- Written by Jason Crawford
- Published on 16 November 2011
The South Memphis String Band "Home Sweet Home" Memphis International Records
One of the bands at this year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that I was most interested in seeing was the South Memphis String Band. They're comprised of one of my favorite working guitarists (Luther Dickinson), one of my favorite working blues artists of which there are few (Alvin Youngblood Hart), and Steve Selvidge who I'd not heard play since the days of Big Ass Truck which is still one of my favorite party bands of all time. I was most excited about Selvidge because I know I should have more chances to see the other two musicians in the foreseeable future. I got to the Park early enough on Friday to check them out, and all was a grand success. Except that I was mistaken about Selvidge being in the band. I'd seen a picture of him with Youngblood Hart online, and I guess I got confused into thinking that he was a participant in the String Band. He's not. Jimbo Mathus, of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, is. (Which is cool even though I wouldn't know a Squirrel Nut Zipper if one fell in my lap. This imagery has flown way south of Memphis at this point. A squirrel in the lap beats two in the... nothing. No one wants that.) Anyway, my enthusiasm was only slightly dampened by Selvidge's absence. Dickinson, after all, qualifies as a legitimate virtuoso and is descendant from rock and roll royalty with the good taste to prove it, and Youngblood Hart is a gunslinger in his own right. And it turns out that Mathus is alright too. He'd have to be to share a stage with the others. All in all, it was a pleasurable little glimpse into the distant musical past. Unless you live in North Mississippi where it's as present as ever. Maybe that's why the band called their debut effort "Home Sweet Home." That's exactly what it sounds like for some of us even if we don't know it. I'm glad I know it, and I wouldn't want it any other way.
I know for a fact that Dickinson and Hart can both light a six string up like a pinball machine. I've seen both do it in various musical incarnations on multiple occasions. Neither did it that Friday afternoon in Golden Gate Park. Restraint was the order of the day. That, and playful between song banter. The banter was almost cartoonish. If any observers needed to stereotype a bluegrass festival as a repository for overt hillbilly sentiment, they'd have found their entry through the South Memphis String Band. Which is fine. This is a performance, right? And a performance devoid of pyrotechnics is okay too as long as you have the songs to make it fly. Luckily, these guys are drawing water from one of the musical world's deepest wells. And they translate that into the studio effort pretty seamlessly. If you like bad man ballads and train songs, you've found your group. This is for fans of Alan Lomax's field recordings from way back when. Especially, the ones found in the "Southern Journey" series. I check in on Ebay to find these records frequently. A sealed original box set of the entire Lomax series goes for about $1,200. I'd buy it today if I had the disposable income. Instead, I plunked down about $17 for "Home Sweet Home," and I'm happy to report that it will hold me over until my ship comes in. It's a simple acoustic recording of three guys playing indigenous music, free of gimmicks and tricks. I can't imagine they did much more than set up a couple of mics and play their songs into them which is exactly what this music, and most music, calls for. I went to see R.L. Burnside play in Memphis once and took the opportunity to drive through his native North Mississippi. It truly seemed like a land that time forgot. I didn't see a mileage marker at any point and never knew how close to or far away from my destination I was. Fat Possum records turned out what was easily the most compelling group of recordings from the '90's by simply getting their artists' juke joint performances on tape, and turning them loose. Maybe even digital tape, but the feeling came through loud and clear. And that's essentially what you get from the South Memphis String Band minus the rowdy atmosphere. Songs about Jesse James, and bootleggers, and letting your light shine. I'll take it. And, if any of that sounds interesting to you, I can recommend this record without hesitation. I'm not sure how hard it is to find, but I bought mine right off the shelf at my local independent retailer. Granted, my local independent retailer is of the "world class" variety. If you don't have access to one of those, you may have to get on the interweb. There are worse fates.
This is a seriously no frills independent release in line with Luther Dickinson's solo outing which he recorded as a tribute to his father three days after his passing. (We looked at that record on this very site. It was called "Sons Of Mudboy," and it only grows better with age.) When I say "no frills" I mean that it's a single record of pedestrian weight housed in a cardboard sleeve with a black and white band picture on the front and a smaller one on the back. It also lists the titles of the songs. That's about it. No digital copy, no liners. It fits the musical aesthetic perfectly. It may turn hard to find if you don't get one soon so get on the stick if this is at all on your radar. They don't much make them like this anymore which makes it all the more special. Old timey acoustic music with banjos, mandolins, and guitars works well for me. It may for you too if you know where to find it. The area around Memphis would be a fine place to start your search...
The Jayhawks "Mockingbird Time" Rounder Records
Sunday, October 2, 2012 would bring an end to what I think was the most engaging Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival that I've seen to date. It would also be my most "successful" day as an observer. I thought I'd done the right thing by getting to the Star Stage on Saturday at 11am to see the Hag & Kristofferson at 2:20pm. I had not. So, on Sunday, I got to the park at 9:30am & set my blanket up by a fence to ward off traffic so that I would have an unobstructed view of Justin Townes Earle who was playing later that day on the Rooster Stage. At 4:15pm. That may seem crazy, but I really was just doing what needed to be done. I had a plan, and it came to fruition in the most wonderful way. Plus, I got my first glimpse of Jessica Lea Mayfield in the bargain. Furthermore, I left my blanket unattended to roam about, and saw Dr. John, Buddy Miller (with Robert Plant), and the Blind Boys of Alabama at various other stages before returning to my base to find everything (including my jacket and man purse) just as I'd left it. That's peaceful coexistence in a crowd of thousands. It can be done. Justin Townes Earle didn't disappoint, and the Jayhawks were following him up so I decided to stick around to check them out as they'd evaded me for all these years. They've been at it since 1985 for crying out loud. I'd had my shots at checking them out, but I've never been more than the most casual fan of the band so I felt no real urgency. It appears that they've reconvened an older line-up for their latest album, "Mockingbird Time," and its supporting tour. That's always an intriguing story line in my mind, for whatever reason, even for bands that I'm not that into. I like it when former members come back to the fold. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for instance, with John Frusciante. Or the Black Crowes with Marc Ford. Gary Louris and Marc Olson are the soul of this operation, but it seems likely that they'd have a certain comfort level with their "classic" line-up. It certainly sounds that way on "Mockingbird Time."
And that's about what it would take to turn out this many harmony driven tunes. That is to say, every song on the record is harmony-driven. Thankfully, it works. I can go both ways with harmonies. It's a bit of a controversial stance that I take on the matter. The Beatles harmonies are obviously unimpeachable, and I have a personal affinity for the ragged but right vocal styling of Jagger/Richards. (I actually prefer the latter.) But Crosby, Stills, and Nash wear me out after two verses. Most classic rock fans can't get enough of them. I'd had enough by the time I finished my freshman year in high school. But the Jayhawks have found a nice balance within what seems like a completely unbalanced framework. I don't remember any solo vocals from the Rooster Stage during their set that Sunday. I didn't stay for all of it because trying to leave Golden Gate Park simultaneously with 600,000 other revelers can be a panic inducing exercise in futility. But what I did see was a band with so much familiarity between its members that these harmonies must come very easily to them at this point. Like putting on a favorite pair of old jeans after retiring them in favor of a fancier pair for a couple of years. I mean, that has to be it. There aren't enough hours in a year to work up this many harmonies from scratch. I haven't found any tunes on "Mockingbird Time" that will get stuck on repeat, but there aren't any "skippers" on here either. (Incidentally, I will have the option of repeating and skipping songs as the LP comes with a digital download coupon. Kudos.) Every tune has an appealing mix of acoustic instrumentation with some classic electric lead on top. And harmonies on top of that. Always with the harmonies. Karen Grotberg's piano work especially adds some nice textures to what are essentially blue collar pop songs. Well crafted and tastefully recorded over the course of one month which seems like a reasonable amount of time to make an honest pop-rock record, this is a solid record built on a reliable foundation. And these types of records fill a necessary niche in a music lover's collection. It may not be the first record I reach for when searching for something mind blowing, but it may very well be the first I find when looking for some unobtrusive accompaniment to a low-key evening. And I have lots of those at this stage of the game.
If you're gonna get this one, you should get the vinyl version. It's comprised of two high quality, heavy discs with lyrics and photos printed on the inside of the gatefold package. And, as we touched on earlier, a digital version is included too if you're into that kind of thing. Buying the records insures that you have the truest sonic experience when you come to your senses later, and I'm not sure how long new releases stay in print now. For a band working at this level of popularity, I wouldn't expect it to stick around forever. And that's a shame because Rounder Records clearly put some resources into producing this little gem. They're doing some good things with their vinyl these days, and they've always been a trusted source for tasteful music in my book. I'd like to see them release some of their back catalog. Until then, I'm stoked to have the Jayhawks newest one. I'll keep an eye out for them on tour. I'd like to catch a whole set now that I'm familiar with the material and assuming I won't have to fight a city sized crowd to enter or leave. You don't make it 25 plus years in the music industry without some goods to bring to the table. After hearing their latest, I can safely endorse the Jayhawks as a go-to group for solid songs produced with integrity. And you can't have enough of that...
Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Del McCoury Band "American Legacies" McCoury Music and Preservation Hall Recordings
I don't have much bluegrass in my vinyl collection. In fact, I can't think of any. I think the genre is a little bit limited in a lot of ways. I mean, there's a certain structure to the tunes, and a certain way of playing those tunes, and if you're not working within those parameters, then you're not really playing bluegrass. Furthermore, when someone or some folks try to stretch those boundaries, I typically am not enthralled with the results. "Bela Fleck, I am looking at you." So, I tend to be of the opinion that Bill Monroe had the whole thing tied up before anyone else got in the game, and history may have been okay with that had he been the only one to put an oar in the bluegrass river. Then, a curious thing happened. I saw the Del McCoury Band doing their thing on the main stage on a Friday afternoon at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. And they were stretching boundaries. In a big way. With the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They were mixing bluegrass, Dixie, and New Orleans, and they were all one and the same. It made perfect sense. And I remembered that they'd made a record together that I'd seen at my local independent retailer, but I'd passed on it because of the price. It's a single disc, and I couldn't find where the expense was in the release. After seeing the live act, I didn't care. I went straight back for it. It's a limited release, and I got number 883 out of 1,000. It's a party for your speakers. Trust me on this one.
I was a million miles away from the stage that day, and the energy carried well past me, across the Pacific Ocean to lands far away, I feel certain. These folks were making a joyful racket and were clearly loving themselves while doing so. How could they not? Mandolins and tubas and clarinets and banjos. Oh, my! Thirteen folks playing in unison, and nary a toe was stepped on. They opened their set with the same song that opens their record, "The Band's In Town." Lots of call and response, and solos for as far as the ear can hear. Old timey music by folks who could have lived in any era except this one. Somehow, they do. Praise the Lord for that. If you can't have a good time with this one, then you may want to stop listening to music and start... doing something else. I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else. It was an obvious highlight of the whole weekend for me. Everybody got a chance to shine, but the gold was when they all played together. I've never heard a happier sound. A musical sound, I mean. Children laughing and all that stuff is cool too, but this is the musical pinnacle. "One Has My Name" is a standout with "one has my heart, the other has my name" as its refrain. Heartache never sounded so jolly. Lots of songs with "Blues" in the title, but you can't feel down with this in your ears. Acoustic alchemy, indeed. It's worth noting that Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" may be the weakest tune in the bunch, and it's a blast too. It just sounds slightly out of place to me on the record. They could have played "Gin and Juice" at the festival, and it would have flown. Beyond that, there's no real need to get into a song by song report. They're all of a similar mindset, and it's a positive one. This music is for living. Check out "Banjo Frisco" if you doubt me. Despite its title, the horns are the stars on this one. And it was written by McCoury himself. Go figure. That's kind of the vibe on this record. I never know who's singing lead or which band's song I'm hearing, and none of that could be further from the point of the matter. I hear they are opening a Preservation Hall West in San Francisco soon. Not soon enough. I'm turning somersaults through those doors immediately upon their opening. I can't believe my good fortune. Sometimes you can't miss. And these folks have hit the target.
This record is green, it's signed by McCoury and Ben Jaffe, the Creative Director at Preservation Hall. I hope they spread those signing sessions out across a reasonable time. I wouldn't want to do 1,000 at once. Beyond those details, the vinyl itself is relatively non-descript. The music is anything but. In fact, I'm listening to the Hank song again right now and I've changed my mind. It's every bit as endearing as anything else on this release. I recant. I wouldn't want to say anything at all negative about what's in these grooves. That would fly in the face of the entire endeavor. I'm not sure how easy this record is to find, but I'd suggest doing whatever circumstances require to get your hands on a copy. There's no way you'd regret it. Too much fun to find words for. Check it out for yourself. It's the only way.
Kris Kristofferson "Please Don't Ell Me How The Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-72" Light In The Attic Records
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival is my favorite event of the year. Every year. I'd probably pay to go, but the fact that it's free makes it all the more appealing. For me, the highlight of this year's festival was getting to see Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson share a stage. Simultaneously. Apparently, that was the highlight for about 100,000 other folks too. Most of them drunker than Kristofferson himself. The success I enjoyed at arriving early enough to stake out a prime spot was eventually nullified by the influx of folks who, like myself, were not to be denied a shot at this likely once in a lifetime event. I was particularly stoked for The Hag, but I've always liked Kristofferson too even if I wasn't quite sure why. I mean, I'm not as familiar with his recordings. Everyone knows he can write songs like he's running out of time. Plus, he's just cool. And so is Light In The Attic's set of his earliest recordings. It's called "Please Don't Tell Me How The Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-72." It's an artifact. It's just what I needed after seeing his set at Hardly Strictly where he couldn't really carry a tune in a bucket. He was never the greatest vocalist, but the demos set shows that he could at least fake it at one time. And, through it all, his Hardly Strictly set was still a highlight for me. Now, that's magnetism. That's what makes this man great. That and his songs.
Country music has done everything in its power to cannibalize itself over the past few decades. I default to "no" when folks ask me if I like country because I know that they're not really talking about country music at all. They're talking about the monster that it spawned. More accurately, the monster that the Eagles spawned. I'm on Lebowski's side with regard to those folks. I'd have gotten kicked out of that cab too. But there was a time when country sounded more honest, and if that's the case, then Kris Kristofferson was country's Abe Lincoln. One listen to "Come Sundown" on this demos set will shine that image right up for you. The guy didn't get by just on his good looks. Good looks which landed him in movie roles next to Babs Streisand herself. Whatever. This set's version of "Border Lord" is worth the whole two disc set on its own. "Me and Bobby McGhee" is one of those tunes that I've heard so many times that I can't tell if I like it or if it's just part of my DNA. I've had worse problems to sort through. Unfortunately, I, like most, think of the Janis Joplin version at least once when hearing the original. And this is the original. The copious liners state that this was Kristofferson's first recording of the song. I'm not sure if anyone beat him to it, but I am quite sure that this is by far my favorite version that I'm aware of to this point. In the liners, Kris claims to have been "high" during this recording which could mean a million different things. I'd like more specifics on that just for the sake of knowing, but he does specifically state that his partner on this recording played the organ pedals with his hands. So there you have it: some joker had to get under the organ during this recording to play his part. Now, that is real country. "If You Don't Like Hank Williams" stands for itself and needs no promotion from the likes of me. Luckily, this version contains the lyrical ode to the Beatles that he would later change to the Eagles. So, we diverge at that point, I reckon, and I'm still alright with it. This man would pretty much have to kick me in the groin to make an enemy out me at this point, and I might even look that off after hearing this set.
These records are beyond compelling. The liners alone would be worth having. They include essays by The Hag, Dennis Hopper, and Kristofferson himself who gives you a little history of each individual song. There are photos of handwritten lyric sheets and military vaccinations and visas and a letter that accompanied Kris's Air Force Commendation Medal for his life saving helicopter work in Germany. The guy has done some living and it's all in the music. The actual vinyl looks about as rough as the recordings themselves, but they sound just as pure. And, at times like these, recordings this raw feel like coming up for air after having been held underwater until your lungs about burst. I'd have appreciated a download coupon for these tunes, but nobody asked me. That's alright, mama. These recordings are for sitting down and hanging out with anyway. A little focus is helpful here. I have the "Border Lord" album already. After hearing this set, I'm not sure I need much more. They've given even more meaning to what I witnessed at Golden Gate Park earlier this month, and that's really saying something. Life's a little more righteous with these songs in your living room. They're perfect in their imperfection.
Merle Haggard "Working In Tennessee" Vanguard / Hag Records
If Kris Kristofferson's voice hasn't held up over the years, Merle's is strong enough for both. He might has well have been David Freese in St. Louis on the night after the World Series up there. People loved him. I loved him. I couldn't see him as well as I'd have liked due to all the other folks that came to love him while I was loving him. Unfortunately, these guys still draw a rowdy crowd. Or, more accurately, it's unfortunate that I'm not as rowdy as I used to be in a crowd like this. I'd have rather done the annoying rather than being annoyed. The hammer rather than the nail, as it were. And so on. I gotta say, The Hag is easily one of the best vocalists I've had the pleasure of seeing live. And I've seen a bunch. I've seen Al Green. I've seen Jim James. I'd say those three guys might be tops in their respective genres. I know for a fact that Merle is the best country singer I've seen. I never got to see George Jones, and it's unlikely that I will at this point, maybe. Whereas the Kristofferson record I chose to report on this month was made a few years before I was born, Merle's "Working In Tennessee" is hot off the record press. This could go a lot of different ways. But all reports say that Merle is as disenchanted with the current state of "country" music as I am. And, thankfully, "Working In Tennessee" doesn't have anything to do with hot new country. It's a little cleaner than I'd like, but that's like saying the beach is a little sandier than I'd like. It's something I live with so that I can enjoy one of life's greatest pleasures. That said, if I could get a guarantee that all recordings moving forward would only be as clean as Merle's latest, I'd take it. In fact, I'd take Merle as the only one allowed to make country recordings at all going forward. That would solve a lot of the world's ills, I think.
This record is a quick study, just like the old days. There are eleven songs, and just one of them tops the four minute mark. By nine seconds. The title track kicks things into high gear first off with fiddles that would make Bob Wills swing with smiling pride. It sounds a lot like the old standard "Salty Dog" musically. "Cocaine Blues" may be an homage to Merle's old buddy Johnny Cash who made the tune famous on his prison record. One of his prison records, that is. Those are the two most hummable songs on side one, but they all hold up. Lyrically, "What I Hate" is one for the roses. The music is far from embarrassing, it's just not the most memorable tune in The Hag's arsenal. Because that's basically what he has: an arsenal. He's legendarily ornery, and you get the feeling that he's pissed about the same exact things you are. He touches on the environment, war, apathy, and politicians. Always politicians. (I was going to use the President of the United States as my example in the intro to this little write-up, but I opted for a man that hits white balls with a piece of wood instead. No matter what side you're on politically, I think most of us would rather talk about baseball at this point. At least they play on the same field.) "Too Much Boogie Woogie" is in the same vein as Kristofferson's "If You Don't Like Hank Williams" with a roll call of country artists that The Hag has love for. "Truck Driver's Blues" has a slinky bass line courtesy of David Hood himself which provides an interesting injection of some Muscle Shoals soul on top of The Hag's country blues. It segues nicely into "Laugh It Off" which has some soul of its own thanks to some cool electric piano parts. It also references "Humboldt marijuana" which may throw some Hag fans a curve, especially if they took "Okey From Muskogee" at face value. That would have been a mistake. The Hag ain't no square. He proves as much by inviting Willie Nelson to the party on "Workin' Man's Blues." It's fun. It may not change your life, but it's a good time. That's a summation of the whole record, really. I'm happy to have it.
This release has "independent" written all over it. It's on "Hag Records" and it's a bit no frills although it does come with a download coupon. It proclaims as much on the back cover. I mean that it's in the artwork. "Your music all ways, always," with a little iPod graphic. I guess that's no more distracting than the record label graphics that are on most releases, but I'd have preferred it on a sticker adhered to the cellophane. Talk about splitting hairs... The vinyl itself doesn't look like much and it's not heavy, but it sounds great. No surface noise with deep black between tunes. Plenty of separation between instruments on the recording, and vocals way up front which is where my vocals would be too if I sang like Merle Haggard. Of course, things would be a lot different if I sang like The Hag. If you like him, this record won't do you wrong. If you don't like him, then you're on the wrong team. And, if you don't think you like country music, you probably do. And Merle may be the one to show you why. He doesn't like that other stuff anymore than you or I do. Unless you do like it. In which case, I have to say "to each his own." Play ball.