George Cromarty appeared to the world on the cover of the Here They Are LP, by a clean-cut folk duo called the Gold Coast Singers. Cromarty sits back-to-back with his lifelong friend Ed Rush, the latter’s smile is wide, the former’s more reserved, more thoughtful. The record is humorous, even novelty, dare we say it, and would later receive support from Dr. Demento. The standout cut was “Plastic Jesus,” a fan favorite in the group’s native California for its playful yet surprisingly dark treatment of Bible-belt fundamentalism. Proof of its odd appeal and influence is the fact that “Plastic Jesus” has been covered by such divergent artists as Billy Idol, Lalo Schifrin, the Flaming Lips, and Paul Newman’s character Cool Hand Luke…and that’s in just the first four decades of the song’s existence.
Gold Coast Singers disbanded when Cromarty was drafted in 1963. Upon his release, he returned to California to find none of the familiar folkies he’d known in college still hanging around. Cromarty settled instead into a quieter life in Morro Bay. Perhaps under the influence of the peaceful Pacific, he began to write in a softer, somewhat bereaved style, though not quite that of American Primitive. He had absorbed the same American roots as Fahey and had Robbie Basho’s delicate touch, but his virtuoso technique was at the root of the modernist approach that would later take hold of William Ackerman and his Windham Hill acolytes. Cromarty would, however, follow in Fahey’s footsteps, starting the Thistle label and, through the help of his friend George Winston, would wind up being distributed by Takoma. Thistle’s first album, 1973’s Grassroots Guitar, is without a doubt Cromarty’s masterwork, as evidenced by “Flight,” a song with so much color and movement, it achieves almost an instrumental narrative. It couldn’t have more voice even if he’d sung on it.
Gripped by depression and struggling with alcoholism, Cromarty stayed out of the studio for the rest of the decade but continued to write, practice, and perform. Finally, in 1983, he recorded another album at the behest of Winston and his Dancing Cat label. A few years later, he married and returned to Fresno, California, to put down roots and start a family. The last few years of his life were filled with peaks, but the valleys were much deeper. On February 12, 1992, George Cromarty took his own life.