Memory Motel: Nashville's Original Outlaw
Lee Clayton ripped it up for real.
In 1970s Nashville, along with the rise of progressive, "countercultural" country singer/songwriters (Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, etc.) that occurred early in the decade and the related Outlaw movement (Waylon, Willie, you know the drill...) that hit its stride a little later, another distinct subset of artists arose. These were the underdog troubadours who ended up connecting with the country charts via a tune or two of theirs recorded by more successful acts, while their own recording careers - which they usually owed to the aforementioned success - went largely and unjustifiably unnoticed.
A couple of examples that come to mind are Chris Gantry -- known to most for Glen Campbell's hit recording of his "Dreams of the Everyday Houswife" and to hardly anyone for his own excellent albums -- and the unfortunately named Dick Feller, famed for penning Jerry Reed's hit "Lord, Mr. Ford" but not for his own discography. But the poster boy for this particular sort of scenario is Lee Clayton.
Those who adore Outlaw Country recognize Clayton's name chiefly (and in most cases, only) as a composer credit on a couple of the genre's key cuts: the title track of Waylon Jennings' 1972 album Ladies Love Outlaws, which has been credited with giving the style its name, and "If You Can Touch Her At All," a Top 5 hit from Waylon & Willie's self-titled 1978 duo album. But between 1973 and '79, Clayton released three under-the-radar gems of his own. Each of these albums overflows with sharp songwriting and an edginess that insured Clayton would never come near the country charts under his own name.
Clayton's self-titled debut was the closest he came to conventional country -- it even contained his own version of "Ladies Love Outlaws." But even on that record, he was closer to the early country-rock outings of Neil Young than he was to anything coming out of Music City, as he combined a terse, twangy feel with melancholy introspection and a reedy set of pipes. Up through about '75, Clayton was hanging with the Outlaw elite, and it began to weigh on him, so he moved away to get his head together for a while. After returning a couple of years later, he nabbed a new record deal and cut two albums for Capitol: 1978's Border Affair and, the following year, Naked Child.
These records represented a reinvention for Clayton. They're full of electrically charged, barnstorming rockers with blistering guitar licks and razor-sharp riffs, and the lyrics bear a raw, rough-and-tumble mien to match; between tunes like "Tequila is Addictive" and "A Little Cocaine," Clayton steamrollers straight ahead into aspects of the Outlaw Country lifestyle Willie and Waylon only hinted at. The opening verse of the former, for instance, goes, "Well, tequila is addictive and they say the same of cocaine/And I hear it'll kill me and rot out the base of my brain/And leave me crazy, staring at the wall/But friend, Pepsi Cola don't do nothin' at all." It's no wonder the relative niceties of "If You Can Touch Her At All" are as far as Clayton ever worked his way into the mainstream. An unreleased 1980 German TV performance (see below) shows Clayton and band in an even more visceral, vitriolic state, suggesting that at the time, he might have had an untapped audience among the burgeoning New Wave crowd he was almost certainly not marketed toward.
Clayton's '81 album, The Dream Goes On, was an awkward affair whose overproduction didn't do the artist, the label, or the listeners any favors. He subsequently slipped away from the music-biz merry-go-round for the most part: the only other album he has released to date is 1994's even more unheralded Spirit of the Twilight. In 2010 he released a few songs onto the Internet as digital singles with no fanfare whatsoever, and a full album doesn't seem to be forthcoming. But every once in a while, artists of subsequent generations seem to pop up to advance his cause a little bit further, like Bono, who is quoted in the liner notes of a Clayton live recording expressing his admiration, or Cat Power, who covered Clayton's "Silver Stallion" (also recorded by country supergroup The Highwaymen in 1990). Maybe one day the cumulative power of these after-the-fact accolades will reach critical mass, and Clayton's work will finally receive the revival it richly deserves.
|Lee Clayton live on Rockpalast 1980|