Raven Records from Australia has released exemplary discs by Ronnie Spector, the Joe Perry Project, Scott McKenzie, and a brilliant What Goes On boxed set of the Velvet Underground prior to Polygram's release of Peel Slowly and See. Here they take two Hoyt Axton 1971 Capitol albums and add a bonus track, "It's Been Fun," which really is fun as well as keyboard-heavy with uplifting backing vocals. What this single disc does not have is the usually excellent liner notes found with Raven's other releases. The music is worthy of additional notation, but credits for all the tracks except the bonus are included, as well as what appears to be the liner notes from one of the Capitol discs. The lyrics to Axton's biggest hit, "Joy to the World," are inside the booklet with Reverend W. Stevens' words to "Farther Along" printed inside the tray cover under which the CD is placed. Hoyt Axton's arrangement of "Farther Along" has his voice out front in the mix, with wonderful gospel vocals surrounding him and the simple bass guitar accompaniment. The son of the woman who wrote Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" had more than a couple of hits in him and this document speaks volumes about the environment that nurtured a creative force. "Never Been to Spain" is amazing with Chris Darrow's fiddle; the band's swelling vocals in "Joy to the World" make it a treat. This is solid stuff beyond the familiar tunes; "Ease Your Pain" becomes as enjoyable a listening experience as Hoyt's gritty performance of "The Pusher." Sure, John Kay growled this epic and made it a '60s classic, proving the Easy Rider soundtrack a truly influential disc, but it is Axton's reading of this "let's storm the castle and get the dealer" composition that is truly timeless. "Indian Song" is country leaning toward pop, and that is the magic of Hoyt Axton: he had a good sense of what the public at large could absorb and he told his stories with master strokes of the brushes that were his voice and pen. David Jackson's piano playing adds much to the song and the album; he's on every track save four. "California Women" drives with heavy John Ware drums, as does "Lightnin' Bar Blues," which is almost a sequel to "Joy to the World," and had the Band followed "Up on Cripple Creek" with this tune, they might've had another big hit. The barroom brawl gets a bit silly, but the song itself works. "Farther Along" and "Old Time Religion" are a wonderful combination, displaying the multi-talents of the eventual co-star of the film Gremlins. "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" is more authentic, drawing more from Hank Williams' 1952 number one hit than John Fogerty's 1973 party version with the Blue Ridge Rangers; Fantasy Records beat Capitol to the punch, though Hoyt Axton re-recorded the tune two years before John Fogerty. Neil Young must have been listening to this material, because his "Words" on Harvest is melodically flavored by "Officer Ray." Young's work with Cajun artist Rusty Kershaw was evidence that he was hip to what was going on around him. Though Country Anthem didn't spawn the hits that Joy to the World did, both albums are a perfect fit with Hoyt Axton's band as the Nashville players were on Tommy James' My Head, My Bed, My Red Guitar country masterpiece. Hoyt Axton may be gone, but artists like Kerry Kearney and reissues like this amazing project keep the spirit of the music he was making alive. A portion of a Hoyt Axton interview might've been nice to top off the disc with the three extra minutes available, and additional liner notes would be helpful, but those are minor quibbles. There are excellent photos of the songsmith, including one from the film Smoky and another with his family. Joy to the World/Country Anthem is a treasure chest full of gems which can inspire generations of songwriters and which is thoroughly entertaining in its own right.
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AllMusic Review by Joe Viglione