Sometimes when one's record collection is too large, albums can sit around mostly forgotten. Occasionally, hanging on to something random pays off when an album becomes much more appreciated long after first hearing it -- a situation that's usually accompanied by the reaction "Why didn't I notice this before?" Both albums by Chicago quartet Wilderness Road have been in my collection since picking them up years ago when I learned that they were from the Midwest. I finally gave them a more serious listen last fall when pulling out some albums to trade in, and these two rarely seen discs are keepers.
Their self-titled debut is a country rock concept album, predating similar efforts by Willie Nelson by several years. The second album doesn't seem to have a clear overall concept, but certainly maintains the theatricality of the first, while showing a more satiric, lighter side of the group. Both are easily standouts of the early '70s, though, and made me interested in finding out more about the band.
Wilderness Road co-founder Warren Leming, who sang and played guitar, banjo and other instruments with the group, was kind enough to fill me in on the story of the band via email:
I formed the band with fellow actor-musician Nate Herman during the Chicago Conspiracy trial -- to raise money, by performing, for the Conspiracy defendants then on trial. Nate and I had backgrounds in theater; we were both with something called the Second City Touring Company (not the regular company but the group that did college dates for Second City, the satirical theater in Chicago). He and I were also bluegrass musicians, me on banjo with a group called the Urban Renewal Boys and Nate with a band called the Absolute Truth String Band.
Knowing some of the Wilderness Road backstory, their two albums come into focus much more clearly. With its very carefully structured storyline and music, their debut is probably the most prog-rock country rock album I've ever heard. It's almost like the audio equivalent of a play, but with the bonus of being accompanied by melodic, complex music.
Their 1973 follow-up, Sold for Prevention of Disease Only, clearly appears to be the work of a band interested in theater even before hearing the music. The front cover shows the group dressed up as futuristic glam rockers; elsewhere on the gatefold they're depicted in a more '20s-'30s-looking drugstore setting, and also as "Ricky and the Balloons" on the inside.
Musically the album usually maintains a country rock base, though it's often mutated by slashing rock guitar leads, occasional horns and funky backing vocals by studio legends Venetta Fields, Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews. It makes for as interesting a musical combination as the prog-country of their debut; neither of these albums are quite like anything else from the era, helping them still sound fresh today.
Sold... also shows the group's roots in humor, as compared to their more straight-faced debut. "The Gospel," a suite of songs, fake commercials and spoken word interludes parodying a religious radio program, is a good representation of Leming's description of parts of the band's stage show. The whole thing is sort of a pop-culture explosion referencing subjects as diverse as Hitler, Lawrence Welk, trucker country, and The Guess Who, this reference probably partly due to producer Jack Richardson, who also worked with the Canadian superstars. Also straight-up hilarious is the album's closer "The Authentic British Blues," a dead-on take-off on the white boy blues genre.
Leming says Wilderness Road, which remained based in Chicago, was together for about another year after the album's release and for a brief time later in the decade. While Leming says the band never played an official gig in Madison, it did play at the Sound Storm outdoor rock concert in Poynette in 1970.
The members all remained active in the arts; Nate Herman wrote for Saturday Night Live and National Public Radio (with Leming); Andy Haban played bass for Lenny and the Squigtones; Tom Haban was a co-founder of Chicago's Seagrape Studios; and Leming himself has worked on theater projects, numerous documentary films and various other endeavors, some of which are detailed at Cold Chicago Company website. "I've always been a history buff, hence the jump to documentary stuff was easy," he explains, "and as an inveterate writer and researcher, it was even easier."
While Wilderness Road's two albums have never been officially reissued, Leming says anyone interested in hearing their music can contact him for information about CD versions.