Will Beeley has spent the past three decades and change as a long-haul trucker, but before that he was a Texas troubadour. Born in California, raised in San Antonio, he was a singer-songwriter who soaked up the works of singer songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s – Dylan, Guy Clark, Cowboy Jack Clement, Fred Neil, Mickey Newbury, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and more – and created his own niche within that wheelhouse. Quite a decent picker of an acoustic guitar, too.
But his two albums, Gallivantin’ in 1971 and Passing Dream in 1979, both on different labels, never took off and he had a growing family, so around 1980 he cut bait and got a real job, as they say.
Now living in New Mexico and maybe about to retire from trucking, Beeley’s two old recordings were given the re-release treatment by the folks at Tompkins Square in 2018. They sold well and folks took notice, so Tompkins Square up and offered to have him go in the studio and record a new one. That one, Highways & Heart Attacks, was released in 2019, got him an interview on NPR and other notice … and now Tompkins Square is putting out an album of demos he cut in 1970, seeking either to get them recorded by some bigger names or get a record deal himself.
That’s this album, called 1970 Sessions. The music is bare bones for the most part, just Beeley’s fingerpicked acoustic and vocals, with another musician providing lead fills on acoustic and some harmony vocals – the final track has some soft harmonica too. There’s no mixing, just Beeley and his guitar on one channel, the backing musician on the other. It has a real livingroom “On Susan’s Floor” picking session feel to it.
As someone who was there, these songs sound to me like a perfect window into 1970. The first wave of country rock was underway, with Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Michael Nesmith, Michael Murphey, the Talbot Brothers, Mason Williams, and a host of other acts splicing these two arms of American roots music together. Folk singers like Gordon Lightfoot were about to explode, and within less than a year, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James would kick off the singer-songwriter movement.
One of the songs here, “Passing Dream,” became the title track of his second album, which some today hail as a masterpiece of its time. That album featured a bunch of other young musicians who were poised to go on to work with some big name artists: guitarist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm), drummer James Stroud (Marshall Tucker Band, Eddie Rabbitt), and keyboardist Carson Whitsett (Paul Simon, Tony Joe White). They turned this barebones ballad into a cosmic country song. You can listen to this one and the album, a great lost outlaw country record (and the rest of Beeley’s discography), on Spotify. It’s produced something like the country albums of the era, clean and crisp with a bit of reverb on the vocals, his fingerpicked acoustic surrounded and enhanced by bass guitar, drums, electric guitar fills and some tinkling glockenspiel.
Of the rest of these demos, my favorite is “Won’t You Come Again,” a jaunty love song with a melody line and poetic turns reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt. Influences and echoes of other artists run through all of the songs on 1970 Sessions, as you can feel the young songwriter working out how to combine his feelings with the ideas of other artists and come up with his own unique works. The introspective relationship song “In So Many Lines” plays with themes familiar from John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind”; the semi-mystical portrait of the troubadour in “Singer Of Songs” (“when the melody rings, the children dance and play …”) evokes Melanie at her most ethereal; “Color Of The Soul Of Man” with its exploration of ideas about race and humanity, plus some jaunty fingerpicking calls to mind John Prine’s debut from about this time; and “Open Your Window Soon” pretty directly echoes a couple of Dylan songs, “Blowing In The Wind” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe.”
A listen to Beeley’s mature 2019 album, particularly songs like “The Homeless Ain’t Just Hobos Anymore,” reveals a man with a deeply compassionate take on life and humanity. Who’s to say whether the young man who cut the demos in 1970 would have turned out with such a big heart had he gone on to a career in show biz? Thankfully, we have both, and 1970 Sessions is a fine sampler of songs from one who could have been a player in outlaw country, but went another way.
(Tompkins Square, 2021)