Memphis music is sometimes hard to classify. Case in point: The Country Rockers. The trio's rough-and-tumble 1988 album “Free Range Chicken" became something of a cult record, and its reissue on the Big Legal Mess label may introduce new listeners to a lesser-appreciated side of Memphis music – the early mash up of country and rock and roll.
The record was a pet project of Ron Easley, an accomplished bass player and guitarist then in his 30s. He was working with Alex Chilton of Big Star fame when, one day, he walked into a Holly Springs bar. There was a cover charge for the band.
“I say, “Well, who’s playing?’ They said, ‘That guy over there is one of ‘em,’” Easley recollects.
That guy was Sam Baird, a tall country singer from Collierville in his mid-60s. Only a couple of weeks passed between Easley's sitting in with the band and becoming its full-time bass player. Easley then hired drummer Gaius Farnham, a dwarfish man in his 70s.
While Easley was no stranger to rockabilly-style music – he had played with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns – he found himself in a musical time warp.
“I love the fact that it was that wonderful time,” Easley says, “the golden age of country music, maybe 1949, Hank Williams, and this was real country music and right on the cusp of rock and roll music. That’s exactly what Sam played and you couldn’t teach him anything. He could only play what he knew and what he knew, he knew well.”
The songs are rough-sounding, like a demo tape. It’s not about innovation or polish. Easley was trying to capture what the band really was.
“It’s a roadhouse country band before all of the cowboy hats,” Easley says. “Way back yonder.”
A few songs on the album might make the casual listener wonder: “Why?” Why did they record this? Like the deep-in-the-cups version of “My Happiness” sung by Farnham.
Easley says that even his friend Alex Chilton did not quite get the humor of it.
“Alex would give me grief about yukking it up too much,” Easley says. “I just told him (that) to hide the comedic elements of this band would be just a travesty. He says: ‘Gaius can’t sing!’ I said: ‘Sure he can sing, he sings great!’”
The album led to a small bit of notoriety. The Country Rockers started playing Memphis’ Antennae Club, usually as an opening act. They toured Europe and played once at CBGB’s in New York. And while their following remained small, it was bigger than the barflies of Holly Springs.
In a way, the authenticity of the Country Rockers – and the obscurity -- is the story of this nostalgic album. And the story of many local musicians. Gaius Farnham died in 2000; singer Sam Baird in 2006.
“Sam is more-or-less a Johnny Cash mutant that didn’t ever make it,” Easley says. “Should have. But for one reason or another, you don’t make it.”
The newly reissued album “Free Range Chicken” by the Country Rockers is on Big Legal Mess Records.