3614 Jackson Highway is easily the best and most ambitious recorded work of Cher's career, and demonstrated early on the potential she had as a performer.
Atlantic's Executive Vice President Jerry Wexler sought to revitalize Cher's career by utilizing a formula similar to that employed on the classic Dusty In Memphis. Wexler selected the tunes for the album, including no less than three songs from Bob Dylan's alt-country Nashville Skyline album.
Over the course of ten days in late April 1969 and one session in mid-May, the tracks for 3614 Jackson Highway were recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound studio whose address was to be the album's title.
"For What It's Worth" opens the album with a surging drum and tambourine beat, followed by percussive acoustic guitar punctuated by electric piano trills until the chorus, where Cher is joined by male and female backup vocalists and some slide guitar work. While soulful, the whole thing has a country-blues feel that certainly isn't present on the original Buffalo Springfield recording.
The Dylan songs include "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You", "I Threw It All Away", and "Lay Baby Lay". "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" opens with a horn section riff and the familiar blue jean sound of drum, strummed acoustic guitar, and electric piano. Cher leans nicely on the blue notes of the song, giving a bluesier feel than she could manage by sheer delivery alone.
"I Walk On Guilded Splinters" is an odd number by any standard, coming from Dr. John's very first album Gris-Gris, which was also released by the Atco label. While Dr. John's version is menacing and atmospheric, Cher's is powerful and gritty, prefacing the sound and delivery she would use on records like "Half Breed", "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" and "Dark Lady".
"Please Don't Tell Me" is a country-influenced track on which Cher turns in one of the best vocals of her career. It helps that the song's lyrics could be the life story of one of Cher's hard luck film heroine characters. Still, the arrangement and her excellent rendition remind us just of how closely this album fits the Dusty In Memphis mold.
Overall this is an album you can play from beginning to end and be well entertained. One can only imagine the direction Cher's singing career might have taken had this album been a huge success. Nonetheless, recordings were made for a followup Atco Cher solo album, and they are available on this Rhino Handmade disc. A few were released as non-charting singles, but many have never before been available.
In addition Rhino has included "Chastity's Song (Band of Thieves)" from the Chastity film project, which was supposed to establish Cher as an actress (even as 3614 Jackson Highway was supposed to have re-established her as a contemporary recording artist), and Cher's recording of Leon Russell's Superstar. Superstar was Cher's last Atco single, released in 1970.
Of the tracks recorded for the followup to 3614, the best performances are "Easy to Be Hard" (from the rock musical Hair), a souped-up gospel-infused "I Believe", and the anti-war song "Momma Look Sharp" from the Broadway musical 1776 (!) There is some of the same Muscle Shoals production work here as on 3614, including horns and funky beats, but there is a lot less focus, which probably is why the new album was never released.
Cher's brief Atco solo period was all but forgotten as she moved on to later fame as a solo recording artist and Academy Award-winning actress. Thankfully, you can now hear once again the best recording of this pop diva's career thanks to Rhino's Handmade program. Don't wait too long, though--these are limited editions, and once they're gone, who knows when they'll be back?