I was originally going to review the latest Die Antwoord album Donker Mag, which I am extremely fond of, but I decided not to as I’m not that cynical at the moment. Instead I wanted to discuss a single song that seems to embody the naivete of an entire Post War nation, ripe with simpleton and optimistic views of the world, and a damn good song to boot. And that song is Travelin’ Man performed by Ricky Nelson and written by Texas-born songwriter and performer Jerry Fuller.
1961 was a particularly great year for American Popular music. In between the Post War bliss of the 1950s and the pending Cultural Revolution of the later 1960s, the year saw hits from Roy Orbison (“Running Scared”), The Shirelles (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” penned by a young songwriter named Carole King), Del Shannon (“Runaway”), Dion (“Runaround Sue”) and The Tokens (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”). Studio advances and this new-fangled thing called Stereo laid the foundation for later innovations from Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame, and of course, The Beatles.
Travelin’ Man rose to number one on the Billboard charts on May 29th and stayed there for one week. Up until Travelin’ Man, it’s no secret that Ricky Nelson was more than an household name, he was a bankable profit-maker for both television, having been the teenage heart-throb in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and in the recording industry as a teen idol. And I think it was that fluffy, wholesome fame that largely kept Nelson out of Rock’s royal court for most of his music career. Of course there is some ironic snobbery in that.
More than one critic has noted that Ricky Nelson had the best band money could buy. And there’s a reason for that: because it’s true. The execution on every song they produced through Nelson’s career was disciplined, sparkly, tight and professional. Highlighting this starlet band is James Burton, a guitarist not many know because he’s a guitar player’s player. Disciplined and creative at the same time, Burton’s work on Travelin’ Man is notable. He’s restrained but manages to poke out here and there until he gets his solo (@1 min 10 secs) which is magic. Youngsters note: there’s no gain there; no compression; no distortion and certainly no digital tuner. Just talent. That’s all skill.
I suppose we could rant on about the patriarchal and chauvinistic lyrics. Yeah, there’s that. But dig-deeper, haters. If you really want to be serious about this, which I’m hoping you are, then let’s talk about America in the 1950s and early 60s. America inherited the world like it or not. We broke it, we bought it. And this song is just a reflection of that notion, no matter how naive that might have been. So cut the song a break, you post-moderns, and enjoy it.
There’s a reason legendary DJ Kid Leo still plays this song everyday. Because it deserves to be heard.