The latest piece of archaeology by the Paradise of Bachelors label is an extraordinary album of Viet Vet country boogie. First released in 1983, and sold through a small ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine, it’s the work of Vietnam veteran Edwin Bankston, who wrote the songs in the decade following his service aboard the aircraft carrier Kittyhawk. The ad read: “For a lot less than a box of ammo to sharpen your eye, you get an album that will nourish your heart and mind for years.”
“I started playing in bars when I was 15,” Bankston recalls. “I lived in a rural area, and we’d play Friday and Saturday nights for five dollars a night. I always thought that would be my life, playing music, but then I got in the service. When I got out, I still thought of myself as a musician but music’s a tough business, and if you’re gonna have success you’re gonna have to give up a lot as far as family goes. I had three kids, and I got to a point where I had to make a choice – either I’m gonna keep doing this, or just become a square and raise the kids. I chose the kids.”
Much of the record is Waylon Jennings-style country boogie – “I’m a soldier of fortune, a hell for leather mercenary man” he sings on “Soldier of Fortune” - but there are occasional 1980s’ period flourishes; on “Firefight”, Bankston embellishes the chorus “here you are, and death is all around you” with a Chicory Tip-style riff. “I grew up with Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton, an old rockabilly type guy. I liked Creedence Clearwater … I always thought of myself as a country guy, but Waylon led us country guys away from straight country – he opened the doors for a lot of musicians, to say that you don’t have to sound like Hank Williams anymore. You can sound like whoever you want.”
Bankston viewed the war as “a perfect storm of psychic wackiness”, and if Vietnam Blues sounds like a Ry Cooder character piece, the song gains poignancy from the singer’s investment in the subject and, perhaps, his awareness of his potential audience. When he sings about being “a hell-for-leather mercenary man” the line “if you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time” packs a heavy punch.
“I started writing these songs because I felt kind of estranged from what we call now popular culture. I was playing round different places, and a funny thing happened. Several times I’d take a break from the set, and a guy would come up to me and say, who did such and such a song? I’d say, well, that’s one of my songs. He’d say, ‘Really?’ and we’d get to talking and he’d say, ‘Well you should write a song about this,’ and he’d start telling me about some particular experience that he’d had. You’re always looking for an idea for a song, and I’d go back and forth with these guys, and generally they’d say, ‘Yeah, you kind of got it there’. One song that made it on the album was called Firefight, about a firefight in the jungle, which i never did, but an old marine suggested that to me. I said, ‘Tell me about it’. So his remembrances are what’s in that song.
“As veterans, we all felt pretty rejected. Our fathers were the World War II generation, and they all came back and were hailed and feted. But then we would come back, and we got the opposite reactions. Some people were openly hostile, but even amongst people that weren’t, there was an attitude of: we don’t want to hear about it, just pretend it never happened. They were just ready to put it all out of their minds, which kind of left us hanging.
“The album was less about that than how unhappy we veterans were with how the whole thing turned out looking back. We were just doing what veterans have always done. We didn’t start the war – we weren’t making any policy or anything, we were just there doing the dirty work, just like soldiers have for thousands of years. I understand the American public was just tired of the whole thing, they wanted it to go away.”