Go figure. The JyMy Freeze ice cream truck in my sludge-caked Chicago hood only plays two songs: shrill, endlessly looped synth-pop takes on "Turkey in the Straw," and the grand-daddy of all cowboy songs, "Home on the Range."
I oughtta be a happier than a knish nosher in a vat of seltzer, right? Wrong!!!
Finding my displaced self longing for the woozy warble of "Send in the Clowns" gurgling out of a Mr. Softee truck drifting up First Ave., I dove deep into the CD review bin the other night and pulled out the next best thing. Harmonica Masters (Yazoo) and the Roots of Rap (Yazoo) were the answer to my cacaphony-induced prayers.
Each of these 23-track collections of old country, blues, hokum, ragtime and vaudeville 78s wheeze, wink, grind and chortle louder than a fat kid slurping on a Dreamsicle. Harmonica Masters mines the long-shuttered vaults of the major labels' '20s and '30s field recording operations to unearth foot-stomping gems in the mold of black Grand Ole Opry performer Deford Bailey's "Ice Water Blues," The Bubbling Over Five's "Don't Mistreat Your Good Boy Friend" and "Take Your Foot Out of the Mud and Put It In" from Dr. Humphrey Bates' Possum Hunters.
Don't be scared off or misled by The Roots of Rap's pedestrian appellation. It's really nothing more than a fine collection of barrelhouse piano, small-combo jazz, country blues and gospel from the familiar likes of Blind Willie Johnson, the Memphis Jug Band, Blind Willie McTell and Memphis Minnie.
Emmett Miller's The Minstrel Man From Georgia (Sony/Legacy) provides a more consistent, though initially disturbing, view of the salacious, double-entendre blues being peddled up and down the early 20th century southern vaudeville circuit.
Once one gets over the shock of Miller's leering blackface minstrel get-up on the CD jacket, the man and his music come into clearer focus. Tracks like the lazy "Lovesick Blues," "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None o' This Jelly Roll" and "You're the Cream in My Coffee" showcase a smooth-voiced pop-blues crooner whose scat-happy way with a lyric left its mark on everyone from Jimmie Rodgers to Louis Prima.
For a thinner slice of Miller (one track) and a heartier helping of his '20s and '30s blues contemporaries, turn to Messed Up in Love (Sony/Legacy), an engaging but predictable foray through the twisted corridors of romance, with Barbecue Bob, Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Boy Fuller (among others) as your tour guides.
Some of these raconteurs also turn up on Booze & the Blues (Sony/Legacy), on which everyone from the obscure Sloppy Henry to the didactic Rev. W.M. Mosley is allowed to pontificate on the many wonders and snares of demon rum and its fiery kinfolk.
Charlie Poole and Bascom Lamar Lunsford had moonshine on the mind when they laid down the classic old-time banjo performances captured on Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, Vol. 2 (County) and Lunsford's Ballads, Banjo Tunes and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina (Smithsonian/Folkways).
Poole's wise-cracking grin, crackling two-finger banjo style and high-nasal vocals are still as clear as a high mountain church bell on "If the River Was Whiskey" and "If I Lose, I Don't Care," thanks to some expert re-mastering of the tracks he and his two-piece backing combo waxed on recording trips to New York from 1925 to 1930.
Amateur folklorist and banjo/fiddler Lunsford was known around his Blue Ridge Mountain hometown as a guy who "would cross hell on a rotten rail to get to a folk singer or a square dance," according to the CD liner notes. He founded the still-running Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, N.C., wrote the Stanley Brothers home brew classic, "Mountain Dew" (included here with its original lyrics intact) and single-handedly preserved a corncrib full of old Appalachian ballads, fiddle and banjo breakdowns for posterity. Not bad for a guy with three last names and a fondness for bow-ties and riding pants.
You wouldn't be caught dead in a get-up like that in the Show-Me State. But Lunsford would have found himself in plenty of good musical company if he had made a prospecting trek into the fertile hollows of the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks back in the late '20s and early '30s. Echoes of the Ozarks (County) shines the spotlight on some talented unknowns of yesteryear, who turn in a surprisingly diverse set of regional originals ("My Ozark Mountain Home," "Prairie County Waltz") and tasteful covers. High marks also go out to Dr. Smith's Champion Hoss Hair Pullers, George Edgin's Corn Dodgers and Luke Highnight's Ozark Strutters for sheer nonsensical nomenclature.
Folk/bluegrass singers Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard and St. Louis violinmaker Geoff Seitz are some of the most talented contemporary purveyors of the tradition preserved by Lunsford and the Echoes of the Ozark collection. But rather than simply imitate what's come before, each breathes new life into the bluegrass, string-band and country formats, deftly blending genres to create vibrant new hybrids.
Dickens & Gerrard recorded the 26 raw, pulsating bluegrass tracks found on Pioneering Women in Bluegrass (Smithsonian Folkways) in the mid-'60s at the height of the folk movement. Though they've since gone their separate ways, one can't help but pray for another chance to hear their scratchy, passionate voices rise and fall over the breaks in Lefty Frizzell's chilling "Long Black Veil" or the Carter Family standard, "A Distant Land to Roam."
Seitz's The Good Old Days Are Here (Oceana Productions) is, simply, the best fiddle album I've ever heard. Backed by a subtle supporting cast of Midwestern old-time pickers, Seitz spins out a supple set of original breakdowns ("Gravois Creek Pump" being my favorite), traditional numbers ("Sally Ann," "Marmaduke's Hornpipe") and the simply beautiful, "Rose of Sharon Waltz," which Seitz penned for the closing scene of a St. Louis production of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
To rid your psyche of car alarms and ice cream trucks forever, play this five-minute slice of wonder at the close of day with the blinds drawn tight and a candle flickering softly on the table.
The perfect segway for the slow journey back to reality is Jazz From the Hills (Castle), a series of snappy mid-'50s hillbilly jazz cuts from the Country All Stars (Chet Atkins, Homer & Jethro, pedal steel player Jerry Byrd and others). It's a lightly swinging mixed bag of countrified jazz instrumentals and pop standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown," "I'll See You in My Dreams" and "Stomping at the Savoy" that boasts the chops of the Texas Playboys without any of Bob Wills' annoying little whoops to boot.
Don't be dissing Mr. Wills around the Okie From Muskogee. Especially when he's got a long-overdue domestic box set to back him up. Merle Haggard's Down Every Road (Capitol) made me yelp, cry, sigh and take back every bad thing I've ever muttered about Capitol's reissue department -- all in the space of two hours. This one includes the hits from Merle's prolific '60s Capitol period, as well as some highlights from his later stints with Epic and MCA. But the key finds are lesser-played, soul-gnawing numbers like "Skid Row," "Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive," "Tulare Dust" and a killer bluesy swing rendition of "Trouble In Mind."
Mr Peter's Boom & Chime may not be the most likely candidate to cover a great Haggard song like "Today I Started Loving You Again." But this Charlotte, N.C., calypso-merengue band's loping, steel-drum-powered version of this bittersweet admission of sentiment and reconciliation stands right up there alongside the best stuff on last year's Tulare Dust (HighTone) Haggard tribute album.
The rest of this landlocked Caribbean party band's Haul Up Your Foot You Fool (FireAnt) pulsates and vibrates with such a smile that you won't even wince when the whole thing drifts off key for a brief moment or two on "Remember the Bargain (Bingo Gal)" and "The Donkey Wah Wata," only to find the groove and melody and lock in for the duration.
Mr. Peters, Mr. Softee -- same difference :-)
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: Yazoo, PO Box 20124, Columbus Circle Station, New York, NY 10023; County, P.O. Box 3057, Roanoke, VA 24015; Smithsonian/Folkways, 955 L'Enfant Plaza, Ste. 2600, Washington, DC 20560; Oceana Productions, 4175 Longborough Ave., St. Louis, MO 63116; Fire Ant, 2009 Ashland Ave., Charlotte, NC 28205.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe