Nashville is one of those sanitized-for-your-protection New South makeovers you just love to not like. And slavishly retro nostalgia acts like BR5-49 just add fuel to the fires of my indifference.
Leave it to Chicago's Bloodshot Records to kick my preconceived notions in the teeth and wake me up to the fact that there's a whole slew of hard-rocking, roots-influenced innovators kicking around NashVegas these days.
Nashville: The Other Side of the Alley (Bloodshot), the third in the label's Insurgent Country compilation series, throws a bunch of relative unknowns against the sidestreet wall along with a few names from the alt-country Dark Ages (Jason & the Scorchers, Kristi Rose, Dan Baird). Not surprisingly, the songs that stick with you like a gut-bomber Krystal burger after a walk through the Country Music Hall of Fame are those that veer away from the oh-so-chic classic honky tonk sound and serve up something more tossed off and original.
Ex-Hobokenite Tim Carroll kicks things off with the driving guitar crunch of "Open Flame," setting the table for Duane Jarvis's Jaggeresque "Cocktail Napkin," Lampchop's loping, whispery "Whitey"(an ode to Yankee baseball great, Whitey Ford) and onetime Diesel Only artist Gwil Owen's honking, swaggering "No Ammunition." A sign of hope amidst the horror-strewn halls of Opryland.
5 Chinese Brothers lead singer Tom Meltzer flirts with the outward charms of Nashville and a particularly vexing NashVixen in "The Boy From New York City, The Girl From Tennessee," a heartfelt Jimmie Rodgers send-up that closes the band's easygoing Let's Kill Saturday Night (PRIME-CD).
Rocking a bit more softly and harmonizing at every possible turn, 5CB has settled into an appealing folk-rock groove, offering up wry social commentary and some empathic glimpses into the mindset of those on the fringes.
"Product of Dysfunction" takes the Tastee Cake for skewering remembered abuse in a properly satirical fashion, while "Midnight at the Liberty" captures the lyrical nuances ofadolescent isolation in a loping, vaguely melancholy way that recalls Big Star's "Thirteen" and the Replacements' "Sixteen Blues." Will somebody please buy this band's CD or play it on the radio?!!
Ditto for Simon Chardiet's Bug Bite Daddy (Upstart), the hiccuping chapter two in the New York guitar gunner's bid to rip his way into the lives of the unsuspecting general public and forever alter their ability to stomach Blues Traveler, Hootie and the Dave Matthews Band.
Bug Bite Daddy is a 24-track mixed bag of sinister surf instrumentals ("Run Chicken Run," "Surf Octopus"), hardcore rants ("What's New Pussycat," "Left-Wing Fascist" and the searing anti-Deadhead, "I'd Be Grateful") and jumped-up rockabilly blasts.
The stuttering title track and Simon's machine gun guitar work on the nonsensical, "Bop-a-Lena," conjure up the comforting image of a beatific Simon rolling his eyes back into his Sluggo-shaped head while a frenzied mob of Lower East Side club zombies dodge the molten shards spitting off of the bridge of a leering guitar gone mad. Just another night of passing the hat and dishing out moments of rock and roll transcendence.
Tennessee Ernie Ford was about the closest thing to Howard Sprague ("The Andy Griffith Show") as you could get without wearing a bowtie. But I have a feeling Ernie and Simon could have wreaked some hog-wild havoc if they had paired up on Ford's proto-rocker '50s hits like "Ain't Nobody's Business," "Shotgun Boogie," "Blackberry Boogie" and "Sixteen Tons."
The Ultimate Tennessee Ford Collection (Razor & Tie) pulls together 40 tracks from Ford's Capitol golden era, pairing the jump-boogie stuff with Ernie's more formulaic gospel output for a broad overview of his oft-misunderstood career. Hats off to Razor & Tie for including "Trouble in Mind," a stately blues duet between Ford and Glen Campbell that matches Ford's off-the-register lowdown baritone with the pre-Branson Rhinestone Cowboy's stinging acoustic guitar work. It's as close to the Killer's "Who Will the Next Fool Be" as you can get without drowning in a backyard pool.
California Okie Rose Maddox was another member of the Capitol country roster in the late '50s. But before the Hollywood label paired her up with Buck Owens on chart-stoppers like "Mental Cruelty" and "Loose Talk," Rose was kicking around the San Joaquin Valley roadhouses with her cut-up brothers Fred and Cal, trying to eke out a living while dishing up a hyperactive hybrid of western swing, hillbilly boogie and corny comedy.
On Air: The 1940s (Arhoolie) brings the Maddox Brothers and Rose's rollicking California radio shows into the sterile confines of your own living room, along with brother Fred's yelping whoops and runaway slapback bass and brother Cal's whipping guitar runs. The cornpone gets a bit thick at times (as on the old wheezers, "Too Old to Cut the Mustard" and "Fried Potatoes"), but the rest of the bunch recreates the energy and genre-bending spontaneity of a bygone form of live entertainment.
Some bygones are meant to be bygones. Which is what you might be saying to yourself after a few turns with America's Song Butchers: The Weird World of Homer & Jethro (Razor & Tie).
Long before Weird Al was turning Michael Jackson on his surgically altered head, these deadpan harmonizers were lampooning the pop and country hits of the '40s and '50s with pun-ishing proclivity. Though the songs that spawned the parodies ("Jam-Bowl-Liar," "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs," "The Battle of Kookamooga") might be lost on those less in touch with their roots music collections, there's a whole lotta crisp pickin' and wry grinnin' going on throughout the proceedings. Just make sure your listening partner is properly prepared (i.e., Spam sandwich, Yoo Hoo soda, heavily salted hard-boiled egg).
Californian Mark Insley's Good Country Junk (Country Town) requires a different dietetic approach -- one that's heavy on food gulped down at empty roadside burger stands or taquerias, with a red-eyed Western sunset glaring down on the furtive diners. "Twisted and tired, down to the wire, you know it really don't seem fair," sings Insley in "Fast Train to Nowhere," the hauntingly hesitant twang-pop masterpiece that launches this promising 10-song debut into a pensive form of West Coast country overdrive.
Greg Leisz and Pete Anderson provide the understated guitar sizzle, with producer Taras Prodaniuk holding down the bass duties and laying back just enough to let Insley's voice and songs stand on their own. The Yoakam and Earle comparisons will start flying soon, so get this before you're media-tainted and make your own call.
The great and now truly late Townes Van Zandt was working the backroads and songwriters' circles long before Dwight's hairline had any inkling of receding. Van Zandt's ironic detachment and outward shyness made him a difficult performer to pin down. Was he folk? Country? Singer/songwriter? Poet? All of the above?
Rather than enter that fruitless debate or repeat the obvious euphemisms, I will instead recommend you go out and pick up Rear View Mirror (Sugar Hill), a collection of sweet, sad and sometimes disturbing live recordings culled from Van Zandt's European club performances.
Backed by the lilting fiddle of Owen Cody (Freddy Fender's band) and guitar of Danny Rowland (Guy Clark's band), Townes delivers some of the most earnest, sincere renderings I've yet encountered of his classics "Pancho & Lefty" and "If I Needed You," and lesser-known gems like the wistful "For the Sake of the Song."
This is an essential companion to his 1994 Roadsongs (Sugar Hill) live collection, and an ideal way to introduce yourself to the man before being overwhelmed by the myth that surrounds him.
Willie Nelson is one of many Texas performers touched by the ghost of Van Zandt's passing. It seems appropriate, then, that Nelson's breakthrough 1971 RCA record, Yesterday's Wine (Justice), has finally been rescued from years of out-of-print status, as a sort of sign that all is still good in the world of honest country music.
The first of Willie's "concept albums," (to be followed by 1974's Phases & Stages and 1975's Red-Headed Stranger), Yesterday's Wine interjects a subtle religious message into a song cycle that follows our "imperfect man" through a series of personal epiphanies.
It's Willie discovering his voice, transitioning the melodic craft and unique phrasing of his '60s pop-country work toward the Spartan, dust-blown honesty of his mid-'70s Outlaw period. Here, for the first time, we hear Willie's battered nylon- and steel-stringed old Spanish guitar beginning to overshadow the whining pedal steel of his Nashville studio past.
Pedal steel guitars are not the first things that come to mind when one ponders the current state of black Southern gospel music. Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida (Arhoolie) sets out to remedy this current flaw in our collective unconscious.
This rambling collection of field and studio recordings showcases the inventive way the pedal steel has been incorporated into the religious music and rituals of several Florida churches. Steel players Sonny Treadway, Glenn Lee, Willie Eason, Henry Nelson and Aubrey Ghent coax alternately eerie, raucous and exquisitely pretty sounds out of their instruments on a sampling of instrumentals and sing-a-longs, making the whole steel-driven Nashville Sound look like one heckuva frivolous diversion. Think about it.
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at Amazon.com your local roots-friendly record store, Brooklyn's Holy Cow (718-788-3631), or via mail-order from: Roundup Records (800/443-4727), Atomic Beat (310/556-1144), Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
Addresses of harder-to-find labels are as follows: Bloodshot, 912 W. Addison, Chicago, IL 60613; PRIME-CD, 111 E. 14th St., Ste. 300, NYC 10003, 1-800-PRIME-CD; 5 Chinese Brothers; Upstart, Box 44-1418, W. Somerville, MA 02144; Razor & Tie, Box 585, Cooper Station, NYC 10022; Arhoolie, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530; Country Town, Box 2649, Palos Verdes Peninsula, CA 90274; Sugar Hill, Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717; Justice, Box 98036, Houston, TX 77098.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe