Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

June 15, 2020

Sing It High, Sing It Low: Tumbleweed Records, 1971-1973 (Light In The Attic), CD/LP

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V.A., Sing It High, Sing It Low: Tumbleweed Records, 1971-1973 (Light In The Attic), CD/LP, issued in 2017

Growing up in Golden, Colorado, I was able to listen to the “underground” radio stations in both Denver and Boulder in the early 70’s, so I heard tracks from many of the Tumbleweed albums and singles when they were new. Also, as Tumbleweed was backed with the corporate money of Gulf & Western, many promo copies of their albums were sent out, which found their way into the junk stores and used record stores of the area (with promo sheets enclosed, probably unread), so at one time or another I’ve owned every Tumbleweed album.

The label was started by Bill Szymczyk (fresh off great success with the James Gang and B.B. King) and Larry Ray as an artist-oriented, album-oriented concern that would be a kind of creative collective, but unlike the many others who had similar post-60’s dreams, Tumbleweed had millions of dollars of seed money provided by the Gulf & Western conglomerate (which also owned Paramount Pictures), so truly, this was the ultimate dream-come-true situation for a boutique label….and with a setting in the beautiful and off-the-beaten-path location of Denver, Tumbleweed Records had a unique identity, issuing nine albums and about a dozen singles between 1971 and 1973. Seven of those albums are represented here on this sampler compilation of the Tumbleweed catalogue (strangely, nothing from the Rudy Romero or Albert Collins albums, which I consider among the label’s best efforts).

For a label which had a stoner reputation, the tracks here lean toward singer-songwriter material. Danny Holien’s “Colorado” was one of the label’s few hit singles, so it had to be represented here, but it’s too slight and repetitive to work well as the compilation’s opening track. It would best be heard in a 30-second excerpt in a tourism video. The other hit, Michael Stanley’s “Rosewood Bitters,” holds up well (Stanley got his start with Tumbleweed before finding mainstream success with The Michael Stanley Band elsewhere) and is certainly the most rocking track here.

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(the cover of LITA’s wonderful Tumbleweed Records compilation CD/LP)

Robb Kunkel’s solo album contains interesting lyrics and intriguing production and would appeal to fans of the early 70’s output of Elton John or Jake Holmes. Pete McCabe’s album is full of quirky and intelligent songs with unexpected points-of-view and imagery–imagine Syd Barrett and Tom Lehrer in one body. Dewey Terry, perhaps the best-known artist to sign with Tumbleweed (other than bluesman Albert Collins, who is not represented on the compilation), was famous as half of the Don & Dewey R&B combo, and his album Chief (with an vintage school tablet-book pictured on its cover–it was a staple in used record stores of the 1970’s) was widely reviewed, and I remember it getting good airplay in Denver and Boulder. The two tracks here are split between one which treads near singer-songwriter territory and one that’s a funk workout. For many, the most interesting music on Tumbleweed was from Arthur Gee, the only artist to record two albums for the label. Gee, who usually gets tagged with the “acid-folk” label, wrote seemingly simple but dizzyingly fascinating songs which get deeper and quirkier with each listen. The drug use at Tumbleweed is often mentioned in accounts of the label, though few would describe these tracks (other than Arthur Gee) as psychedelic in any way; however, one way the “stoner” tag is earned by Tumbleweed is that everything on this compilation is better appreciated on headphones rather than through speakers….the albums are beautifully recorded with many small and intriguing bits of business subtly integrated into the mix.

It’s a shame that the albums by Robb Kunkel and Arthur Gee and Pete McCabe were not fully appreciated in their day, but they hold up well today, and they certainly represent the pure vision of those unique artists, which was what Tumbleweed was all about.

This is not the Tumbleweed Records compilation I would have assembled, but it’s interesting enough to get those so inclined to search out the original albums—-and I hope that Light In The Attic will be reissuing those albums, in the same way they’ve done such a fine job on Lee Hazlewood’s album catalogue—-and it documents an admirable but quixotic label which set the stage for the artist-oriented small boutique labels of today.

(originally published in a slightly different form in Ugly Things #45)

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(note: I walked past the “Tumbleweed House” on Gilpin St. in Denver many a time as a teenager in the early 70’s)

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If you are not familiar with Tumbleweed’s music and story, here is a fascinating podcast from Light In The Attic, to complement the release of the LITA Tumbleweed comp. It’s about 26 minutes and quite interesting….put it on while you are doing something!

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