Like all great country, this turns melancholy and gloom into melody and dancing.
David Quantick 2010
Versatile as anything, Leon Russell has ranged across many styles in his extremely long career. For this 1973 set, credited to Hank Wilson, a fictional country singer, Russell veered away from his swamp soul roots and into one of the most joyful sidebars of his career – so joyful, in fact, that he eventually recorded not one but two sequels to Hank Wilson’s Back.
Country cover albums weren’t rare outside country – Ray Charles had made it his own several years before – but in the hip world of 70s rock country had to be filtered through the rock guitars of The Byrds, Poco and other similarly oriented acts (country rock king Gram Parsons never found real fame in his own time). It was, then as now, an unfashionable genre and many of Russell’s teenage rocker fans must have been shocked. This was an era where cowboy boots and country songs meant not soulful musos who hung out with the Stones and Clapton, quite possibly smoking marijuana, but humourless rednecks who liked punching hippies.
But these kids, one hopes, would have been pleasantly shocked, as Hank Wilson’s Back is an entirely likeable album from cover to run-out groove. With a heavy strain of Hank Williams’ covers, a brilliant band, and a slight twang in the voice cutting through the gruff soul rumble, Russell found a new lightness of touch and created, essentially, an uncluttered sing-along collection a million miles from the session heaviness of the time.
From She Thinks I Still Care to Jambalaya, from Williams’ I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry to the raucous post-skiffle of The Battle of New Orleans, this is a deeply entertaining album that, like all great country, turns melancholy and gloom into melody and dancing. The standout song here, though, is a grand, gruff glide through Moon Mullican’s jaunty 1950 hit I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.