Various Artists

Trojan Country Reggae Box Set

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With 50,000-watt clear channel American radio stations bouncing signals off the ocean, the moon, and the stratosphere, Jamaican musicians in the 1960s and early '70s were as up on the latest American pop music as any kid listening to radio late at night in Delaware or Detroit, which explains the heavy influence of R&B, Motown, and soul on the island's own wonderfully skewed pop music. Everything got filtered through that upside-down rhythm sense that led to the creation of ska, rocksteady, and reggae, so Jamaican covers of American hits often had little in common with the original versions save for a handful of lyric phrases and maybe the hint of a shared melody. Even country music had an impact on Jamaican musicians, and as this three-disc, 50-track collection shows, they rushed to add Caribbean rhythms and an ocean lilt to any number of country hits and created in the process an odd hybrid that usually defied categorization. Often the results were simply bizarre, like the version here of "Tennessee Waltz" by the Carib Beats, who manage to take a straight waltz into ska time without a single thought as to whether they should. Then there's the case of the mariachi horns from Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." Originally arranged by producer Jack Clement, the "Ring of Fire" horn chart seemed to have spoken deeply to Jamaican musicians, and it turns up in countless singles, including the one here called "Occupation" by the legendary Skatalites. Some of the cuts included in this box are so singular, like Count Prince Miller's insane and possibly demonic wailings on a cover of Frankie Laine's "Mule Train"-that they defy internalization. What should one make of Pluto Shervington's rocksteady do-over of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya," itself a faux homage to life on the Louisiana bayous? Crawfish pie? Irie, very irie. Not everything here is strange Franken-music, though. Hopeton Lewis' clattering take on "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" actually comes out pretty wry and poignant, particularly given Kingston's infamous Gun Court. Likewise Nicky Thomas' rendition of "Love of the Common People" (originally done by Waylon Jennings, although Thomas is more likely to have learned the song from the soul version by the Winstons), which is presented here in the no-strings version that was only issued in Jamaica, manages to retain the emotional nuance of the American hit while also seamlessly translating it into a Jamaican realm. Mostly, though, the tracks collected in this box set are more curious than necessary, and even though someone convinced Willie Nelson to do an ill-advised reggae album a couple of years back, there's probably little danger of Jamaica going all new country anytime soon, which is no doubt a good thing. It could only lead to dancehall country and the world sure isn't ready for that.

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