Back on Top
Back on Top might be a slight overstatement in regards to Carl Perkins' late-'60s return to Columbia. He did not quite tear up the charts but he did have a considerable comeback, especially in terms of quality, creating music that arguably surpassed his Sun recordings in depth and range, even if it didn't produce any songs as iconic as "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Matchbox." This resurgence -- partially fueled by having been Johnny Cash's wingman -- on Columbia and his subsequent short stint at Mercury is documented on Bear Family's four-disc box set Back on Top, its title a play on the name of his 1969 album On Top, which peaked at 42. All his master recordings from On Top until 1973's excellent My Kind of Country are here -- including his NRBQ-supported 1970 set Boppin' the Blues -- along with a disc that's billed as demos, but these aren't stripped-down guitar-and-voice things from Carl; they're full-fledged band records, raw and vigorous, not so much an addendum to the rest of this box but a complete unreleased album that helps illustrate how Perkins was flourishing during this time.
Perkins music during these five years built upon his Sun rockabilly, taking him further into country -- both honky tonk and melodic pop -- touching on folk and blues, plus a little bit of gospel and lots of lean rock & roll. Not surprisingly given his affiliation with the Man in Black, it's not far removed from Cash's records from this time, but Perkins' music is looser and not as hokey as some of Johnny's LPs from this period -- there aren't any kitschy Americana albums or songs for children -- and there's something charming about Perkins' casual, almost off-hand delivery. The wiry rockabilly cat is long gone, he's easing into his middle age, his voice getting a little rounder and warmer, which suits the rich tapestry of American music he plays here. He continually revisited his Sun songs, which may have been part of a contractual obligation, but these versions weren't tossed-off rip-offs of the originals, or self-conscious reworkings: they were full-blooded revisions representing where Perkins was at then, whether it's how "Dixie Fried" turned into a rowdy honky tonk shuffle or how he turned "All Mama's Children" turned into something a little funky with the assistance of NRBQ. These new versions -- fuller than the bare-bones Sun classics -- give a good indication of how rich this period was for Perkins, and they fit nicely between his own versions of his originals like "Daddy Sang Bass," covers of country hits like "Honky Tonky Song," and plenty of other country, folk, and rock & roll gems, plus a lot of terrific finger-picking from this peerless guitarist. All in all, it's as convincing an argument for Carl Perkins' greatness as any of his other sets, possibly more so as it captures him at the peak of his artistic maturity.