Jason Isbell is treated like a savior these days because he is one of the few artists actually doing original, well-written songs within the spectrum of country and rock. It’s hard to disagree with the adoration he receives as he is an incredible talent, but it is worth noting that Isbell’s approach to Americana and Southern rock is hardly new. This is evidenced by the new reissue of material from the Continental Drifters just released by the fine folks at Omnivore Recordings. Split between two discs, Drifted: In The Beginning & Beyond is sort of a retrospective of the seminal roots music group.
Considering all of the members who rotated through the Continental Drifters throughout the course of their decade as a band, they may have been the quintessential alt. country supergroup, except for maybe Uncle Tupelo. But whereas Uncle Tupelo’s music captured the gritty reality of a rough adolescence in the Midwest and was cut all too short by the massive egos of its members, the Drifters functioned as a loose collective of friends playing tunes together for fun. The group counted Mark Walton (The Dream Syndicate), Peter Holsapple (The dB’s), Vicki Peterson (The Bangles), and Susan Cowsill (The Cowsills) among its members early on, and though members would come and go over the years, they were always able to tap into a special kind of chemistry that was as much a product of the band dynamic as it was of their environment. Their L.A. roots shine through in the sun-drenched guitar twang and their laid back, Gram Parsons meets Bakersfield approach to country. Listening to songs like “Who We Are, Where We Live”, “Mississippi”, and “The Rain Song”, one can only imagine the fun of knocking back beers while catching the Drifters at a sweaty L.A. dive bar during their early 90s jam sessions. Today, seeing these particular musicians swap songs on a stage would be like seeing an all-star band. Later on the band would drift down to New Orleans, a city well suited for their communal, rootsy sound. The group’s admiration for Southern and soul music shines through on songs like “Dallas” with its soaring background vocals and the organ-filled “Here I Am”.
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The second disc is a hodge-podge of live material, covers, and their rare 2001 EP Listen, Listen, a loving tribute to the Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson that until now was only available in Europe. Even for a casual fan or first-time listener, this disc gives us not only a sense of just how sharp the Continental Drifters were live, but also where they were coming from. Live covers of William Bell (“You Don’t Miss Your Water”), Lucinda Williams (“Crescent City”), and even the Beach Boys (“Farmer’s Daughter”) show exactly where this band was coming from in crafting their own sound, one that no doubt influenced plenty of bands in the alt. country, Americana, and roots music area.
We all benefit from quality Americana and country acts getting more attention from the mainstream these days because, hopefully, it will ultimately lead to a heightened musical sensibility on the part of the masses. That may be wishful thinking but, if anything, Drifted is proof that if you like certain artists within a genre, it’s always worth digging deeper to see what came before. You may just discover a band as good as the Continental Drifters.