Forget about the country. It's full of mini-malls and tree-stripped tract housing plots, and the only honky tonks you'll find have already been sanitized for your line-dancing protection by those boot-scootin' boogie boys down in Nashville.
There's really no better place to get back to your musical roots than grimy old NYC. Just dial down the FM band to the high '80s and low '90s, nestle in for a few hours of raw early country, blues and bluegrass on WKCR, WFDU, WFMU or WFUV and then slip in a copy of Hillbilly Boogie (Sony/Legacy) to top off the experience with a bass-heavy blast of dark holler hideaway (the postwar, trailer-park equivalent of deep house).
This 20-track collection of late '40s country boogie and proto-r&b hillbilly stomp showcases a bewildering array of stars (Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Bond, Spade Cooley, Bob Wills, Little Jimmy Dickens) and no-names (Johnny Hicks & His Country Hicks, Curley Williams & His Georgia Peach Pickers) associated with Columbia and its sister labels.
Hot, swing-laced guitar work and fat, walking basslines hit you from all sides, with the best stuff coming from the most unlikely sources, like the aforementioned Johnny Hicks ("Hamburger Hop," "Get Your Hicks (From the Country Hicks)"), Smiley Maxedon ("Give Me a Red Hot Mama and an Ice Cold Beer") and Andy Reynolds & His 101 Ranch Boys ("Beer Bottle Mama"). Bargain-priced for your home-entertainment pleasure.
While its high ($40-plus) import-driven price precludes us from listing it in our Good 'n' Cheap Downhome Beats category, Justin Tubb's Rock It on Down to My House (Bear Family) is guaranteed to keep the kinfolk on the dance floor long after Hillbilly Boogie disappears in a cloud of digital dust. Selected by sociologists in the mid-'50s as the country star most likely to replace Howdy Doody in the event of a nuclear disaster, Tubb sported a big, yelping voice and a leering fondness for teenage rockabilly alongside a set of Dumbo-worthy ears and an oh-so-fine country pedigree (his daddy was The Texas Troubador, Ernest Tubb).
Until the slick, string-soaked Nashville sound caught up with him in the late '50s, Justin churned out some of the twangiest, most hummable stepped-up honky tonk around. And if you're a sucker for infectious melodies and playful wordplay, you'll be all over Tubb originals like "Somebody Ughed on You," "I'm Looking for a Date Tonight" and the breathlessly longwinded "Looking Back to See," a classic duet with the mighty fine Goldie Hill.
For more on the subject of essential female honky tonk performances, please consult MCA's long-overdue Honky Tonk Girl, the crisply packaged, virtually flawless 70-track Loretta Lynn retrospective that's been on the wish lists of all us honky tonk dreamers for about an eternity or so.
It kicks off with the wailing, overmiked pedal steel from the original 1960 Zero 45, "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl," then just gets better and better as Lynn brings her fiesty, high mountain twang to bear on the classic honky tonk themes of drinkin' ("Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind), "Wine, Women and Song") cheatin' ("You Ain't Woman Enough," "You Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out on Me)") and gettin' even ("The Shoe Goes on the Other Foot Tonight," "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath").
If Lynn was born in Brooklyn instead of Butcher Hollow, we'd call this stuff honky tonk with chutzpah. And they'd serve possum on a stick at Nathan's.
If you're hankering for grits and gravy with an ocean view, you can always go bi-coastal and catch the latest hot country Hollywood wave, Heather Myles's solid, tuneful second effort, Untamed (HighTone). Myles offers a throatier, higher-energy and more accessible take on the West Coast country sound reshaped recently by the likes of Lucinda Williams, Rosie Flores and Jim Lauderdale.
Untamed may be a bit too polished for low-fi roots fiends accustomed to her gutsier earlier work, but Myles's wet, supple vocals, strong songwriting and tight, crackling studio band rocket tunes like the rocked-up "Cadillac Cowboy" and the jangly "And It Hurts" to the top of the year's stuff-I-find-myself-playing-loud-and-often list.
Same goes for Tulare Dust -- A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard (HighTone). Don't be misled or hoodwinked into picking up the equally well-meaning but horribly realized Nashville-sanctioned Hag tribute competitor, Mama's Hungry Eyes (Arista), which features the maudlin likes of Wynonna Judd and the fast-sinking Clint Black. Tulare Dust is Haggard done the way the self-effacing man would have done it if he was forced to do it himself -- by getting an intelligent, creative group of genre-bending songwriters and performers together and letting them sing their favorite Hag songs in whatever style they deem fit.
The results of this Tom Russell/Dave Alvin-produced effort are stunning. From Russell's Okie migrant worker medley, "Tulare Dust/They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down," to Billy Joe Shaver's joyful, hard-driving reading of "Ramblin' Fever," this 15-track collection does double duty by getting some great roots rockers together on one new disc and by re-introducing the country and rock audience to Haggard and his prodigious repertoire of songs about the working man and his battles with the bottle, relationships and restlessness.
Highlights include Iris DeMent's warbling, acoustic "Big City," Joe Ely's revved-up "White Line Fever" and Steve Young's utterly lonesome "Shopping for Dresses." And of course, the songs themselves.
Working and rambling were both ways of life and prime fodder for song topics for Haggard's guitar-toting Okie predecessor, Woody Guthrie, whose equally prolific songwriting and hard touring never translated into the type of commercial success that Haggard has enjoyed. While Guthrie's impact on the pre-electric Dylan is now the stuff of rock history cliches, his exuberant, wry vocal style and his ability to graft a timely, ironic political lyric or children's nursery rhyme onto a popular folk or country melody at the drop of a hat have been relatively ignored.
Smithsonian/Folkways's Long Ways to Travel -- The Unreleased Folkways Masters, 1944-1949, serves up a warm, unpolished slice of Guthrie and sidekick Cisco Houston in a variety of home, studio and live settings.
Lots of casually strummed guitars, wheezing harmonicas and spontaneous harmonies on songs about trains, rambling and the plight of the downtrodden, alongside a gleefully sarcastic swipe at songbook-peddling Western singers, "Rocky Mountain Slim and Desert Rat Shorty," and a tongue-twistin' piece of kid-directed nonsense, "Wiggledy-Giggledy." Makes you want to throw your git-fiddle on your back and ride the Erie-Lackawanna to Port Jervis or the Poconos. Just to say you did it.
Or you could ride the Airmail Special down South and thumb your way back to the late '20s and early '30s, when the Sears Catalog, dime-store record departments, rambling minstrels and the vaudeville/medicine show circuit sparked an explosion in blues musicians plying their trade on street corners and in bars and roadhouses around the South.
Two wonderful recent compilations, Yazoo's Mississippi Masters and Memphis Masters, provide a satisfying, remastered introduction to the wide variety of acoustic country blues, early uptown r&b and fiddle and kazoo-driven jugband sounds to be found throughout the Mississippi/Western Tennessee region from 1927 to 1935. A constantly changing cast of talented unknowns and better-knowns (Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon and the Memphis Jug Band, Memphis Minnie) keeps things consistently fresh, sometimes bawdy, sometimes blue.
For something not-so-completely-different, turn to the latest RCA masterstroke, Elvis Presley's Amazing Grace -- His Greatest Sacred Performances. And try to forget the saccharine, schmaltz-drenched Elvis still being pushed by RCA in its never-ending slew of movie reissues and its latest love songs compilation, Heart and Soul.
The King made no secret of the fact that gospel was his favorite genre, the music to which he often turned while warming up for a session or winding down in the deep recesses of the otherwise lifeless Graceland with an around-the-piano group singalong.
Amazing Grace brings together 54 tracks culled from Elvis's various gospel and secular RCA albums and from previously unreleased studio out-takes in one two-disc set, which is augmented with well-informed liner notes from country music scholar Charles Wolfe. All of it stands right up there with Sam Cooke's wonderful Soul Stirrers work as an example of the thin line between honest soul music and heartfelt gospel, as made gloriously evident in the stately 1957 recording of "Peace in the Valley" and surging, almost swaggering '70s big band sound of the blistering "I've Got Confidence."
Despite -- or because of -- its brillance, you probably won't run across any tracks from Amazing Grace or any of the other releases mentioned above (save for the pathetic Mama's Hungry Eyes) on TNN, CMT or on any commercial radio station. Which is all the more reason to snatch up what you can and hole yourself up right here in Hillbilly Heaven.
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
Addresses of harder-to-find labels are as follows: Bear Family, Box 1154, D-27727 Hambergen, Germany; HighTone, 220 4th St., Oakland, CA 94607; Smithsonian Folkways, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Ste. 2600, Washington, DC 20560; Yazoo, PO Box 20124, Columbus Circle Station, New York, NY 10023.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe