I love kids. But, until recently, it's been hard to imagine myself as a parent.
Three big things have changed all of that. One has a heart as big as Texas and is on her way down old Route 66 to meet me in St. Louis. The second is a magical CD entitled, The Land of Yahoe (Rounder). And the third factor? Well, now that a Jim Carrey movie has finally flopped I can breathe a little easier about the prospect of being trotted out for the matinee showings of "Ace Ventura, CyberStud" and "The Cable Guy Goes Wireless" with the offspring and a squealing horde of thousands.
If I was a kid, I'd much rather curl up for a dream-like trip through the Land of Yahoe (not so subtly subtitled, "Children's Entertainments From the Days Before Television"). It's a mystical place where tricksterish animals take on human forms, swaggering frontiersmen stumble around campfires in jig formation and the tales grow taller than them fancy cappucinos in Seattle.
Rounder has committed a grave marketing faux pax -- and done us all a wonderful service -- with this charmingly dusty collection of children's music the way it was back then. Instead of a bouncy Barney or Mickey bleating about the wheels on the bus going round and round, we get a wizened mix of old-timers swapping stories in creaky, cracking voices and churning out mountain classics like "Bile 'Em Cabbage Down" and "The Fox" in a loose, freewheeling, acoustic form. It's rooted in the land, steeped in history and downright fun. And if the kids don't like it, you will.
Ditto for Old-Time Music On the Air, Vol. 2 (Rounder). This wide-ranging of contemporary string-band music ranks right up there with the label's Young Fogies collections in showcasing a bunch of incredibly talented unknowns (The Rhythm Rats, The Bing Brothers, Bunkhouse Orchestra) cranking out a rew set of boot-stomping reels, sweet-toned vocal duets and old-school country gospel. It's where bluegrass and Branson should have gone a long, long time ago.
On the other end of the credibility spectrum, we find ourselves trying to make sort of logical sense out of The Legend of Hank Williams (PolyGram), a well-intentioned but laughably off-the-mark CD audio book based on the printed tome by noted British author Colin Escott and narrated by one of the brighter recent Nashville lights, singer Sammy Kershaw.
That said, there are much better ways to get the lowdown on ol' Hank's tough, tragic life. Skip Sammy's saccharine, plodding narrative and check out Chet Flippo's raw, reeling Your Cheatin' Heart for the real story on what drove this Alabama boy to an early grave. And then buy the boxed set, lock your door and turn out the lights.
Late bluegrass singer Carter Stanley was known to battle a bottle or two in his higher-mountain way, as well. But before he succumbed to demon rum in 1966, he and banjo-picking brother Ralph were one of the tightest, most soulful acts on the country and bluegrass RV circuit.
Shadows of the Past (Copper Creek) captures The Stanley Brothers in rocked-up live form at several outdoor Virginia, Maryland and Ohio shows from the late '50s and early '60s. Ralph's stinging banjo and ace guitarists George Shuffler and Bill Napier weave dizzying circles around the brothers' trademark hardscrabble harmonies throughout the mostly uptempo proceedings. It's got a damned good beat, and you can clog to it any old time you please.
Stanley contemporaries Don Reno & Red Smiley don't get nearly as much respect these days due to their smoother, more polished approach to their tight band and vocal sound. On the Air (Copper Creek) and On Stage (Copper Creek) reveal both a complex, experimental approach to the confining bluegrass form and a reserved, self-effacing on-stage demeanor that tends to mute the frequent flashes of instrumental brilliance.
Versatile banjoist Reno could play beakdowns like "Jesse James," "Flop-Eared Mule" and "Tennessee Wagoneer" with both arms tied behind his back. But he's best remembered as the first bluegrass musician who could play a sad song on the banjo (i.e, Jim Eanes "Your Old Standby") or make an acoustic guitar sing with the angels while harmonizing with smooth-voiced lead man Smiley on a gospel workout like "He Will Set Your Fields on Fire."
It's easy to for obsessive, rule-bound bluegrass festival junkies to forget that bluegrass is nothing more than a cleaned-up, more rigidly played rehash of the same old sounds that were kicking around the Appalachians and the Ozarks since the Civil War. That's why it's worth giving more than a casual listen to some of the first recorded country music, including the Bristol sessions waxed by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, as well as their equally able partners in four-four time, Ernest V. Stoneman and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers.
Stoneman was one of country's first great self-starters. Convinced he could singer better than gravel-voiced Virginia guitarist, Henry Whittier, the Old Dominion-bred Stoneman paid his own way to New York in 1924 and warbled his way into a record deal.
Edison Recordings (County) puts Ernest and his Dixie Mountaineers at center stage on a strange grouping of sentimental parlor tunes ("It's Sinful to Flirt," "The Old Maid and the Burglar"), odes to greasy food ("All Go Hungry Hash House") and plasma-curdling gospel performances ("He Is Coming After Me," He Was Nailed to the Cross for Me").
Blind Georgia guitarist Riley Puckett, fiddler Clayton McMichen and banjo picker Gid Tanner took a more step-it-up-and-go approach to their 1920s mountain music. Which makes their Old-Time Fiddle Tunes and Songs From North Georgia (County) much more of a tarpaper trailer park party album than a treatise in scholarly appreciation of the historical importance of folk music. Translation -- it's a helluva lot more fun than the Olympics.
In its brief '50s heyday, rockabilly got about as much respect from the hardcore folkies as the Skillet Lickers would from today's air-conditioned Atlanta office park hordes. Take the redneck out of his pre-ordained rural element and put him in slick city clothes and who knows what kind of social chaos and class inversion could take place -- or what kind of throbbing, tribal sounds would be blasted out of cars and bars all over this fine land.
Blue bloods and junior leaguers alike will heave a collective sigh of relief over the news that there's nothing on Rock Boppin' Baby -- Sun Rockabilly, Vol. 3 (Sun/AVI) or Huelyn Duvall's Is You Is or Is You Ain't? (Sundazed) that will incite massive social unrest or cause teens to burn their Hootie & the Blowfish discs in revolt against the neo-alternative mainstream.
But you will have to contend with a sneering, pre-valiumized Jerry Lee Lewis shouting his way through an alternate take of "The Crawdad Song" and the short-tongued Gene Simmons's romping, "Drinkin' Wine" on the pleasantly diverse Sun collection.
Texas rocker Duvall rocks just a little bit harder than expected, overcoming all preconceived notions about what it means to be a rockabilly singer whose first name sounds like Evelyn and crackling through a confident set of his late '50s cult hits, including "Hum-m-m-Dinger" and the gleefully anti-grammatical title cut.
We'd all sleep a lot better here in the Heartland, if someone could just get the Killer off the painkillers and tell the world not to believe the incredible hype about Nashville's BR5-49 or their sacrilegious, "Me 'N' Opie (Down by the Duck Pond)."
Live From Robert's (Arista) captures this string-tied quintet on their S. Broadway home turf, where adoring punk-rockin' honky tonk girls and boys wink knowingly at each other and secretly flash their R.E.M. fan club cards while pretending to enjoy BR5-49'd faithfully executed, but completely soul-less, homage to the classic honky tonk sound. It rocks, it swings but it leaves me colder than Howard Sprague after a date with Thelma Lou.
For a far more interesting take on the whole country meets rock in the '90s thang, check out the Haynes Boys' Guardian Angels (Slab) or the Charlotte, N.C., compilation disc, Bubbahey Mud Truck (Fire Ant).
The Haynes Boys are a Columbus, Ohio, quartet with an admitted fondness for the melodic, stuttering St. Louis sounds of Uncle Tupelo and its fraternal twin offspring, Son Volt and Wilco. What sets the Boys apart from the host of Tupelo clones (Wagon, Blue Mountain, etc.) that have sprung up in the last year is the relaxed vocals and melodic songwriting of guitarist and mandolinist Timothy Easton, whose "Hell on Earth" also contains the line of the year, "Though I love you, I just don't like you tonight."
Bubbahey Mudtruck is a delightfully schizophrenic sampler of some of the weirder, goofier sounds kicking around -- of all places -- Charlotte. You get nutcase Eugene Chadbourne, my favorite Piedmont Caribbean act, Mr. Peter's Boom & Chime (back for another round with Kris Kristofferson's "Loving Her Was Easier") and ex-Elvis drummer, D.J. Fontana, slipping in for a cameo on The Backsliders' loping, weed-inspired "Tulsa County."
Strange stuff, indeed, from a town that's home to the Billy Graham Parkway and a whole lotta Waffle Houses with waitresses named Tammy. The perfect place for the King to come back to earth, get the old band back together and karate-kick Seal and Sting right off the airwaves and into a muddy English bog. Revenge, at last!
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 is as follows: Rounder,
One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140; Copper
Creek, P.O. Box 3161, Roanoke, VA 24015; County,
P.O. Box 191, Floyd, VA 24091; AVI, 10390 Santa Monica Blvd., #210,
Los Angeles, CA 90025; Sundazed,
P.O. Box 85, Coxsackie, NY 12051;
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe