Various Artists: Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music
The deep-digging heroes at Chicago’s archival Numero Group label don’t venture into longhair territory very often, but it’s almost always a special treat when they do, and Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music is no exception. Exploring the stoned spaces of small-batch, country-tinged folk-rock LPs, the 19 tracks map an alternate United States of lonesome musical anti-heroes spanning from 1968 to 1980. The highlights and connections are plentiful, from a crisp drop-in by pioneering guitarist Clarence White (Mistress Mary’s “And I Didn’t Want You”) to an appearance by future Jerry Garcia Band fiddler Kenny Kosek (White Cloud’s “All Cried Out”), from secret existential classics (Kathy Heideman’s “Sleep a Million Years”) to easy and enormous choruses (Jeff Cowell’s “Not Down This Low”). Unifying the tracks, besides ample pedal steel, are the forgotten narratives and unheralded dreams of the musicians, captured ably in the label’s always-detailed liner notes, and often appropriately heartbreaking. As the notes point out, though, country rock was perhaps the dominant American genre in the post-Eagles ‘70s. As such, the demarcation point between “cosmic” and “American” can sometimes grow a little hazy in practice, such as with Colorado’s Black Canyon Gang, whose wayfaring narrative checks out, but whose music is mostly just country-folk. But genres are supposed to be hazy, and the words “cosmic,” “American” and “music” cover a lot of territory. Splitting hairs (especially long ones) is beside the point, which is to provide a virtual Nudie-suited shoulder to cry on, and the Numero Group’s is invitingly spangled.