Joan Baez

David's Album

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Joan Baez started working with Nashville musicians in October of 1968, with the combined sessions that yielded Any Day Now -- her still highly respected showcase of Bob Dylan songs -- and David's Album. Ironically, David's Album, intended as a gift to her draft-resistor husband, David Harris, who was about to start a three-year jail term for refusing induction, was her main motivation for going to CBS Studios in Nashville, but it has always stood in the shadow of Any Day Now, which had the obvious allure of being an assembly of 16 Dylan songs. Not surprisingly, David's Album has all kinds of veiled topical resonances -- "If I Knew" was a heartfelt peace anthem that surely opens the album because of what it seems to say for Harris, while "Poor Wayfaring Stranger" (which got further exposure as a single B-side in 1970), one of the most beautiful songs that Baez ever recorded (featuring her harmonizing with Mimi Fariña), and "Tramp on the Street" are both tributes to all of the politically and financially dispossessed of the era; it was the kind of repertoire that used to get full-blooded country performers like Johnny Cash suspected of being leftists in the ultra-right country music mecca, but if Baez managed to mute the topical edge of such songs, it was only because they were sandwiched in between inspired renditions of more typical country fare such as "Green, Green Grass of Home" and "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" and the gospel standard "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." The latter is, incidentally, this album's masterpiece, opening with an a cappella Baez introduction, joined by a gospel organ before the band comes in. The album also had an almost preternaturally early cover of Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind," which hadn't been out all that long at the time. All of this may sound very quaint 40 years on, but in 1969 it was a very potent message, and the singing and playing still hold up. Baez also sets aside some of her occasional stridency here, in favor of a more relaxed performance that shows her in the most engaging manner of her career on numbers like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (where she's joined by the Jordanaires) and the Parsons song. David's Album has transcended its origins in part because of the sheer range of material on it, as well as the presence of such top Nashville talent as Grady Martin, Hal Rugg, Pete Drake, Jerry Reed, Buddy Spicher, Hargus "Pig" Robbins, and Fred Carter. David Harris is long since out of jail, and he and Baez parted, but it's still an excellent album.

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