Alan Rhody's Border Crossings and Stop the Rain:

A Review By Bill Ede

Ken Pyle was in the Butchertown audience as well that next solo night, spouting off superlatives I would have much rather come up with myself and no doubt would have; given the chance. But you know Kenny when enthusiasm takes hold and it was taking hold rather strongly on this particular night, as Kenny couldn't quite keep the pride off his face at having known this traveling troubadour "way back when." It was a time when Alan was truly coming into his own and there was all that talk going around about "major record deals" and such. The talk has died down somewhat since then, although such opportunities are and have long been well within the grasp of someone with Rhody's talent, should such a path's appeal come to exceed any and all perceived accompanying trade-offs. Time will tell if and to what extent such a point is ever arrived at and how Rhody may or may not will to act on same.

The few cover songs Alan made room for in his repertoire that first night were excellent choices that said much of the man's tastes in music: Townes Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley," which won immediate points with this long-time Townes-head and Mickey Newbury's lovely "Willow Tree" song, "I Wish I Was," which seems to be finding its way back into Alan's repertoire of late, plus one or two others. (Did I really hear Alan perform Shel Silverstein's "Freakin' At the Freakers' Ball" that night, or am I just imagining things?) The rest of the material, however, was all Alan's and it was quite a body of work coming from a local boy – solid enough to cause genuine concern for this fledgling, would-be singer-songwriter, not quite ready for any more local competition than already existed. It is those first songs I heard that make up much of the material contained in Alan's two currently available cassettes, Border Crossings and Stop the Rain. A recent listening reminded me just how good those songs sounded back when I first heard them over a decade ago.

Border Crossings has certainly the weaker production of the two, but the selection of songs is so good that for the earnest listener that will be but a minor consideration. (With the exception of "Grandpa's Boots" and "I Love You Anyway Uncle John," all the songs on the album were written between 1969 and 1975. An omission was made on the cassette's case which leaves out lead guitarist Jerry Wagoner as one of the featured instrumentalists.)

Rhody's-long-time claim of Gordon Lightfoot as an influence is evident in songs like "Tuesday Night Local" and "White Roofs, Grey Streets." The former is not unlike the "brutally honest" (or is that "honestly brutal"?) Lightfoot songs "I'm Not Sayin'" and the well-known "(That's What You Get) For Lovin' Me," although sung, in contrast to the latter, to a third party rather than to some particular "lady in waiting." "White Roofs, Grey Streets" paints a picture as vivid as Lightfoot's "Home From the Forest," but more desperate, calling to mind Van Zandt's "Rake" and the more recent "Marie." Rhody's other major influence, Bob Dylan, is echoed in the reflective, "Restless Farewell"-like "Sometimes I Don't Care" as well as in "Friends and Wishes," which is thematically akin to "Bob Dylan's Dream" from Dylan's Freewheelin' album. There is also a hint of Canadian songwriter Murray McLauchlin in Rhody's "Fat Chance," but let's not be too quick to conclude that it was McLauchlin who influenced Rhody and not the other way around, assuming some influencing occurred. Alan had quite a career in Canada and his songs of that period have just enough of the right stuff to leave their influence on the unsuspecting, realized or not.

The well-worn theme of the street musician is given fresh new life in Rhody's "Harmonica Man," wherein Alan intones: On my way home from working last night,

As I stepped from the 2 a.m. train,

I could not help wonderin' to myself,

Where he goes at the end of the day.

I am reminded of the old spoon player, Porkchops, who used to perform at Bardstown Road establishments like the Shoestring Pub in the late '70s and later in places such as Phoenix Hill's Taproom. I remember seeing him late at night on the Broadway bus and those same questions would go through my mind as I'd depart the bus at Fourth and Broadway. The song is a sterling example of Alan's capacity for empathy, one of his great strengths. The only other song in that particular genre that even comes close is Tim Henderson's "Whiskey-Eyed Singer."

The cassette ends with "I Love You Anyway Uncle John," which is perhaps Rhody's most personal song, but in a different way than that term normally implies. It speaks to a time in Alan's life that is part of his local legend and how he personally chose to deal with it. It has always been less challenging to understand someone we basically agree with. Here Rhodv seeks understanding from an uncle he obviously admires (as well as understands), despite deep-seated differences over a particular course of action. The ultimate prize would be to win the uncle's admiration as well, although a simple honest acceptance would likely suffice for the moment. It is a difficult dilemma to find oneself in at any stage of life, much less the early age at which Alan may have had to first encounter it, which makes this a very mature song indeed. I have the feeling it may have brewed for a while before it was committed to paper, as songs like this often must. It strikes me that choosing this song as the last song on the cassette can only focus attention on the cassette's title, which I must assume was at least in Alan's awareness, if not quite his plans, when the song order was chosen.

All in all, Border Crossings is an excellent representation of the kind of music Alan was making during the mid-to-late '70s, in Canada as well as here and a fine example of local-born creativity. His razor-sharp harmonica playing is evident throughout, but most particularly in songs such as "Green-Eyed Susie" and the hoinesick-driven "My Kentucky."

In contrast, the Stop the Rain cassette could be thought of as very "listener friendly," if not outright exquisite in sound quality. The songs are comparable, but there are fewer of them (ten to Border Crossings' fourteen), so for sheer quantity Border Crossings appears to win out. But not so fast. Some of the cuts on Stop the Rain are downright gorgeous. The title cut, with its surprised admission of male vulnerability, scored high on a WAMZ "all-time favorite" song poll during 1982, after receiving a sizeable amount of local airplay. It sounds as good here as on the LP version, if not better.

Then, of course, there's "I'll Be True to You-," Alan's "bread and butter" song, which helped geographically anchor Alan's career and life in Nashville and which the Oak Ridge Boys rode all the way to the top of the country charts in 1978, earning Alan one gold and three platinum records, etc., etc., etc. Though never one of my favorite songs, Rhody's version sounds so good with its "Please Come to Boston"-like feel, that I momentarily forget the Oak Ridge Boys cover that so prejudiced me against the song in the first place. Unburdened by previous impressions, I fall helplessly in love with this "new" song like never before (trust me) and find myself just as wide-eyed bonkers over it as the portrayed lovers therein seem to be toward each other. Who knows? Maybe romance is alive and well after all.

But the best example here of unabashed romance is in a song that doesn't come right out and grab you, the delicate "Midnight Rain." This song is nothing short of romance incarnate. Somewhere in the world there is a woman who treasures this song. It may be someone long faded from the scene, or someone still in the picture (perhaps very much so), but this song. melts the very soul of someone somewhere, mark my words. These are the words some women seem to want to hear from the very men who wouldn't know where to begin to find them. (Look no further, guys. They're right here. Get this cassette and study up. The women are waiting.)

The leaving side of "Midnight Rain"'s loving side can be found in the cassette's closer, "The Show." Here a singer has to leave his loved one and in this case a young son as well, for "the show," as the singer's father had done before him. Leaving is never easy nor without pain, of which the singer needs no reminding, as he tries his best to explain it all to a more than simply curious son.

Other standouts on the cassette include "Looks Like A Set-Up" which was a chart record in 1981 by the Canadian group Cedar Creek, the sentimental "Grandpa's Boots," a superb song which is much superior here to the Border Crossings version and "Pony Rider," which seems to have picked up a bit more funk along the way since its initial inception on the LP version. Viva la funk.

Stop the Rain (even more than Border Crossings) can be said to portray Rhody as an artist very much worthy of national above regional attention. He is certainly established nationally as a songwriter (internationally if one counts Canada) and certainly regionally as an artist (actually any number of different regions, as Alan has fans in Illinois, Arkansas, Florida, as well as Canada.)

One wonders just how big Alan could be if he approached his career on more of a national level. I, myself, know at least some of this man's power. I saw him nearly steal the show (second only to perhaps Rodney Crowell) at 1983's star-studded National Songwriters Association International (NSAI) showcase in Nashville with the Red Lane-co-written "Love Busted," among others. I also know the kind of respect he commands from fellow songwriters in Music City. So I guess it is our job as fans to continue to lend local and regional support until such a national kind of wider audience establishes itself as a priority in Alan's mind.

Border Crossings and Stop the Rain may be purchased by writing to Alan Rhody at P.O. Box 121231, Nashville, TN 37212. Please specify album by name and send $10, which includes postage, for each cassette ordered.