Steelyard Blues was a Jane Fonda/Donald Sutherland vehicle released in 1973. Odds are you’ve never heard of it.
The film was clearly trying to garner attention by reuniting Sutherland and Fonda and hoping they’d recapture their Klute magic, and threw in Peter Boyle for good measure. It didn’t happen. The movie itself was, to be exceedingly generous, forgettable. It’s difficult to scrounge up reviews to this day, but the few that can be found — mostly from major periodicals — don’t have many kind words. Even the Great Sage Wikipedia has but a paltry article that has scarcely been updated over the years. Between the negative reviews and the supposedly small distribution — allegedly because of Fonda’s anti-war activity at the time — it was a bomb and quickly forgotten.
But this isn’t about the film. I know, I know, sorry for making you read all that, but you needed the exposition. It’s about its soundtrack, which has been unearthed, remastered, and reissued by the fine folks at Real Gone Music, and it’s absolutely worth your time.
The soundtrack was composed by some of the smartest and more prominent musicians of its era — Mike Bloomfield, Nick Gravenites, Paul Butterfield, and Maria Muldaur. Bloomfield, Gravenites, and Butterfield were all prominent members of the Chicago white blues movement, each taking turns in groups such as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Electric Flag. Muldaur would late go to have a hit with “Midnight at the Oasis.” If you’re wondering how a soundtrack with so much talent could be so easily forgotten, I’ll direct you to the film’s poor box office showing but concede that that doesn’t even fully explain it.
From the first bar of the first song on the album (“Swing With It”), Bloomfield’s involvement is unmistakable — his distinct riffs is one of the first sounds we hear. The low hum and the high flying but low key guitar kicks off an album that covers a lot of ground for a throwaway movie. The music spans multiple genres, from blues rock to country to doo-wop. There’s a fair amount of comedy strewn throughout the album, too; the bouncy country-infused “Theme From Steelyard Blues (Drive Again)” tells the tale of a man who’s happy to have his driver’s license back after losing it for causing a comically large accident. “My Bag (The Oysters)” sounds like a typical ballad about a man knowing that his best girl’s out there, until the bridge comes along and reveals in baritone that the narrator asked his girl to prove her love to him by “tak[ing] his rap.” The country twang of “Woman’s Love” to the more aggressive electric blues of “Common Ground” to the blue-eyed soul of”If You Cared” makes this album a journey in and of itself, movie be damned.
There’s a sense of looseness throughout the album; nothing gets too complex, and it sounds like all the musicians involved just had a fun time. Nobody is straining, and nobody is trying to innovate anything, they’re taking styles they’re good at, expanding on that, and just enjoying themselves along the way, and it shows. This soundtrack also stands completely on its own — there is no need to see the film to understand any of the songs.
The remastering work is of the highest quality; over 90% of the album sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, and plays just as clearly on a complex sound system as it does through headphones. The master tapes must have either been in fantastic condition or Real Gone Music has access to some of the best audio editing equipment on the planet. I suspect both.
To get your copy of the Steelyard Blues soundtrack, head over to Real Gone Music’s online shop.