“Country Boy” — Albert Lee/Ricky Skaggs

It’s getting harder to remain true to yourself. Not so long ago, it was only your parents and immediate family who could influence how you approach life. Now it’s millions of anonymous people on social media 24 hours a day telling you that you’re not smart enough, not thin enough, not supporting the right political party, not believing in the right religion and goodness knows what else.

That’s not to say parents and family always got it right. I followed a “safe” career because that’s what the parents of my generation told young people they were supposed to do. It’s given me a living, so I shouldn’t be too churlish. And I’m good at what I do.

Yet it always feels like I’m not doing myself justice as I know I’m capable of so much more. When all the advice you get in your teenage years from people you trust, who’ve brought you up, fed you and clothed you all your life is to give up on your dreams and do something “safe”…well, it’s easy to go along with the idea. After all, they know best…don’t they?

Keeping true to who you are is what “Country Boy” is all about…

I may look like a city slicker
Shinin’ up through his shoes
Underneath I’m just a cotton picker
Pickin’ out a mess of blues

It seems you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

This is someone who’s conforming on the outside, but on the inside hasn’t forgotten his roots. In his mind, he’s back home on the farm, picking cotton, tending livestock and, in the case of Albert Lee, reinventing country music guitar along the way.

Albert Lee was the first to record “Country Boy”. It was the lead track from his 1979 album “Hiding” and it’s a fantastic song on so many levels, not least of all for showcasing Albert Lee’s formidable skills on a Fender Telecaster.

Of course the lyrics are great. They ask us to look inside ourselves and encourage us not to lose touch with who we really are, not who we’re pretending to be on the outside and not who the world judges us to be, despite hardly knowing us.

I wear a suit and tie every day to work, but in my mind I’m a songwriter in Nashville, writing lyrics in my notebook while sat out on the porch, feet up on the rail. You might think it’s a little odd, but it gets me through the day…that’s who I am at heart…

Our lead character in “Country Boy” faces a similar dilemma, although he’s a little keener on cotton picking and hog calling than I am. On the outside, he looks like a bank teller, all suited and booted, but on the inside he was wise enough not to lose sight of who he really was.

“Country Boy” was written by Albert Lee, along with Tony Colton and Ray Smith. The three of them had been in a popular British band of the late 1960s and early 1970s - Heads, Hand and Feet, who had supported groups like Deep Purple, Humble Pie and Grand Funk Railroad on their UK tours, to critical acclaim.

Heads, Hand and Feet also had another member who would go on the be very famous in the UK, but we’ll get to him in a moment…

Albert Lee never found the commercial success his talents deserved. By all accounts he was a really nice guy who just wanted to play guitar and was more than happy working as a session player and sideman for some of the biggest acts on the planet.

And although Albert Lee is British, he found his greatest successes in country music, winning Guitar Player magazine’s award for Best Country Guitarist five years in a row.

It all started with the iconic Emmylou Harris whose touring band he played in along with someone else very famous who, in this increasingly multi-layered story, we’ll also get to in a moment…

In the field of country music, you can play an “Albert Lee game” a bit like the “Kevin Bacon game” in movies where, reputedly, you can get from Kevin Bacon to any other actor in no more than six connections.

But it doesn’t stop there. Albert Lee played in Eric Clapton’s band for five years…more on him in a moment too…and for people like Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Cocker and Dolly Parton.

You know you’re a pretty good guitar player when you get steady stream of requests to play for people of that calibre….although Albert Lee’s greatest accolade was probably when Eric Clapton described him as “the best guitar player in the world”. Compliments don’t come much higher than that from a man many would give that prize to themselves.

In fairness, though, that’s only because they don’t know Albert Lee and aren’t familiar with his God-given talents.

And that’s because Albert Lee just gets on with the job of doing what he does best, without any fuss, without any ego…

Show me where I start
Find a horse and cart
I’m just a country boy
A country boy at heart

A few years after Albert Lee released his album “Hiding”, Ricky Skaggs brought out his version of “Country Boy”, which went to Number One in the country music charts in 1985.

Ricky Skaggs is no mean instrumentalist himself and had actually played with Albert Lee as part of Emmylou Harris’s band several years previously. So if there was any musician apart from Albert Lee who was best suited to take “Country Boy” mainstream, it was probably Ricky Skaggs.

Ricky Skaggs cover of “Country Boy” was a very respectful, and virtually unchanged, version of Albert Lee’s performance…just with a bit of pedal steel guitar, banjo and fiddle added to make it a bit more Nashville. That apart, you’d be hard-pressed to tell one version from the other. (Ricky Skaggs’ version here if you’d like to take a look.)

However as one of the original writers, it’s Albert Lee’s original performance I’ve linked to below.

Somewhat bizarrely, there’s a great video of a Chas & Dave Christmas Special from the early 1980s where Albert Lee does a tremendous live version of “Country Boy”. I’ve linked to that performance below.

Chas and Dave were a very popular British band in the 1970s and 80s. They popularised…some would say, created…the “pub rock” genre with their own style which they called “rockney”…a commercially successful mixture of rock music and cockney singalong.

For possibly understandable reasons, their act didn’t necessarily travel well outside the UK as the cultural markers didn’t make much sense elsewhere.

But it was commonplace for more sophisticated listeners to pooh-pooh Chas & Dave at their peak. Admittedly their sound was…deliberately…a little rough around the edges to recreate that “playing in a pub” vibe, but both Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock had enjoyed successful careers as session players in the London recording studios prior to their own brush with fame, so they are both very capable musicians in their own right.

Without knowing it, you’ll definitely have heard Dave Peacock’s work on bass guitar wherever you live and even if you’ve never heard of Chas & Dave. Dr Dre sampled Dave Peacock’s bass line from an old Labi Siffre song he’d played on as a session musician to create the distinctive, hard-hitting sound of Eminem’s “My Name Is…” — a worldwide smash hit and the platform from which Eminem built his career.

But back to the Chas and Dave Christmas special. You can see what great musicians Chas and Dave both are in this video. This song requires a level of virtuosity that…to be fair…British viewers are probably not used to seeing in the band that more or less invented “pub rock” (and if you’re reading this outside the UK, you’ll probably never have seen them at all…).

It shouldn’t be too surprising, though. Just to round off our final multi-layered connection in this story, Chas Hodges had been a member of Heads, Hands and Feet with Albert Lee a decade or so earlier, so they’d honed their skills together much earlier in their careers. It was a great gesture from Chas & Dave to invite their old pal Albert Lee to perform at their very popular Christmas Special, which still gets frequent re-runs on British TV around the festive season each year.

Watch closely, though, and you’ll see Eric Clapton briefly in this video too. Eric Clapton wasn’t there to headline the show, he was just there to support and appreciate a great friend and someone he admired greatly for his skill on the guitar. For a star of Clapton’s calibre, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more touching and respectful gesture.

So, for those of us who people lazily pigeonhole from a superficial look at us on the outside, but who never appreciate the core of our spirit on the inside, the essence which defines who we really are, here’s Albert Lee with his barnstorming version of “Country Boy”, ably assisted by Chas & Dave…two cockney boys at heart…

The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5LIkAJSZTNWxkBHNesjV8d

PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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