If The Band single-handedly created Americana with their debut album, on their self-titled sophomore effort (aka “The Brown Album”), they honed everything that made Music From Big Pink so quietly epochal. Initially, the group relocated from their iconic Woodstock home to a New York studio in order to work up the 12 songs that formed their self-titled second album, but the pro facilities didn’t suit the group’s laidback, down-home approach.
Packing up and heading west, they recreated the Big Pink vibe with what lead guitarist Robbie Robertson called “a clubhouse feel” at 8850 Evanview Drive in West Hollywood, a house that had previously been owned by Sammy Davis Jr. The place had enough bedrooms that the group could reside there with their families and a pool house where they set up the studio.
The perfect workshop
In an interview with uDiscover Music, in November 2019, Robertson described why the atmosphere was perfect for what they were trying to achieve. “I thought of The Band as a committee of people making music, and this was the best circumstances that we ever had,” he said. “We were all living together, we were all playing together. Nobody had to go anywhere, no one was ever late. It was all-encompassing. I had a set up at that house where I was writing and I was continuing to experiment with ideas. So it really was the perfect workshop. We had the time and the concentration to do what we wanted. It was a bit of a dream for me, because I knew these guys and their musicality. This was a situation to get the very best out of them.”
Robertson laughed as he recalled how they had to overcome some resistance from the record company. “I told the record company that we were not going to come to the studio, we are going to do it in the house. They really thought I was losing my mind. They were like, ‘Why bother? Why do that? The Capitol Studios are just down the road and it is one of the best in the world – and you want to turn a pool house into a recording facility?’ I guess I had to act like I really knew what I was doing and that I was very determined. They just finally said, ‘OK, we’ll help you with that.’ This idea of making your own atmosphere and clubhouse studio was unheard of. Now it is common. People make records in the kitchen!”
Truckers, sailors, Civil War soldiers
The Band’s second album came after a difficult period. Bassist Rick Danko had broken his neck in a serious car crash and had taken time to recover. The move from East Coast to West Coast proved an invigorating change. Crossing the vast expanse of North America was apt: The Band was almost simply titled America, and its songs are populated with characters from the continent’s past; like the lucky hopefuls who set off west in search of the American Dream in the mid-1800s, The Band struck gold.
Truckers, sailors, Civil War soldiers: it’s the sort of roll call that would feel contrived in lesser hands, but Robertson and co’s deft performances and innate knack for storytelling allowed these disparate characters – like the wide array of instruments the group rotated through – to coalesce, working up a collection of songs that, as Ralph J. Gleason put it in his Rolling Stone review, are “equal sides of a 12-faceted gem, the whole of which is geometrically greater than the sum of the parts.”
First-time listeners usually gravitate towards “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up On Cripple Creek” – and with good reason. Drummer Levon Helm’s vocals are the apogee of white soul, infectious, and intimate at the same time. Sung from the perspective of solider Virgin Kane, “Dixie” virtually time travels to the Civil War, bringing it back to life with a poignant narrative that, as Rolling Stone noted, “makes it seem impossible that this isn’t some oral tradition material handed down from father to son from that winter of 65 to today.”
Yet repeated listens are richly rewarded with The Band’s more subtle charms. “Whispering Pines,” with Richard Manuel taking lead, is a lament that haunts the listener long after the song is over; Danko’s higher, more emotive register comes to the fore on “When You Awake,” an exercise in nostalgia that also shows how much the group matured in the year since they released their debut.
Without a Bob Dylan co-write in sight (in fact, Robertson gets a full or co-writing credit on every track), the album finds The Band doing what they did best: creating space between instruments, letting the music breathe, and allowing for each individual personality to shine through, while all working in service to the group’s unified vision.
Released on September 22, 1969, The Band’s self-titled album would reach No.9 on the Billboard Pop Album chart and peak at No.2 in their Canadian homeland. Writing in The Village Voice, Robert Christgau, who’d been unmoved by Music From Big Pink, praised the album as “an A-plus record if ever I’ve rated one,” and ultimately declared it to be the fourth-best album of the year. Rolling Stone went one further, evoking the timeless nature of the record itself when it declared: “It has the sound of familiarity in every new line because it is ringing changes on the basic truths of life, you have been there before, and like the truths of life itself, it nourishes you.”
The album’s name
Was it strange for Robertson to think that this memorable album is 50 years old? “These numbers are mind-boggling to me. We say them and accept them, but it is really hard to believe,” he says. The generally-used name for the eponymous second album, “The Brown Album,” came about by chance because of the input of the acclaimed art designer and photographer Bob Cato, a man who had worked with jazz legend Miles Davis and rock star Janis Joplin.
“It was after we got Bob Cato, the album designer, that the name came about,” explains Robertson. “It was something about the music that led us to the artwork that was in the album. The album just happened to be brown. So it wasn’t us who called it “The Brown Album,” it was other people. Whatever the name, that was an amazing album to be part of.”