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Bargain Bin Babylon: Priscilla Coolidge-Jones: Flying

Bargain Bin Babylon: Priscilla Coolidge-Jones: Flying

Coolidge-Jones sang of heartbreak 40 years ago, and beckons us still.

What did music sound like in 1979? You might answer with the best of the era’s punk, new wave and disco. But that doesn’t give you a real sense of the year’s distinctive texture. That happens when you explore what’s been lost to time—and that’s the fun of crate-digging. Somewhere on the end-of-decade margins you might discover the easy listening, honky-tonkin’ semi-soul of Priscilla Coolidge-Jones, who released her second solo album, Flying, that year. The singer married Booker T. Jones, the organ-playing leader of Booker T. & the MG’s, in 1969, and the couple released three albums together in the early ‘70s. Jones had produced Coolidge’s first album, Gypsy Queen, and is also on production duty here, even though the two split up around the same time. It’s not a great album, but that backstory makes it resonate beyond the music.

Flying is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Like a lot of bargain bin records, it’s got one or two memorable songs on each side and not much else. But it’s enjoyable to listen to the couple attempt to balance so many different musical traditions, even when they fail. For example, “Woncha Come On Home,” a Joan Armatrading original, has just a crumb of that Stax soul sound in the notes of Jones’ organ, but the guitars basically drown this out and make the song seem appropriate only for empty, country-themed haunts. “Disco Scene,” on the other hand, floats in the ether between actual disco and disco-crit. “You got those people coming on to you every single song/ At the disco scene,” Coolidge-Jones sings. Whether this makes the discotheque a place for a fun night out or a surface-level sham remains up to listeners, but the song’s driving beat and electro-lite elements seem at least a little turned on by the changing times.

The album also features some surprisingly A-grade cameo appearances. Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris both show up, fleetingly, to offer supporting vocals. They both seem out of place and even a little misused—Harris is barely audible on “Sweet Bed of Feeling”—but they give the album an extra smidgen of historical depth, especially since Jones continued to collaborate with Nelson and Harris after his divorce from Coolidge. The guests provide a bit of sweetness too, particularly on “My Crew,” a moving bit of traveling musician mistiness. The final verse concludes accordingly: “We’ll laugh and cry as egos die/ And we’ll be coming home some day/ Let the music play.” We can hear Nelson’s voice loud and clear in these lyrics, and it’s hard not to get just a little bit emotional while imagining this inglorious end to an era just as lonely as our own.

The other fascinating component of Flying is purely biographical. It’s tempting to hear the strain of impending divorce on closing track “Stranger to Me Now.” Coolidge-Jones didn’t write it, but, when you know what was coming for the pair, it feels like she could have: “Love has made a slow retreat/ We don’t mean the words we speak.”

After she completed this album, Coolidge-Jones (soon to drop the Jones) retreated from music completely until the ‘90s, when she returned as part of the Cherokee heritage trio Walela. Her life ended tragically when she was murdered by her third husband in 2014.

Knowledge of Coolidge’s death casts a pall over Flying, especially on tracks like “My Crew” and “Stranger to Me Now.” The album becomes not only about the conclusion of the ‘70s but also about death and danger. A chilling line from “Goin’ Through These Changes” might well linger in your mind like a desperate moth: “Safety is illusion half the time.”

Even unremarkable albums can stay with you, and it’s worth considering how the music of every previous epoch reverberates into the present. Coolidge-Jones sang of heartbreak 40 years ago, and beckons us still.

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