First off, this collection is highly recommended to fans of country, rock, or any type of American roots music. It is a musical dish with genuine flavors baked in time, the '70s, as well as place, the South. If one were to lapse into native North Carolina dialect, any discussion of the Contenders leads to "coulda woulda shoulda" sort of speculation. Anyone who wasn't around to catch the band during its live touring days might wonder what all the hubbub is about, but the head-scratching will halt by the end of the first verse of "Lean on Your Mind," the Walter Hyatt original that kicks things off. This low-key rocker, which like many Contenders numbers features a rootsy rave-up in the middle, is on par with the songwriting of Mose Allison, putting forward an intellectual point of view during an era when most music was fascinated with cute butts. From there on in, listeners can prepare to be underwhelmed as well as overwhelmed, to continually wrap enjoyment of the recordings in conditional greeting wrap. Sometimes something that sounds bad approaching the band from one perspective winds up sounding good from another, and there is no doubt this will happen since few people are willing to listen to this recording only once. There are bound to be somersaults involving aesthetic judgment when dealing with one of the few professionally recorded documents of a group whose membership's musical creativity was vital down to the man, and which apparently had a fairly full repertoire of diverse material worked out and ready to go.
This disc contains the group's one and only release, a 1977 vinyl side, in its entirety. Three tracks recorded by producer Don Dixon for a follow-up finish out the collection, a programming decision that means the band sort of limps off into the sunset, since this trio of pieces can't possibly have the coherence of the complete album that is heard first. Not that the latter was any kind of lavish production in the first place. To the song, these are totally simple productions that could pass for board tapes made at a club soundcheck. From the perspective of a 2002 listener, the idea of a band combining elements of rock, country, reggae, beach music, rockabilly, and Western swing, even within one song, is not as far out as it was in the '70s. Most listeners have become used to more refined production touches with material such as this, especially country, and may wince at the harmonies on numbers such as "The Lack of Love." On the first listen, the thought occurs that if this were recorded by a major label in Nashville, many hours would have been spent refining the complicated vocal arrangement so even the most fleeting moment of pitch discomfort would be glossed over. Would all this effort be worth the trouble? David Ball, a later associate of some of the Contenders' members, had a huge hit with the song "Riding With Private Malone," a country & western ghost story that is a good example of music that would have been much more atmospheric and effective if the harmony singing had been a bit more out of tune.
On the second listen, several songs haunted by such harmonic horror are reminiscent of a delightful documentary on garage bands presented by a Midwest public television station in the same year this reissue came out. The vocal sound of the Contenders can seem like the harmony singing of a typical garage band -- and not one that has been slicked up with studio reverb, either. It is a charming, essential sound, one of those elements at the heart of rock & roll. Great, but on the third listen, "The Lack of Love" sounds completely different. Although still a bit rough, an element that ought to be overlooked anyway because it is such an ambitious song, it now sounds like an amalgam of gospel music and the '60s rock vocal sound of groups such as the Association. So it goes with the Contenders. Each song has layer upon layer of interest. Points of reference are paradoxes -- for example, the garage band analogy. No garage bands could play songs such as Tommy Goldsmith's "Dim the Light," in which the chords move so brilliantly, or "Smokey Night Life," a classic songwriting collaboration between Hyatt and bassist and vocalist Steve Runkle that is genuine and over the top. It is Runkle's falsetto vocals, each lyric he sings seeming to float in from the Blue Ridge Mountains, that give some of these songs such a distinctive sound. Material and lead vocals are provided by all members, however, and the overall impression of a somewhat fractured band personality comes above all from having to make such judgments based on only 14 songs. Of the three tracks from the second unfinished album, only "Volcano" really erupts. "The Last of Me" is a collaboration between Champ Hood and Hyatt that utilizes part of the riff from "The Pusher," among other things. The Goldsmith song "Lelah" is uneven, really ending things on an unsatisfactory note. But perhaps that is appropriate, since just about everything involving this band is soaked with regret. Lyrics are provided for the 11 songs from the 1977 album, but not the extra material.