First Appeared at The Music Box, March 1999, Volume 6, #3
Written by John Metzger
In the late '80s, Okra Records was founded in Columbus, Ohio, and it became the home for alternative country/roots rock artists such as The Schramms, Hank McCoy & the Dead Ringers, Fellow Travellers, and the Hoot Owls. Just a few years later, the indie label suffered the fate of many other small record companies when it filed for bankruptcy.
However, prior to the demise of Okra Records, founder Dan Dow had the foresight to gather together four of the label's key artists to record an album under the moniker The Okra All-Stars. The core group features Dave Schramm (The Schramms, Yo La Tengo), Jeb Loy Nichols (Fellow Travellers), Ricky Barnes (Hoot Owls), and Hank McCoy (Dead Ringers), and they are augmented by a number of other musicians, including mandolinist Jeff Vogelgesang and fiddle player Sandy Jones.
The result of these sessions was an excellent self-titled disc that has recently been released by San Francisco-based Innerstate Records. Though there are a few misfires here, The Okra All-Stars is definitely a solid album deeply rooted in the annals of country music.
Overall, the eponymous endeavor should genuinely please fans of The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a classic album that the Okra All-Stars utilizes as its guiding force. The group not only follows a similar approach, mixing classic cover songs with original country-oriented compositions, but it also draws from the same influences. The Byrds included outstanding renditions of the Louvin Brothers' The Christian Life and Merle Haggard's Life in Prison while The Okra All-Stars flawlessly tackled the Louvins' Don't Laugh and Haggard's Shade Tree Fix-It Man.
While The Okra All-Stars does not simply recreate The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, it does weave (quite flagrantly) its other influences into the songs represented on its self-titled album. The Game of Love is handled like The Byrds' treatment of Leadbelly's Take a Whiff, and She's Taken All My Toys Away falls somewhere between The Eagles, Neil Young, and Gram Parsons. In addition, on New Orleans the group blends the melody of Bob Dylan's Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues with the New Riders of the Purple Sage's Last Lonely Eagle.
Though it's extremely derivative, The Okra All-Stars eponymous endeavor is enjoyable from start to finish. Together, the members of the group manage to find a common ground with which to work -- classic country and American roots music fused with its late '60s and early '70s revival -- and it's upon this basis that they reverently salute their heroes.
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1999 The Music Box