 wouldn’t have been quite what it was.

What it continues to be.

We do not always listen to old songs simply because we want to be transported back in time. But sometimes we do.

Long Way Home

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(Pictured: Don Henley on MTV Unplugged, 1989.)

I am not a person who hates the Eagles as a unit. As for two of the most famous Eagles themselves, that’s different. Glenn Frey’s solo stuff had all the personality of muzak. Don Henley’s, meanwhile, can be unsubtle and unpleasant. To make consistently listenable music (and yes, opinions vary on how listenable the Eagles are), they needed each other.

During several hours on the interstate recently, I listened to Henley’s first three solo albums all in a row, and here’s what I think I think:

I Can’t Stand Still came out in the winter of 1982. “Dirty Laundry” was the big single, going all the way to #3 on the Hot 100; its harsh critique of TV news gained it a lot of publicity outside of rock ‘n’ roll radio, as serious talk shows discussed its implications. In 1982, what Henley described—the showbiz-ification of suffering and scandal—was primarily a big-city, local TV phenomenon. The rise of talking-head national cable news and the corporatization of local TV news in the last four decades, however, makes “Dirty Laundry” sound prophetic. But it’s a prophecy delivered by a guy yelling two inches from your face. And Henley wasn’t done with “Dirty Laundry”: “Johnny Can’t Read” and “Them and Us” take on the educational system and the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war with the same hectoring shrillness of “Dirty Laundry.”

Message: Don Henley is here to tell you what’s what.

(In defense of I Can’t Stand Still, it’s the most solid of his 80s records, with two lovely ballads, “Long Way Home” and “Talking to the Moon,” the country/gospel standard “Uncloudy Day,” and “Nobody’s Business,” a briskly rockin’ co-write with J. D. Souther and Bob Seger.)

Henley preached a lot less on Building the Perfect Beast. I liked it when it came out in 1984; I like it a lot less today. The only tracks apart from “The Boys of Summer” that don’t make me wish for the leavening impact of the other Eagles are “You’re Not Drinking Enough,” which is a respectable country song, and “Not Enough Love in the World.” “The Boys of Summer” itself is crispy from 35 years of airplay. (And for cryin’ out loud, radio, get yourself an edit and stop playing the album version, which starts with several seconds of high-hat cymbal and a single electric guitar and destroys whatever forward momentum your station has going.) On “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” Henley gets caught up in Central American revolution, then comes home to the “Sunset Grill,” where he and his girl sit in the bar feeling smugly superior to everybody else who comes in.

Message: Don Henley is the most interesting man in the world.

It took five years before Henley returned with The End of the Innocence. I bought it right after it came out, hooked by the stately title track, but I never warmed to the rest of the album, even though I listened to it a lot for the next several years. On my most recent listen, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The three singles—“The End of the Innocence,” “Heart of the Matter,” and “The Last Worthless Evening”—are the best stuff on it by a long shot, and vastly different from the rest of the record, which is clogged with butt-ugly arrangements and misanthropic lyrics.

Message: please do not look Mr. Henley directly in the eye.

I bought Henley’s Inside Job in 2000 but have listened to it maybe twice, so I can’t comment on it. The 2015 album Cass County, on which Henley collaborates with an array of country stars including Miranda Lambert, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Tricia Yearwood, and Dolly Parton, is his best solo record by quite a bit, with the strongest set of songs he ever put on one record. But what makes Cass County better than Henley’s other solo albums is that it, and he, is not so self-important. Although there are a couple of instances where he slips back into old patterns, Cass County is mostly just a guy performing solid songs honestly. When the Eagles did that, they were at their best. It took their drummer a long time to remember the formula.

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