In 1966, Chris Darrow and David Lindley formed Kaleidoscope, a California psych-pop band noteworthy for their interest in traditional folk music from around the world. Though Kaleidoscope never became an enormous success, fellow musicians loved it, and when Darrow left the band in 1968, he became an in-demand sideman, recording and touring with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He was one of the first “multi-instrumentalist” studio rats, lending his facility with nearly any stringed instrument to the pioneers of California country-rock, while keeping his ear tuned to what was happening across the U.S. and overseas.
Darrow’s long-out-of-print solo albums Chris Darrow and Under My Own Disguise—his second and third, originally recorded for United Artists—have just been reissued in a lovingly designed two-CD box set, and they’re essential listening for fans of the early-’70s West Coast scene and its European counterpart. If Gram Parsons was trying to define “Cosmic Americana,” Darrow was working toward “Cosmic World Music,” linking dusty honky-tonks to the mystical moors explored by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The 1973 LP Chris Darrow in particular is a classic of its kind, veering easily between the twangy pop of “Albuquerque Rainbow” and the melancholy pub-folk of “We Don’t Talk Of Lovin’ Anymore.” Unlike a lot of the California-bred rock of the era, Chris Darrow doesn’t just pay lip service to acoustic music before retreating to AM-ready studio slickness; Darrow had a deeper commitment and a deeper feeling for folk.
What Darrow didn’t have was a great voice, or songwriting skills as staggering as Parsons’. The more straightforward country-rock of 1974’s Under My Own Disguise suffers some from Darrow’s flat vocals and foursquare compositions. But there’s a mood enveloping both these records—Chris Darrow especially—that found very few matches in the music of their time. Darrow had a singular sound: like a Grand Ole Opry broadcast reverberating through the vales of Wiltshire.