‘Tumbleweed Connection’: The Band-Style Country Rock From Elton John
Inspired by The Band’s pioneering Americana, Elton John’s October 1970 album was cinematic in its scope, and a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
Even in the early days of his emergence, Elton John was one step ahead. With his self-titled second album barely out of the gates, he started recording work on its successor a matter of weeks later. By the time he was breaking through with the eponymous album’s flagship single, “Your Song,” he was poised to release the follow-up – and ready to impress his new-found audience with the depth of his, and Bernie Taupin’s, confidence in creating authentic Americana from the other side of the Atlantic. The new release, on October 30, 1970, would be called Tumbleweed Connection.
Recording sessions: Surprising a lot of people
Tumbleweed Connection was recorded, like its predecessor, at Trident Studios, in London, with producer Gus Dudgeon. It was created just before the live debut of the trio that Elton would head up for concert work, with Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums. Both played on the new album’s “Amoreena,” sang on two other songs and were pictured on its sleeve, but three other bassists and two other drummers were also on an extensive list of credits.
This time, while arranger Paul Buckmaster was still on hand to add his bespoke orchestrations, the new album had a much more low-key ambience that was in keeping with its flavours of country and rural America. “It may surprise quite a lot of people,” Elton told Sounds just before its release, “but if I’d done another orchestral album I reckon I’d have been labelled for the rest of my life.”
Writing the songs: Bernie’s cinematic vision
Taupin, in the same article, was perfectly happy to reveal his biggest influence in a set of lyrics set among civil-war imagery, with sketches of farmyards, falling pines, swallows and sycamores. “There are a couple of songs like ‘Your Song’ to break it up,” he said, “but the album does have a continual theme in a down-home way. It’s country-rock Band style as opposed to country-rock Matthews Southern Comfort style.
“I have to admit The Band’s influenced me on this album because I have so much admiration for Robbie Robertson,” he went on. “If you like The Band, which I do, and listen to it a lot, you can’t help getting influenced. It just seeps into you.” Elsewhere, Taupin raved to Rolling Stone about ‘All La Glory,’ a particular Robertson highlight from The Band’s then-new album, Stage Fright.
But this was also a reflection of Taupin’s vivid imagination and almost a premonition of what he would find when he finally reached his promised land across the sea. As he reflected to Q magazine in 1992: “With everything I wrote, up to and including Tumbleweed Connection, people were talking about my cinematic vision and experience of the States. As if the songs were like a diary of us on tour. But they were all written before I got there.”
A significant but lesser-discussed aspect of the John-Taupin powerbase is the fact that, by now, their songwriting was, finally, in demand. After years of near misses, closed doors and moonlighting gigs to make ends meet, such was the industry awareness of their work that songs from Tumbleweed Connection had already been covered even before the album came out.
Rod Stewart put his version of “Country Comfort” on Gasoline Alley, released four months before Elton’s album. Kate Taylor, sister of James, had also recorded it before Tumbleweed Connection’s release, including it on her Sister Kate album of 1971. In July 1970, British rock experimentalists Spooky Tooth offered their take on “Son Of Your Father” as an Island Records single, co-produced by the band with Muff Winwood and taken from the album The Last Puff. “Amoreena,” named for Elton’s goddaughter, would go on to silver-screen recognition when it was featured in the opening titles of the 1975 hit movie Dog Day Afternoon.
So secure was Elton in his belief in the Tumbleweed Connection sound that the album changed mood effortlessly and repeatedly. The opening “Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun,” with its strident lead guitar by Caleb Quaye (and backing vocals by Dusty Springfield, among others), eased into the gentle “Come Down In Time,” with harp by Indian-born Skaila Kanga and oboe by the equally accomplished Karl Jenkins. A fascinating and previously unheard jazz version of the song was released for the album’s 50th UK anniversary on October 30, 2020.
Then came another quantum shift to “Country Comfort,” with steel guitar by Gordon Huntley, of Matthews Southern Comfort, Johnny Van Derek’s violin and harmonica by Quaye’s colleague from Hookfoot, Ian Duck. And so the mood swings continued throughout. While there was no obvious crossover single to match the impending dominance of “Your Song,” the album was a beguiling collection blending the boldly-painted “Burn Down The Mission” with more reflective pieces such as “Where To Now St Peter?” and the solo piano of “Talking Old Soldiers.”
The one “outside” composition was the beautiful “Love Song,” written by the underrated British singer-songwriter who had released her original as a 1969 single, Lesley Duncan. Her voice was part of the distinctly Laurel Canyon-style harmonies on Elton’s version; he revisited the song, with Duncan joining him on stage, for his live album of 1976, Here And There, recorded two years earlier at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Release and reception
The album cover evoked a remembrance of the old west, with Elton himself barely noticeable at first, crouched to the bottom-left of the image, and Taupin stage left on the back cover. But it was shot by photographer David Larkham at the thoroughly English location of Horsted Keynes railway station, on the picturesque Bluebell Railway in Sussex, a restored line operated by rail enthusiasts. Elton, Bernie, and David then rode the line to capture the photographs used for the album’s inner sleeve.
In the time between the completion of Tumbleweed Connection, in March 1970, and its release in the UK, Elton had undergone the career epiphany of his American debut at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. His work rate, however, meant that when “Your Song” started to become a major hit both in the US and at home, early in 1971, many people were surprised to find that the ballad was on the previous, self-titled album, not the new release.
“Tumbleweed Connection is interesting primarily because of the themes that Taupin has taken on and the melodies John has created,” wrote Rolling Stone, in a generally positive review. Back home, Sounds was unreserved in its praise. “There isn’t one track on this album I could fault,” wrote Penny Valentine. “Soulful white music at its very, very best.” Billboard predicted “another smash album,” declaring that Elton’s track record “already speaks for itself, and the album is sure to be one of the biggest of the new year.”
Their instincts were sound. In January 1971, little more than three months since the Elton John album became his first US chart record, Tumbleweed Connection entered the Billboard charts at an impactful No.28. Even more impressively, it gave Elton two of America’s biggest albums at the same time, with his previous, eponymous release at No.11 that week. Within seven days, those positions were No.11 and No.7, respectively; another week on, he had two of the top six albums in the country.
Tumbleweed Connection peaked at No.5 in the US, one place lower than its predecessor, and was gold by March, with a 37-week chart span; it was certified platinum by the RIAA in 1998. It was also a Top 5 record in Australia and enjoyed similar success in Spain and Holland. In the UK, during an 11-week stay in the Top 10, the record spent three weeks at No.2, held off the top by George Harrison’s formidable All Things Must Pass.
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It was at this very period that Dick James, head of DJM Records, enlisted the former label head of the UK division of Motown Records, John Reid, as Elton’s personal manager. Reid inherited an artist with a US Top 10 single and two Top 10 albums, and who was touring incessantly to huge acclaim – not just in the UK and US but, soon, in Australia and Japan. The future was bright indeed.
Buy the 50th anniversary, green vinyl edition of Tumbleweed Connection.
August 30, 2015 at 11:25 am
Never heard of you before, you are great just what I’ve been looking for. You fill the void left by Rolling Stone.
December 23, 2019 at 9:06 pm
The cover photograph was actually taken by Ian Digby-Ovens at Sheffield Park station, not Horsted Keynes, which is the next station up the line at the Bluebell Railways in East Sussex,England. https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2689184. 30 October 2020 celebrates the 50th anniversary of its release- still a brilliant album.
January 17, 2020 at 2:54 am
great article – was not aware of the cover versions released before EJ put out the album. it’s impossible to pick your favorite EJ song, but “Country Comfort” is for me a contender.
jonathan b fogg
October 4, 2020 at 2:20 pm
Great album from 50 years ago. Soulful music at it’s best. There, I fixed it. No need to fixate on race.