“Country Boy” shouldn’t work. After all, this song — once a No. 1 single for the oaken Don Williams — didn’t seem to jibe with Richard Manuel’s familiar R&B-laced rootsy sound, didn’t trace back to familiar influences, hardly even meshed with its surroundings on the Band comeback album Jericho.
Pieced together using a privately taped concert performance and a little studio sweetening, it arrived some seven years after a desperate evening ended in Manuel’s shocking suicide. And yet, despite all of that, “Country Boy” finds every piece of his vocal legacy in place. Wry and also good natured, hopeful and yet trembling with doubt, Manuel reminds us once more that — if not for the profound talents of bandmates Levon Helm and Rick Danko — he might have been the only voice you’d ever needed on a Band recording.
Much had changed, though, in the interim. By the time “Country Boy” found its way onto Jericho, the Band’s original lineup was down to three members. (Robbie Robertson had long since started a separate solo career.) Yet the period saw a resurgence in their fortunes, as the Band participated in a huge Bob Dylan anniversary show, issued this long-awaited studio effort and entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — all in the space of a matter of months beginning in August 1993. And the group, now led by Danko, Helm and Garth Hudson, were determined to make Manuel a part of things.
Still, “Country Boy”? It always seemed that Danko and Helm were more the country boys than was Manuel. How did this fit into the larger mosaic, not just of his discography but of Jericho itself? The truth is, of course, that it didn’t — in either case. This song always felt out of place on an album dominated by a blues-meets-bluegrass vibe, to say nothing of the storied catalog of songs Manuel had already recorded with the Band.
Yet, along the way, something magical happened. There was, of course, no emotion that Manuel couldn’t plumb and, since the late-1960s, he’d actually spent more time singing the songs of others than he had writing. Morever, Manuel had — in what now seems like a very bitter irony — begun to find something of himself again through a decidedly idiosyncratic brand of interpretive stage work into the mid-1980s.
One small problem remained, however, even with an array of post-production tools at the ready. Manuel’s recordings of the period were often the result of off-handedly loose live performances. Typically put to tape in congenial atmospheres (like, say, at the Getaway, his neighborhood bar in Saugerties, N.Y.), Manuel’s final sets tended to include more than a few flubbed lines amid the homey on-mic banter. To be sure, there is an emotional punch associated with these unself-conscious performances — but also a jarring sense of a life left incomplete. Sometimes, they are enveloped in a crushing sadness.
Manuel, however, was on to something — and that made cleaning up these recordings worthwhile. “Country Boy” finds him in the midst of a journey away from the Americana ethos that had defined so much of his work with both the Hawks and then the Band, and more toward ageless pop, country and show tunes. Certainly, with his muse long since departed, Manuel found himself in a position where exploring connective cover songs made sense.
His singular approach with a lyric did the rest, as music from a strikingly diverse group of songwriters and genres blended perfectly with the more ruminative Band-era cuts that often surrounded them on Manuel’s contemporary setlists — including “Whispering Pines,” “I Shall Be Released” and “Tears of Rage.” If it all seemed to come from some unknowable place, then that was part of the magic, too.
In fact, Manuel admitted before a 1985 performance that he had no idea where “Country Boy” originated — offering a crowd at the Getaway the suggestion that it might have been from a Broadway play. It didn’t matter the songwriter, really. Only the song. A resurgent Manuel was making all of these disparate things his very own, in real time. This Jericho vocal was similarly recorded by Andy Robinson, and holds none of the barren portent of Manuel’s final turn with the five-man edition of the Band in The Last Waltz. Here, in a mirage-like moment, Manuel sounded born anew — both as a singer, and a man.
As such, there had been talk at one point of a full-length album featuring similarly completed posthumous Manuel vocals, with Hudson working as a producer and arranger. Among the suggested song titles — some perfectly expected, others joltingly cool — were J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama,” Ray Charles’ “Hard Times” and Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets.” We, of course, later heard Bread’s “She Knows” — which, after presumably arriving to Manuel by way of Charles’ 1978 cover, was completed at Bearsville from a benefit show recording at the Lone Star Cafe. But subsequent to that moment on 1996’s High on the Hog, nothing more has followed.
That’s a shame. Even if it always will feel somewhat ill-suited for Jericho, “Country Boy” hints at the greatness that a project like that could still hold.