If "Rootin' Around" could ditch its cantankerous creator and re-invent itself in a more user-friendly format, it would hijack a high-powered Mexican border radio transmitter and set up an on-air roots-rock pitstop. One complete with clean restrooms, gut-busting El Pico coffee, cilantro-doused tacos and hot r&b, honky tonk, blues, rockabilly, gospel and Tex-Mex thrown in at random intervals to keep the intestines off balance.
A show kinda like trash-talkin' '50s Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips's epic "Red, Hot & Blue," a genre-gouging, racially integrated nightly bop-fest which introduced the world to Sun Studios artists Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins and served up an exotic r&b diet featuring such staples as Piano Red, Rosco Gordon, Roy Brown and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
Dewey's manic, nonsensical hepcat patter ("I'm as nervous as a ... frog on a freeway with his hopper busted!"), exultant whoops ("That'll flat get it!") and impeccable musical taste can finally be experienced anew on Red, Hot & Blue (Memphis Archives), a one-track, hour-plus slice of everything you need to smash the nefarious forces of Cousin Brucie, Rick Dees and Ralph Emery.
Since it is the holiday season, you might need to Defrost Your Heart (AVI) with a drawling excursion through Sun Studios' unjustly ignored country archives. You get five eeriely loping tracks from a cocky young Charlie Feathers, five more from the chirpily swinging Miller Sisters and a host of oddities by ramblin' Harmonica Frank Floyd, the Ripley Cotton Choppers and Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore's old bandmate, Doug Poindexter.
If you've got arson in your heart and dogging on your mind, you'll want to apply two liberal doses of Sun rockabilly blasters Billy Lee Riley (Red Hot (AVI)) and Sonny Burgess (Hittin' That Jug (AVI)), whose remastered '50s stompers "Red Hot," "Flying Saucers Rock 'n' Roll," "We Wanna Boogie" and "Red Headed Woman" sound powerful enough to rid the world of Lollapalooza once and for all.
With a pair of heavily accented (British and Texan) yelping honky tonk tenors and a shared fondness for minimalistically rocked-up, slapback-driven country backdrops, Chicago's Waco Brothers and Austin throwback Wayne Hancock ain't looking to land tracks on the "Mall Rats" sequel soundtrack album.
But the chugging, gin-soaked Wacos, fronted by erstwhile-Mekon/pond-jumper Jon Langford, show why the Windy City is fast becoming the queen city of hard-country hot-dog rock 'n' bowl on their To the Last Dead Cowboy (Bloodshot). Hancock's gleefully cackling, jumped-up debut, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs (DejaDisc) is a sure cure for the go-to-hell No-Tell Motel blues.
And a reminder of the hidden treasures to be unearthed in the rarely publicized Austin hard country scene, which is documented in high twang-for-your-buck, budget-priced fashion on Austin Country Nights (Watermelon).
Yodeling Don Walser, HighTone's Dale Watson & Ted Roddy and what's left of '80s hopefuls The Wagoneers are all here. But the real show-stealers are Roy Heinrich's gorgeously lonesome "A Face in the Crowd," Charlie Robison's stark, Kato Kaelin-slammin' "Sunset Boulevard" and The Derailers' simmering, Buck Owens-inspired thwomper, "Just One More Time."
For more on the old Buckster and the hard-shuffle Bakersfield sound, dip into the mother lode -- part two of Sundazed Records' elegant Buck Owens reissue series. This round includes his crackling '60s Capitol albums, Buck Owens, You're For Me, Open Up Your Heart, Roll Out the Red Carpet and The Instrumental Hits of Buck Owens and His Buckaroos. Don't let the goofy grins and shiny Western duds throw you: Buck, twang-phat guitarman Don Rich and sweet-toned steel player Tom Brumley were roots-rock gunslingers just itching to bust out of the straight country format.
The freewheeling Maddox Brothers & Rose did just that a decade before Buck's pesky buzz-cut arrived on the California country scene, burning up Golden State honky tonks and roadhouses with their manic blend of hillbilly boogie, western swing and proto-rockabilly. Vol. 2 -- America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band (Arhoolie) showcases the high-speed mayhem throaty singer Rose Maddox and whooping, slapback-bassman Fred Maddox stirred up in the late '40s, when they laid the groundwork for the smoother-voiced hard-country sounds of Wynn Stewart, Merle Haggard and Owens.
Stewart's irresistably melodic, long-out-of-print Capitol stuff has been reiussed in a crisp, 29-track set, California Country -- The Best of the Challenge Masters (AVI) that finally does justice to this unjustly forgotten West Coast stylist.
Though he has faded a bit into the obscurity of his Mt. Shasta retreat in the last few years, Merle Haggard is riding a wave of critical acclaim once again, due to ambitious reissues of some of his finer '60s and '70s Capitol albums by both Koch International and -- gasp! -- Capitol's new Nashville division, which has just rescued the Hag's relaxed, swinging I Love Dixie Blues (Capitol) from the label's prodigious vaults.
Recorded with a hot jazz/swing combo in New Orleans in 1973, the album is a stunning example of Haggard's ability to infuse a staggering variety of American music forms -- Tin Pan Alley, hokum, Western Swing, Dixieland jazz, country -- with a new sense of vitality and invention.
One genre Haggard doesn't tackle (at least on this album) is old-time black gospel, which gets a searing, sweat-wringing examination at the hands of New Orleans preacher Elder Roma Wilson, who tears the roof off "My Lord's Gonna Move This Wicked Race," "Have You Tried Jesus -- He's Alright" and a storefront chapel full of 18 other potent spirituals with the aid of only a stacatto harmonica and his huge, rafter-rattling voice on This Train Is a Clean Train (Arhoolie).
For more great gospel in a slicker, though equally incendiary, vein, check out late Philadelphia belter Marion Williams's This Too Shall Pass (AVI) and The Best of Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters (AVI), a wonderful collection from the Chicago-based stars of the classic 1981 documentary film, Say Amen ,Somebody.
Which provides a nice segway to our brief discourse on this year's impressive crop of holiday collections.
After three consecutive reissue-starved musical Christmases, me and the chickens are finally fattening up on some hearty stuff, headlined by Christmas Blues, the unimaginatively titled but oh-so-essential Savoy Jazz LP that's now available in Japanese import CD form.
The Ravens' original doo-wopping r&b take on "White Christmas" and Jimmy Butler's lip-smacking "Trim Your Tree" are just the tip of the iceberg, which melts all over your mini-stereo when Debbie Dabney launches into "I Want to Spend Christmas With Elvis."
The Rounder Christmas Album (Rounder) is a laid-back grab-bag of the holiday-themed blues, country and world music churned out by this amazing little label over its prolific 25-year history. Bahamian porch-picker Joseph Spence's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," Brave Combo's "Must Be Santa" polka and George Thorogood's twisting "Rock & Roll Christmas" round out a set list featuring the likes of Charles Brown (aka Mr. R&B Christmas), Irma Thomas, NRBQ, The Louvin Brothers and Riders in the Sky.
Navidad En Cuba (Caney) fills in the missing Latin music link in the Rounder compilation with a hip-swaying, horn-peppered set of vintage Cuban Christmas salsa from the incomparable Celia Cruz, La Sonora Matancera and El Conjunto Matamoros.
This year's holiday favorites -- Punk Rock Xmas (Rhino) and A Christmas Present for You (Zero Hour) -- fall somewhat outside the sacred roots music confines within which us rootgeeks live our pathetic little lives. But when you have to contend with El Vez's "Feliz Navidad," Pansy Division's "Homo Christmas" and TVTV$'s "Daddy Drank Our Xmas Money" (Rhino) alongside the Zero Hour collection's lilting Kevin Salem/Grover collaboration, "Fairytale of New York" and Nicole Blackman's petulant, spoken-word, "What I Want for Christmas," even the hardest-hearted hard-country flagbearer doesn't stand a chance.
You're better off throwing in the towel on the Kris Kringle question and licking your stubby little pencil so you can add The Music Never Stopped -- Roots of the Grateful Dead (Shanachie) to the bottom of your Christmas wish list (right below that set of monogrammed Depends and the Eddie Vedder chia-pet).
This wide-ranging collection of blues, old-timey, country, and New Orleans songs reworked by Jerry & the boys night after mind-numbingly noodling night presents these chestnuts in their raw, acid-free original forms, ranging from Charlie Patton's "Spoonful" and Howlin' Wolf's "Red Rooster" to Woody Guthrie's "Goin' Down This Road Feelin' Bad" and Cannon's Jug Stompers' "Big Railroad Blues."
Regardless of your stance on Tevas, hackey-sacks and patchouli, this one will at least give you something to talk about when you're forced to discuss the philosophical merits of Blues Traveler while drinking a nice, watery Red Dog at the all-ages Wetlands Christmas bash.
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: Memphis Archives, Box 171282, Memphis, TN 38187; AVI, 10390 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025; Bloodshot, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613; DejaDisc, 537 Lindsay St., San Marcos, TX 78666; Watermelon, Box 402088, Austin, TX 78704; Sundazed, Box 85, Coxsackie, NY 12051; Arhoolie, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530; Rounder, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140; Zero Hour, 1600 Broadway, Station 701, NYC 10019; Shanachie, 13 Laight Street, NYC 10013.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe