"Great Speckled Bird" comes around on cd about as often as Halley's Comet, and usually for a similarly short duration of time. My advice is to get this true classic of the country-rock genre as quickly as you can, while it's available. Originally issued in 1970 on Bearsville Records, this album is on a par with "Sweetheart of the Rodeo", "Workingman's Dead", "The Gilded Palace of Sin", and "Music From Big Pink". It truly is that great.
Previously known as a folk duo, Canadians Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker went to Nashville to record this countrified effort. Todd Rundgren, also a Bearsville artist, was enlisted to produce. The original album featured an even dozen country-inflected tunes done to perfection. All were Tyson and Fricker originals except for "Crazy Arms", and the material is uniformly strong, with clear vocals and sparkling musicianship from beginning to end.
The contributions of Amos Garrett (guitar) and Buddy Cage (pedal steel) deserve special mention. Garrett was and is a very special talent. He clearly was an influence on another guitar great, Richard Thompson, who has named Garrett as one of his favorites. Garrett's lead guitar alternately stings and purrs with a string-bending technique he developed from listening to a pedal steel. He later worked with Geoff and Maria Muldaur, who were produced by Joe Boyd--the producer of R. Thompson's band Fairport Convention. I'm fairly confident that Boyd exposed the young Thompson to Garrett's playing, when Thompson was in the process of breaking free of Fairport. In 1972, as part of a project called "The Bunch", Thompson also covered "Crazy Arms" in a fashion similar to Great Speckled Bird.
Buddy Cage (pedal steel) went on to win further laurels with New Riders of the Purple Sage, after leaving Ian and Sylvia's band. Together on "Great Speckled Bird", Garrett and Cage interweave beautifully. They sound like they were born to play together.
My favorite songs on this album are "Long, Long Time to Get Old" which has rollicking, unforgettable pedal steel work from Cage, "Flies in A Bottle" (poignantly sung by Tyson), "Disappearing Woman" and "We Sail". The last two are great Sylvia Fricker compositions that together bring the album to a close. "We Sail" is a hymnlike anthem that in its own way is as stirring as another 1970 tune--the Beatles' "Let it Be".
If you aren't too familiar with Ian and Sylvia, just know that they were great songwriters (Ian wrote "Four Strong Winds", Sylvia authored "You Were On My Mind"). Ian has a very straightforward, outdoorsy tenor voice that occasionally sounds like Roy Orbison. Sylvia sounds like June Carter Cash with a vibrato, which may take a novice a few listens to get used to... but the material is so strong on "Great Speckled Bird" that nothing detracts from it.
You won't regret buying this album. If you've never heard it, you are in for a treat.