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"Proof" positive: Chris Darrow's long-lost kaleidoscopic country-rock treasure reissued

Drag City

There aren’t many who can claim to have taken part in the births of both world music and country-rock.

“I was there,” says Chris Darrow. “I have been there.”

On the former, with David Lindley and other friends he co-founded Kaleidoscope, the ‘60s San Gabriel Valley band with a repertoire that ranged from old-timey to Turkish taksim, too eclectic and exotic to have pop hits, but later given the maybe-slightly fitting tag of the “first world beat” act. 

From that he joined the early Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and worked with Mike Nesmith (yes, the Monkee), experimenting with visions of a very California brand of a country-rock hybrid, then having his own band the Corvettes hired to back young Linda Ronstadt right before she exploded on the pop charts — the lineup morphing into one of the eggs that hatched the Eagles. 

A choice artifact of that latter realm has just been unearthed: Darrow’s own Artist Proof, a 1971 album that is built on the firm roots and traditions of country music, yet was forward-looking enough that it sounds fresh amid today’s strong wave of Americana. After ages of being out of print, the album has just been reissued by Drag City, the Chicago label that’s been a supportive home for both young indie artists and such role models as English folk legend Bert Jansch. 

“Listening to it now I realized what I was trying to do was make a rocking record that had all my influences,” says Darrow from his home in Claremont, where he was born and raised. 

That’s folk, in the form of bluegrass and Appalachian music, stuff that he and Lindley played in the Dry City Scat Band at, among other places, Disneyland in the pre-Beatles early ‘60s. And that’s country, but “Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, California country, not Nashville.” Chris Hillman, coming out of San Diego, was playing bluegrass before co-founding the Byrds, Darrow notes, as was Jerry Garcia up in San Francisco before starting the Grateful Dead. 

But that’s also the rock ‘n’ roll of his youth — the time before Buddy Holly died and Elvis Presley got drafted, he specifies, the void created being what led him and his peers to explore other music. And there’s the then-fresh singer-songwriter aesthetic, which he also saw very close up, having played on Leonard Cohen’s debut album and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, two touchstones of that era. It’s a broad sensibility that reflects his tastes and talents — he’s skilled on guitar, fiddle, violin (he makes the fiddle-violin distinction), Dobro, lap steel and mandolin, for a start.

“This was the culmination of all the stuff I wanted to do,” Darrow says of Artist Proof. “Did it with the Corvettes, but it didn’t work. We were a little ahead of the game. But this one brought in all the stuff I wanted to do. To take something I knew and make something personal. I wasn’t trying to fit in to what others were doing. Well, I was to some degree. But it was personal, which was probably why I didn’t have hits.”

So how does it sounds to him now?

“I never listen to my own records after they’re done,” he says. “Always a forward-looking guy. I think I’m better now than then. I was 27, a lot of the songs have to do with problems with my wife and family, a lot of personal stuff. ‘Song for Stephen’ I wrote for my son, telling him everything’s going to be alright. He’s 48 now. Was in a punk band, the Decadents, played with Slash in an early band, Hollywood Rose. A great guitar player, drummer, bass player.”

But, of course, when looking to reissue it, he did give it a listen or two. 

“It takes me back to that time,” he says. “I listen to the fact that the tracks are great. I think the songs are really good. But the players: Mickey McGee, the drummer, played with Linda, the Burrito Brothers, J.D. Souther, Juice Newton. Ed Black, his best friend, plays pedal steel on ‘Fast Car.’ Arnie Moore, the bass player, I’d worked with in bands before.  Loren Newkirk, the piano player, was with Donovan and a group called Aim. John Ware on drums. Claudia Linear and Jennifer Warnes singing backup — Claudia was who Mick Jagger wrote ‘Brown Sugar’ about and was with Delaney & Bonnie.”

Artist Proof launched an new phase of Darrow’s career which saw two more ‘70s solo albums and a 1977 album anchoring the progressive bluegrass group Rank Strangers, which also included ex-Kaleidoscope band mate Chester Crill (here under the pseudonym Templeton Parcely). He and Crill (under another of his several aliases, Max Buda) teamed again for the 1981 surf instrumental spectacular, Eye of the Storm

And the reissue also comes at a time of much activity, with Darrow still in the forward-looking mode. He’s been just as active of late as he was back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, producing his own recordings (a song he did for a short film, Kites Over Washington, won an Emmy Award), and producing and playing with others. Meanwhile, he and Crill are at work on a new instrumental album, Island Girl, the second in their series of “faux soundtracks” albums, set to be released next month.

“We write a treatment for a story and then do 10 or 11 instrumental pieces,” he says. “The first was Harem Girl and the third will be Beatnik Girl.”

And he is gratified to see his music continue to resonate with and spark new generations. The band Camper Van Beethoven, he notes, were big fans and recorded their own take on Kaleidoscope’s arrangement of the folk song, “Oh Death.” Ben Harper, who also grew up in Claremont and saw Darrow and Lindley among his mentors, recorded Darrow’s “Whipping Boy” as his first single, which got him his record deal and launched his career. And a reissue of some other Darrow material on the L.A.-based Everloving label in 2009 spurred a tribute concert at McCabe’s featuring Harper, Akron/Family and Howlin’ Rain along with the honoree. (See video below.) And now there’s another new crop of acolytes, including young country-rock band Ol’ Californio.

“I know those guys,” he enthuses. “They’re Pasadena guys. They are really good!”

It might even coax him back on stage some — he’s only performed sporadically in recent times.

“A few years ago I got out of the performing stuff, got into making records,” he says. “But people want me to play, so maybe I’ll start doing it.”