THE COUNTRY CAVALEERS
Country's strangest mavericks?
by Edd Hurt
Photos provided by David D. Duncan
When I first decided to write about the Country Cavaleers sometime in early 2014, I knew right away I'd never make a dime off of anything I could come up with about them. I'd discovered the Cavaleers while watching a compilation of episodes of The Wilburn Brothers Show from the early '70s, when they made a handful of appearances on the country-music variety program. I thought they were, in fact, the Country Cavaliers, a name in keeping with their image, and it wasn't until at least a year later that my friend and super-collector David D. Duncan unlocked the key by fishing a single by the Country Cavaleers out of a pile of forgotten 45s at a Nashville record store. When I first saw the footage of Good and Marvell in their matching hats and matching long hair, lip-syncing to their dead-in-the-water 1972 Cutlass Records single, a bizarre match-up of a Jack Clement country tune and a Motown classic, I figured they were someone's nephews who needed a break. I didn't appreciate just how weird they were until later, when I started to fill in the story.
There's no money in the Cavaleers, even in a revival-crazy age that seems to elevate every scrap of musical indecision ever recorded to the status of a classic, no matter how misguided, but I know in my heart that I did a thorough job of bringing their magic to the handful of weirdos who might appreciate their grand, deranged ambitions for country music. One thing I've learned about country over the years by just hanging around it is that a lot of people say they like it but they really don't, because they just can't resist taking it too seriously. I can pretty quickly gauge some poor hipster schmuck's interest in country music by bending his ear for half an hour about the Cavaleers and the archaic '70's Nashville scene they arose from. All the guy, who let's say moved to Nashville from Brooklyn or Columbus two years ago and plays guitar and writes songs himself, wanted to do was brag about his newfound passion for Jim Ford, or whoever he happened to be into that month. A voice from the past he doesn't want to know about unless it's, you know, about the hip past, I insist on expounding at tedious length about this weird crypto-conservative duo he's never heard of and never will, until he breaks down and buys me drinks because I'm so persistent and interesting.
Another thing I learned about country music when I wrote my Cavaleers piece, or re-learned, since I've been around a lot of country fans in my time, is that they also take everything about it completely seriously, but in a different, more culturally-grounded way than does the typical hipster acolyte of drawl and twang. The minutiae of the comings and goings of Webb Pierce in 1964, cavorting around his guitar-shaped pool with his t-shirt off and a couple of overweight groupies giving him what he needs, the endless gabble of the great country stars' personal lives, struggles and triumphs, the landfill of sub-literate journalism on the subject--that's country, and then there's the music itself, which replicates itself in varying degrees of artistic completion. It's a drunken drop through a trapdoor, an eyeless dive into blackness, to make the journey from George Jones' "The Grand Tour" to the Country Cavaleers' "Turn on to Jesus," both products of the Nashville studio system recorded in the same year.
Researching my piece, I made the necessary connections between old-time Nashville, represented by the entrenched producers and musicians who largely controlled it in 1970, when Cavaleers Buddy Good, James Marvell and John Centinaro drove to Nashville from Florida in a Volkswagen Beetle, and the newfangled city's pop ambition, Taylor Swift, pop ambitions, nothingness. Centinaro, already a veteran of the Florida music scene, was, as he told me when I interviewed him in summer 2014, proud to be dubbed "the Italian Cowboy" by those in the know in 1973 Nashville. He was also, as any true Cavaleers fan knows (there was once a Cavaleers fan club, run out of a location in exotic Old Hickory, Tennessee), the third Cavaleer, an essential partner in their aesthetic. Just like Andrew Loog Oldham was to the Rolling Stones!
Centinaro masterminded their rise from moderately successful Tampa garage rockers to members of one-shot pop-schlock band Mercy. Centinaro, Good and Marvell came on board with Mercy after the Tampa-recorded single "Love (Can Make You Happy)" had hit in spring 1969, and Marvell and Good participated in the re-recorded version of the song that appeared on the late 1969 Warner Bros. Mercy LP Love Can Make You Happy--no parentheses this time--itself a narcotized example of post-Simon and Garfunkel pop. Having caught the tail end of someone else's success-- Jack Sigler Jr. wrote "Love" and is busy working its legacy right now somewhere in Florida--Marvell now claims to have been on the original hit recording of the song, an untruth that doesn't strike me as entirely Christian.
As I learned to my dismay, Marvell turned out to be the kind of figure from the past you should never interview. When I told Jason Gross, who runs the only place I could think of to pitch the thing, Perfect Sound Forever, a website devoted to a lot of great music that the weed-hating, conservative Cavaleers would blanch at hearing--Beefheart, William S. Burroughs--that Marvell was a pain in the ass and hadn't liked the piece or understood it in the least, Jason gave me some worldly advice. "Well, that's why you don't get such people involved in your work," he said.
Jason is a smart fellow and a fine man, but that was a funny thing to tell me. I'd diligently researched a story that no other music writer I know of--I mean, fuck, would Peter Guralnick have stooped to such depths in the pursuit of the people's music?--would or could have written. I had to talk to the guy. It's not like there was anything out there about the Cavaleers that I could turn to, no genial Guralnicks or Uncle Greil Marcuses or reissue-label exegeses for me to reference. My many conversations with Marvell could be cut up and rearranged into epic, Negativland-esque sequences, if only I still had the tapes. I really wanted to know what made him tick, how the Cavaleers thought, what was behind the music.
Marvell was cagey about his real name, his age, his place in the history of country music and his legacy, and he affected not to remember details about things like recording sessions. It was as if I were talking not to a man who lived in one of stardom's many furnished one-room closets but to Waylon or the Hag himself. On the grand scale of things, James Marvell ranks several steps below some Nashville superhack of country pop like Dickey Lee, who, incidentally, co-produced the Cavaleers' first single with future country star Don Williams (amusingly, Lee seemed to remember absolutely nothing about working with the Country Cavaleers when I ambushed him on the telephone one morning- he sounded startled, annoyed). Judging from the fourth-rate crap that had been written about the Cavaleers before I decided to get on board with the men and the legend, I would guess that Marvell had never talked to a real journalist in his life before I got in touch with him. There's plenty about the story I simply couldn't uncover, and the effort to wade thought the grim banality of some of it overwhelmed me in the end. You'd have to pay me to revisit any of it.
Far from being a joke or a novelty act, though, the Country Cavaleers were, in their small way, pioneers, precursors to what we call modern country, by which I just mean music made in Nashville that aims to make some money. The Cavaleers' best work, maybe half a dozen brief songs, is avant-garde country that dares not speak its name. Their 1975 single "I've Got My Mind Satisfied," a banal trifle about seeing the country on your own terms, contains an amazing avant-country guitar lick, played by two pickers in tandem, that belongs on a Beatles album, or a Byrds record, or even a Yes album. You wonder how such a superbly incisive piece of musicianship ended up on a going-nowhere piece of second-rate boilerplate made by two yokels from Tampa who thought dressing up in costumers equaled rebellion.
In a way, of course, Jason Gross was right to give me that unsolicited advice. Marvell, who after he left the Cavaleers continued scraping everything he could from the pot that had already cooked down to nothing, revisiting "Love (Can Make You Happy)" for the country market (the single hit No. 90 on the country chart in 1981), recording gooey Jesus music and telling any interviewer who would listen that the Cavaleers invented outlaw country, was obviously no reliable or especially obliging source. It was so exhausting, in fact, to get Marvell to tell me certain things straight that I still don't know, for example, where the Cavaleers recorded in the '70's, who played on the records, how they were made, why the Presenting album exists, and on into melancholy infinity. I try always to let people talk if they want to, a major failing of mine as a journalist and as a human being, and interacting in a stunted, stilted manner with Marvell, I never got around to asking some of the basic questions I should have pressed him to answer (Buddy Good, by the way, would tell me when I caught up with him in the summer of 2014 that his masters for Presenting had been lost in a house fire in the 1980s, forcing him to buy his copy from eBay- it's likely this album exists in such small quantities as to be virtually nonexistent).
The Cavaleers were first in outlaw Nashville, Marvell told me again and again, before Waylon and Willie and Tompall, because they were the original long-haired Nashville act. Their impact was obscured, he said, because they were ahead of their time, and because they were anti-marijuana and pro-Jesus.
Despite a frightening phone conversation I had a few years later with Marty Stuart that convinces me Marty knows everything there is to know about country music (he told me he'd seen the Cavaleers live in Nashville in the '70s, and they rocked), I think it's obvious that the Cavaleers, while an invigorating stage act, lacked the material and an approach that would have been in tune with the needs of commercial country in 1972. They didn't invent outlaw country any more than Steve Young or Asleep at the Wheel did. Although they seem to have auditioned in the '70s for a couple of big-time Nashville movers and shakers, including Jack Clement and Jerry Bradley, their schtick must not have hit home. Just imagine a day in the life of these guys, with the costumes and the hats, having to appear sufficiently Cavalier in dress and aspect while comporting themselves as red-blooded young men, traveling in full regalia like dorkuses to some outpost near Nashville to audition for producer Jerry Bradley, who likely took in the apparatus and the corny songs and passed. These boys, Bradley might have walked away grumbling, would end up costing us our ass on monthly dry-cleaning bills alone.
I considered calling Jerry Bradley, whom I'd interviewed a few years before about the great Texas singer Johnny Bush, to ask him about that meeting and about the Cavaleers, but what chance would there have been that he could remember anything about the encounter, if it indeed happened the way John Centinaro said it did (Centinaro came across as a very reliable interview subject when I spoke to him, and was gracious and generous with his time). I've learned that you imperil your credibility as a writer when you ask these old country cats smart-ass questions about things you think are hip and amusing. A few years ago, I quizzed Marty Stuart, an affable guy, about playing on Johnny Cash's infamous 1984 "Chicken in Black," a semi-autobiographical novelty tune by the Man in Black that is, in a curious way, everything the Cavaleers ever aspired to in their own art. I could hear the contempt in Stuart's voice when he responded: "That is the worst Cash tune ever; what are you asking me about that for?," he said with a hint of asperity...
I would never want to present my discovery of the Country Cavaleers as another appeal to music fans who believe in the fallacy of outsider artists as prophets. For one thing, they were not really outsider artists, because they were always too commercial for that. For another, a lot of their slender output is pretty good, not to mention professionally played and recorded. My Nashville running buddy and indispensable music nut David Duncan, who started me on the Cavaleers quest six years ago and has, incredibly, acquired every piece of vinyl they released, recently scored their lone CD, the bizarre, stitched-together, illegal (it includes the audio of the Cavaleers' 1972 Wilburn Brothers Show television clips whole) 1996 compilation Golden Archives.
Curated by Marvell, it's a monument to inaccuracy and expediency. Marvell can't even get the title of his greatest song, his moment of zeitgeist-scoping insight, correct in the credits: It is, goddamn it, for all time and everywhere, "Urban Cowboys, Outlaws, Cavaleers," Cavaleer Records, 1981. Buy a copy sometime Golden Archives is a missed opportunity to set the record straight that includes some abysmal tracks from their late-'70's live album Live on Stage--A Special Tribute to Elvis Presley, itself a great example of deceptive marketing, since the Elvis tribute that appears on the album was obviously cut in a recording studio. Golden Archives includes nothing from Presenting and the least interesting material from their period on the apparently defunct record label Country Showcase America, the only place willing to take them in during the '70's.
Their oeuvre, while certainly not unattainable apart from the virtually vanished Presenting--most of their records reside in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's collection--is perhaps the most obscure body of work in country music that has any claim to being taken seriously, apart from the innumerable other private-press and vanity albums you can buy cheap at any Nashville record store. The Cavaleers were briefly on a major label, MGM, who released one 1973 single on the group, and they spent most of their career recording for the long-defunct Maryland imprint Country Showcase America, about which I could find out very little in 2014. Still, Country Showcase America seems to have been, more or less, a real record label. It's likely that the Cavaleers cut most of their Nashville music at Jack Clement Studios, on Belmont Avenue, with the same studio cats who backed country star Tommy Overstreet on his '70's hit singles. When I interviewed Buddy Good in 2014 he told me he'd been friends with Overstreet for decades. The Cavaleers shared production duties with the team behind Overstreet, a significant star in the '70's and '80's. Overstreet is dead, and so is Jack Clement, who Centinaro claimed vetted their act one day in the early '70's at Clement's famed Cowboy Arms pad in Nashville. I interviewed Cowboy Jack several times a couple of years before his death in August 2013, but I hadn't gotten hip to the Cavaleers yet. If he had heard them in 1973, the Cowboy would have remembered.
Their very weird and even poignant story notwithstanding (I can think of nothing more riveting than a biopic about Good and Marvell set in 1974 Nashville, a kind of Ed Wood for the country set), the Cavaleers just didn't have what it took to make it in country. Their songwriting was mostly substandard. They were, and it pains me to say this about anyone who tried so hard, a very confused act who didn't seem able to write in the mode Nashville requires. On the other hand, a few songs on their 1974 album Presenting the Country Cavaleers, which I think was manufactured in small quantities to sell at their shows and, perhaps to interest a record label, mark off a little rolling paper-size territory of their own. There's a song on Presenting called "Turn on to Jesus" that is a bit like the Everly Brothers, if Don and Phil were the third act on the bill in Waycross, Georgia on a Thursday night in 1973, a Country Music Extravaganza. Another Presenting tune, "Must Have Been out of My Mind," is like Rubber Soul squished up in Nashville with pedal steel, but it carries the true Beatles-fan fervor as surely as does another 1974 album, Big Star's Radio City.
The Cavaleers, like all good fans, believed in the big picture, the apparatus of country and Nashville that has nothing do with music, except, of course everything. It's how you view and use the apparatus that counts, and Good and Marvell never questioned its authority for a second. I find it depressing to think about the handwritten letters of recommendation Marvell told me he collected from such luminaries of the time as Jean Shepard and Mel Tillis, who seem to have regarded their act with kindness: "I think these are fine, fine, wholesome boys who are the real Outlaws and should be on the Opry!, signed, Jean Shepard!" that kind of showbiz drool. To Good and Marvell, such things meant success more than any real work they might have done as musicians and songwriters ever could, and the tributes were the point, validation. They should have exploited their image as wacky longhairs who toured with Loretta Lynn and the Wilburn Brothers, but they couldn't manage it- they lacked range. They had a certain kind of talent, but Good and Marvell were onlookers to the art form that they loved so much.
Marvell, as I should have expected, disliked my piece and believed I had turned his story into something "dark," as he told me during one particularly aggrieved phone conversation we carried on after the article ran. This is as it should be, the natural order of things. After my piece, "Hang on to What: The Strange Tale of the Cavaleers," appeared in summer 2014 to universal uninterest, I finally caught up in August of that year with the second Cavaleer, Buddy Good, who since the group split in 1976 had been living in Middle Tennessee, right down the road from me, selling automobiles. Good moved to Florida not long after I spoke to him that hot late-summer day, and I lost track of his whereabouts for a while.
However, I know that Good, who apparently lives these days in Panama City, Fla., suffered a debilitating automobile accident in August 2015; his daughter, Veronica Frost, created a GoFundMe page to help with the bills. I've tried to get in touch with Frost, who I think lives near Nashville, but to no avail, and I've also tried to make contact with Good through his Facebook page. The only report detailing Good's situation since August 2014 that I've been able to pull up from the interwebs is an account from which I am glad to quote verbatim: "Buddy Good formally [sic] of the band Mercy (Love Can Make You Happy) and The Country Cavaleers was involved in a motor vehicle accident where he substained [sic] a C3 fracture and fractured tibia he has had two surgeries to place the halo and the other to fix his legs," WHIS News21, Aug. 26, 2015. Also, please see writer Brenda L.. Madden's 2018 piece on the band in the Nashville country-music publication Country Entertainment USA, the intriguingly titled "Outlaws and Country Music: The Country Cavaleers," which regurgitates many of the inaccuracies that characterize most of the writing on the group.
Genial and smooth, Good was a man who could sell me a car. He told me he knew who I was and had read my Nashville Scene work, but admitted he hadn't yet read the Perfect Sound Forever piece. Talking to me on that day from his office at a car dealership in Tennessee, Buddy Good told me the same thing Marvell had, but with some fresh details I, at least, found interesting:
"Him [Mercy leader Jack Sigler Jr.] and Jamie do not have a good relationship. In Miami [during the recording of Mercy's Love Can Make You Happy] they wanted to take a bunch of my songs and record it. I got kinda stuck in the middle of it, ‘cause Jack Sigler wanted me to run Mercy, and Jamie stayed in the music business, working his butt off for himself, really, it wasn't for the Cavaleers or anything else. But then he started getting back into it, because I told him, 'Jamie, why don't we do a short tour? We can call it 222--two guys, two bands, two legends.' Because I really think we're legends, I do. We should actually be in the [Country Music] Hall of Fame, and we're not. We're not even being mentioned. They don't want us in, and they were gonna make sure. [Promoter] Buddy Lee loved us. All we had to do was play one place one time, and we would overflow. I don't care if it was 50,000 people; it was just like that. People, once they saw us on the stage--we were so good on stage--when we did a show it could go two and a half hours and never stop, only because we're talking and laughing. We made fun of ourselves; we didn't care. It was entertainment. We never had a show without a standing ovation. That's the honest-to-God truth."
If you have even the glint of outlaw in you, you know he's right.
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