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C.W. McCall - Wolf Creek Pass

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Artist: C.W. McCall

Album: Wolf Creek Pass

Label: Omni

Review date: Sep. 28, 2012

Despite a disquieting physical resemblance to Colorado pop-folk crooner John Denver, Bill Fries — alias C.W. McCall — would never be mistaken for the man music-wise. McCall’s province was novelty trucker tunes and convoluted country story songs often colored with a heavy patina of era-specific production and ad jingle pap. The big rig paean “Convoy” embodied his biggest charting hit, but “Crispy Critters” was an arguable close second in terms of fleeting AM radio ubiquity. Omni Recording Corporation’s reissue of his 1975 debut album Wolf Creek Pass serves as a veritable one-stop-shop for any interested listener’s McCall needs, adding on most of his sophomore (and sometimes sophomoric) LP, Black Bear Road, and a handful of bonus tracks for a total of 25 slices of the songwriter’s cracked, though no less commercially minded, aesthetic.

McCall morphs between cornpone, outlaw and folkie guises at will. Sometimes he sounds weirdly like patriarch Hank from King of the Hill, other times — as on the on the more serious Americana (“Old 30”) and environmentally-attuned (“Glenwood Canyon”) numbers — like a deadpan facsimile of Woody Guthrie. None prove effective in disguising his mediocre pipes. On the collection’s titular track, he runs down an at once harrowing and hilarious non sequitur-laden account of a trucking near-disaster with a bizarro chorus of low-rent Opry chanteuses chirping away in the background. “Classified” wallows in wanton verbosity in comparable fashion as McCall expounds on his experience purchasing a junkyard Chevy pick-up over a chugging up-tempo rhythm. Miraculously, his nimble diction never mires in the morass of lyric-driven minutiae. “I’ve Trucked All Over This Land” and “Four Wheel Drive’ each offers truth-in-advertising with more encyclopedic explanations of the free-wheeling interstate lifestyle and CB lingo. Odd amalgams of traditional country instrumentation, studio orchestrations and keyboards, most prominently moog, abound. “Night Rider” is the most egregious example, with a disco-funk chassis and a set of danger-drenched verses that are more high camp than badass and owe an odd debt to Dr. John’s gris-gris precedence in mien.

For every nose-crinkling, bathos-on-sleeve ballad like “Rocky Mountain September” or “Aurora Borealis” that veers over into (likely) unintentional self-parody, McCall manages something like the juice-harp punctuated “The Old Home Filler-up an’ Keep on a-Truckin’ Café” or the hot-picking ode to man’s best friend “Sloan,” which suggests he’s in on the joke. Like his peer Red Simpson, he found a winning formula and stuck with it, so there’s not much to distinguish the two LPs and change contained. It all makes for an admittedly puzzling listening experience at times and one definitely best approached in doses.

McCall’s shtick may not have aged well, but there’s an underlying audacity, sincerity and charm extant in these dated artifacts. Even the clunkers convey an eccentric sense of dogged purpose and a brazen willingness to thread in incongruous elements at the expense of easy coherence, as with the British folk trappings of flute and lute that lace the saccharine ecological allegory “Wilderness.” Love him or hate him, McCall definitely had a signature vision and style. Oh, and what does the C.W. stand for? Country & Western, of course!

By Derek Taylor

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