It's appropriate that the cover of Arlo Guthrie's Running Down the Road, his second studio album, shows the artist riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Arlo took a risk on this record, going from a straight folkie to a country rocker, backed by some of the genre's finest players available - Clarence White and Gene Parsons of the Byrds, Ry Cooder - and he came up with with a fine record. It's not a masterpiece, but it showed Arlo as being more than a one-trick pony in the wake of his success with "Alice's Restaurant."
Guthrie expands his abilities as a songwriter here, with some unpretentious introspection in "Every Hand In the Land," and"Wheel of Fortune," both with some crisp guitar and a gentle shuffling beat. His piano ballad "Oh, In the Morning" is an achingly beautiful song showing genuine emotion without being maudlin. And while he's not Dylan, his enigmatic letter to a lover, "My Front Pages" (the title tips a hat to Dylan's' "My Back Pages") comes pretty close.
Arlo also shows a good ear for cover material on Running Down the Road, from his affectionate cover of Pete Seeger's rustic instrumental "Living In the Country" to his lighthearted take on Gus Cannon's old folk-values tune "Stealin'." And although Arlo was daring to invite comparisons to his dad Woody with his cover of the elder Guthrie's Oklahoma Hills," his heartfelt delivery shows how committed he is to keeping American folk traditions alive. Which makes the title track, the closing song, all the more curious; "Running Down the Road," with its psychedelic feedback and phasing, sounds like a pale imitation of what the Jefferson Airplane had already done, and better.
For me, though, "Coming Into Los Angeles," a tense, urgent tale of smuggling drugs, is the best song on Running Down the Road, exhibiting both the cockiness and the paranoia of the counterculture at a time when its influence was at its peak, with random images of hip and weird passengers and even a possible reference to fellatio to make the scene that much more interesting. Running Down the Road, as a sophomore effort, suggested that Guthrie's best work was ahead of him, and that he was ready to chase his artistic vision wherever it would lead him.