Almost since its release, Sgt. Pepper’s has been lauded as the best, most influential album in pop history — by now, a received opinion of arguable import. But even if true, the Beatles touchstone was more the culmination of an era than a signifier of things to come. In its wake, Dylan encamped with the Hawks to re-imagine Harry Smith’s Anthology, Gram Parsons embellished rock with country usages (or vice versa), and John Fogerty brought flannel, a sense of history and a love of song to the Bay Area. Hundreds of semi-obscure, roots-oriented bands followed in their wake — if you will, a proto-alt.country movement: Kaleidoscope, Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band, the Insect Trust…and Mother Earth.
An easy shorthand for Tracy Nelson’s original unit is Big Brother without the psychedelic baggage, and in fact, the bands’ similarities were striking. Both embraced a ragged marriage of blues, R&B and country marked by a sense of openness and possibility, and both were fronted by women with big, distinctive voices — perhaps the pre-eminent white blues singers of their era.
But their differences are just as telling. Big Brother’s rough mix was a music of tension and extremes, with Janis Joplin’s untethered virtuosity often at odds with her group’s garage origins. On the other hand, Mother Earth’s synthesis was more organic — redolent of front porches and summer parties, accomplished and arranged but with a crucial looseness. Similarly, Nelson is a standout among equals; even when she indulges the full range of her instrument (which she does often, and to winning effect), the results are enriched by her deep, rounded mid-tones.
Living With The Animals is the vocal showcase — not just Nelson’s signature “Down So Low”, but also Memphis Slim’s found anthem “Mother Earth”, Allen Toussaint’s bereft “Cry On”, and R.P. St. John Jr.’s intense closer “The Kingdom Of Heaven (Is Within You)”, intoned with Old Testament gravitas.
The follow-up, Make A Joyful Noise, is more songful, its modest though fully-realized ambitions suggested by its A/B titles: “City Side” and “Country Side”. The set features a broader vocal pallet (including two key Ronald Stallings contributions), stronger originals, and a more idiosyncratic and, hence, representative mix of covers (Doug Sahm’s “I Wanna Be Your Mama, Again” is a stroke). Together, the reissues evoke the hippie ethos at its most grounded and humane, a communal spirit that nourishes as well as sustains.