These San Diego bar-band delinquents rightly earned their reputation as an ace live act, thanks in large part to the beer-soaked antics of drummer and part-time vocalist Country Dick Montana, whose booming basso and larger-than- life persona were the band’s most identifiable features. On record, though, the band had a tougher time striking a balance between his clowning and the melodic roots-rock of its non-Montana numbers. Although all of the Beat Farmers’ albums have something to recommend them, the band never quite managed to resolve their better qualities into a fully satisfying whole.
You can tell a lot about musicians by the company they keep. On Tales of the New West, an immensely likable debut produced by Steve Berlin, the group gets vocal assistance from Peter Case (ex-Plimsouls), Chip and Tony Kinman (Rank and File) and Sid Griffin (Long Ryders). The quartet does the ’50s-come-’80s neo-country-rock stomp with enthusiasm, economy and not a hint of phoniness or selfconsciousness. There are some good originals by singer/guitarists Buddy Blue and Jerry Raney and snappy covers of Springsteen, John Stewart and the Velvet Underground. The mock-cowboy nonsense of Montana’s signature tune “California Kid” (disregarding its uncharacteristic resemblance to the Bonzo Dog Band) proves they’re not sensitive about the genre; post-punk roots even show on a cover of Lou Reed’s “There She Goes Again.”
Glad’n’Greasy, a six-song studio recording made during the Farmers’ first UK tour (’85), comes even closer than the debut album in capturing the band’s down-and-dirty essence. With no intrusive tinkering from producers Bob Andrews (ex-Rumour) and Colin Fairley, they rip into Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” and attack Rod McKuen’s “Beat Generation” with a rocking combination of humor and humanity that would be in shorter supply on subsequent studio efforts.
The Beat Farmers redid “Powderfinger” on the amiable but rather thin Van Go, which attempts to tone down the band’s eccentricities (less Country Dick) but fails to compensate with much in the way of songwriting, save for Blue’s witty “Gun Sale at the Church” and band pal Paul Kamanski’s jangly “Road of Ruin.”
Joey Harris (formerly of the Speedsters, who recorded one album for MCA in 1983) replaced Blue for The Pursuit of Happiness, a more substantial effort which benefits from better material, notably Kamanski’s epic “Hollywood Hills” and Harris’ “God Is Here Tonight,” as well as a hearty Montana reading of Johnny Cash’s “Big River.”
It has terrific cover art, but Poor & Famous is a confusing mess that tries to cover too many stylistic bases. Though there are some memorable songs — including Harris’ “Wheels” and “Girl I Almost Married” and singer/guitarist Jerry Raney’s “Socialite” — the album’s barren personality deprives them of intensity. Meanwhile, Montana’s showcases — always a highlight of live shows — seem completely out of place in this context. Poor & Famous is a disorientingly lopsided listen.
The drunk-and-in-person double-disc Loud and Plowed and…LIVE!! temporarily solves the Farmers’ record- making dilemma by capturing them in front of a hometown crowd on New Year’s weekend ’89/’90. Better at capturing the Beat Farmers’ scruffy charm than any of its studio predecessors, the album finds the band in fine form on a selection of past highlights plus well-chosen covers of George Jones, the Kinks and Kenny Rogers. Montana’s beer- soaked clowning, never properly integrated on the three previous LPs, fits in perfectly here.
After a five-year studio layoff, the Farmers bounced back with the solid, tuneful Viking Lullabys, which finally lands a balance between sincerity and silliness. Harris’ “Southern Cross” and Raney’s “Atomic Age Mutants” are among the group’s strongest and catchiest songs, while Montana’s “Are You Drinkin’ With Me Jesus?” (co-written by Mojo Nixon, with whom Montana had done a Pleasure Barons album) and “Baby’s Liquor’d Up” showcase him without sticking out like sore thumbs.
On the other hand, the self-produced Manifold has its moments, but suffers from ill-advised stabs at a heavier — and rather anonymous — blues-rock sound, which tends to smother the personality of songs like Harris’ “Mystery,” Raney’s “Got It Bad” and Montana’s amusing yet heartfelt protest tune “Whale*Oil*Beef*Hooked.” The album also adds Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” to the Beat Farmers’ dossier of well-executed covers.
In early November 1995, Country Dick Montana collapsed on stage in Canada and died of a heart attack. (Despite the possible presumption that it was a hasty cash-in, the Curb compilation — ten songs, seemingly chosen at random from the band’s four albums for the label — was already in stores at the time of the tragedy.) In mid-’96, Bar/None posthumously released Montana’s solo album, a robust and semi-serious slab of country balladry.
Harris’ lone album with the Speedsters is well-crafted but overly conventional commercial rock-pop, distinguished by his soulful vocals and some strong songwriting. After leaving the Beat Farmers, Blue returned to action leading the Jacks, whose one LP features likable bar-band country- rock in a style not unlike the Beat Farmers’ debut. The rest of the Jacks (plus Dave Alvin, Mojo Nixon and Richard “Louie Louie” Berry) contributed to Blue’s solo debut, Guttersnipes ‘n’ Zealots, which casts the singer/guitarist as a mature, thoughtful songwriter without sacrificing his rock’n’roll grit. “Blind Monkeys,” “Somethin’ Inhuman” and a superior remake of “Gun Sale at the Church” demonstrate a rare combination of social conscience and ironic satire.