Life’s complexities during the early ‘70s seem simple and straightforward from today’s perspective, almost quaint and naive: We are stardust; we are golden; a new Eden is within reach. Though Joni Mitchell wrote the “stardust” and “golden” lines in “Woodstock,” much of the ethos can be credited to Crosby, Stills & Nash, whose 1969 debut ushered forth a softer sound that demanded more attention than their louder compatriots. They emphasized matters of the heart and soul, and even their political pontifications came, at least in part, from within. It was an est seminar set to song, just about, but long before that self-help movement joined the mainstream. While their 1970 collaboration with Neil Young, Deja Vu, added darkness to their light, the est quality remained. They were authentic and in touch with their inner selves.
Both albums helped give life to a new sub-genre of rock music, one that usually found itself in the crosshairs of critics: soft rock. It was “wooden music” (aka acoustic) or a wooden-electric mix with country flourishes and, sometimes, an orchestral backing. This wasn’t the folk and folk-rock of the early and mid-‘60s or even the folk-pop practiced by Simon & Garfunkel, though elements from all proliferated within soft rock. It was mellow, sensitive, soul-baring stuff – and, depending on the wordsmith, either illuminating or cliched. One of its biggest pluses, however, was that songs could be cross-marketed, as they fit multiple radio formats on the increasingly competitive FM band.
By 1972, soft rock was all the rage – Carole King, Don McLean, Neil Young, America and Cat Stevens topped the album charts that year, while Neil Diamond, Don McLean, Melanie, Nilsson, Gilbert O’Sullivan and Neil Young topped the singles charts with soft-rock songs. Also releasing albums that fell, at least in part, within the soft-rock realm: Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Loggins and Messina, and Paul Simon.
I start there, in this look at the debut from Dan Fogelberg, to add a little context. Music is never made in a vacuum; it’s generally a reaction to or a continuation of a larger trend. Such is the case with Home Free, which was released in October of that year. In many ways, it is a stereotypical soft-rock affair, sporting contemplative (if, at times, grammatically suspect) lyrics and sensitive sounds, harmonies galore and even sumptuous strings that accent the melodies, which often seem simultaneously familiar and not.
That’s not a knock. Consider this: He was likely 21 when he recorded the album; and probably younger when he wrote some of the songs. As such, I cut him – as I would any young artist – some slack because of that; he was still in the process of becoming. Plus, recorded in Nashville with producer Norbert Putnam, it just sounds great. Among the album’s personnel: David Briggs of the legendary Nashville Cats; and Buddy Spicher and Weldon Myrick of the equally legendary Nashville A-Team. Neil Young fans should also recognize the name of the drummer, Kenny Buttrey.
The album fades in – as if replicating the gradual awakening of the day – with “To the Morning,” about the promises each new day brings. Lyrically, it’s somewhat slight (“And it’s going to be a day/There is really no way to say no to the morning/Yes it’s going to be a day/There is really nothing left to say but come on morning”), but it does capture an element of life lost long ago: “Waiting for mail/Maybe a tale from an old friend or even a lover/Sometimes there’s none/But we have fun thinking of all who might have written.”
Even when the lyrics are clunky, it’s not much of an issue: A great case in point: “Hickory Grove.” It’s a lush, lush song that features suspect wordplay (“Hickory Grove, make the sun/Rise slower I don’t have much time/Hickory Grove, watch me run/down through the years of my prime”), but it doesn’t matter. You – or, at least, I – get lost in Fogelberg’s vocals, the melodies and overall production.
Of the “familiar”: As evidenced by “Hickory Grove,” the CSN influence is profound – and not just with the harmonies. In fact, “Stars” borrows its guitar refrain and melody from “Helplessly Hoping” while spinning a heartfelt ode to a long-lost lover (“For stars fall every time a lover has to face the truth/And far too many stars have fell on me.”) As with “Hickory Grove,” it’s a lovely song. By the time it ends, however overt the influence, you don’t care.
Other songs, such as “Looking for a Lady” and “Anyway I Love You,” are well-produced but – yes, I’m repeating myself here – lyrically slight. I could go on, and perhaps I should, but instead I’ll end with what is – for me – the album’s stand-out track: “The River,” which closes the set. It’s somewhat at odds with the nine songs that precede it, evolving from a piano-led tributary into a raging river accented by raucous guitars. Again, read by themselves, the lyrics aren’t the best – but matched to those guitars? And with his full-throated delivery? It’s damn good.
At the time of its release, the album didn’t do well in the charts – it peaked at No. 210 in early 1973. However, thanks to the success of his following albums, his label re-released it…and it went platinum. (Sales in excess of a million, for those not up on such things.) Overall, I find Home Free a solid first outing with – as I like to say – glimmers of greatness. My main criticism, which is likely evident from what I’ve already written: the lyrics. They remind me of the (bad) verse I and fellow classmates penned in my freshman poetry-writing class. That aside, as a whole, the album is worth more than a few spins – so long as you don’t listen too closely.
Here’s the track listing:
One thing to note: From what I’ve read, the original mix of Home Free is only available on the original LPs, 8-tracks and cassettes or the 2006 double-CD set of Home Free and Souvenirs from the Beat Goes On label; Fogelberg and Putnam remixed it for its release on CD in the late ‘80s. AllMusic’s’ Richard Foss details how those changes impacted the songs.
Also: Here’s the first mention of Home Free, from December 1st, 1972, I found on Newspapers.com; it’s part of the critic’s own attempt at (I think) hip verse: “Home Free, more than ever, Dan Fogelberg, on his way.”
Here’s another mention from one Holly Spence, which appeared in the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star on Feb. 28th, 1973:
And here’s an excellent deep dive that appeared almost a year later, on January 13th, 1974, in the Hattiesburg (MIss.) American. It goes to show the shelf life of albums back then; a year-plus from its release, it was still winning over listeners. (I had to split it up, however, so parts of the article jump between the two images.)