RAMBLIN: Elton John-inspired bluegrass and the Charles River Valley Boys

Oct. 28—Awaiting the release of Bruce Springsteen's new album "Only the Strong Survive," consisting of Springsteen covering soul music songs, got me to thinking of other cover songs recorded by artists in a variety of genres.

The best are where the musicians making the cover recording don't try to mimic the original version, but instead do something to make it their own — and by making it their own, I don't mean messing it up with a bunch of superfluous flourishes. I mean adding a new and original touch.

Unfortunately, I can't provide the name of the band which performed a couple of my favorite cover songs. I don't think they ever hit the big-time and I only saw a snippet of them performing on a television show I no longer recall.

They made an indelible impression on me, though, with a performance I still recall fondly to this day. They were one of those long-haired bluegrass bands and were having a great time onstage. They weren't playing a batch of their own bluegrass songs, nor were they paying tribute to masters of the genre, such as the great Bill Monroe or the masterful Flatt and Scruggs.

Now, they were plowing the ground in another musical vineyard. They were getting a great kick out of performing rock songs in a souped-up — but not rocked-up — bluegrass style. They took those well-known rock songs and did them in a bluegrass way.

These guys had the traditional bluegrass instruments — as I recall mandolin, fiddle acoustic guitar, Dobro and banjo. And they had those traditional bluegrass vocal harmonies down-pat.

The only difference — and a big difference it was — between them and the more traditional bluegrass bands of the day came in their choice of material.

Their first song began innocently enough and might could have been the beginning of a typical bluegrass song, until I heard the band members sing: "When I look back, boy, I must have been green. Bopping in the country, fishing in a stream. Looking for an answer, trying to find a sign; Until I saw your city lights, honey, I was blind."

Nope, this wasn't your typical bluegrass song. It's the opening lines to the Elton John hit, "Honky Cat," with lyrics courtesy of Elton's songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, from Elton's hit album "Honky Château."

This bluegrass band kicked into high gear with those bluegrass harmonies pushed forward by a driving banjo and rhythmic mandolin as the band sang the chorus: "They said 'Get back, honky cat, better get back to the woods.' Well I quit those days and my redneck ways. And oh, the change is gonna do me good."

I, and obviously everyone else the room with me that day, felt knocked out by this unexpected performance. The band hadn't been patronizing at all. They must have loved bluegrass music, based on their mastery of their individual instruments and those high lonesome vocal harmonies. They were just taking it in a different direction.

Myself and my companions thought the band couldn't possibly top its "Honky Cat" performance — but we were wrong.

They hit the opening chords of their next song, which sounded familiar to me, but I couldn't quite place it from those opening instrumental notes.

Wait! Could it be? It be! It be!

Yep, they started singing those opening lines: "In the town, where I was born lived a man, who went to sea." We were practically in the floor with laughter — not laughing at this band, but filled with joy at the unexpected places the musicians and singers were taking this song.

It almost proved too much with the next line "And he told me of his life, in the world of submarines." Forget Ringo's vocal performance on The Beatles recording — this was the sped-up, super amped-up rollicking bluegrass version.

Just when we thought there was no way it could get any better, they band hit the chorus in full musical stride — providing a little old-timey pronunciation to the John Lennon-Paul McCartney classic.

With those high lonesome harmonies they sang "We all live in a yeller submarine, a yeller submarine, a yeller submarine."

Believe me, it was hi-lar-i-ous!

While writing this column, I started to wonder if that long-ago snippet I saw on television those many years ago may have found its way to Youtube or some other streaming services. Alas, I found no remnant of that performance — but I learned the guys I heard that day likely learned their version of "Yellow Submarine" from a bluegrass group called the Charles River Valley Boys, who had recored and released an album back in 1966 called "Beatle Country."

The album wasn't real country music, though. It was straight-ahead, hard-driving bluegrass. When I checked out their version of "Yellow Submarine," I once again heard those immortal lines, "We all live in a yeller submarine."

I soon discovered the Charles River Valley boys weren't from the south and didn't hail from Appalachia. Instead, they were a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based bluegrass band. At the time they recorded the album, the band consisted of Jim Field, guitar and vocals; Bob Siggins, banjo and vocals; Joe Val, mandolin and vocals and Everett Lilly, on bass. They also hired some instrumental aces to round out the sound when recording "Beatle Country."

Even if the band did form around Harvard University, some members had bluegrass bonafides. Field, the guitarist, had previously played with the New York Ramblers with mandolinist David Grisman, who would later join forces with Jerry Garcia for their bluegrass projects. Bass player Everertt Lilly's father had been a member of the Lilly Brothers, an esteemed bluegrass group of their time.

I also found out the album had been released on Elektra Records and co-produced by Paul Rothchild and Peter Siegel. Rothchild soon gained significant fame when he produced another group with blues — but not bluegrass — leanings, The Doors.

In addition to "Yellow Submarine," the band included 11 other songs on "Beatle Country," including "I've Just Seen a Face" and "Norwegian Wood" — two Beatles songs a number of bluegrass bands would come to record.

I wondered if the Charles River Valley Boys had also recorded a version of Sir Elton's "Honky Cat," but I found no trace of that. However, I did find versions by other bluegrass bands, including Country Gazette and Capo Zero.

Now there's a whole cottage industry with bluegrass versions of all sorts of rock songs, but when the Charles River Valley Boys did it, it was still a novel concept. Easy listening versions of songs by The Beatles were all over the place, but bluegrass versions? That was something else!

Nowadays, there's even entire series of bluegrass versions of rock songs, called "Pickin' On" — such as "Pickin' On Aerosmith," for example. My nominee for best title is "AC/DC, Back in Bluegrass."

Since I first heard that bluegrass version of "Yellow Submarine," I've heard The Beatles' original version countless times — but almost ever time I hear Ringo sing about his "Yellow Submarine," I think about another submarine, too. The "yeller" one.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.