The Beatles filtered through a country lens.
Has there ever been another group whose catalog has been covered in as many different genres as the Beatles? Already among the richest in all of popular music, their music has gone on to transcend its pop origins, cropping up in the world of jazz, R&B, classical and even country. “Hey Jude” alone has been covered by artists ranging from Bing Crosby to Wilson Pickett to Elvis Presley. Even now, half a century (!) since they took the world by storm, the music of the Beatles continues to resonate with audiences of all ages and musical persuasions.
Given this long term effect, it’s easy to see why ground zero—roughly 1964-1966—saw such a massive influx of Beatles-related products and recordings. Over the years, there have been countless compilations of other artists not only covering Beatles songs, but also writing songs about the Beatles and the hysteria that followed in their wake. Not surprisingly, many of the latter tended to emanate from the world of country music, an archetypal form of Americana that generally perceived any threat to its craft as fundamentally against the wholesome sentiments contained within its proud tradition (its endless stream of songs about substance abuse, domestic violence, infidelity and murder notwithstanding). And while most of these were quick cash-in recordings on microscopic labels that often functioned more as a lowbrow vanity press than a legitimate record company, there were a few albums of this ilk that found their way onto somewhat larger labels. Among these, you’ll find the rather unimaginatively-titled Beatle Country by the Charles River Valley Boys, released on the fledgling Elektra label in 1966.
Having made a name for themselves as urban bluegrass revivalists, the Charles River Valley Boys seemed an unlikely act to take on the Fab Four. The very idea of Beatles songs being recast as bluegrass numbers would seem absurd were it not for the already mentioned genre transcendence inherent in the Beatles’ back catalog. And so Beatle Country represents one of the first times the British icons found their sound filtered through a traditional American style of music.
Opening track “I’ve Just Seen a Face” sounds for all the world like a lost bluegrass standard, not the then-recent hit it was. Having been recorded and released in and around 1966, the majority of the Beatles covers tend to skew towards the band’s early-to-middle-period recordings. “Baby’s in Black,” “I Feel Fine” and “I Saw Her Standing There” all translate well from the wide-eyed idealism within which they were conceived to the high and lonesome sound of traditional bluegrass and country music. This is due in large part to the relative simplicity of the compositions themselves. As the band began expanding their stylistic palette, their compositional skills in turn became that much more involved.
Accordingly, the Charles River Valley Boys’ takes on “Norwegian Wood,” “Paperback Writer” and “Help!” all push the form beyond the typical I-IV-V chord progression, yet still retain the spirit of the more traditionalist elements of bluegrass. Not entirely proto-country rock, these recordings instead owe more to the classical notion of what bluegrass can and should sound like. There are no drums anywhere on the album, nor electric instruments. Yet, this all-acoustic instrument-and-voice arrangement still manages to convey the basic rock feel inherent in tracks like “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Ticket to Ride.”
Otherwise played relatively straight throughout, their take on “Yellow Submarine” maintains the cartoonish elements of the original while essentially poking fun at the absurdity of the track itself. Employing a downhome affect, they alter the pronunciation to “yeller submarine” and deconstruct the original’s mid-song break even further, ramping up the childish elements by turning in an arrangement that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on any number of children’s programs.
While Beatle Country did little for either the Charles River Valley Boys or Elektra, it did help jumpstart the continuing trend of Beatles songs spreading well beyond the bounds of pop music. Not quite a novelty record yet far from essential, Beatle Country remains an interesting curio from a time when the long-dormant feelings of Revolutionary-era oppression popped up in the most unlikely of places only to be calmed by a peaceful coming to terms. Beatle Country then is just that: the Beatles filtered through a country lens.