Oral history: ‘The Ballad of Calico’ by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition

In the vast canon of music recorded by Kenny Rogers, nothing ever came close to the audacious ambitiousness of 1972’s The Ballad of Calico, a sprawling, 19-song concept album about a silver-mining town that actually existed in California’s San Bernadino Mountains in the 1880s.

It was the era of Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy, and The Ballad of Calico was similarly constructed – each song told a part of the story, each was performed in a different style, and each character was represented by a different singer.

It was Kenny Rogers and the First Edition in those days, digging for silver long before Rogers struck gold – and then multi-platinum – as a solo act.

The group had begun as simply the First Edition, with each member sharing lead-singing duties, but after a string of hits with Rogers taking the lead, the name was changed as a commercial concession.

Their most recent release on Warner Bros. Records’ Reprise subsidiary, Greatest Hits, had sold more than a million copies. Which may explain why the label was willing to bankroll a double album written front-to-back by two unknowns (Michael Murphey and Larry Cansler), with no “surefire” hits on it.

Only six of the 19 tracks featured Rogers singing lead, and one of those was a brief reprise of another song. Kin Vassy had five, Terry Williams four, Mary Arnold two. Several were co-leads. And the album included three instrumentals.

Rogers produced the album himself.

The Ballad of Calico came in an expensive package, designed to look like an old-time scrapbook, with a parchment libretto inside featuring Murphey’s hand-written song lyrics and sepia-toned photos of the group in period costumes. Not a speck of color in the entire set.

It was, to be sure, a gamble. And Warner Brothers – which knew when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em – walked away after the lone single (the Vassy-sung “School Teacher”) failed, and the album itself rose no higher than No. 118 on the Billboard chart.

After The Ballad of Calico, the group soldiered on via MGM, under the imprint Jolly Rogers Records. There would be no hits there, either, and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition ceased to be in 1975.

That was the very year Murphey scored his first hit as an artist with “Wildfire,” a song he and Cansler had composed during their writing sessions for The Ballad of Calico.

Never issued on CD, The Ballad of Calico has taken on a mythic reputation over the years.

This Oral History of the project began in late 2019. Kenny Rogers, who was known to have a fondness for Calico, had agreed to participate … and sadly, that interview never came to pass.

We spoke with Cansler, Murphey (now professionally known as Michael Martin Murphey), Williams, Arnold (now known as Mary Arnold Miller), Glaser Sound Studios chief engineer Claude Hill and Rogers’ longtime manager Ken Kragen.

RIP Kenny Rogers, Mickey Jones, Kin Vassy and Ken Kragen.

The beginning

Murphey: I’m kind of a perpetual tourist. I love to go through state parks, and stop and look at historical markers. And I went up to see this little town, Calico. I just fell in love with the whole story of the place. It seemed to be such a paradigm, if you will, of American life. Our boom and bust mentality. You hear about some gold in California, and everybody gets in a wagon and goes out there. Or there are oil strikes in Texas, and then everybody goes to Texas.

Cansler: We had both been staff writers at Screen Gems, and after my contract ran out we stayed in touch, and by that time I’d started working with the First Edition. Kenny and I went all the way back to Houston. They had just recorded ‘Ruby’ – we always called it ‘Rudy’ – when Kenny and I were starting to hang out together. I was hired to do the string arrangements for some of their album cuts; it was a natural progression that when they decided to go live with an orchestra, they hired me to do it.

Murphey: I tended to get hired a lot at Knott’s Berry Farm, and Walter Knott had a little re-creation of Calico out there. And I saw the need for there to be possibly a musical written about Calico that could be performed at Knott’s Berry Farm. I took it to the powers that be, and they laughed me out the door.

I was on a salary to write at Screen Gems, so I said, I’m just gonna write it anyway. I got some of the tourist booklets that they handed out there, and I did a little research in the UCLA library.

Cansler: Murphey played ‘Calico Silver’ for me, and explained what research he had done, and I just went totally nuts on it.

Murphey: I started thinking I may be out of my pay grade here when it comes to arranging this stuff. So Larry said ‘Why don’t we just co-write these songs together?’ I’d already written quite a bit of stuff, so we went ahead and finished out a lot of it. We split the songwriting credits – he took the credit for the melodies, and I took the credit for the lyrics. But the truth is, sometimes I’d write a melody, and he’d give me an idea for a lyric.

Cansler: I brought Murph into a session with Kenny and the gang, and had him sing ‘Calico Silver.’ And we explained the concept – sort of like the Spoon River Anthology, where we’d go in and tell certain facets of the story, and basically create the life and death of a ghost town. And Kenny and Terry Williams both went ‘Bingo! Let’s do it.’ So at that point Murph and I really got serious about it. He took me out to the ghost town, and we walked around and studied the history for a long time. And basically just started sketching everything out.

Williams: They came up to Toronto where we were doing our TV show, played the songs and pitched us the idea of the album. I don’t think Murph or Larry ever intended for any of those songs to be commercially viable. They were telling a story, a true story about individuals who lived and died in Calico, and the town itself.

Murphey: I researched all the incredible characters who lived there, and the animals like Dorsey, the mail-carrying dog. He was an absolute hero of an animal in the 19th century. And Madame de Lil, who was a madam.

Cansler: Murph and I were going around Boot Hill out there at Calico. And there’s quite a few of the graves that had a little headstone, but no name. And that just blew us away. So that’s where ‘Write Me Down’ came from; we just expanded it, with the vocal chorus that we put in, to being the whole town: ‘Don’t forget that I existed.’

Vachel Carling was made up. But Sally Grey, and most of the names, we took from gravestones. The story of Madame de Lil was part of the record. That actually happened. And Dorsey the dog. But like anything else, you take a poetic license.

Kragen: Those two guys, I thought, wrote something exceptional. I remember driving up to Calico and going through the place, in the spirit of the idea … I felt like it should be a film. But that wasn’t our orientation in those days.

Murphey: Kenny Rogers felt like he was viewed as way too commercial. Truth is, that was his power. The guy was an incredible genius at picking songs that were likely to be hits. Critics were always trashing him for being shallow. And the big thing back then was singer/songwriters, which he was not. He didn’t write much on his own. He said ‘I want an exclusive on this while you guys finish it up. I want to be the first person to record all this stuff.’

Miller: I had no idea what a concept album was at that point. Kenny would say ‘Just don’t worry about it; we’re just playing these characters in this thing that Michael has written.’

Cansler: Once we realized that we had a green light to actually put together a project, then Murphey and I approached it from a totally different point of view. Now it was ‘How are we going to do this?’ ‘What stories can we string together?’ We combined stories. We combined characters. It wasn’t a documentary – we were just trying to catch the spirit, the loneliness of what it must have been like to be in an austere setting like that. Trying to paint a musical picture of that.

The sessions

Williams: It was two weeks in Nashville at the Glaser Brothers Studio. It was kind of like a film – we recorded it out of sequence. There were unbelievable moments in the recording itself. During ‘Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog’ there was a breakdown section, and we did this bark-bark-woof-woof around one mic, in a circular pattern. We could see each other doing it, and at the very end we just cracked up. And we ended up keeping that on the album, because it was just the spirit of the group to begin with.

Cansler: The most incredible musical two weeks I’ve ever had in my life. This amazing synergistic energy came out of everybody. We were at the Glaser Brothers night and day. Everybody in the First Edition was a great singer, and a great musician, and something happened – they caught the spirit of it.

Williams: I was usually the only one playing an instrument on our albums. Kenny, Mickey and the other guys did not. But on Calico, the group played everything. Did all the rhythm tracks. Larry Cansler played the keyboards. It was a magical time.

Murphey: They were a good band. Those guys were always on the road. And the more you play live, the better you get. Terry was a good guitar player – you could throw anything out to him, he could mess around with the settings on his electric guitar and come up with any kind of sound.

Hill: Kenny played both upright bass and Fender precision bass; Mickey played all the drums but only sang in the group parts. Kin Vassy had the best-sounding Gibson Dove I ever heard. It was a ’67 or ’68 model. And everybody played at the same time. The great pedal steel on ‘Trigger Happy Kid,’ that’s Doyle Grisham, who was the steel player for the Glaser Brothers.

Miller: Murph would show up in a camper. We would be in the Holiday Inn, and he’d be out in the parking lot. He would just bring more songs. We had a great relationship with the studio – we’d go in and cut as much as we wanted. We’d just do it all day. And we learned the songs at the studio.

Cansler: With my background as a musical director, I knew that you’ve got to have variety, or people will just tune out. It’s as simple as ‘do an up tune, then do a ballad.’ You just break things up. One of my favorite cuts is just Murph playing the guitar on that ‘Rocking Chair’ song. If you put that in any other album, it’d be “What the hell is that?” But after a big symphony piece, and then some screamin’ rock ‘n’ roll, that little thing just works.

Williams: The piece called ‘Rocking Chair,’ Murphey played the guitar on. We could not find a rocking chair that sounded good until we found the studio chair, the producer’s chair. Which was all chrome and leather. But it squeaked perfect.

Hill: We had a real harpsichord, a mini-Moog synthesizer and an electronic organ that had sound effects on it. That’s the source of the background sounds on ‘Vachel Carling’s Rubilator’ – the rubilator itself, that’s Kyle Lehning playing that thing. We did that with several overdubs.

Murphey: I tried to write songs in all genres. That’s just the kind of songwriter I am. And if I got a melody in my head that was an R&B tune, that’s what I would write. I feel like you can use different styles and different genres of music to express something … like ‘Madam de Lil and Diabolical Bill’ is a really good, almost kind of a Rolling Stones track. I wanted that ‘bad boy’ sound. But then when I wrote ‘Sally Grey,’ I didn’t even want a pop sound. I just wanted something that sounded very hymn-like. Very gospel.

Kenny Rogers (1972): “We sing the actual epitaph that is on her tombstone. That organ at the end symbolizes the casket being lowered into the ground. When it was originally recorded, I sang part of the Lord’s Prayer under the organ, but we cut that because it was too strong.”

Miller: We would go in, rehearse, and everybody would just be on their part. We just knew where we sang. So the things that Kin sang were definitely songs that Kin should do. Terry could kill a ballad. And Kenny was just Kenny. You could see which songs he was supposed to do.

Williams: I was always the high part, Mary was always underneath me, Kin always sang his part … in this case, it was kind of the same thing. I remember songs that seemed right for different singers. Kin had a powerful lead vocal, so his stuff was very powerful. Kenny was more commercial, a little bit more subdued, and he did his growls and things like that. I got stuff like ‘Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog’ and ‘Road Agent’ and ‘Old Mohave Highway.’ Mary, of course got ‘Madame de Lil’ and ‘Sally Grey’ because she was the chick!

Murphey: And of course when you have Kin Vassy in the band, Good Lord you’ve got to write some blues songs for that voice. That guy was one of the best blues vocalists I have ever met in my life. Kenny was a great blues singer too – we became friends; I would go over to his house and we would listen to five or six Ray Charles albums in a row. And he would try to sing it exactly the way Ray sang it.

Hill: We used each voice, and each combination of voices, for the betterment of the overall record. On ‘Sally Grey,’ I used two tracks for Mary’s voice – we had 16 tracks to work with – and her vocal parts overlap each other. And on the ‘Dorsey’ thing, it goes and goes and it cold-stops. You put on the next record, at the beginning, at it goes the carrying dog. And ends it. There are other things like that, to try to make it a work, not just a collection of songs

Miller: We would record, and then we’d run out to our cars, and they would play it over the radio for us so we could hear it over the radio, and what need to be fixed and stuff. And there was a genuine excitement about doing this album. We were just so proud of what we were doing.

Cansler: At some point, Kenny wasn’t there for a couple of days while we were rehearsing songs, and somebody just took the lead on it.

Murphey: It was Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. It wasn’t just Kenny Rogers. All the other members of the band had a lot of say on it.

Miller: I don’t think any of us thought ‘What is this going to be?’ There were more and more songs, and it just kept going on and on.

Kenny Rogers (1978): “The process of producing The Ballad of Calico kept my adrenaline flowing for much of the eight months I worked on it. Every night I lay awake thinking of fresh ways to approach a song or solve a technical or musical problem.”

Murphey: I think what people missed about Kenny Rogers was that he was a brilliant producer. And that’s a whole separate talent. He had a mind that could keep a lot of things going at once. He was a multi-tasker. I believe that album was made on a 16-track machine, and it took a heck of a producer to handle all that. And Kenny was in the studio at all times. The guy never left the studio.

Williams: At the very end, we needed the sound of wind, and we couldn’t find anything in sound effects that made sense to us. So Mickey went out into the studio and did it with his mouth. Cupped his hands in front of his face and did the wind.

Cansler: We cut the basic tracks and the vocals, then we came out to L.A. and I added the orchestras.

Williams: Kenny had gone back to Los Angeles to start to put together the orchestral sessions, and we were finishing up in Nashville. Claude and I mixed the album, and edited it into sequence. And we’d never heard it in sequence before. I called the group over, and we just sat down and blasted this thing, at ear-crushing levels in a dark room. And it was an experience of a lifetime to hear it in sequence – the story being told. It was like watching a movie, and it all made sense.

Hill: Kin had brought some incredible marijuana back from a trip he’d made to Denver. They rolled a couple, and everybody took a hit or two and we played the record. Including me – but I was down to all I had to do was push two buttons. We finished at one or two in the morning and continued partying. There was some wine and high-end munchies. When we finished, the sun was coming up, and we all went over to the Holiday Inn and had breakfast at a big, round table. Maybe a dozen people. Everybody else in there was businessmen and politicians, and there we were in the middle of that, having a very large time.

Everybody loved it. I boxed the tapes up and shipped them to Warner Brothers.

The finale

Miller: We’re all so proud of that album. It was probably one of the best that we ever did, and we had no idea what we were doing at the time – but we had so much fun doing it.

Williams: We consider it as close to a masterpiece as we ever came, that’s for sure.

Kragen: I always felt it was one of their best projects, in that it had a lot of unusual and experimental things going on. But the timing was wrong, and it was not a commercial success. I remember feeling ‘Gee, if this had come a long a little sooner, it would have been a big hit.’

Miller: We would do things and move on. It wasn’t like everyone was going ‘Oh, I hope Calico is a hit …’ It wasn’t like that at all. At the shoot we did, where they had us dressed up in all those old costumes and that stuff, that’s the most I ever thought about it.

Williams: ‘School Teacher’ was released as a single, but it just never hooked up. I don’t know why. I thought that was a really strong record. It might have been because Kin Vassy sang the lead on it and it wasn’t Kenny. Maybe they missed Kenny. I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t because none of them were good enough. It was just that it didn’t ring that commercial bell for the country, I guess.

Murphey: Vassy was never really happy with the fact that Kenny took so much of the lead on the First Edition songs, maybe that’s why he left. I kept up with him over the years; he became a songwriter in Nashville and kept a little bit of a career going.

Cansler: It always comes down to a record company putting down some cash.

Kragen: We had a feeling at the time that Warners wasn’t fully behind it. But that’s what happens when you have a lack of success with a product that you really believe in – you have a tendency to look around for excuses and reasons.

Murphey: Warner Brothers didn’t want to do double albums. They were expensive to produce and manufacture, and hard to market because you had to charge twice as much. I think if The Ballad of Calico had been compressed onto a CD today, and manufacturing costs were as low as they are today, it would have been a monster hit.

Cansler: It still holds up. Ninety percent of the music on the album works. And you can’t say that for everything these days. Kin Vassy’s performance. Terry Williams on ‘Road Agent.’ Mary’s solo on ‘Sally Grey.’ Everybody had their moments. And Kenny still sang the opening and closing themes, and just nailed it. He set the mood.

Murphey: The enthusiasm for everybody to do this was mainly driven by Kenny, who really loved Western history, and really loved California being a Western state. He knew he was going in the direction that spoke to him in his soul. About who he was and where he wanted to go.

When he accepted the Country Music Hall of Fame award, when he was inducted, the only thing he wanted thrown up behind him on the screen was the Ballad of Calico album.

Kenny Rogers (1999): “There were high hopes that it would be revolutionary, and that it would do something wonderful. It wasn’t as big a success as some of the other albums, but there’s something satisfying about doing good product. And saying  ‘A lot of you don’t know about it, but those who do, love it.’”