The Search For Mother Earth

Originally posted February 19, 2007

Mother Earth came to me in a cardboard box.

In the last years of the 1980s, I was just beginning to expand my interest in and awareness of rock music beyond what would now be called classic rock. I had my Bob Dylan set pretty well completed. I had enough Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Springsteen for the time being, and I had enough Led Zeppelin and other metal to satisfy me. I also had the mainstream archives: The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Chicago and all the rest. And I had a good supply of the quirky, having always loved one-hit wonders.

I was living in Minot, N.D., at the time, and one Saturday in February of 1989, I wandered out to the flea market at the state fairgrounds. A record dealer from Bismarck – from whom I’d bought a few things during my two years in Minot – was at the market and was selling off his inventory, a box for $10. No mixing – you took the boxes as they were. So I laid down my $10 and took a box of about sixty records home with me.

I dug into the box. A few of the things I found were by Boston, McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Billy Joel, the Steve Miller Band, Nilsson, the Strawbs, Thin Lizzy, Todd Rundgren – a lot of mainstream stuff that I hadn’t gotten around to yet. There was a lot of odd stuff, too, only a few of which I still have.  And there was an LP on the Mercury label: Make a Joyful Noise by Mother Earth, a group I’d never heard of before. I cleaned it, dropped it on the turntable, and was entranced. It was one of the best things I’d heard in a long, long time, and I knew nothing about the group at all.

I had so much fun that Saturday evening, and the records turned out to be in such good shape, that I went back to the flea market the next day and bought the guy’s last box.  I got some Argent, some Quicksilver Messenger Service, Robin Trower, Manfredd Mann, Ian Lloyd and a number of other things I have on the stacks to this day. No more Mother Earth, though.

But I was intrigued enough by Mother Earth – and by the records by other groups that I’d heard of but knew little about – to go out and buy my first copy of the Rolling Stone Record Guide in the next week. And I began to change from a casual purchaser of used records to a collector.

From my record guide, I learned only that Mother Earth was a San Francisco area band, formed by its lead singer, Wisconsin native Tracy Nelson in about 1968 and that the group’s two first albums – Make A Joyful Noise and Living With The Animals – were superb but at the time, out of print. So I put Living With The Animals on my list. Eventually, during my time in Minneapolis during the 1990s, I found four more Mother Earth albums and five by Tracy Nelson as a solo act, all of them worth more than casual listening.

In its overview of the group, All-Music Guide describes Mother Earth as being a “blues-rock” group. But the sound is so much more complex than that, bringing in elements of R&B, country and gospel. As I think about it, Mother Earth is one of those groups that is so difficult to describe that at most times and places, I doubt that it would ever have gotten a major label deal. In the San Francisco of the late 1960s, however, record companies were seemingly giving deals to any group that could show up for a meeting with a demo tape.

Mother Earth was far better than that, of course. I’m not sure the group ranks with the royalty of the San Francisco scene of the time – the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver and Janis Joplin, to name a few – but I don’t think Mother Earth was all that far from that level, either. The group wasn’t a San Francisco group for very long, as it turned out. The debut record, Living With The Animals, was recorded while the group was based there, but in 1969, Nelson moved the band to Nashville.

The album shared here is Bring Me Home, a 1971 release that was the next-to-last record released by Mother Earth. AMG says: “Not really deviating from a formula which was modestly successful for Mother Earth, the band takes the adage ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ to heart with Bring Me Home. Staying in form with the blend of R&B, gospel, folk and soft rock, this-nine song session remains a vehicle predominantly for the group’ s siren, Tracy Nelson. The band delivers constantly solid performances backing Nelson’s impassioned vocals in a very complementary fashion, but really doesn’t set itself apart from the majority of the group’s output.”

I agree that the record is very much of a type with the rest of the group’s work. What makes this album stand out for me is two things: First, Nelson’s rendition of the Boz Scagg’s song, “I’ll Be Long Gone,” which is one of my favorite tunes. Second, the work the group does on Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road,” a tune later popularized by the Eagles on the 1980 live album. I prefer Mother Earth’s version.

(This album is one of the rare records I will share that is still in print. If you like it, go to Amazon.com or your own favorite retail site and purchase it, please. The bulk of Mother Earth’s catalog has been reissued in the past few years. It’s work that deserves an audience!)

Mother Earth – Bring Me Home [1971]

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One Response to “The Search For Mother Earth”

  1. Saturday Single No. 276 « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] mentioned the story at least once: On February 11, 1989, I wandered out to the flea market at the state fairgrounds in Minot, North […]

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