Burl Ives - "The Almighty Dollar Bill" (Sweet, Sad & Salty)
Burl Ives, badass. Such is the counter-intuitive case that Sweet Sad & Salty seeks to make by collecting work from the rotund, liberal-leaning troubadour’s self-imposed exile in Nashville between 1962 and 1972. Over the span of that decade, Ives was hiding out in plain sight, still nursing career wounds sustained from highly-publicized altercations with Joe McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities crusade years earlier. His national persona as an avuncular pop-folk figure had taken on some tarnish, but as these songs illustrate, that public construction was only a small piece of the man’s puzzle to begin with.
Ives embraced a progressive worldview long before it was fashionable, hoboing in his late-teens and later hobnobbing with the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger on the forward-thinking folk circuit. Those populist influences are prominent in these performances, where his warm, easygoing croon floats over guitar-centered accompaniment and modest occasional orchestrations. Thanks to producer Owen Bradley, Ace Nashville songwriters and sessioners like Harlan Howard and guitarists Grady Martin and Hank Ballard are on board, and many of the tunes echo the kind of socially-conscious, story-telling focus that often separated folk from pop.
In a more questionable move, Ives also enlisted the aid of a co-ed backing chorus on a number of cuts. Their treacly contributions take some getting used to, but when Ives jovially runs down the particulars of an alcoholic widow’s preference for brandy over other spirits across a lilting Bahamian rhythm on “Mama Don’t Want No Peas, No Rice,” the saccharine vocal fills actually work wonders in upping the creepiness quotient. “Girlie Magazine” takes things even further with Ives playing the part of a loquacious grandparent describing his lascivious reading habits to the chorus, this time pitched to the vocal inflections of prepubescent girls, while “The Sixties” finds them cheerfully intoning “6, 6, 60s” as the ominous refrain to lyrics seeping with societal tension and unease.
Wry wit is also at the root of tracks like “The Almighty Dollar Bill,” which elaborates on the universal propensity of human avarice and “Unemployment Check,” where Ives expounds on the pleasures of living on the dole while his peers waste away their lives as wage slaves. Even when he’s delineating the evils of a “Lynching Party” or a “Mean, Mean Man,” there’s breeziness in his delivery that sweetens the underlying cynicism. The 31-track collection culls from a total of eight albums and a handful of 45 singles, suggesting that Ives and Bradley’s efforts sold decently, if not briskly for the duration of their association. As to whether the aforementioned contention of Ives’ badass credentials holds up, this listener is inclined to answer easily in the affirmative.