The beauty of the dollar bin is that it often leads you to something you didn’t know you needed: like country music … from Singapore.
Country music records may be your best entertainment value. Your neighborhood dollar bin will eventually cough up a playable copy of Dolly Parton’s 1975 Best of or some ‘60s vintage George Jones album and, even if you have specific needs like Jones’ essential Anniversary – Ten Years of Hits on vinyl, you shouldn’t have to pay more than five bucks for it. Yet the beauty of the dollar bin is that it often leads you to something you didn’t know you needed: like country music … from Singapore.
Dollar bins are a great place to get acquainted with music from a faraway land, and sometimes that music is inspired by something much closer to home. A recent bargain surprise was a copy of the second album by Matthew and the Mandarins. II, originally released in Singapore in 1979, is a spot-on impersonation of late ‘70s Nashville pop. Without any discernible vocal accent to give themselves away, Matthew Tan and his charges could pass for countrypolitan any day—and you might even prefer them to some Tennessee natives.
Tan, who is still touring with the Mandarins today, opens the album with the endearing “Let’s Put the Sing in Singapore.” If it wasn’t for the subject matter, you wouldn’t know this professional, spirited work came from anywhere but the United States. “They call me the Singapore Cowboy/ But I ain’t got no cows,” he sings as a sequel to “Singapore Cowboy,” a track from the Mandarins’ first album. Like the group’s signature hit, this track has a convincing country arrangement, complete with pedal steel and country strings. (On “Cowboy” those strings briefly turn from Nashville twang to a traditional Far East melody). The lyrics to the original song cheerfully expressed an alienation that isn’t unusual in country music. But this one comes from a different place: “I was born half a world from Nashville Tennessee/ And while my friends are flying kites and planting bonsai trees/ I got high on country radio.”
In addition to a few originals by Tan and collaborator Bristow Hopper (who has some credits with Roy Robison), the Mandarins perform faithful versions of songs by Kenny Rogers (“Love or Something Like It”), Kris Kristofferson (“Stranger”) and the Johnny Horton standard “North to Alaska,” as well as the traditional “Shenandoah.” Tan realizes that much of the appeal of country music is in its sense of place, and his covers look at American from sea to shining sea. He must also be aware that part of the appeal of his own band is that these Singapore troubadours come at American music from a great distance, ironically addressed in a cover of the Bobby Bare hit “I Can See Houston from Here.”
As musicians, the Mandarins acquit themselves well, from pedal steel to folk-rock acoustic guitar. You’d probably hear even cornier arrangements on Nashville product of the era, but the production by Reggie Verghese (a Singapore rock star with the ‘60s group The Quests) keeps things closer to country rock. Tan even attempts a vocal twang on the old George Jones hit “Honky Tonk Downstairs.” Whoever arranged this album does so well that they made a track with an inauspicious title like “Get Down Country Music” one of the record’s highlights. The song was first recorded by the forgotten country gospel act Brush Arbor in 1977; Matthew and the Mandarins’ version is faithful to the original arrangement but is if anything more lively. Perhaps that’s exoticism at work from the other side; country music is so fresh and unusual to Tan and his peers that it energizes them more than it inspired musicians who grew up listening to the stuff.
Although Matthew and the Mandarins began their career in Singapore, they went on to record in Nashville. With Tan as the constant, the group is still performing today. In 2014, “Singapore Cowboy” earned him the Asia-Pacific Lifetime Achievement Award at the Canberra Country Blues & Roots Festival in Australia. II seems like the kind of dollar bin record you pick up as a joke. What a nice surprise that it turns out to be serious fun.