Like the tracks on Bob Shane's Simple Gifts CD a year ago, the cuts on Old Forgotten Altars have lain fallow in a vault for half a century now, and in the case of both albums, the tracks have truly never been heard before by any of us in the public at large. Shane's CD, which I loved, was the product of studio sessions with the production facilities of country music greats The Glaser Brothers. If you've forgotten, Jeff McDonald's fascinating explanation of how Simple Gifts came to be is still on Xroads here:
Update on new Bob Shane album
Old Forgotten Altars is a different project altogether. Our friend Ron Furmanek produced this Stewart CD and shepherded it from its origin through to its completion, as he did for many other KT-related projects. It's a collection of demos and rehearsal tapes - but don't let that put you off. The quality of what Ron got into this album is superb, and he and his staff did a great job of editing, enhancing, and upgrading analog tapes into a quality digital release.
I have a unique perspective on both Bob's and John's "new albums" because I was asked to do the liner notes for both (flattered beyond belief, let me tell you), and as such I heard all of the tracks on both long before they were released. I'm not going to rehash my very extensive liner notes for Old Forgotten Altars here (and extensive they are, a retrospective on Stewart's career up and through the 1966-1969 recording dates framed with attention to John as a songwriter first and foremost), but I can add something to them now.
Whereas the excitement of the Shane CD was to hear that marvelous voice in a new and different context, the most wonderful aspect of the John CD is getting a look inside a great songwriter's process - hearing proto-versions of songs whose finished recordings we know and sensing how they grew from their first incarnations into the eventual releases. For example - John's beloved "Mother Country" from California Bloodlines in his first recording here includes a final verse that never made it onto the actual Capitol album. Another all-time Stewart classic from Bloodlines, "July, You're A Woman," appears here in its very first recorded performance. Songs from the KT's Children of the Morning seem to be tracks that John may have shared with Nick, Bob, and Dean Riley so they could learn them for the album's actual recording sessions.
Several of the tracks are at least as good as the ones eventually released. I think that the Old Forgotten Altars version of another wonderful JS song "The Pirates of Stone County Road" could have been released by Capitol with a little reverb and for my money is a shade better than what appears on Bloodlines. Likewise, I think John's vocal on this CD of "She Believes In Me" - the first JS song I came to love in his post-KT career - is richer and warmer than what we hear on Bloodlines.
So - for me, this CD is a wonderful and unexpected moment. We get to hear John again in recordings never before released, and for a JS/KT fan, that's a gift unlooked for so long after John's passing. The entire package - cover and liner photos, art direction, sound - is first rate all the way around.
I'm going to crib from my liner notes here to give a summary of what I heard -
What these tracks give the listener
is pure, unadulterated early John Stewart—a
songwriter in command of his material, a
singer still shaping his performing voice,
and an instrumentalist experimenting with
a percussive and rock-based use of a twelvestring
guitar on folk-oriented songs.
And here is the video promo from Omnivore Records: