Perfect Sound Forever


Mary Catherine Lunsford in 1971
by Kurt Wildermuth
(June 2020)

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,--
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!
        --Emily Dickinson

Do you care about cultural artifacts?

Do you savor details that have been mixed or missed in the flow of historical information?

Do you have a special fondness for the late 1960's and early '70's?

Do you like music that blurs the boundary between folk and pop-rock?

Do you listen to singers and singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Laura Nyro, Sandy Denny, Mary Hopkin, Melanie, and Buffy Sainte-Marie?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might want to check out the self-titled debut album by Mary Catherine Lunsford.

At her Etsy store, Hide a Heart, Lunsford sells message-bearing glass hearts, crocheted items (including, improbably and intriguingly, an "F bomb," suitable for throwing), and CD's of her three albums (the second two released privately, as Cathy Lunsford). At the store, she writes of her first album:

Originally recorded during the summer of 1970 and released in 1971, this Polydor recording of "Mary Catherine Lunsford" has recently been re-packaged as a CD... I wrote and perform the eleven songs on the album. "Mary Catherine Lunsford" was released . . . during the same week as Carole King's "Tapestry" album. My claim to fame that week was a billboard on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, CA. Alas, as youth is apt to be rather an egotistic time in one's life, I thought that billboard would be only the first of many and never took a photo!
Lunsford recalls first performing "in 1965 at the age of 17 in a small club called The Paradox in Tustin, CA," then "in coffee houses such as The Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, The 5 Muses in San Clemente, Doug Weston's Troubadour on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, and The Whole in Glendale." Among the "California Folkies" she associated with were Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Mary McCaslin, Hoyt Axton, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tim Buckley, Jose Feliciano, and John Denver. Polydor Records found enough promise in her songs to support a multilayered production, with band, horns, and orchestrations. They paid for at least that billboard to promote Mary Catherine Lunsford.

And yet, at the All-Music Guide, the extremely knowledgeable and insightful music writer Richie Unterberger sums up the album as:

"so Joni Mitchell-influenced . . . particularly in the wordy songs and the winding melodies. . . . Lunsford's voice is likable and her songs are obviously involved and written with care, but they just don't have the impact that Mitchell's early work does. The melodies aren't all that memorable, and the production does not put her voice far enough in the forefront to make the words as distinct as they should be."
All of this may be true. It is also very much from a professional music writer's perspective. In penning it--back when little was known of M. C. Lunsford, years before the artist went on the web to put her work in a personal context--Unterberger was abiding by his critical responsibility to not send record collectors on frenzied searches for a forgotten masterpiece.

And yet... and yet... is this judgment the last word? Does Mary Catherine Lunsford deserve to be dismissed as a well-intentioned curiosity of its time? Consider that:

* people like all sorts of music that displays its influences. Hits such as America's "Horse with No Name" (1971) and the Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" (1972) remain popular despite their sounding just like Neil Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival, respectively. The recordings simply speak to people.

* impact can be measured in many ways, large and small, and every piece of music doesn't need to have equal impact. Yes, many worthy recordings become cultural touchstones. Others stay, at best, cult favorites.

* melodies can be perfectly enjoyable for their duration without lingering in the mind. And melodies can matter far more than lyrics. In fact, sometimes songs lose merit when you find out the actual words--again, "Horse with No Name" and "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" come to mind (well, the latter's OK, silly but not as dumb as the former). Sometimes lyrics are simply vehicles for music, excuses to sing.

* lots of lyrics are hard to discern without help from printed or online versions. For example--a vital example, in this case--without reading the words it can be very hard to figure out what Joni Mitchell is singing, not to mention what she's singing about.

At Etsy, Lunsford expresses pleasant surprise at how much people have paid for vintage vinyl copies of her debut. There and elsewhere on the web, including at Lunsford's blog, sophisticated listeners write of loving the album for decades. Not all of those people are nostalgic. Some heard cuts on the radio back in the day; others encountered the music later, through friends or by chance. Something or some combination of things draws them back for repeat listenings. They recognize influences in Lunsford's music, but they also perceive uniqueness. They find her voice beautiful and arrestingly agile. Even Unterberger, this record's preeminent online detractor (because he wrote about it before anyone else but wasn't motivated by admiration) commends the ornate arrangements as distinctive.

The album feels not like product, not like a brazen attempt to cash in on the burgeoning singer-songwriter market, but like a limited display of youthful talent. The songs, Lunsford explains at her blog, "were directly related to the discoveries of a young woman and how she related to men and circumstances that often befuddled her. You can hear the innocence and idealism in the tunes." The affection and imagination that went into the settings for those tunes, the intelligence and generous spirit inhabiting this music, brings out forgiveness for the flaws. Protectiveness leads to the hope, perhaps just wishful thinking, that twenty-first-century playlists might find room for the chamber-folk-pop-rock of M. C. Lunsford. But first more people will need to find this lost album.

The vintage vinyl itself is a strong hook. Its jacket seems so timeless that it could have been created yesterday, yet the knowledge that it's decades old gives the LP a virtual patina. All the promise remains, thanks to tasteful design.

The inner sleeve doesn't, unfortunately, print M. C. L.'s lyrics. Instead, it advertises Polydor releases by remembered names, such as Manfred Mann (later of the Earth Band and "Blinded by the Light") and forgotten ones, such as the band Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys (now a footnote to the career of Jimi Hendrix, because he produced their first album).

The front cover bears a photo of Lunsford, doctored to look nineteenth-century, in an ornate wooden frame. The back cover, with tinted illustrations of a fancily dressed woman and a floral pattern, is meant to resemble a yellowed, torn page from an antique publication. Together, front and back suggest Lunsford could be a character in Robert Altman's revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).

There's a note on the back cover, which glances at some of her songs but reads like a hidden missive from Emily Dickinson:

Care, care, care!
Even after the amen,
I'm awaiting an answer.
Still recalling the slowness again,
How to keep from falling,
Care care care & carry it on thru
the fasting.       Amen Amen.

At her blog, not so coincidentally, Lunsford posts the Dickinson poem that I've used as an epigraph for this piece. She writes:

Emily and I . . . both lived as observers of the world, and not as participants. We lived in our heads, but not in the present, nor with much presence. Living in one's head is lonely, however fertile. . . . I struggled, as did Emily, with knowing I had a wild and passionate heart, but a controlled soul.
It may be only a slight exaggeration, hyperbole, to say Lunsford's voice conveys that wildness and passion, whereas the arrangements represent that control. The songs themselves are infused with loneliness, the sense of someone singing to herself.

With the album's minimal credits and a little help from the web, I've gathered info about the personalities that went into the work. The basic tracks were arranged by Maury Manseau, who led the pop band aptly named the Sunshine Company and who plays guitar, organs, and piano. Horns and strings were arranged by Gene Page, who worked on such classics as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High," Barbra Streisand's "Stoney End," and tracks by Motown artists, including the Supremes and the Jackson 5. Members of Crabby Appleton, a Los Angeles rock band who released two albums on Elektra in '70-'71, appear somewhere on this album, which their manager and Lunsford's, Karl Bornstein, nominally produced. Lunsford plays guitar and sings.

This cast of characters works some miracles. However, if you're sampling electronic files to gauge your interest, best not to start with "My Captain" or "Jazzbo's Shine-On Theme," because you may think you're listening to a Joni Mitchell imitator. Mitchell was in the air, and Lunsford obviously breathed in some.

On a 1969 demo session and a '69 Los Angeles radio appearance that Lunsford has posted at Soundcloud, the Mitchell resemblance is much less pronounced and the lyrics are much more pronounced, though still not always decipherable. Lunsford slurs words, but she sounds like her own person, here performing with just Manseau and the album's bassist, Bruce Buell. A seasoned pro, Lunsford displays a knowledge of classic folk-ballads as well as contemporary pop, a batch of strong-to-incredible originals, an understanding of the music business, and the ability to sing much more huskily than she does on the album.

It's clear why Polydor saw commercial potential in her. Even these minimal tracks, perhaps minus the flute on the demos, could be released as today's lo-fi indie folk-pop-rock. In fact, if an enterprising archive label were to reissue Mary Catherine Lunsford, they'd have a wealth of bonus material here. Meanwhile, enjoy these bits of backstory, especially for the interplay of Lunsford's and Manseau's voices around the 42-minute mark on the demo file; for the three-part harmonies on a Steve Gillette cover on the radio session; and for the new songs on the radio session (five of them, if I've counted correctly; hang on for the breathtaking "What Goes Around, Comes Around").

The radio session hasn't aged a day in terms of music or banter. During the interview, the DJ and Lunsford get into a fairly technical discussion about record-making. The production of Mary Catherine Lunsford was really a group effort, with everyone contributing ideas. After her collaborators had played their parts and "put in their egos," Lunsford wasn't happy with the result, so she supervised the mixing to put her stamp on the album. "I finally raised my head up and said, 'Me too, me too.'" So "it sounds like me." She owns it, proudly.

The DJ, Skip Weshner, proclaims himself a huge fan of the record, calling it the "finest debut since at least Joni Mitchell's." There's no sound to indicate Lunsford's feeling about the comparison. Weshner then qualifies his claim with "by a girl, anyhow... Sorry, Women's Lib, but there is a difference" (i.e., between records by men and records by women--ouch). Saying "there are magic things about the whole record. It's best heard as a piece," he praises the emphasis on Lunsford's vocals. Instead of the previous few years' "heavy-production, acid-rock kind of thing," this album exemplifies the "current trend" of putting the singer out front, "not getting in the way of what has to be said and who's saying it... Why use lyrics if you can't hear them?"

Lunsford and Manseau agree. "The [instrumental] sweetening," she explains, "is mixed down probably more than on a lot of other albums because I thought that's exactly what it was, sweetening. It wasn't the tracks to sing by."

"If you've got the instrument to go with [i.e., her voice] out in front," Weshner adds, "then that [the sweetening] should be very subsidiary, if used at all. Simpleness is best."

If the album hadn't hit its mark, these people would have perceived it, right, or not been so upfront about these particulars? In light of what seems like an honest exchange, Mary Catherine Lunsford becomes a folk-pop-rock Rashomon, sounding different depending on the listener's perspective.

Since context matters so much, it's also worth hearing the 1973 Reed College concert recording Lunsford has posted at Soundcloud. This performance serves as a counterpoint to the album and as a standalone example of how an acoustic guitar and a gorgeous voice can captivate you and break your heart. The show happened about three years after Mary Catherine Lunsford and consists of songs not on the album, including covers of songs by King, Browne, Axton, and Bob Dylan. Her stellar take on Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" is accidentally included a second time in the file, after a brief comment from Lunsford about how her debut was self-titled because "record companies have no imagination."

Whether by her record company's choice or her own, the Mary Catherine Lunsford LP deemphasizes the Joni Mitchell influence by burying "My Captain" in the middle of side 1 and "Jazzbo" near the end of side 2. They're fine songs in different settings, as the demos and radio session show, but take them in after you've heard what else the album has to offer.

If you can, sample side 1's opener, "Care Care Care," with its concluding burst of backup singing and handclaps, then side 2's opener, "I'm Awaitin'." On these stunning tracks, which may be masterpieces--"I'm Awaitin'" is certainly a gem--orchestration weaves in and out. Lundsford's vocals float and swoop in an expressive style that, for the sake of description, I'll liken to what the Cocteau Twins' Elisabeth Fraser did in the '80's and Portishead's Beth Gibbons did in the '90's. I mention Fraser also because of the lyrics issue, since the Cocteau Twins' songs use a made-up language, prioritizing sound.

If you're looking for a rock feel on Mary Catherine Lunsford, try "Toad Tale" or "Middle of the Road," with its clip-clop percussion and quasi-psychedelic flourishes. The Crabby Appleton guys might play on these tracks, or maybe they're on the otherwise mysteriously titled "Band I" and "Band II." Lunsford's bittersweet acoustic ballads "Parcels Candy & Peaches," "Empty Changes," and "Together Someday" call to mind moody alt-country, as horns and strings darken the skies.

For Polydor and Lunsford, this half-hour debut proved a one-shot deal. According to Lunsford, it sold 50,000 copies, a paltry few compared to, say, the sales of Carole King's bombshell. The different nature of Lunsford's later recordings is signaled by her name change--or, rather, her move away from Polydor's preferred billing. Cathy Lunsford subsequently sang with pops orchestras, underwent cancer treatment that ended her singing career, and has since been active online.

Which is where you are most likely to encounter glimpses into her history. Such glimpses become small windows into worlds otherwise obscured. We now know Mary Catherine Lunsford, but will we meet more Mary Catherine Lunsfords? In decades past, were there other coffeehouse folkies taking their shots at stardom, hopefuls whose billboards weren't photographed and whose creations weren't widely appreciated? Here's hoping that thrift-store finds and obscure internet posts offer up lost voices and the stories behind them, filling in the cracks of what happened, or what we think happened.

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