A sprawling concept album about a 19th century California silver mining town may not be the first thing many listeners would think of when pop culture icon Kenny Rogers is mentioned. But that's exactly what the somewhat obscure First Edition album The Ballad of Calico is -- and it's a solid entry in a subset of rock albums that generally fall flat.While Rogers went on to become a crossover superstar in the late '70s, the group that initially brought his voice to prominence is somewhat of a pop culture nonentity, consigned to "Rogers and backing musicians" limbo. That's at least partly exacerbated by the fact that his name went ahead of the group's shortly into their recording career, after a few Rogers-sung singles sides became hits. However, as a shockingly detailed Wikipedia entry on the band recounts, the First Edition was hardly created as a studio construct to back Rogers' distinctive vocals. Rather, the group came together when some disgruntled New Christy Minstrels broke away in search of a more creative direction, and it remained a collaborative effort throughout the group's years together.
The idiosyncratic Calico bears out the idea that the First Edition was a working band. In fact, Calico overall only features a few lead vocals by Rogers, as the group uses their various voices in the service of portraying characters in the songs. It also serves as a handy microcosm of their career as a band not afraid to aim squarely for the commercial gold -- most often in a proto-country rock direction -- while at the same time eschewing genre boundaries as the mood struck them on their LPs. On Calico, the concept and songs were provided by unofficial band member Larry Cansler and soon-to-be-star Michael Murphey, whose own solo debut Geronimo's Cadillac came out the same year and repeated a couple songs.
Not everything on Calico works musically -- "Dorsey, The Mail-Carrying Dog," I'm looking at you. And as a double album jumping between styles, it can sound a bit disjointed. However, there's much to like here, both in the performance and the songs. As a bonus, the album includes a booklet detailing the real stories behind the songs, entirely written out in longhand by Murphey.
The First Edition took a chance when the album's lone single, "School Teacher," didn't feature lead vocals by Rogers -- and never had another hit single or album. Considering that he's remained massively popular as a solo artist for decades, it's even more surprising that none of the First Edition's original albums have ever been reissued. The Ballad of Calico is a unique achievement for a group which has been mostly shunted aside by history. (Reprise, 1972)