“Trail of Tears” is the ridiculously strong opening number on Guadalcanal Diary’s 1984 debut album, Walking In The Shadow Of The Big Man. I bought the Rhino reissue of this CD packaged together with their second album, Jamboree, and consider it to be one of the best investments I’ve made, music-wise. Almost every single track has something to recommend it.
I’ve mentioned this before, but even though Guadalcanal Diary were from Marietta, GA many people (including the AllMusic.com reviewer for this album) lump them in with the Athens, GA scene. Well, there are certainly sound similarities, so that is inevitable. Producer Don Dixon worked on their records and, seeing as he was the producer on R.E.M.’s early records, it only makes sense that the band was going to sound a little bit like R.E.M. straight out of the gate.
I would argue that there are several things that set them apart from R.E.M. For one, Michael Stipe and Murray Attaway have very different lyric styles. Where Stipe tends to brilliantly slip off into dream land on those early R.E.M. albums, Attaway has a much more literal approach to his songs. He tends to create characters and stories, which puts him a little bit more in the Johnny Cash/country music tradition. Or, perhaps, the folk music tradition. Anyhow…
Even though Guadalcanal Diary were aurally without question part of the “jangle rock” style, they are pretty clearly different from R.E.M. You could point to any two band members to demonstrate this, but I’ll focus on guitarists Peter Buck and Jeff Walls. Let’s look at a typical R.E.M. jangle song, circa 1984:
Buck seems to prefer a kind of plucked precision much of the time, while Walls’ choices tend more towards chords and sustained notes – until he gets to his solos. Buck scrupulously avoided solos, where Walls embraces them much of the time. I think part of the reason for this is that, musically, REM was a three piece – Stipe sang but didn’t play and instrument. Guadalcanal Diary was a four piece – Attaway played rhythm guitar – and that afforded Walls a little more freedom. Buck had to be precise, Walls could go all over the place if he wanted and Attaway would maintain the chord structure. I don’t know actual music terminology, needless to say. Buck is among the elite guitarists of our time, but Walls held his own.
Anyhow, this is why I don’t write more about music. I know the bands have a similar sound, but their approaches to song creation are very, very different.
“Trail of Tears” starts cold – we’re into the song immediately. The title suggests that the song is going to be about the infamous forced relocation of Native Americans in the 1830′s, but the lyrics are actually something of a civil war era anti-war parable. The ringing chorus consists exclusively of the phrase “one wore black,” which takes on different meanings in reference to each of the three verses.
This song got a ton of airplay on WXCI in Danbury and (apparently) on many other college stations. “Trail of Tears” is a genuine lost classic.
Here’s a really good cover of it from 2000 by Jason Ringenberg of the Scorchers: