CARLA OLSON – Have Harmony Will Travel 3

Carla Olson has had a long and varied career. In the late 70s she was a member of new wave band The Textones with future Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine; in the 80s, she recorded an album with Byrds legend Gene Parsons, and also co-wrote ‘Trail of Tears’, a track from guitarist Eric Johnson’s breakthrough album ‘Tones’. At the turn of the 90s, she recorded solo albums and played live with Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. Into the twenty first century, her on/off career went into overdrive as she continued recording as a solo artist, but also became a renowned producer. Those are just a few potted highlights from across several decades, but it’s fair to say there’s far more to Olson than an easy tag of “country singer”.

Among her production credits, you’ll find Robert Rex Waller’s long overdue second album, ‘See The Big Man Cry’ – a solid affair that mixed country standards with a few unexpected cuts. On the same day in October 2023 that saw release, Olson’s own ‘Have Harmony Will Travel 3’ also hit record shop shelves, both physically and virtually.

Earlier releases in her series of duet recordings – issued in 2001 and 2020, respectively – found Carla collaborating with a wealth of country, pop and rock legends, including Eagles man Timothy B. Schmitt, Peter Noone, Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay, Percy Sledge, her friend Rob Waller and others. This eagerly awaited third volume welcomes an equally impressive array of guests, and with some familiar talents featured on some well curated material, the results should more than please fans of those earlier outings.

Two of the album’s strongest cuts were written with former Hollies vocalist Allan Clarke. A legend in his own right, Clarke – in his eighties at the time of release – is clearly still in possession of an interesting voice. On ‘It Makes Me Cry’, his distinctive tones are present intermittently, and although his advancing years mean his performance has a deepness and a rawness that wasn’t present even on his latter day Hollies recordings, there are occasionally hints of a higher register that’s hugely familiar, which comes into its own around the three minute mark. Olson, meanwhile, joins in a few places, and her rootsy twang is a perfect fit for the music, which slowly builds into something that sounds like a mid 70s Hollies ballad, complete with a ‘He Ain’t Heavy’ influenced harmonica to hammer its mood home. Clarke doesn’t sing on his other co-write, but ‘A Love That Never Blooms’ (presented as a duet with Shawn Barton Vach) is a very pleasing country ballad, driven by acoustic strums and aching vocals. Carla’s rich voice taps into a smooth and classic sounding country lilt, selling the lyric with ease, and a well placed harmony adds a great melody in the lead up to a simple chorus. For those very well versed in the Hollies catalogue, it wouldn’t be a huge leap to imagine this or something similar propping up their self titled disc from ’74. The melody is instantly familiar and hugely likeable, but the track’s greatest moments are actually supplied by a very retro sounding electric lead guitar, dropping in with a rather sad riff between Olson’s moments of narrative heartbreak. In terms of old school country with a slight pop edge, it’s almost perfect.

Carla and her assembled band go even deeper into a country sound on a cover of ‘Cool Water’ – a tune previously recorded by Frankie Laine, Hank Williams and others. The slow melody has been stripped right down to allow a sparse guitar and piano arrangement to throw a greater focus on a vocal during the number’s first half, and the guesting B.J. Thomas turns in a fabulous croon throughout. After bringing in a steady rhythm, the tune takes the mantle of a country cut from the 70s, and Olson’s added harmonies on the verses from herein really add a colour to the familiar melody with their near perfect tones. In a change of mood, but keeping the country vibes to the fore, a spirited run through of The Textones’ ‘Lead Me’ shares more of a ragged, rootsy country rocker, with Olson employing a heavily affected tone to suit. The vocal is distinctive, though not necessarily one of the album’s best, but the musicians play up a storm throughout. Bend your ear past the dominating voice and you’ll discover a rousing bassline driving a great rhythm, jangling guitars worthy of one of Mark Knopfler’s early country homages, a touch of banjo, and some great dirty electric leads that hint at a love of Steve Earle. Carla’s buddy Rob Waller returns as co-lead vocalist on ‘Stronger’, a slower, heartbreaking country number loaded with harmonies, warm bass lines and crying guitars. In terms of old style country – with or without a hat – it’s pretty much perfect, and could’ve just as easily found a home on Waller’s own ‘See The Big Man Cry’. In terms of harmonies, this tune shares some of the album’s finest. Even though Waller’s huge baritone is in danger of masking Carla in a couple of places, their voices compliment each other in a way that makes this recording feel almost timeless, and a crying lead guitar part filling out the number’s coda adds to the bar room tearjerking mood.

Those country based tunes are all entertaining in their own way – and to varying degrees – but this album is at its most fun when Carla and her various collaborators rock out a little more. A take on The Who’s classic ‘I Can See For Miles’ captures Carla curling her voice around an especially angry performance, and she does a brilliant job of stepping into Daltrey’s rather loud shoes. She shares a vocal that has a slightly different sneer beneath the surface, but the same time, a suitable amount of bite to challenge the crashy drum part. If anything else makes a lasting impression here, though, it’s guesting guitarist Gary Myrick. A man well known to AOR fans from his brilliant work on John Waite’s ‘No Brakes’, Myrick turns in some massive, overdriven chords from the outset, clearly intending to make his presence felt, but also hasn’t been shy in adding his own twist on the track’s angry soloing and subsequent noise-filled coda. In terms of covers, it is superb, and definitely one of the tracks that makes the varied ‘HHWT3’ a keeper. Also fun is a rather jaunty take on ‘Street Fighting Man’. Naturally, Carla’s voice doesn’t quite fit the drawling melody of the verses – and let’s face it, even in Jagger’s capable hands, those verses always were pretty ugly – but she warms up enough on the chorus to make the recording work. The real star here is guitarist Jake Andrews (whose ‘Time To Burn’ album from ’99 is well worth checking out, if you haven’t already) since he nails Keef’s thin jangle during the main riff, before supplying a couple of top notch solos that appear unafraid to give a slightly more bluesy feel to the classic track.

You’ll also discover an enjoyable cover of Broken Land’s ‘In Another Land’, a rocky number that takes the guts of mid 70s Stones – especially through a few of the rhythm guitar parts – and adds a rowdy Springsteen-ish flourish, and another lesser known tune ‘Face To Face’ (originally from ’66, and recorded by Zakary Thaks), which allows Olson a great opportunity to share the louder end of her varied vocal capabilities. This takes a place as one of the album’s best cuts since it features the legendary Eric Johnson on guitar. At first, Johnson’s contribution seems limited to various rhythm parts and an angry slide, but he really comes through at the tail end of the recording with a great solo, where his tones are easily recognisable, even if stylistically, the track is quite far removed from some of his own works.

In addition to sharing some great studio recordings, Carla has raided the archives to bring fans three previously unreleased live tracks featuring Gene Clark. Recorded in 1989 and featuring just their voices and two guitars, the recordings have a real purity. On ‘Gypsy Rider’ – a tune also covered on Robert Rex Waller’s ‘See The Big Man Cry’ – the combination of shimmering guitar and Clark’s wavering voice captures a humanity, whist Olson’s bigger harmony on the chorus adds a depth without drawing too much away from the fragility. ‘Del Gato’ shows off the acoustic strings in a slightly rougher way, but the music still sounds great underscoring Clark’s voice as he delivers a huge melody that never sounds a million miles away from a peak McGuinn, whilst the Byrds ‘See You Free This Time’ sounds just lovely in a stripped back arrangement. Again, this accentuates a real fragility to Clark’s performance style, and when Olson steps in with a bigger harmony, there’s something at play that doesn’t feel so far removed from the early Jayhawks. It’s fair to say that if you have even a passing interest in the Gene Clark legacy, these unearthed tracks make ‘Have Harmony… 3’ worth the price of admission.

With rockers, ballads, a huge wave of country and a touch of good old rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Have Harmony Will Travel 3’ feels like the kind of album with something to please a wide range of discerning music fans. Those who picked up the first volume all the way back in 2001 will undoubtedly welcome its arrival to the Olson catalogue, whilst the presence of Eric Johnson, Allan Clarke and a cracking Who cover should be enough to entice other ears from far and wide. Like a lot of collaborative collections, it sometimes has a scattershot feel, but even that gives the disc a pleasing and natural feel that suits the performer. It isn’t a perfect record, and probably wouldn’t pretend to be, but there’s some recommended listening hiding within.

October 2023