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McGuffey Lane – Aqua Dream

Updated: Apr 15

By the spring of 1981, McGuffey Lane was flying high. Their self-titled debut continued to sell briskly after being reissued on Atco. They toured with The Allman Brothers Band and played Charlie Daniels' massive Volunteer Jam. At home in Columbus, they’d not only outgrown the clubs, but they were selling out The Palace Theatre and Mershon Auditorium. They were gearing up to go into the studio for the first time as Atco recording artists. Their label sent the Columbus boys up to Ann Arbor, of all places, to record their second album Aqua Dream.

ATCO Records - SD 38-144

Front cover of McGuffey Lane - Aqua Dream

Drummer Dave Rangeler came into the McGuffey Lane fold in March 1981, replacing John Campignotto. Manager Cliff Audretch, Jr., with Alex Hodges of the Atlanta-based Empire Agency as booking agent, had positioned the band as a country rock act by placing them on bills with the Allmans and The Charlie Daniels Band. With new Atco vice president Reen Nalli stirring questions about whether she was moving the label towards country, she seemed determined to emphasize the “rock” in country rock for McGuffey Lane’s second album. She assigned her brother, Al Nalli, and Brownsville Station drummer Henry Weck, to produce the new record. Nalli and Weck had just finished producing the hard-rocking Blackfoot album, Marauder (this is the “Highway Song” southern rock band, not to be confused with J. D. Blackfoot).

Al Nalli’s studio was in the basement of his Ann Arbor music store, hence the name Subterranean Studios. If everything appeared to be rock n roll Shangri-La from the outside, some cracks were beginning to appear in the McGuffey Lane veneer. Guitarist/songwriter John Schwab recalled the period of Aqua Dream's recording in a 2015 episode of Pat McLoughlin’s Local Lix podcast.

“By the time the second album came around, we kinda tried to rock it up a little bit. We had a new producer. In my opinion, we kinda left our roots,” Schwab noted. “The smart thing to do would have been to have gone back to the same studio (as the first album), recorded with the same engineer. You know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Instead, here we are, a band that made our bones on the Ohio State campus and they sent us to Ann Arbor to record our second album. We shoulda known right then that it wasn’t gonna go, you know? What the heck were we thinking?” (laughs)

“They put us into a house that had no air conditioning. It was the middle of summer and they put us in a barn next to the house and just told us to practice our songs all day long,” Schwab told McLoughlin. “I ended up going home because I was tired of hanging around. Really the band started to kind of fracture at that point a little bit.”

Recording began at Subterranean the third week of June 1981. The title Aqua Dream was inspired by Mark Hanauer’s photo of the band submerged in Eckels Lake, a "playground on water" in Delaware that was a summer destination for Columbus kids like myself. There is a palpable “major label sheen” to the production which doesn’t quite suit the band’s style. And while tracks like “A New Beginning” and the single “Start It All Over'' reflect songwriter Bobby Gene McNelley's desire for a fresh start, some of the lyrics take on an added poignancy in retrospect.

Back cover of Aqua Dream

Can't you see what's bottled up inside of me.

It's tearing me, tearing me apart.

Everything is driving me insane.

I think it's time to make a new start.

I think it's time to set my sails to the wind.

I know where I’m going, I won’t be back again.

I’m gonna leave my troubles behind

I’m gonna uncloud my mind

I’ve got this feeling deep within.

I think it’s time for a new beginning.

-from “A New Beginning” by Robert E. McNelley

McNelley was apparently battling some demons even if, on the outside, it seemed like his dreams were coming true. He would leave McGuffey Lane in 1983 before taking his own life at age 36, less than six years after recording Aqua Dream.

While the songs on the album are solid, it does seem odd that no songs from one of Lane's primary songwriters, John Schwab, made the tracklist. It seems it wasn’t a case of writer’s block on Schwab's part. Unrecorded Schwab songs like "Be A Friend Of Mine" had been in the live set since the early days. “You know, I had the biggest hit off of the first album (Long Time Lovin’ You) and the producer cut all my songs off the second album,” Schwab told Local Lix. “I didn’t have any songs on the second album... (Aqua Dream) doesn’t stand the test of time, in my opinion. I think a lot of the songs do, but the recording doesn’t.”

That's a brutally honest assessment although, in fairness, most albums released in 1981 do sound like, well, albums released in 1981. Aqua Dream, released on November 20, 1981, received generally favorable reviews and sold well in Ohio, however the album was a disappointment commercially. “Start It All Over” did make some noise as a single, sneaking into the Hot 100 in February 1982.

In his retrospective Allmusic review, critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted that McGuffey Lane’s sound “is hard to peg as either strictly country or rock, so it's little surprise that it didn't find a home in either format upon its release. Aqua Dream proves that McGuffey Lane is diverse, almost effortlessly so, but that diversity doesn't necessarily make them easier to market. As a collection of individual tracks Aqua Dream is strong, overlooked '70s country-rock that's worthwhile for serious fans of the genre.”

An overlooked track on Aqua Dream is "Tennessee." Its civil war themed lyric, plaintive harmonica, marching snare and haunting melody make it stand out. Charlie Daniels makes a cameo on “Bag Of Rags” which combines a Terry Efaw original instrumental with a couple standard rags.

As the calendar flipped over to 1982, McGuffey Lane embarked on a tour with The Marshall Tucker Band. “Fair Weather Friends” gained some radio airplay as an album track and Atco released “Fallin’ Timber” to radio. Although Atco appears to have given up on promoting Aqua Dream rather quickly, to their credit they didn’t give up on McGuffey Lane. In May 1982, less than a year after sessions for Aqua Dream began, the band was back in the studio with a new production team to begin recording their third album.


Written-By – Robert E. McNelley

A2 It Comes From The Heart

A3 Dream About You

Written-By – Robert E. McNelley

Written-By – Robert E. McNelley

Written-By – Robert E. McNelley

McGuffey Lane promo pic From left: John Schwab, Terry Efaw, Steve Reis, Dave Rangeler, Stephen Douglass, Bob McNelley
From left: John Schwab, Terry Efaw, Steve Reis, Dave Rangeler, Stephen Douglass, Bob McNelley

Written-By – Robert E. McNelley

Written-By – Robert E. McNelley

B3 Fallin' Timber

Written-By – Robert E. McNelley

B4 Bag Of Rags (Instrumental)

Written-By – Terry Efaw

b Tiger Rag

c 12th Street Rag

Written-By – Euday L. Bowman

Written-By – Stephen Reis

Side two label of Aqua Dream
Companies, etc.
  • Phonographic Copyright ℗ – Atlantic Recording Corporation

  • Mastered At – Atlantic Studios

  • Published By – Shapiro, Bernstein & Co.

  • Published By – Leo Feist, Inc.

  • Published By – Jerry Vogel Music Co., Inc.

  • Mixed At – Bee Jay Recording Studio

  • Recorded At – Subterranean Studio, Ann Arbor

  • Published By – Hat Band Music

  • Produced For – Al Nalli Productions, Inc.

  • Published By – McGuffey Lane Music

  • Copyright © – Atlantic Recording Corporation

  • Manufactured By – Atlantic Recording Corporation


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