The Essentials: Barbara Keith – self-titled

A few weeks back, I dove deep into Valerie Carter’s 1977 Just a Stone’s Throw Away album, a set of songs that I’ve revisited on a regular basis since discovering it via its initial CD release in the mid-1990s. The title track, as I noted, hails from singer-songwriter Barbara Keith’s second eponymous album, which found her backed by a studio band that included Lowell George. To say that it’s a lost classic may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. It’s a stunner through and through.

The backstory, best that I can tell, goes like this: After time spent with the band Kangaroo, whose fellow members included John Hall, she hopped over to Verve in 1969 and released a self-titled set produced by Peter Asher. She then jumped to Reprise for a second album, also self-titled, that was recorded in 1970-71 and released in 1972 or ’73. (Different sites say different things; the earliest newspaper clipping I found is from January 7th, 1973—which doesn’t mean much, as back then it could take months for albums to be reviewed.) The supporting players included George, Spooner Oldham and Pete Kleinow, among others, while producer Larry Marks had worked with such diverse acts as Gene Clark, Liza Minnelli, Mel Torme and the Merry-Go-Round. (That said, his main claim to fame is likely singing the “Scooby Doo, Where Are You!” theme song for that shaggy show’s maiden season in 1969.) Somewhere between the recording sessions and the slated release, however, Keith had second thoughts about the album, returned the advance money and retreated into domestic bliss with Doug Tibbles, a TV writer, who was Marks’ partner.

(Greenfield Recorder, 9/11/1997)

The result: The album was released to little fanfare, as Reprise saw no reason to promote it without a willing artist, and it quickly faded into out-of-print obscurity. Yet it’s a perfect blend of folk and rock, with country and gospel accents on several songs, the kind of album that demands a second play after a first listen. Diane, when I played it for her, was taken aback by how good it is, saying Keith reminded her of a young Bonnie Raitt. We’re not alone in our praise, either. Save for one, the handful of reviews that appeared in print are raves. In a March 20, 1973, review, for example, Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times called her an “interesting, versatile writer” and “an inviting, effective singer (traces of Linda Ronstadt and even Sandy Denny),” before pronouncing the set, “one of the year’s most consistently rewarding albums.”

The 10-song album opens with a taut cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” that borrows from Jimi Hendrix’s electrified arrangement; it’s of its time, to be sure, with wah-wah guitars and whatnot, yet still captures the magic of the song. The reason to click play, however, isn’t for the eight songs written by Keith and the one that she wrote with Tribbles. “Rolling Water” is likely the song that made Hilburn think of Sandy Denny; it’s an aching ballad of love lost, with her wish to make a fool of time going unfulfilled. “The Bramble and the Rose,” which follows, is another exceptional tune that makes grand use of metaphor; Patty Loveless covered it in 2009. “Burn the Midnight Oil No More” is yet another stunning ballad. The gospel-infused “Free the People” was released as a single in 1970 and later covered by Delaney and Bonnie, Barbra Streisand, Olivia Newton-John and others.

The country-tinged “Detroit or Buffalo,” which was covered by Amanda Shires in 2009, sounds like a Little Feat outtake just about. “The Road I Took to You,” meanwhile, is another affecting ballad about finding one’s self through another’s love. “Shining All Along” features a swampy rhythm, a la “Son of a Preacher Man,” while “Rainy Nights Are All the Same” is yet another mesmerizing turn. In a better world, it would have been a huge hit.

The closing “A Stone’s Throw Away” is a more straightforward rocker than Valerie Carter’s Little Feat-infused rendition, but is no less hypnotic. Elements of country and gospel echo on the refrain along with a deluge of background singers. It’s a true “wow” moment—as is the album as a whole.

Why Keith decided to walk away from the music business at the time, with an album this good in the can, is anyone’s guess. Given the proper promotion, including radio play, a tour and TV appearances, it would—or, at least, should—have made her a household name. It’s that good. It was briefly released on CD in the mid-1990s and, now, a vinyl re-issue is slated for next month, but one need not pay high prices to enjoy it, as it’s available to play on most (if not all) the streaming services.

(One addendum: A few decades on—by which time they’d moved east—she, husband Doug and stepson John formed the Stone Coyotes, which became a well-regarded local band in the Springfield, Mass., metropolitan area during the 1990s and beyond.)  

The track list:

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