How Creedence Clearwater Revival Came Into Their Own With ‘Bayou Country’
Bayou Country wasn't Creedence Clearwater Revival's biggest album. (Green River, released a few months later, became their first chart-topping record.) Bayou Country didn't produce the most hit singles. (That was 1970's Cosmo's Factory, with three straight Top 5 songs.)
Yet, this sophomore LP – issued Jan. 5, 1969 – is perhaps CCR's most important, if only because it represents the moment where John Fogerty found his own voice. And in the most unlikely of places: the American South, far away from his California roots.
“All the really great records or people who made them somehow came from Memphis or Louisiana or somewhere along the Mississippi River,” Fogerty wrote in Bad Moon Rising. “I had a lifelong dream that I wanted to live there. I never even thought about the social pressures. To me, it just represented something earlier, before computers and machinery complicated everything, when things were calm and relaxed. And singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters gave me the feeling that they were right there, standing by the river. The South just seem to be where all the music that’s kicked everything off started from."
This fascination stretched back to his earliest musical memories, and helped push "Proud Mary" – Fogerty's first important song – to a best-ever No. 2 spot on the singles chart. The album opened with the delightfully swampy "Born on the Bayou," traveled darkly by "Graveyard Train," paused for an amped-up cover of "Good Golly Miss Molly" (which Little Richard recorded in New Orleans) and concluded with the chicken-fried expanses of "Keep on Chooglin'." Creedence Clearwater Revival surrounded Fogerty's craggly yowl with a sharp combination of R&B, country and rockabilly courtesy of the late rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford.
Bayou Country felt of a piece, however, a gothic vision as complete as it was unexpected. And that vision was all Fogerty's. "I know that the specific memories I would try to paint — that I would try to talk about, even in that song — are my own memories," Fogerty told the New Yorker. "Those were things that, in one way or another, actually happened in my childhood. Quite a few of them, anyway. I was creating an atmosphere — even, almost a mythical world — that existed within that album."
Listen to CCR Perform 'Born on the Bayou'
He never looked at it as appropriation, but rather as a cradle for his imagination. In fact, the first single Fogerty remembers hearing was a rootsy double-sided 45 given to him by his mother – "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races," written by Stephen Foster. Later, he "was fascinated to learn that even though he wrote all these songs about the South, Stephen Foster was from Pittsburgh!" Fogerty wrote in Bad Moon Rising. So, why couldn't he?
"'Oh! Susanna,' I loved it then,” Fogerty noted told the New Yorker. "It's one of my favorite songs. I think, perhaps, what my mom may have done accidentally was set me off in a direction we would now loosely call 'Americana.'"
Just six months after their self-titled debut, Creedence Clearwater Revival seemed like an overnight sensation. But they had actually spent a decade polishing and shaping this sound under earlier band names like the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs. Something had finally clicked, and songs started pouring out of Fogerty at such a furious pace that they were suddenly having arguments over which one should appear on CCR's A-sides.
"I didn't think 'Proud Mary' was that good, if you want to know the truth about it," drummer Doug Clifford told Goldmine. "I just didn't like it. I liked 'Born on the Bayou.' To this day, it's still my favorite Creedence song. It's nasty, and I was disappointed when [the single] got flipped."
"Proud Mary" was the hookier, more mainstream song, and its detail-rich tale of a narrator who ditches it all for life on a riverboat clicked with a wider audience, opening the door for a string of hits. "It was John's first real Tin Pan Alley kind of tune, with a beginning, middle and end," Stu Cook told Louder Sound. "And the track has a very laid-back feel, very greasy. A really deep groove."
Listen to CCR Perform 'Proud Mary'
The song's sense of nostalgic abandon also provided a welcome distraction in a war-torn world. Written after Fogerty earned an honorable discharge from the Army, "Proud Mary" was a tone-setting moment for Bayou Country, and the first in a non-consecutive string of five CCR tracks that stopped just short of the No. 1 spot.
"Once I had written 'Proud Mary,' the heavens opened up," Fogerty told Florida Weekly. "Right there that afternoon as I was writing that song, I knew that this was a great song. I knew this was what they used to call a standard. They probably call it a classic now. This was far above any song I had ever written in my life."
Everything started moving very fast for Creedence Clearwater Revival, as they released two more albums by the end of 1969. One minute they were crowding into a Volkswagen bus for their shows; the next CCR were swooping in on a Lear jet. Funky bars had become huge venues and then Woodstock. This transformation didn't suit everyone.
"We were a garage band from our inception, and we worked hard at our craft," Cook said in the Louder Sound interview. "But I think we were at our best on a smaller stage, closer to an audience that was really paying attention. When you get on a stage that's 40-feet wide, you kind of lose touch with each other. It’s harder to get the feeling across. It’s more of a spectacle."
At the same time, Fogerty had now assumed a central role in every part of their output, and that was already fostering stubborn divisions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Creedence Clearwater Revival soon began to break apart under the sudden stress.
"In making Bayou Country, we had a real confrontation," Fogerty told Rolling Stone. "Everybody wanted to sing, write, make up their own arrangements, whatever, right? ... I basically said, 'This band is going to make the best record it can make, and that means I'm going to do things the way I want to do 'em.' That sounds very egotistical, but that's what happened – and the other three guys had to swallow and go, 'Okay, yeah, that's what we'll do.' For the next two years it worked great, and then at some point they didn't want to swallow and say, 'That's nice' anymore."