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August/September 1998

"Well I hate TV, there's gotta be somebody other than me..."
-Marshall Crenshaw


It doesn't take a Jeapardy winner to figure out why Elvis did it.

Stuck in a mid-'70s rec room time warp, and adrift in a sticky, smoky haze of junk food, shag carpeting and mindlessly chattering scan lines, he took aim at the Great American post-Cold War past time and blew it away with a single shot. But it was too little, too late: that rough, strange beast known as Cable was already slouching towards Bethleham, Pa., to be born, dooming the once great King to a legacy of TV dinners and latenight Nostalgia Network re-runs.

Rather than belabor the obvious -- that we've sold our souls to the listless gods and goddesses of whine and poses known as Seinfeld and McBeal -- we here at Rootin' Around headquarters urge you to take action. Cancel your cable subscription, find yourself a battered used VCR with a broken record button and settle down for a few hours of rough-hewn, homespun entertainment.

While not as good and good for you as a workout with a set of spoons or the construction of a ramshackle toilet paper kazoo-trombone, folklorist Alan Lomax's five-volume American Patchwork video series (Vestapol/Rounder) is a welcome reminder of a not-too-distant era when clever, creative Americans actually shared a few laughs, songs and stories, without once bemoaning the fact that they were living through the dark, depraved epoch now known to cultural historians as the Pre-Springerian Period.

American Patchwork Videos

The concept is so simple it almost seems novel to these jaded, TV-assaulted ears. Let the generous, goofy, awestruck Lomax wander through the hollers of Appalachia, lowlands of the Mississippi Delta and other unfashionably isolated locales, turn the camera on and watch as the music-makers, toy-carvers and yarn-spinners Lomax encounters fret, preen, wheedle and warble their way into our collective living rooms and right out onto our national front stoop.

While a few of the protagonists (North Carolina old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell and bluesman Sam Chatmon) may be recognizable to those in the folk music know, most are just humble Americans, whose turn of a phrase, prodigious melodic memory or deft way with a whittling knife transform them into practioners of an age-old, yet nearly forgotten brand of magic.

West Virginia singer/songwriter Hazel Dickens has a rough, bramble-scraped voice that cracks, breaks and coos every time she wraps her tough mountain-honed vocal chords around a tragic mining tale or old-time spiritual. In the '60s and '70s, Dickens teamed up with Oakland native, dusky-voiced folksinger Alice Gerrard, in the musically fertile Washington, D.C., area and honed a hard-hitting duet style that owed as much to the Monroe Brothers and Carter Family as it did to the burgeoning folk movement.

Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard (Rounder), recorded in 1975, is the second of their near-perfect Rounder collaborations. The album showcases the duo's strong songwriting, including Dickens' proud, defiant "Working Girl Blues" and the soaring "West Virginia My Home" Gerrard's beautiful "Beaufort County Jail," "Mary Johnson" and "Mama's Gonna Stay." This, along with their 1973 Hazel and Alice, is one for the ages.

I keep tabs on Gerrard, and a host of other performers, by reading her excellent Old-Time Herald publication, which shines the spotlight on loads of obscure reissues and new releases in the folk and old-time arena on a bimonthly basis.

For some more background on some of the names that pop up in the Old-Time Herald (and in Rootin' Around), an excellent catch-all resource is MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide (Visible Ink), edited by Neal Walters and Brian Mansfield. MusicHound Folk doesn't purport to be the definitive history of bluegrass, string-band music, the singer/songwriter movement, et al. However, it does provide short, well-written bios on a wide-ranging host of folksingers, old-time country acts, blues musicians, brother duets, etc., with a mostly on-the-mark set of recommended and must-avoid recordings and related artists for every act featured. The writers who penned the reviews run the gamut from No Depression editors Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden to Washington Post contributors Geoffrey Himes and Bill Friskics-Warren, so you have a good sense of the knowledge base behind the opinions.

Old-time musician Suzanne Thomas doesn't garner her own entry in MusicHound Folk, which is understandable, given that her contributions to string-band and bluegrass music have mostly been made in a supporting, or ensemble role, as a member of Ohio's wonderful HotMud Family and, more recently, Dry Branch Fire Squad. Her solo debut, Dear Friends & Gentle Hearts (Rounder), is sure to earn her the individual recognition her songwriting and soaring vocals have long deserved.

With the help of Dry Branch co-horts Ron Thomason (vocals, mandolin) and Bill Evans (banjo), and members of the Seldom Scene, Lonesome River Band and others, Thomas reprises some lesser-known country/bluegrass gems ("Faded Coat of Blue," "Silver Tongue and Gold Plated Lies," "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds," "Miss the Mississippi and You") and introduces two engaging Thomas originals, "From the Point of View of Ruby Jayne" and the mash-in-jowl "You're Doin' Me Wrong, Jim Beam" (with Laurie Lewis guesting on a lazy, bluesy fiddle). The stand-outs, though, are Suzanne's propulsive, jangly clawhammer banjo workout with river rat John Hartford on "Sweet Sunny South" and the gorgeous title track, a reworking of a line found on a scrap of paper in the pocket of songwriter Stephen Foster at the time of his death as a penniless, forgotten alcoholic in a New York City flophouse.

Life ain't always pretty in the big city, as Foster's death attests. And that's one of the reasons folks like yours truly and longtime downtown roots rocker Eddy Lawrence high-tailed it outta town a few years back. Lawrence's latest self-produced one-man opus, Guitars, Guns & Groceries (Snowplow), is proof that at least one of us has improved his artistic lot in life since leaving the Lower East Side.

Lawrence reveals himself as a historically sensitive country-rock songwriter with a penchant for Barnumesque oddities and small town ironies on "The Man Who Was Hit by a Comet," "The Day the Humvee Came" and the title track, an ode to Dick's Country Store, Music Oasis and Gun City in the Canadian/New York border town near Lawrence's rural upstate retreat. I'm mighty partial to "1931," the bittersweet memoirs of a ventriloquist's dummy, and "Just Down the Road From Shania Twain," in which Eddy muses, "I wonder if her mother really gave her that name/I live just down the road from Shania Twain." Beats "Green Acres" and having to stomach that whiner, Mr. Haney, and Eva Gabor's hot water soup, don't it?

The forested, rainswept roads of upstate New York and rural New England have been bypassed by the legions of country music historians bent on locating the spiritual heart of the genre in sunnier Southern climes. Burly Dick Curless, from northern Maine, made a mighty strong case for shifting this geocentric focus with his rumbling mid-'60s truck driving country stylings, showcased at long last on The Drag 'Em Off the Interstate, Sock It to 'Em Hits of Dick Curless (Razor & Tie).

Known to gear jammers and Diesel Only revivalists alike as the man behind the tragic "A Tombstone Every Mile," from all those cheaply packaged truck stop Starday/Gusto compilations, Curless was also a powerful honky tonk singer who knew his way around the curves of a drinking song ("Bury the Bottle With Me," "Loser's Cocktail"), road tunes ("Hard, Hard Travelin' Man," Big Wheel Cannonball," "Drag 'Em off the Interstate, Sock It to 'Em J.P. Blues"). With a voice as big and swaggering as Tennessee Ernie Ford and a fondness for sputtering, twangy electric guitar licks, Curless still makes mighty travel company, whether you're a geeky cross-country explorer or a hardworking backroads hauler.

Another Razor & Tie reissue worth snatching up is Poor Folks Stick Together: The Best of Stoney Edwards. I've been rifling through used LP bins for years trying to piece together the original '70s Capitol recordings of this African American Oklahoma country stylist whose quavering honky tonk vibrato bears more than a little hint of his love for Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard.

This collection includes all of Edwards best-known numbers, including his 1971 debut, "A Two Dollar Toy," "She's My Rock," "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul" and the Jesse Winchester composition, "Mississippi You're on My Mind." The closing cut, Stoney's controversial 1975 rendering of Chip Taylor's proud, hopeful "Blackbird," rounds out this portrait of a humble, talented man whose fling with country music stardom was an all-too-brief moment in the sun in an otherwise hard, exhausting life.

Fiddler/mandolinist Howard Armstrong led an equally tiring life of rambling, scraping by through hard times and negotiating the twisted corridors of racial hostility. But the musical breaks seemed to come a little easier for this Tennessee-bred African American musician/vaudevillian, the subject of Terry Zwigoff's wonderful 1985 documentary film, Louie Bluie.

Louie Bluie

Arhoolie Records has just reissued the film's soundtrack, complete with four bonus recordings from Armstrong's '20s and '30s work with bluesman Sleepy John Estes, black string band leader Yank Rachell and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, the all-black string and jazz band Armstrong and lifelong friend, guitarist Ted Bogan, formed as restless teenagers in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Like the film, the CD is a joyous melange of nearly everything kicking around the American musical collective unconscious -- jazzed-up rags, Tin Pan Alley pop standards, old-time fiddle tunes, country gospel and even some Polish and German dance numbers (added to the repertoire when Armstrong and Bogan relocated to Chicago in the Depression and played the immigrant neighborhood taverns for extra tips). The energetic, irreverent supporting cast of Bogan (guitar), Ikey Robinson (ragtime banjo) and Yank Rachell (mandolin) provides a funky, percussive backdrop for Armstrong's chiming mandolin, swooping fiddle and endlessly entertaining boasts, sarcastic asides and sweetly crooned vocals. Rent the video, then buy the CD. Or get really wild and do both at the same time.

Or get really really nutty and throw in a copy of John Fahey's America (Takoma), reissued in its originally intended form 27 years after the eclectic guitarist's original vision for this landmark concept double-album was chopped in half and released as a single LP.

Having never had the pleasure of hearing any of these cuts before, it's hard to imagine this seamless, 13-track soundtrack to life here in these United States being somehow edited down to a shorter form. It's like cutting out chapters from a history book, skipping over the complicated storylines of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era to get to the quicker-cutting World War I footage. But then again, that would be pretty American in its own right, now, wouldn't it?

Regardless of the outcome of this particularly perplexing philosophical debate, this is one multi-faceted recording. To the casual listener, Fahey's crisp, ringing acoustic steel string guitar work is pleasant background music, something mellow to throw on the CD player while eating dinner on a soft summer night.

But upon further inspection, and a glance at the song titles ("Jesus Is a Dying Bedmaker," "Amazing Grace," Skip James's "Special Rider Blues," "Dvorak," "Dalhart, Texas, 1967," Sam McGee's "Knoxville Blues," "The Waltz That Carried Us Away and Then a Mosquito Came and Ate Up My Sweetheart"), the crazily cut pieces of the carefully crafted quilt begin to sew themselves together.

If one looks at America as Fahey's wry, subtle attempt to sum up this weird, young country's weird, strange history in a few, resonant musical phrases, it starts to take on a whole other life as the latest chapter in a master text composed by a host of Americana-obsessed dreamers like Stephen Foster, Antonin Dvorak ("New World Symphony"), Harry Smith ("Anthology of Folk Music") and Greil Marcus ("Mystery Train"). Then again, maybe I've been eating too many sunflower seeds or spending too much time holed up in dusty libraries reading old Kansas newspapers on microfilm...

While I've been ogling the cowtown newspaper obituaries in search of my Kansas kinfolk, historically minded flatpicking guitarist Norman Blake has been hard at work at his North Georgia home, diligently adding to his already prodiguous repertoire. His latest outing, Chattanooga Sugar Babe (Shanachie), is a warm, casual set of ballads, rags, country blues, waltzes, breakdowns and parlor tunes loosely inspired by two of my favorite subjects: old railroads and the Great Plains.

Blake plays every note on this comfortable collection, laying down some beautiful tracks on period instruments (Hawaiian guitar, mandolin banjo, National Resonator guitar), fiddle, mandolin and steel-string guitar on Chautauqua-esque tracks the likes of "Platonia the Pride of the Plains," "Dr. Edmundo's Favorite Portuguese Waltz" and "The Founding of the Famous C.P.R" Blake's relaxed, slightly dusty vocals weave in and out of a prettily picked six-string guitar banjo part on "The Weathered Old Caboose Behind the Train," somehow conveying an old railhand narrator's lifetime of bittersweet memories and the entire history of the American West in a single three-minute lament. With songs like this, who needs a TV?

Ask yourself this question and do yourself and your loved ones a big favor: buy a kazoo, tin whistle, recorder or harmonica and teach yourself at least one song, words and all. Then go out on your stoop, roof, porch, deck, driveway or pier and play it, over and over again until someone begs you to stop. Then smile, pull a set of spoons out of your back pocket and ask them to join the band.

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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 and artists mentioned in this month's column are as follows: Vestapol/Rounder, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02410; Visible Ink, 835 Penobscot Building, Detroit, MI 48226, 800/776-6265; Snowplow, Box 27, Moira, NY 12957, 518/529-6749; Razor & Tie, Box 585, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276; Arhoolie, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530; Takoma, 10th & Parker, Berkeley, CA 94710; Shanachie, 13 Laight Street, New York, NY 10013.

- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe


This article was first published in Sound Views, Vol. 51, August/September 1998, New York, NY

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