|If you want the real scoop on America's basest behavior, turn off the idiot box and fire up some scratchy old '78s -- like Chubby Parker's 1928 monster hit, "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O," which relates the Weekly World News-esque tale of a mixed-blood marriage between a flirtatious frog and a cantankerous country mouse.
|The arrival of this raspy old recording (and its 83 leering companions) as part of Smithsonian/Folkways' long-awaited reissue of '50s hipster/folklorist Harry Smith's infamous Anthology of American Folk Music was the highlight of my otherwise musically indifferent summer.
Whilst my alt-country brethren were singing the praises of yet another set of well-meaning regional Uncle Tupelo knockoffs, and my NYC compadres were braving the onslaught of Garth, I was driving around. And around. And around. Skimming along the Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota hills and prairies , listening to not much more than the hum of my tires and the incessant buzz of Great Plains grasshoppers, as my rock-weary eardrums got their first rest in years.
Smith's Anthology was one of my first aural introductions to the weirdness, danger and utter hilarity of vernacular American popular culture. When compiled in 1952 by the eccentric record collector with a passion for early country and blues, the Anthology of American Folk Music was greeted with one big blank stare of apathy by the good old American public.
But for a few budding folkies and future rock critics, Smith's painstakingly collated and wackily annotated collection of murder ballads, story songs and goodtime dance tunes from the 78's pre-Depression heyday was the mother lode of country and blues music. If nothing else, it introduced generations of folklorists and beatniks to the likes of the Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt and Uncle Dave Macon.
Hats off to Smithsonian/Folkways for this beautifully packaged enhanced CD (Win95 and Mac) reissue, and for including a reproduction of Smith's fanzine-like 1952 liner notes, which made rock scribe Greil Marcus froth at the mouth like a rabid dog in sheer ecstasy in the bibliographic notes to his own roots music epic, Mystery Train.
I'm also quite partial to another Smithsonian/Folkways collection, Close to Home: Old-Time Music From Mike Seeger's Collection, 1952-1967. Like Harry Smith, Mike Seeger appreciated old-time Southern music for what it was -- affordable, entertaining, time-passing stuff that had a good, danceable beat -- and not for being a mystic link to the dark folklore of the ancient British Isles.
Seeger's open-minded approach to field recording makes for a rolling set of fiddle tunes, ballads and gospel numbers, featuring a cast of talented no-names and some better-known folks like Ernest Stoneman, Tom Ashley, Snuffy Jenkins, Dock Boggs and Sara & Maybelle Carter. The highlight of the proceedings is a rollicking, spoken-word rant by a wild-ass soapbox preacher type, Clyde Lewis, who manages to pun-tificate his way through a side-splitting jumble of Biblical references, hoecake cornpone and downright nonsense that would have left Lenny Bruce and Jerry Clower in the dust while selling you a wheezing old jalopy in the process.
For a slightly more intellectual perspective on Southern music's past and present, turn to the Oxford American Magazine's "Special Double Issue on Music," and its companion 21-track CD.
For only $6.50, you get: a harrowing tale of a few days in the life of hard-drinkin' bluegrass legend, Jimmy Martin; profiles of the late Ted Hawkins, Rosetta Tharpe, Louis Prima and Skip James; conversations with Lucinda Williams, Carl Perkins and Hi Records mastermind Willie Mitchell; and an assumptions-challenging Nick Tosches portrait of '20s yodeling minstrel, Emmett Miller.
The CD's a bit thin for my tastes, but gives a balanced portrait of the artists profiled in the pages of the magazine. My hardened soul could have done with a bit less Kate Campbell and helluva lot more Charlie Rich, but I'm just a cranky old cynic, so take that into advisement and seek this out at all costs.
While we're traveling the Dixie backroads, let's be neighborly-like and skip right over the stuff we hated (like the new Ricky Skaggs CD!) and motor through a few of the summer's roots-minded standouts.
Leading off is Whiskeytown's Rural Free Delivery (MoodFood), a raw, surging blast from lead singer Ryan Adams and his North Carolina band's not-so-distant past. The low-fi production values do these 1994 cuts a real service, chunking up the rockers like "Take Your Guns to Town" with a stuttering nervous energy, and adding a biting edge to Adams' sweetly rasped vocals on "Angels Are Messengers From God" and "Pawn Shop Ain't No Place for a Wedding Ring."
While the alt-country underground waits to mete out the verdict on Whiskeytown's ability to make the major-label transition with new release, Strangers' Almanac, the new one by The Old 97's Too Far to Care (Elektra) ,proves that mass distribution, big-name labels and people who live in Dallas can be good things, after all.
This one picks up right where the careening, brilliant Wreck Your Life (Bloodshot) left off, with producer Wally Gagel adding some hard-rock crunch to Ken Bethea's stuttering rockabilly guitar work and fleshing out vocalist Rhett Miller's wistful, winkingly self-deprecatory wordplay. It's everything the Cure always wanted to be without all that messy makeup and awkward androgyny (which might not go over too well down in the Big D, anyway).
California country singer Buddy Miller is not one for fancy appearances, either, preferring to slouch down on-stage and hide behind his lowslung baseball hat and twitching low-string guitar runs. But if he keeps on kicking his guest performers' butts on albums like Poison Love (HighTone), Miller might have to develop a little stage persona of his own to cope with the sudden realization that this guy churns out raw, haunting country rock that sticks with you long after the memory of his star-studded co-writers and guest vocalists fade away.
Miller rises above the potentially deadening influence of the wincingly amelodic Jim Lauderdale and reedy-voiced Emmylou Harris, latching onto his own weathered, throaty voice and wife Julie's twangy harmonies to carry him through a dizzying set of covers and originals. Lauderdale should stick to writing and let Buddy take over. It's Miller time, and we want the Champagne of Beers back. Forget about that cold-filtered, Genuine Draft crap!
With that kinda Archie Bunker attitude, I'm a sucker for throwbacks like Straight Outta Boone County (Bloodshot), a 20-track tribute to Cincinnati radio station WLW's '40s/'50s country showcases, "The Boone County Jamboree" and "Midwestern Hayride." Bloodshot does what it does best here, getting together a weird, talented sampling of today's weirdest, most talented roots-rock acts and cutting them loose in a no-holds-barred concept setting.
The result is mighty fine, indeed. The Volebeats show a rare rocking side on their hiccuping "Hamtrack Mama," while Kansas City's soon-to-be-revered Holler sends Merle Travis's "No Vacancy" soaring to dynamic new heights. Some of the acts try a bit too hard to top the old masters (as in The Riptones' close-but-no-ceegar send-up of Homer & Jethro's "Hucklebuck" and Hazeldine's somnolent Delmoresiana on "I'm Lonesome Without You"), but it's all loose-limbed and none too self-important.
The same could and should be said of the immensely talented jazz fiddler, Claude Williams, known around his hometown jazz hotbed as the King of Kansas City for his deft, improvisational way around a violin. King of Kansas City (Progressive) captures the 89-year-old Williams swinging, cutting and bluesing around with a group of younger Kansas City jazz players and vocalists. Together, they breathe new life into old standards like "St. Louis Blues," "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Them There Eyes," while letting Claude saw and strut his still-potent stuff on "Lester Leaps In," a lick-trading tribute to Williams' primary influence, saxophonist Lester Young.
It's enough -- along with the chance to see the aforementioned Holler live once a month at a charming old dive (Davey's Uptown Ramblers' Club) -- to make a guy pretty darned happy to be living in these transitional parts, where East, Midwest, West and Southwest all seem to meet and mingle like the jazz, blues and country still spilling out of old AM radios, 78-rpm thrift store bins and windowless taverns on the fringes of town.
Which might explain my geeky giddiness over my latest historical find, Songs of the Santa Fe Trail and the Far West (Gardner), by -- yep, that's right -- Mark Gardner and the Skirtlifters.
Blame it on one too many viewings of "Waiting for Guffman" or that never-finished Ph.D. in history. I just can't seem to get enough Santa Fe Trail ruts, tallgrass prairie preserves, Sonic Drive-In cherry lime-ades and pre-Civil War banjo tunes (just ask my oh-so-patient Great Plains gal and roadtrip pal, Deborah). All of these egregious eccentrics come together in perfect harmony on this historically minded, often beautiful collection of old Western trail songs and Mexican waltzes, done up all rubbery and limber-like by Mark and the Skirtlifters and their tack-head banjo, parlor guitar, fiddle and bones.
Pick one up at your friendly local National Trails Center or pull out the washboard bass and toilet paper roll kazoo and light out for the Plains and make your own. Ruts, that is. Deep, sticky, muddy ones. The good kind.
- Kevin Roe ([email protected])
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at Brooklyn's Holy Cow; Manhattan's Venus, Smash and Norman's Sound & Vision; or via mail-order from Roundup Records (800/443-4727), Atomic Beat (310/556-1144) or Internet music stores Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order (510/525-1494, [email protected], http://www.bluesworld.com/roots.html), Norton Records ([email protected], http://members.aol.com/nortonrec/norton.html), Miles of Music ([email protected]). The Smith Anthology is available from Mabel's Music, www.mabels.com
This article was originally published in SoundViews Magazine, New York
Copyright 1997, SoundViews Magazine, New York, NY andKevin Roe
Reissued with the permission of the author