The songwriter has gained a recognition, that though due, was until recently rarely accorded by the average fan, who was more interested in personalities than the reasons behind the music he was listening to. The result is an emergence of a multitude of talented songwriters whose material is taken by a ‘personality’ singer and placed high on the charts, while the writer’s own recordings are totally ignored by the country fan. Many of these young writers like Alex Harvey, Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Shel Silverstein, Mac Davis and Steve Goodman hold no allegiance to the Nashville traditions of the Opry or bowing down to the established Country stalwarts, though many will admit that the old-timers were their musical idols.
Alex Harvey originally hailed from Brownsville, Tennessee where he was born in 1945. The rural upbringing still rings true with a slap of reality that strikes the listener through his lyrics. He can at least claim an ‘ethnic’ birthplace, none of your coming in from the West Coast to play at hillbillies. Harvey is decidedly rooted in country music, having grown up in the south hearing both country and fock’n’roll and some blues and gospel which has given his music a strange hybrid that is both soulful and country styled.
He earned a place at Kentucky’s State University and became involved in groups that played all kinds of music. His own musical directions have always been aimed at being a good songwriter. In the mid-1960s he was adapting songs from tapes into musical lead sheets for aspiring writers like Kristofferson, who couldn’t read or write music. In the evening he was singing in a rock’n’roll club in Nashville six nights a week, four sets a night. Eventually, after years of grafting, people started to take notice of Alex Harvey’s songwriting, and once again it was that odd situation where his songs were being picked up simultaneously by both country and pop artists.
Vicki Carr hit the pop charts with Dissatisfied Man and Jim Glaser on one of his rare solo recordings, cut Molly, a big country hit in late 1968. The Glasers have always been very aware of new writing talent, and they really sealed their faith in Alex Harvey when they made Rings into a group hit in 1972. The song that really established Alex Harvey as a writer, in commercial terms, was the understated Reuben James, that hit pop for Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, and went country in the version by Conway Twitty.
Since that time in 1969, Alex Harvey has turned out a multitude of songs full of imagination, humour and perception, but most of all stamped with his own originality. The songs touch on most areas of music: rock, pop, pure southern soul and straight country, but the single over-riding fact is that Harvey is a writer who can write melodies, not just lyrics.
There is a sadness in much of what Alex Harvey writes; a longing for better things, but it’s a sadness you can find real beauty in.
To date Harvey’s best known song is Delta Dawn, yet surprisingly most people never really grasp the meaning of the song, an indication of the beauty and the strength of his melodies. This song is included on his first album, ALEX HARVEY, and comes over well in a pure-toned folky style. Throughout the album he is blessed with some fine musicians and back-up singers.
Helping to add brilliance to Alex’s writing and singing are the steel guitars of A1 Perkins and Weldon Myrick, the gut string guitar of Wayne Moss and banjo work of Bobby Thompson, plus members of Barefoot Jerry.
This album was recorded partly in California and partly in Nashville, and it’s the recordings from Music City that really holds the album together. Tulsa Turnaround, a contemporary country classic that proved so successful for Three Dog Night, really zings along, while So I’m Down (But I Ain’t Out) really proves the brilliance of a Nashville production. Bobby Thompson’s banjo brings a hoe-down feeling to the song, and Harvey’s vocal is earthy and tinged with a pain that’s missing on so many recordings. He isn’t a man who wallows in his songs, witness the soulful To Make My Life Beautiful, a melody and a feeling that will live forever in my memories. At the other extreme is the two-part, seven-minute spine-chilling saga of Miss Fanny DeBerry, which conjures up mind-pictures of swamp water and bayous that other writers are barely able to equal.
Alex Harvey’s songs do not always turn out the way he intended when handled by other singers, but he depends upon the commercial recordings in order to live. Lucy a pure peace of country-soul is turned into a smoochy love ballad in the hands of Eddy Arnold, and Someone Who Cares loses all of its delicate feeling when jazzed up by Peggy Lee. Even Tompall and the Glaser Brothers take the edge out of Rings, a simple little song that means so much more when handled by the author.
The pinnacle of artistic success arrived for Alex Harvey with his second album, SOUVENIRS. The title song is beautiful with a fine arrangement by Alex. The bass and guitar slide in behind the strings all the way through until the piano breaks in near the end, and just catch these lyrics: –
Suffer no more, close the door on your heartaches
For with the passing of the years,
You'll come to think of all the things that hurt you as souvenirs
The pianist, Pete Sears, has a sympathetic ear and his playing throughout is good. Harvey has a voice that is rich and gruff and can handle his soul material with as much sensitivity and feelings as he does the slower numbers. The female backing is provided by Clydie King, Vanetta Fields and Shirley Mathews and comes over as a full-blooded gospel chorus that really enhances the bayou flavoured Eva And The Evangelist. Many of the songs from this album you can pick out as future country hits, already several of them have been lifted by country artists who are aware of the talents of Alex Harvey. Keep a lookout for If I Could Tell You Why, a quality ballad smacking of the early Kristofferson successes and crying out for someone like Ray Price, or Don’t Require Me To Love You a typical contemporary cowboy song that needs the name and the talent of Waylon Jennings to carry it to commercial success.
Harvey himself could never get his own songs into the country charts. His voice sounds so sincere it hurts, it comes from years of listening to Negro blues singers, it’s a voice that’s full of life, joy, hurt and loving—but most of all it’s a hillbilly singing country music, and I’m sure that’s why I love the soul singing of Alex Harvey so much.