After writing three standards of the '60s -- the garage rock classic "Wild Thing," made famous by the Troggs; the soft pop ballad "Angel of the Morning," originally cut by Merrilee Rush; and "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," made famous by Big Brother & the Holding Company -- Chip Taylor began a solo recording career in the '70s, signing to Warner Bros. after releasing one rock-oriented album, Gasoline, on Buddah in 1971. His first album, rather ironically (and quite funnily) named Chip Taylor's Last Chance, appeared in 1973 but it wasn't a rock or a pop album: it was a country album, which signaled a return to his roots in a way, since he sang country music at the beginning of his career. Neither Last Chance nor the following year's Some of Us were hits, but the label stuck with him through one more record, 1975's This Side of the Big River. This is also a country album -- indeed, it was the only one of his records to sell well enough to appear on the country charts -- but it's not a conventional country record by any means. It's an appealingly sleepy, meandering record, drifting from languid ballads to laid-back country-rockers, but its sonic palette is broader than that suggests -- the Gram Parsons-styled "I've Been Tied" is punctuated with horns; the slow, slow "Holding Me Together" is built upon electric pianos and mournful steel guitar -- and the album recalls California singer/songwriters as often as it does Nashville. It could be pegged as progressive country, since there are some echoes of Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury here, but Taylor isn't an outlaw; he's an outsider, crafting his own idiosyncratic music that doesn't quite fit into any real specific category -- which, of course, is its appeal.
First and foremost, it's a subtle songwriter's record, but it's a songwriter's record where the most immediate tune is a cover -- a rather rowdy version of Johnny Cash's "Big River" that lends the LP its title. It's taken from a live radio session, as are "John Tucker's on the Wagon Again" and "You're Alright, Charlie," and all three feel different -- "Big River" has the kick of a concert, "John Tucker" is as conversational as a story, "You're Alright, Charlie" is hushed and intimate -- but boast a loose, human quality that presents a nice contrast to the studio cuts, which are professional in the best sense: accomplished without being polished, highlighting the skills of Taylor and his crew, since they make these reflective songs feel warm, comfortable, and lived-in. In fact, This Side of the Big River may be a little bit too broken-in -- it rolls so slow and easy, his songs so subtle and solidly constructed, that it takes some effort on the part of the listener to get within its little details, whether it's in the lyrics or the texture. But give it a little time and This Side of the Big River is not only quite charming, it's rather moving. Taylor says in Richie Unterberger's liner notes to the 2006 Collectors Choice reissue, "If you really want to know me, this is the album that will get you to know me" -- and once you get to know this record, you will feel like you know what Chip Taylor was all about as a songwriter and musician.