Over the course of his career, Dan Fogelberg has become identified with a particular sort of heavily arranged soft rock. It is therefore particularly interesting to listen to his first album and hear him experimenting, seeking the balance between an overtly countrified sound and something more original and personal. Some things about Home Free show that Fogelberg had figured out his strengths well before he went near the studio. The songs here are better and more coherent than much of his later work, with a directness that makes it easy to gloss over the occasional banalities and platitudes. As always, his splendid delivery makes it easy to excuse the lyrical flaws; nobody else ever sounded this confessional and meditative while singing in front of a full orchestra. That string section appears on most tracks and sometimes verges on intrusive. Indeed, at times Norbert Putnam's production sounds so cinematic that one wonders if this is a film score, as on the opening "To the Morning." Happily, not every cut is this heavily produced, and lighter tunes like "Stars" and "Wysteria" have hints of country and bluegrass along with album-oriented rock in a style similar to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or the Eagles. Sometimes the influences are very overt; the album's closer, "The River," sounds like a Neil Young outtake, from the bleak subject matter to the spare, pounding piano arrangement. Fogelberg toyed with a variety of styles on his first release, and though things aren't completely integrated, the album is all the better for it.
When it was re-released on CD in the late '80s, Home Free was remixed -- apparently by Fogelberg and Putnam -- possibly because the original mix did have a certain muddiness that was difficult to overcome using the digital technology of the period, and many of the songs on the resulting Sony Music CD sound quite different in texture and detail from the original vinyl release. On the opening number, "To the Morning," the new edition reduced the presence of the orchestra and brought up the piano and the harpsichord, moving them forward so that the latter, instead of being in the background, is now the lead instrument in the middle of the song; on "Stars," the bass is pushed back, and the percussion is moved up in prominence once the backing instruments do come in; "More Than Ever" offers a leaner band sound than the original mix, less country than country-rock, and with the drums moved up over several layers of guitar; the string accompaniment on "Hickory Grove" has been altered considerably, so that it is hardly audible in the introductory section of the song; the fiddle accompaniment that opens "Long Way Home (Live in the Country)" has been altered completely and the double-tracking eliminated, and the overall band sound suppressed in favor of one of the guitars, ultimately giving it less of a country music feel; "Anyway I Love You" has had a much heavier drum part brought up, which gives it a somewhat more driving feel than the original; "Wysteria," which recalled "Guinevere" from the first CSN album, has had some reverb added but is otherwise very close to what it was; and "The River" has been given a more subtle mix, with Fogelberg's voice more isolated for clarity and the accompanying band track coming in more quietly, with the bass pushed back in the mix. These are not huge differences, although they have resulted in a slightly reduced running time, 46 minutes instead of 47. Those seeking the original mix -- which fares just fine in post-2000-era digital audio -- should get either the old LP or the 2006 double-CD set of Home Free/Souvenirs from Beat Goes On, which used the original master as its source for Fogelberg's debut album.