"Bessie Smith was the engineer, and I'm just ridin' on the train!"
- Ms. Z.L. Hill, owner, Riverside Hotel, Clarksdale, Miss.
The 216-page book (featuring dignified b&w photographs from Brooklyn's Harvey Wang) and 11-track companion CD on the Shanachie label introduce us to a staggering variety of passionate dreamers and twitching geniuses on the edges of civilization (an Idaho cave dweller, a Basque-speaking mountain shephard and a Death Valley playwright), sanity (the keeper of the world's longest diary, a cackling Hula Ville museum proprietor) and, of course, the outer boroughs (sparkling-eyed Brooklyn checker aces, the cantankerous Coney Island Chamber of Commerce chief).
They're all rockers, in a holy, liminal sense of the word, dwelling on the fringes and trying to wring something pure out of an increasingly sanitized, generic American scene.
Memphis savant Charlie Feathers has been doing just that for 40-odd years, hiccuping and cooing his dark country/rockabilly musings for pennies while his Sun Records brethren moved onto glitzier surroundings. Tip Top Daddy -- Unissued Acoustic Demos, 1958-73 (Norton) is a staggering reminder of just how weird and powerful things can get when you leave Charlie alone with a battered acoustic and a sonorous echo.
For a smoother, warmer splash of the Mud Island sound, turn to The Memphis Shieks' second release, Diamond in the Bluff (Inside Sounds), a swaying, gravel-voiced blend of lazy country blues and acoustic swing.
Or journey back to the roaring '20s where it all got started with The Memphis Jug Band's propulsive, kazoo-powered State of Tennessee Blues (Memphis Archives) and the stride-righteous Piano Wizards (Memphis Archives). This raucous collection of '20s and '30s keyboard stompers kicks off with Meade Lux Lewis's ripping "Honky Tonk Train" and motors through 17 others by Pete Johnson, Jabo Williams, Fats, Earl and The Duke.
If jumped-up, jazzy r&b is what you're seeking, pick up Night Train's awkwardly titled but lovingly compiled, Music From and Inspired by the Soundtrack of "Devil in a Blue Dress." This after-hours collection of postwar jump-blues mines the heretofore unlooted vaults of L.A.'s prolific Swing Time label, giving the consumer a whole lot more Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Brown, Ray Charles, Lowell Fulson, Johnny Otis and Jimmy McCracklin for the money than the official Sony soundtrack release.
You'll get just as much music and a high-class live show to boot if you crawl out from under that rock you've been living under (basement apartment dwellers unite!) and stumble into Mondo Perso, Dan Lynch's or the Louisiana Community Bar & Grill to catch NY harp wizard Ron Sunshine in one of his various musical incarnations.
His '40s jazz/r&b persona is in fine, finger-snapping form on Sumpin Jumpin (Golden Bug), a swinging, soulful collection of vintage covers and stylized originals that stomps, purrs, bops and shouts its way skyward with a little help from Sunshine's honey-tinged vocals and a killer supporting cast, including downtown veteran Joe Flood on backing vocals.
Flood's fine songwriting is featuered on Almost Home (A&M), the long-awaited major-label debut of expatriate Lower East Side scenester Jono Manson, who wore Converse All-Star-sized holes in the tiny Nightingale stage alongside Simon Chardiet, Howie Wyeth and Jerry Dugger as a member of dive-bar band extraordinaire, The Worms, in the mid- to late '80s.
Wyeth, Sunshine, saxman Craig Dreyer, The Allmans' Warren Haynes and Blues Traveler's John Popper, Chan Kinchla and Bob Sheehan lend their Worms-inspired talents to chunky, joyous remakes of The Mighty Sweetones' "Move Along," Flood's East Village anthem, "Miss Fabulous," and Simon's "Hangin' Out for Your Love." Four-year Santa Fe, N.M., transplant Jono also reaches into his bulging bag of clear-eyed Rocky Mountain soul numbers on the gorgeous "One Horse Town" and "Almost Home."
You can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can't take the Brooklyn out of the boy, even if he shuffles off to The Land of Enchantment and gorges himself on frito pie and green chile stew.
You can't get real New Mexican green chiles in the Crescent City, but you can get Dash Rip Rock. And one listen to the barnburning trio's at-the-hopping "(Let's Go) Smoke Some Pot" on the charmingly cheesy Get You Some of Me (Sector II) will have you shoving just about anything you can find down your gullet -- anything to stave off those mosh-pit munchies!
Dallas's kookily kinetic 0ld 97s wax a bit more poetic about the hemped-up subject at hand on their big 10-inch record, "Stoned"/"Garage Sale" (Idol), a split EP shared with Big D alternative rockers, The Funland Band.
But it's the 97s' highly addictive second album, Wreck Your Life (Bloodshot), that will really set your mind a-reeling and legs a-flailing. Fueled by a machine-gun rhythm section and Ken Bethea's veering, stuttering, upper-string twang guitar workouts, lead vocalist and acoustic guitar beater Rhett Miller half-yelps, half-croons his way around a dizzying array of bewitching ex-girlfriends, midnight border runs and ladies' room bathroom stalls.
Easily the best thing that's happened to my life since I got rid of cable and become an honorary friend of the Transit Museum.
On other neo-country fronts, Phoenix's Earl C. Whitehead & the Grievous Angels prove mighty, mighty worthy of inclusion on the next high-octane honky tonk mix tape with their blend of hard-chugging harmonies and soaring melodies on their debut CD, Angels and Inbreds (Bloodshot).
But North Carolina's aspirationally dubbed Jolene falls prey to a bit too much Uncle Tupelo and Eddie Vedder hero worship to ever move beyond the realm of the merely pleasant on Hell's Half Acre (Ardent).
When you're as big as Barry White, merely just doesn't cut it. So The Volebeats' shuffling country cover of Mr. Ecstasy's "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby," stands a little taller -- and wider -- than the five chiming, harmony-drenched originals which make up the rest (but not the bulk) of this Detroit band's alluring mini-CD debut, Bittersweet (Third Gear).
Chicago-based Freakwater reaches back about 50 years farther in grounding its equally appealing, Carter Family-inspired stark country minimalism in a modern-day Rust Belt setting on Old Paint (Thrill Jockey), a slow-building but richly satisfying sophomore effort that makes you want to curl up in a rocking chair in front of a crackling pot-belly stove on a bitter, snow-streaked winter morning.
When it's time to stoke the flames and warm your very soul, however, you'll have to turn to Richmond-based gospel firestarter Maggie Ingram. Rather than douse you with blasts of husky shouting and heavy-handed organ and piano pumping, Ingram works from the embers up, imbuing the hauntingly sparse guitar and background vocals of "Jesus Christ, The Baby" and "My Jesus, He's Pleased" with a majestic warmth that feeds upon itself in the tradition of Sam Cooke's best Soul Stirrers work.
The Best of Maggie Ingram (AVI), a stunning compilation of her finest moments while under contract to the prolific Nashboro label in the mid-'60s, is gospel music that seeps effortlessly into the secular realm. When Ingram confidently declares that the spirit of Christ can be distilled and transfused like "a hypodermic needle" in the stately "My Friend, Jesus," she makes an unconscious leap from the terrifying to the sublime in a single mellifluous phrase.
Richmond's a long way from the Mississippi Delta, but I have a feeling Robert Johnson's waiting in the wings.
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.
Contact info for harder-to-find labels/publishing companies is as follows: W.W. Norton & Co., (Holding On), 800-626-2242; Shanachie, 13 Laight Street, NYC 10013; Norton Records, Box 646, Cooper Station, NYC 10003; Inside Sounds & Memphis Archives, Box 171282, Memphis, TN 38187; Night Train, 200 W. 72nd St., NYC 10023; Golden Bug, 528 9th St., Brooklyn, NY 11215; Sector II, 2116 Guadalupe, Ste. 812, Austin, TX 78705; Idol, Box 578536, Chicago, IL 60657; Bloodshot, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613; Old 97s; Ardent, 2000 Madison Ave., Memphis, TN 38104; Third Gear, Box 1886, Royal Oak, MI 48068; Thrill Jockey, Box 476794, Chicago, IL 60647; AVI, 10390 Santa Monica Blvd., Ste. 210, Los Angeles, CA 90025.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe