How a Byrd and a Dillard got together and invented country rock. The pioneering inference of the title is totally justified.
An artist of polarities - light/dark; love/anti-love (think of the difference between She's The Kind of Girl and Feel A Whole Lot Better) - and the only Byrd who could write a decent song unaided, it was Gene Clark's fate to be permanently overshadowed by his former bandmates. His solo debut, With The Gosdin Brothers, slipped out unnoticed because the attention of the world was fixed upon the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday. Unfair, because both are prime examples of new-fangled psychedelia with country retentions.
When Clark formed an group around his erstwhile banjo-player he characteristically gave his partner top billing: they were called Dillard & Clark. Recording sessions took place in Summer, 1969, and the result was The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark; "universal in simplicity, traditional in form", says the sleeve-note, accurately. The ambience was down-home, rootsy, and it is an all-acoustic affair: "The only electric moments - Dillard & Clark's creation".
The inevitable point of comparison was Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released by the Byrds in September of the previous year, and nowadays regarded as the forerunner of the country-rock movement. The Fantastic Expedition surpasses the Byrds' achievement. There are more original songs (eight Clark credits or co-credits, as opposed to two Gram Parsons songs on Sweetheart) and bluegrass music is integrated much more naturally into the mix. Where Sweetheart seems awkward and self-conscious about co-opting country music, Expedition offers a virtual definition of cosmic country. It has a great 'Brando in the Backwoods' cover too, with Clark looking impossibly cool in his Wild One leather-cap.
Timeless in its sense of place and tradition, The Fantastic Expedition challenged a conservative country audience with its espousal of the counter-culture lifestyle. Train Leaves Here This Morning is particularly evocative of warm, fuzzy evenings enhanced by communal smoking things. "I watched as the smoker passed it on…" And, if the mandolin and banjo come from the mountain, the harpsichord of The Radio Song adds a paisley tinge. A strange suspended chord ends The Radio Song on a wistful note: "Where will I begin?" Alongside the down-home instrumentation are beautiful vocal harmonies, faithfully following Clark's moody lead, with a distinct fondness for long and sustained notes ("Noooooow Iiiiiiiiiiii Seeeeeee..."). The ethic is too organic to permit a multi-tracked choir of Clark, but it sounds like one. And the string quartet that enters for the coda of Something's Wrong adds dark textures to the ominous song.
An attempt to appeal to god-fearing Middle America with Lester Flatt's hot gospel tune Git It On Brother is doomed by its own rabble-rousing exuberance. I Am A Pilgrim and The Christian Life from Sweetheart seems very colourless pieties in comparison.
Flying High, the definitive Gene Clark collection, compiled and annotated by Sid Griffin, contains a goodly chunk of Fantastic Expedition. For me, they could have included the lot, and perhaps skipped Lady of the North; the running time is about equal. Fantastic Expedition turns brevity into a virtue; the songs are such tiny miracles of compression. The epic quality of She Darked The Sun and Train Here Leaves This Morning has nothing to do with the song's actual length, it comes from Clark's brooding voice and his ability to conjure atmosphere so vividly (He Don't Care About Time, perhaps). Fantastic Expedition lives up to the promise of the title: true to the spirit of the pioneering West, it locates that same spirit in the hazy counterculture of the late sixties.
The follow-up, Through the Morning, Through The Night, was a patchy affair, and Flying High does a great service by selecting only the best cuts. The train song, Kansas City Southern, is as good as anything on Fantastic Expedition, which is praise indeed. But the addition of a female singer (Donna Washburn), Doug Dillard's own misplaced attempts to sing lead, and a surfeit of cover versions dilute the magic. By December '69 Clark had left to pursue his shadowy, transcendent path on his own.