What happens when one American legend takes on 12 American classics? If that legend is John Fogerty, the simple answer is musical magic. On The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again, Fogerty reinvents such treasures as the Everly Bros.’ “When Will I Be Loved” (a stunning duet with fellow Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Bruce Springsteen), Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” and John Denver’s “Back Home Again” with uncommon grace and unbridled zest.
As longtime Fogerty fans will recall, the Blue Ridge Rangers made their first appearance in 1973 when the Grammy winner released an album of classic covers (including “Jambalaya” and “She Still Thinks I Care”) under that moniker. The name was deceptive: the Rangers were Fogerty and Fogerty alone. He played all the instruments including drums.
The thought of revisiting the Blue Ridge Rangers as a vehicle to create another set of beloved covers has never been far from Fogerty's mind. "I thought about it at least once a month," he says. “I told myself if I ever get to do this again, I’m going to have real guys playing; I’d find the best guys I could and have fun and so that’s what happened this time.”
Indeed, on The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again, Fogerty surrounds himself with such top-flight musicians as Buddy Miller (guitar), Greg Leisz (pedal and lap steel, mandolin and dobro), Jason Mowery (fiddle, mandolin and dobro) and Kenny Aronoff (drums). They circle and entwine each other in joyous musical call and responses (complete with hooting and hollering), weaving in and out of each song. Call it a country record if you must, but it’s really the sound of America. And the sound of Fogerty: real instruments, real talent. No artifice.
Fogerty, who arranged and produced the set, encouraged his fellow musicians to bring their own ideas to the songs. The album's great live feel comes from the fact that the basic tracks were recorded in three or four takes over a seven-day period. Then, the players hung out in the studio during each other’s overdubs, egging on their compatriots. “It seemed to be a very rewarding way to make music,” Fogerty says. “I really believed in the songs and the vibe. There was not really a preconceived notion. There [was] an openness, but the thing has to ring true to how I feel.”
Nowhere is that openness more evident than on 1964’s “Haunted House.” Fogerty & Co. take what many considered a novelty song made famous by Jumpin’ Gene Simmons about an alien and turn it into a full-on rave-up. “It was my idea that I wanted it to basically be a country jam,” he says. “It was a vehicle to have the musicians trade verses. This was important to me; to hear that fun.”
And therein lies another key to the album’s unforced grace. When recording cover songs, it may be tempting to labor over whether to remain faithful to the original or to morph the song into a new creation, Fogerty discarded any such worries and simply went with his gut. “If when I get done with a particular song and I don’t have any more questions, I’m pretty sure it’s done,” he plainly says.
While it may seem odd this member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and author of such iconic tunes as “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Fortunate Son” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” would turn to tunes penned by others, remember that he is also a great lover of music. (The lone Fogerty composition on the set is the swampy “Change in the Weather,” originally on 1986’s Eye of the Zombie.)
Many of the songs have been Fogerty favorites for decades and have, as he puts it, “become part of my DNA.” Some selections, such as “When Will I Be Loved” and “Moody River,” go back to his adolescence. Many, such as John Prine’s “Paradise” and John Denver’s “Back Home Again,” are from revered contemporaries. “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)” is a salute to one of his musical heroes, Buck Owens, and his groundbreaking guitarist and Buckaroos’ leader Don Rich.
Others were last minute additions. Miller brought “Fallin’, Fallin’, Fallin’” to Fogerty’s attention while the band was in the studio in Los Angeles. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that one before,” Fogerty says, “but it was delightful and was a good vehicle to bring the band together with that sort of western swing.”
The criterion for inclusion on the album was a deceptively simple one: "If I'm allowed to just get up with a bunch of people in a country bar somewhere, these are the songs I'll do," Fogerty says. “There was some talk in the beginning about having some [theme]; personally, I wasn’t buying into that. To me, the common thread is really about presenting a certain feeling about music.” Otherwise, he says, the pressure of fitting tunes into a preselected theme weighs down the process “like bowling balls in your knapsack.”
The song most likely to surprise listeners is a remake of Pat Boone’s last No. 1 in 1961, the unlikely murder ballad “Moody River.” “I can imagine Pete Seeger singing it. There are so many things to sink your teeth into,” Fogerty says. “By the way, Pat sings his butt off. I think our version is far more eerie sounding than Pat was allowed to do.
“Garden Party,” a song by another former teen idol, holds special significance for Fogerty, who inducted Nelson, who died in 1985, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Like Nelson, Fogerty has remained true to himself and his music, even when doing so was extremely painful. “I’m the guy who didn’t sing his own songs for 25 years because, basically, those songs had been taken away from me and also used in ways I really disagreed with,” Fogerty says, referring to his decades-long battle with Saul Zaentz over his publishing. “Therefore, I could really identify with a guy saying, ’If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck.’”
The Eagles' Don Henley, a fan of the first Blue Ridge Rangers album, and Timothy B. Schmit provide sumptuous harmonies on "Garden Party.” ”The Eagles were born to sing those parts,” Fogerty says. “We were all fans.”
The most personal song for Fogerty is Denver’s “Back Home Again.” The message of returning to a loved one’s arms after a journey “involves [my wife] Julie and my emotions towards her,” he says. Plus, he’s a tremendous Denver fan. Fogerty vividly recalls halting an interview during the 1985’s Farm Aid to hear Denver perform. However, Denver’s angelic voice haunted him when he thought about cutting the track: that is until Julie convinced him to try. “I thought I didn’t have a prayer of doing it justice, but Julie really kept insisting; she kept empowering me and enabling me…I was terrified of it. I don’t sound like John Denver. Somehow I found another way to sound alright.”
The album closes with Fogerty and Springsteen’s yearning take on “When Will I Be Loved,” marking the first time the two legends and longtime admirers of each other have recorded together.
“I’ve wanted to do something with Bruce forever, probably 20-some odd years,” Fogerty says of his tour mate on the Vote for Change outing. Fogerty traveled to Springsteen’s New Jersey home to record the Boss’s part. “The hardest part was it was in a very high range for Bruce’s voice, but he got it done. He didn’t complain; he didn’t wimp out. It sounds great. It was remarkable how much of a chance he would take.”
But in the end, as Fogerty notes, whether he was recording with Springsteen or the Eagles or with the band, when it came to making The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again, “I just sing my own style.” And no one does that better than John Fogerty.
An American Blues-rock band formed in Houston, Texas, hold the distinction of being one of the few rock groups still composed of its original members; Billy Gibbons (guitar and vocals), Dusty Hill (bass guitar and vocals), and Frank Beard (drums). Nearly as well-known as their music is the group's appearance: Gibbons and Hill are always pictured wearing "Cheap Sunglasses," similar (if not matching) clothing, and their trademark chest-length beards while, perhaps ironically, Beard sports a mustache but not a beard. Their song lyrics often feature sexual innuendo and humor.
The origin of the band's name is derived from the name of blues master B.B. King. They wanted to call themselves Z.Z. King but sounded too similar to their blues legend hero. They figured that "King" was at the "top" so thus settled on ZZ Top.