This week, my talk with self-described folk-country scientist and songwriter Cleve Francis, whose winding fifty year story in music is nearly unparalleled. Few African American artists had their work heard in the folk boom of the early 1960s, and while Francis studied to become a heart specialist after leaving the small hamlet of Jennings, Louisiana, the honey-voiced gems he laid down with his guitar in the gorgeous compilation Beyond the Willow Tree are finding devoted new audiences — this podcaster included.
After diving into that encyclopedic collection which showcases his songs from 1968-1970, you can see that Francis’s tastes were vast. Sparsely recorded with his beautifully airy yet powerful voice leading the way, he tributes everything from Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement to his loving interpretations of Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, The Beatles and Bob Dylan (his fiery take on “With God On Our Side” is a must-listen). And yet, if you look deeper into his story, you’ll notice that Francis’s real love was for old school country music.
In Nashville, the list of major-label Black stars not named Charley Pride was short — and still is. But in the 1990s, while already a successful cardiologist, Francis took leave of his office in Virginia and jumped on a tour bus to promote his catchy CMT-approved records Tourist in Paradise and Walkin’. Always the trailblazer, he also founded the Black Country Music Association to help find opportunities for up-and-coming artists who were left out of the Music City limelight.
While he did return to his patients and left Nashville to its devices in the late 1990s, Francis and his work creating what he likes to call “soul-folk” are thankfully being discovered anew via the wizardry of the internet. I was so personally moved by the open-hearted power of his collection Beyond the Willow Tree that I had to find out more, and I’m so glad I did.
Photo Credit: Michael S. Williamson