George Cromarty had already experienced a weird brush with fame before he recorded his debut album in 1973. As co-writer of the song “Plastic Jesus,” he and collaborator Ed Rush are probably the only people to be covered by both Paul Newman (in the film Cool Hand Luke) and the Flaming Lips. But Cromarty had left that type of novelty folk song long behind by the time he created his masterpiece, Grassroots Guitar. I first became aware of the album via the Numero Group’s excellent Guitar Soli compilation from a few years back, which featured Cromarty’s “Flight,” a gorgeous slice of fingerpicked nirvana. But even in these magical Internet days, when rare and out of print recordings are usually just a few clicks away, Grassroots Guitar remained out of reach, despite dogged Googling. This year, thanks to a kind donor, I finally heard the complete album — and it did not disappoint.
Though Grassroots Guitar was originally distributed by John Fahey’s Takoma Records, and although it is made up of almost entirely solo acoustic guitar pieces, it’d be a mistake to call it Fahey-esque. There’s little to no blues influence, for one thing, which was the cornerstone of everything Fahey did. A closer comparison would be the precise, crystalline solo recordings of Pentangle guitarist John Renbourn, or perhaps the more classically influenced Leo Kottke jams. There’s even a dusky melancholy reminiscent of Nick Drake present in the grooves here. But Cromarty was an original, apparently developing his style all on his own. Grassroots Guitar features 13 perfect guitar reveries (plus one vocal number), each one packed with plaintive melodies and quietly dazzling technique. Cromarty went on to record a children’s record, plus an equally great solo LP for Windham Hill, Wind In The Heather, before passing away, forgotten by all but a few, in the early 1990s. But take a listen to a couple of samples from Grassroots Guitar and you’ll agree it’s a work that should be more widely known. words/ t wilcox