I truly despised Light In the Attic’s 2012 compilation Country Funk: 1969-1975, which seemed to do little more than collect tired Dixie-isms by the likes of Dale Hawkins and Mac Davis with the implicit theme of “Look at me, I’m a redneck!” Aesthetically bereft, musically lackluster, and really I’d rather listen to Delaney & Bonnie’s first album than think about this record for one more second.
What inspired me to even pick up the follow up I still don’t understand. Why would there even be a follow up? Unimaginitively (and confusingly) entitled Country Funk II: 1967-1974, this time our curators at least selected some recognizable names: Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton could pop up anywhere, but Thomas Jefferson Kaye and Willis Alan Ramsey sound grand, orchestral even. I’d say there are four-five duds here (the point of Jackie DeShannon’s cover of “The Weight” is lost on me), but mostly this is well-done, even surprising music that aficionados of the Southern-fried soundscape (white-people version) will enjoy.
And with that tepid recommendation (really, go out and find a copy of the brilliantly named Behind Closed Doors: Where Country Meets Soul for a far more worthy version of the country/R&B nexus) let me shout out for Country Funk II's opening track. Perpetual sideman (and one-time Graceland security guard) Billy Swan takes a swing at Elvis’s own “Don’t Be Cruel”. But Swan approaches the song from exactly the opposite perspective—there’s none of the King's swagger and confidence (the way Elvis almost giggles “Please let’s forget the past/The future looks bright ahead”) in Swan's version. Instead, Swan turns Otis Blackwell’s lyrics into a paranoid lover’s dystopia, a miasma of carnal treachery only Alex Chilton circa Sister Lovers could cop to. Swan builds all of this onto a Quaalude-driven backbeat that evokes a Twin Peaks soundscape, the Nuge's “Stranglehold”, and Herbie Flowers’ endlessly echoed bass line in “Rock On”. Presley’s version makes you want to know all about the singer: Who is this sexy, cocky guy? Swan’s story is all about his imagined inamorata and what she did to the singer to leave him lying on the couch, glass of Jack slipping from his hand, ashtray brimming with stubbed out Winston's. Swan sings like he always does, with the air of a simple guy who, by God, bad shit happens to sometimes. Only this is bad shit on a staggering level— Swan's protagonist begins in a state of self-pity and by the last verse ("Let's walk up to the preacher") he's frankly delusional. Swan didn't flip "Don't Be Cruel" into a sad song, he reverse-engineered it into a monstrous interpersonal calamity. And yes, that's Roger McGuinn in the video.