I'm certainly no expert on country music, but there are a few artists in the genre that I especially admire. Some are well-known figures like Johnny Cash, while others are underappreciated but no less talented performers like this guy. Johnny Darrell managed to achieve a degree of popularity in the latter half of the 1960s with a handful of singles that sold in respectable numbers, although he was better known for recording songs that would later become smash hits for other musicians (e.g. Tom Jones' version of "Green Grass of Home," Kenny Rogers & the First Edition's version of "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," etc.). For whatever reason, Darrell did not write his own material. Although his reliance on songwriters ultimately hindered his career, his taste in lyrics was impeccable. Moreover, he was gifted with an expressive voice, one that was as rich and smooth as finely aged Scotch whisky.
Released toward the end of his tenure with United Artists, Why You Been Gone So Long is typical of the generally solid albums he recorded for the label: a few truly extraordinary cuts alongside some decent if not mushy sentimental filler. "River Bottom" happens to be one of Darrell's finest moments with its gorgeous arrangements standing in stark contrast to the chilling lyrics about a man coming to grips with murdering his woman and disposing of her body. "A Woman Without Love" and "Jimmy Jacob" can be viewed as either beautifully sensitive performances or Countrypolitan fluff, all depending on your mood. Next to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," "I Ain't Buying" may very well the finest example of a country song that uses horns to good effect. "You're Always the One" is a bit too syrupy for my tastes. Despite the song's overwrought arrangements, Darrell's fine voice redeems it from being a complete waste of time. Composed by pop singer Jimmie Rodgers, "The World I Used to Know" is cut from a similar cloth, although the strings and other backing instrumentation are not quite as sickly sweet. Most closely associated with Bobby Bare (but written by Tom T. Hall), "Margie's at the Lincoln Park Inn" seems to be in the same bag as the two aforementioned pieces, but damn if this song's lyrics don't deliver a powerful message expressing a philandering husband's regrets about his extramarital activities. The title track of this LP is one of my all-time favorite songs of any genre. In fact, this album is worth owning for the definitive version of Mickey Newbury's "Why You Been Gone So Long" alone. With its combination of twangy guitar (courtesy of an unnamed Nashville session musician) and subtle strings, this performance represents everything good about late 1960s country music with a strong dose of rock. How's this for some heavy-hitting lyrics?
There ain't nothin' I wanna do,
Oh, I guess I could get stoned,
And let the past paint pictures on my head.
Kill a fifth of Thunderbird and try to write a sad song,
Tell me baby why you been gone so long.
"Hungry Eyes" is a fine cover of a Merle Haggard tune, but things close on a somewhat schmaltzy note with "The House on the Hill" and "Ain't that Livin'." However, all can be forgiven based on the strength of the album's more compelling tracks. A mixed bag to be sure, but when this album is good, it's really good.
Get As Long as the Winds Blow here and Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town here.
1. River Bottom
2. Woman Without Love
3. Jimmy Jacob
4. I Ain't Buying
5. You're Always the One
6. The World I Used to Know
7. Margie's at the Lincoln Park Inn
8. Why You Been Gone So Long
9. Hungry Eyes
10. The House on the Hill
11. Ain't that Livin'