Various Artists

Confederate Tales: White Mansions & Jesse James

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The pairing of these two records in a double-CD set, both unusual country-rock concept albums steeped in history from the end of the '70s, is kind of a no-brainer. White Mansions was the better known of the two at the time of their original release, dealing as it does with the history of the American south, and it developed a strong cult following at the time, possibly as a reaction to the success of the television mini-series Roots, and the election of Jimmy Carter (the first Southerner -- apart from Woodrow Wilson -- to reach the White House since the Civil War). The presence of an all-star cast, including Eric Clapton, Jessi Colter, and Waylon Jennings, and Steve Cash and John Dillon of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils (then near the height of their popularity) didn't hurt. It's also the more raw and basic of the two -- though a concept album telling the story of the fall of the southern Confederacy and the culture behind it, it is made up of songs that stand up better on their own, and shows a bracing diversity of styles, ranging from faux-19th century popular music to modern country-rock of a century later. Legend of Jesse James is slicker and smoother, and also seems to make the transition to CD a little better on a technical level. The booklet includes full notes and background on each song, as well as bios on all of the participants and a fascinating account of Paul Kennerley, the English advertising executive whose fascination with American history led to his composing the songs for both albums, and the participation of Glyn Johns as the unifying technical force behind the two productions. The sound is excellent on both discs, and the whole set is well worth more than one listen. And this is the only way to get Legend of Jesse James on CD.

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