In 1970, a killer rock & roll trio called Riley—named after bandleader and guitarist Riley Watkins—recorded Grandma’s Roadhouse at Owen Bradley’s legendary barn in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. After 40 years, Grandma’s Roadhouse can now be heard for the first time. Kentucky born country songwriter Gary Stewart wrote four of the songs, played piano, guitar and sang with the trio. Watkins met Stewart in Florida during the late 60s. By this point, Riley Watkins and his band The Imps had already toured all over the US and already backed up Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Del Shannon and Ray Stevens.
Stewart worked at Bradley’s Barn and negotiated a deal where Riley could record ‘off the clock’. Owen (who recorded Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Buddy Holly) decided he didn’t want to produce Grandma’s Roadhouse even though Riley possessed a soul-soaked sound. Ultimately, Riley released 500 copies of Grandma’s Roadhouse on their own label in the spring of 1971, and then sadly disappeared into obscurity. Two weeks after Riley’s Barn sessions, J.J. Cale recorded songs at Bradley’s for his landmark debut album Naturally. This was an era in music before the country and rock crowds embraced the other’s music. Gram Parsons struggled with the country-rock crossover issue during this time…
Nashville archivist Mark Linn spearheaded the rediscovery of Riley’s lost recordings. In the past, Linn unearthed rare recordings for Kris Kristofferson, Love and Karen Dalton. I asked Linn to elaborate on his quest that led to this obscure recording. "I was a huge Gary Stewart fanatic way back. There's a writer named Jimmy McDonough--he wrote Neil Young's biography, Shakey--who wrote a long article 20 years ago about Gary. So, I set out to do a Gary Stewart compilation. I went down to meet one of Gary's friends and I heard some of the Riley songs. There was a vibe about this Grandma's Roadhouse recording. So, I sought out Riley Watkins. It wasn't a difficult process." Grandma’s Roadhouse counts as a rare gem…a true lost classic.
Michael Simmons wrote in the album’s new liner notes: “By the late 1960s and early 1970s, freaks began fleeing cities and flocking to rural communes, and rockers were extolling the simple pleasures of country life. For some like Gary Stewart and his friend Riley Watkins, this wasn’t a utopian idealization. Their freaky hair length couldn’t conceal their ruddy necks. Whereas John Fogerty or Robbie Robertson set out to capture the ideal of the American South, cats like Gary and Riley lived it.
“As a young country singer in the 1970s myself, I idolized Gary, the hippie Hank Williams, who had dual citizenship in both Woodstock and Redneck Nations. He mastered the art form of the honky-tonk song and had huge hits with quintessential laments like “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).” But he could also rock like an earthquake and wail like a banshee. I had the privilege of jamming with Gary one night at a club called O’Lunney’s in New York City in 1975.
“It’s an experience I’ll never forget, even if it’s an experience I can’t remember because we were both indulging in various self-prescribed medicines. I do, however, recall Gary's uncanny ability to conjure the lyrics of any country song, as well as his infectious electricity that energized the other musicians on the stage – including me.”
“Music is like a smorgasbord,” bassist Noveskey said many years later. “In Nashville in those days, they didn’t let ‘em mix rock and country. We were treadin’ on new water. There weren’t any Eagles yet.” Drummer Jim Snead said, “They didn’t want that kind of music back then. We put it together anyway.”
These tunes outweigh almost every contemporary band’s songwriting. Watkins and Stewart played music together through the years after Riley’s demise. In 1987, Watkins discovered faith and decided to only sing in an Alabama church, but as of late he's been rehearsing with Snead. Noveskey and Sneed still occasionally play music. Gary Stewart—Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers and Alex Chilton were all fans—enjoyed several country hits in the 70s. He continued to write songs and play music before he committed suicide in 2003. Grandma’s Roadhouse captures this group’s only existing moments in the studio. Music makes for good time travel, and these songs operate as a timeless vehicle.
Grandma’s Roadhouse contains a potent musical brew where the musicians streamline a country-soul, rock & roll, swamp funk sound into one diverse arsenal. Riley’s tunes possess a rare Muscle Shoals rhythmic foundation augmented by Watkins’ Keith Richards-like slashing riffs and Stewart’s Duane Allman-influenced solos that resonate 40 years later. No extended jams muddle-up these compositions, just well crafted 3-minute melodic songs.
The title track opens this rare collection with the down-home sentiment: “Barbecued pork on cornbread/Sure do treat a belly fine/A tall glass of buttermilk/Is how grandma blows your mind.” “Picture” epitomizes real melodic blue-eyed soul. It’s a great universal song embellished by emotive guitar licks. “Daddy’s Comin’ Home” tells a dark tale about a murdering father and a promiscuous mother from the eyes of a child.
“Love You Lady”, a piano-driven ballad, indicates Stewart’s later discovery of gold as far as songwriting. “You Been Cheatin’” crystallizes high-grade, Dixie-fried rock and roll at its finest. “Field of Green”, a tribute to southern marijuana, provides a musical valley where freaks, rednecks and folks of all denominations live in harmony. Riley clearly was ahead of their time--Stewart’s “Drinkin’ Them Squeezins” serves as testimony to the group’s futuristic vision.
The final song on the original album, “Funky Tar Paper Shack”, evokes ghostly traces of Creedence and even Eddie Hinton. The three stellar bonus tracks include an alternate take of the title track, which this writer prefers to the original. “Cows & Dogs, Ducks & Hogs” will just floor you. “Gotta Get Away” closes Grandma’s Roadhouse with the Watson-Stewart dual-guitar wizardry, and captures the last fading glimpse of one of the south’s greatest unheard bands. Grandma’s Roadhouse tells one of the best stories of the year…