The New Christy Minstrels: A Retrospective – 1962-1970

The preeminent folk chorus of the ‘60s revival

The New Christy Minstrels were a relentlessly upbeat folk revival group. The Minstrels generally hewed to the lighter side of the folk revival, often appearing in coordinated ensembles, and more likely to be seen on a mainstream television variety program, such as the Andy Williams show, than at a social demonstration or political rally. Aside from their musical roots in traditional material, their entertainment style had more in common with 1950s vocal choruses than with 1960s protest singers. Their hits were celebratory rather than confrontational, starting with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” that (to be fair, like several other covers of the time) didn’t touch any of the socially-charged verses.

Over the group’s core folk years of 1961-65, a number of folk, pop and rock luminaries passed through its ranks, including Barry McGuire (whose co-write withSparks, “Green, Green,” was a hit for the group), the Modern Folk Quartet’s Jerry Yester, and future Byrd Gene Clark. Randy Sparks had formed the group inLos Angelesin 1961, and led them artistically and commercially into 1964. Upon his departure, the group’s stage direction was turned over to Barry McGuire, and with McGuire’s subsequent departure, they expanded into pop and comedy, truing the variety of their show to the 19th century group after which they were named. The comedy team of Skiles and Henderson added skits to the show, and Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes cycled through the group on their way to greater fame.

The Minstrels’ folk-era albums included many traditional songs, but Real Gone’s collection focuses more heavily onSparks’ original material. On the one hand, this leaves the group seeming unconnected to folk tradition, on the other,Sparks’ material is musically apiece with the traditional tunes they revived on their albums and in concert. The darker themes heard in other groups’ recordings are omitted here, as the track list sticks primarily to upbeat celebrations, historical tales and comedic romps. The Christys were built for entertainment, rather than social commentary, and though their contrast with the folk movement grew in the era of Dylan and Ochs, their entertainment value never diminished.

These twenty-five tracks trace the group’s transformation from an earnest folk chorus to a crossover pop act in search of direction. Their three biggest chart hits, “Green, Green,” “Saturday Night” and “Today,” are here, along with a previously unreleased studio outtake of their concert opener, “Walk the Road.” A wonderful Art Podell live performance of “(The Story of) Waltzing Matilda.” shows off the group’s impressive charisma, deftly mixing folk history, story-telling, harmonies, comedy and audience sing-along. The group’s post-RandySparksdrift into pop, gospel and film themes produced covers of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” backings from HugoMontenegro’s orchestra, and eventually the soft rock “You Need Someone to Love.” By the time the latter was recorded in 1970, the original membership and their folk roots had both been obliterated.

The track list includes a taste of the group’s post-Sparks years, but without distracting from their more emblematic folk chorus sound. The selections include group harmonies and spotlight vocals (including a Kenny Rogers-led cover of Mickey Newbury’s “Funny Familiar Feelings” that was shelved at the time of its 1966 recording), and four new-to-CD tracks that include Gary Fishbaugh’s original “Door Into Tomorrow,” “Walk the Road,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “You Need Someone to Love.” The set is mastered in stereo and includes a 20-page booklet with photos and extensive liner notes by Tom Pickles. For a deeper helping of rare sides (including non-LP singles), check out the 2-CD The Definitive New Christy Minstrels, but for a single-disc survey, this one’s hard to beat. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]

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