Sunday, February 25, 2018

Donald Adkins on Random 60

Donald Adkins - Narco County Jail/I'm Still in Love With You (Random 60)

For a record collector, there is nothing more disheartening than rummaging through thousands of records and finding only generic, major label junk. You've wasted your time for nothing, knowing full well that other collectors have preceded you and carted away anything remotely interesting. This was the state of my despair one gloomy afternoon at a Shreveport flea market in 2005. Not even local '60s and '70s country records -- which most collectors ignore -- were left behind. Out of the countless singles I pawed through that day, only one caught my eye as having any potential: Donald Adkins' "Narco County Jail" on the Random label. I had never heard of the artist, title, or label, and while it appeared to be a '70s pressing, songs about jails from any era usually have something to recommend them. I assumed that "Narco County Jail" was a novelty version of the old folk song, "Dallas County Jail," updated to include something about a recent social menace, narcotics, hence "Narco." Many old songs had been similarly updated by country singers in the '60s and '70s. This must be more of the same.

I was wrong. The record confounded all expectations. Without warning, I was about to be ushered into ... the Adkins Zone.

I spend some time in the Narco County Jail
For not having a beard
I said to the jailer, "What would be my bail
to get out of this here jail?"
He said, "Two dollars is all I'll have to pay
Just to be out and get on my way"
And I could be surety, and try not to fail
To get back in the Narco County Jail
And I cried, "Oh, sweet mama, please go my bail
And get me out of the Narco County Jail"

These lyrics make no sense at all. Why was the person arrested and jailed on a charge of "not having a beard"? Surely some explanation would be forthcoming in the chorus or next verse for this bizarre allegation, but there is no chorus, and the next verse simply repeats the first one. And why "Narco"? It has nothing to do with narcotics, nor is there any county in the United States named Narco. Again, no explanation. Musically, only three instruments are heard: guitar, piano, and fiddle; the fiddle isn't in the same key as the guitar and piano, and pianist is playing an antiquated boogie style of the 1940s, not the ubiquitous Floyd Cramer style of the '60s and later. This, too, was disorienting: how many records have only those three instruments? And while it appeared to be a '70s pressing, aurally, the record sounded like it could have been recorded any time in the 20 years between 1960 and 1980. I could think of no other recording that defied simple chronological context that widely.

Is this "outsider" music? I suppose so. The lyrics are bizarre, the musicianship is questionable, the whole thing is perplexing, irritating, absurd, and intriguing.

There was no address on the label, but the publishing was Cabriolet Music BMI, a company still in business and run by Shreveport disc jockey/entrepreneur "Dandy" Don Logan. I contacted him and he replied that although he had not been in contact with Adkins for decades, he was certainly a Texas-based singer. A while later, I found a second Adkins disc, "We Don't Have to Build a Fence," on the Malibu label. Once again, this had no address, but it was more identifiably a '60s sound, and it was pressed by Rec-O-Press in Arlington (near Dallas), further pointing to a North or East Texas origin for Mr. Adkins. Since that time, a third disc, "Lonely Side Walks," has been documented and has been reissued on the Small Town Country LP (Orien Read). This is a Houston Records "LH" pressing from 1973, but there is still no address on the label.

Thankfully, a digitized copy of the Longview News-Journal recently turned up to help illuminate the inscrutable Donald Adkins. "East Texas Songman Enjoying His Hobby" by Terry Neill, published April 8, 1973, is an unusually detailed and informative piece. In addition to finally providing an address (East Mountain, Texas, a small hamlet just north of Longview), and a photo, the article also tells us exactly how many records Adkins had made to that point (11), why he made them (it's his hobby), where they were recorded (Robin Hood Briens' Studio in Tyler, Sound on Sound in Bossier City, La., and his own house), where they were pressed (Houston Records at the time of writing), what their titles were, which radio stations played them (KFRO in Longview, KEES in Gladewater, and KZAK in Tyler) and how many copies were pressed (typically 300, which answers why so few have ever turned up in recent years).

Donald Adkins "Doing His Thing." (1973)

According to Neill, "Narco County Jail" is a "humorous tale of the jail erected here for the city's centennial celebration several years ago." This doesn't really serve as an explanation, since Longview is in Gregg County, not Narco County, but at least it fixes a date around 1970. (Was somebody really arrested for "not having a beard" in Longview in 1870?) The article further reveals that "a friend, Les Bryan," plays guitar and piano on Adkins' records. Presumably, this is the same Les Bryan who played piano with Blackie Crawford's Western Cherokees in the early 1950s. I knew there had to be a Starday connection lurking somewhere in the Adkins saga.

Perhaps some more Donald Adkins singles will turn up in the future. With only 300 pressed each, all are rare today. I wish there had been more "hobbyists" like him, making records on their own terms, defying record industry norms, and making music that can still perplex and confound listeners decades later.

Provisional Donald Adkins Discography

Loneliest Man in Town/ ? (Hilltop?) 1964
April Fool's Day/ ? (Malibu?)
Country Hawaiian Style/Ten Thousand Drums (Malibu 1005) 1960s?
We Don't Have to Build a Fence/It's All Over (Malibu) 1960s
Narco County Jail/I'm Still in Love with You (Random 60) circa 1970
Back to Baltimore/Driftwood (Malibu?) 1970s?
Fast Talking, Slow Walking City Woman (vocal-Donnie Pullin)/Tennessee Hills (Malibu?) 1970s?
Longview Town/The Gifts (Malibu?) 1970s
The Safari/I'll Forgive (Malibu?) 1970s
Lonely Side Walks/Miserable Life (Malibu 1001) LH-8505 1973

Any additional info on Mr. Adkins or his records is welcome.