It’s a delicate dance, growing older, with the days, weeks and months falling like the dominos staged by Bob Speca on The Tonight Show way back in 1975. To quote lyricist Sammy Cahn, “One day you turn around, and it’s summer/Next day you turn around, and it’s fall/And the springs and the winters of a life time/Whatever happened to them all?”
The pull of the past is strong, but the pull of the present is, too. Balancing the two is a work-in-progress, to an extent, especially as each year flips into the next and friends and loved ones exit stage left. That, more or less, is the fine line that the Long Ryders walk on their new album, September November, and they do it well. It’s a great album that mixes the band’s wry outlook and social commentaries with a newfound poignancy no doubt brought about by the passing of their longtime partner-in-crime, bassist Tom Stevens.
Years long ago, theirs was a sound that was Americana long before Americana was cool—a glorious gumbo of folk, rock, country and soul with some WDIA-approved R&B, too. Hints of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield shimmered through their songs and albums, in part due to their multi-pronged attack. Guitarists-songwriters Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy were, in some respects, akin to Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark (or Steve Stills and Neil Young), while the less-prolific Stevens filled the Chris Hillman (but Richie Furay, not Bruce Palmer) role and drummer Greg Sowders served as Michael Clarke (or Dewey Martin). That’s not a perfect analogy, mind you, but it will have to do, as will this one: Though they met with some success, especially in the U.K., the band steamrolled the ‘80s much as the Buffalo Springfield did the ‘60s—which is to say, they didn’t. Due primarily to record-company politics, their success never matched the brilliance of their material.
That said, they regrouped for tours a few times through the decades and released a stellar album in 2019, Psychedelic Country Soul. This time out, McCarthy and Murry Hammond (of the Old 97’s) handle bass chores, while drummer D. J. Bonebrake (of X) and classical violinist Kerenza Peacock, who also played in the Coal Porters with Griffin, guest. The songs are a bit more subdued and overtly country, though the cheeky spirit of yore still surfaces on occasion—as Griffin sings in the opening “September November Sometime,” “Calling out across the world/Are you ready for a brand new tweet?”
“Elmer Gantry Is Alive and Well” and “To the Manor Born,” meanwhile, provide wickedly on-point observations about life circa the 21st century, with the guitar attack on the former something of a muted “Looking for Lewis and Clark” reminiscence. McCarthy’s Byrdsian “Seasons Change” could well be a long-lost Gene Clark track; my wife has already labeled it her favorite of the 12 tracks.
Mortality is also, as inferred above, on their minds. Another of McCarthy’s songs, “Hand of Fate,” finds him singing a song for when he’s gone; if there’s any justice in this world, a wealth of bluegrass bands will soon be covering it. Griffin, meanwhile, checks in with “Until God Takes Me Away.” Also present is the sweet tribute to Stevens that the band released in early ’22, “Tom Tom.” The album closer is one written and—unless my tinnitus has got the best of me—sung by Stevens, “Flying Out of London in the Rain,” about why he decided to walk away from the Ryders in 1987. The arcing guitar solo is a wonder unto itself, emotive and poignant. (The song first appeared on his 2006 album Home, but this version sounds either like a newer rendition or, perhaps, one that was embellished by Stevens’ bandmates.)
The track list: