Roots Watch: Fall Words and Music; History Worth Catching
I’m sometimes asked —sympathetically or suspiciously—why I don’t write more negative reviews than I do. It’s not some physical disability that prevents me from turning my thumb down; there are simply so many projects (all media included) being released now, more than I could ever discuss, and life’s too short to spend much time or space on the ones that don’t grab me. Once again, then, here are some fall books and musical releases I think you’ll be glad to encounter:
North Carolina journalist David Menconi takes on the daunting task of getting a handle on one of the alt.country rock era’s most shape-shifting, irrepressible, often-frustrating and notably gifted characters in Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown. The prolific Adams’ body of work over the past twenty years (yeah; it’s 20 years) has been enormous and varied, his reputation, and sometimes chemically altered life, a roller coaster ride, and as the book reminds us, spending great amounts of time with him could be at once risky and repetitive.
Menconi attends to this biographical and musicological challenge by focusing on Adams’ rise from obscurity on the Raleigh, NC scene, and the limited but well-recalled success of his band Whiskeytown from which Ryan emerged as a star solo act. That choice makes the book. The author was one of the first writers to herald Adams’ arrival, knew him well, found excitement in the local scene of the time (which he conveys strongly), then watched as Adams’ pulled away from both Raleigh and the author’s circle in pursuit of partly-attained rock star ambitions. The relation of author and subject drives the narrative here, and, as Menconi notes, disarmingly, late in the game, “I’ll admit that it’s entirely possible that I like the old stuff better because it came from the place I lived, too.” Anybody who’s had a local hero they envisioned as “the next big thing” (and in regional roots music, who hasn’t?) should find this book potent. In this case, the next big thing actually got big.
When Josh Graves found ways to adapt Earl Scruggs-style banjo rolls and rhythms to the sustaining dobro sound, he added a major element to the Flatt & Scruggs sound and the Foggy Mountain Boys’ lasting charm and specialness. Bluegrass scholar and jack of all media Fred Bartenstein has put together a fitting and overdue tribute to the much loved, music-altering dobro pioneer in Bluegrass Bluesman: Josh Graves, a Memoir. The title summarizes the blues-like edge of comedy/edge of heartbreak aspect of Graves’ personal and musical style; the memoir, nicely edited from a jigsaw of interviews Graves gave through the years, relates the tale of a remarkable and varied career, and adds knowing commentary from such admirers as Jerry Douglas, Mac Wiseman, Tut Taylor, and Rob Ickes.
It took many generations for the complicated legacy of 19th century blackface minstrelsy, the alienating, embarrassing and invigorating tradition that lurks behind so much of American show business and popular music, to be digestible enough for historians to be able to take it up in a less heated, more enlightening fashion— to delineate both the irredeemably ugly and the lingering, engaging sides of the once massively popular burnt cork disguise music and comedy style. It’s taken until now, though, for anyone to take up an especially complicated and confusing side of that story in detail—the involvement of African-American performers themselves in variants of an entertainment format so generally agreed to have been racist. That’s the fraught subject bravely engaged in Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen’s Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip Hop. It’s a vigorous, provocative look at what was— and is—at work when blacks turned to this presentation style, from an especially revealing and welcome look at the great early 20th century star entertainer Bert Williams to minstrelsy-sans cork turns by gangsta rappers and contemporary comics. A key insight: posing as over-the-top, imaginary black clowns who might say or do “anything’ could be as liberating and workable for African-American entertainers as for whites. This one’s a valuable, gutsy book that takes on thorny topics with gusto and intelligence.
In mid-October, Louisiana music scholar Kevin Fontenot moderated a surprising, spirited panel discussion at the Country Music Hall of Fame that reunited a female trio which had been featured regularly on the historic 1950s Louisiana Hayride broadcasts—Betty Amos with Judy and Jean. Betty may be best recalled now for impeccably timed comedy and vocals with the Opry’s wild Carlisles, and as composer of songs such as ‘Second Fiddle to an Old Guitar,” but this group, which included her sister Jean Amos and sometime manager and guitarist Judy Lee, ought to be better recalled, and the panel sure showed why. They’d recorded everything from rockabilly to the first female trucker record in a fascinating career, and since some of their out-of-print records (which ought to be officially collected) are now up on YouTube, you can hear such potent offerings as their “The Cat and the Rat,” a rockabilly earworm of a tale:
The creative people at Yazoo/Shanachie records have just let loose a second volume in their salute to crazed record collectors and the difference they’ve made in how we hear roots music, The Return of The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of. This 2-CD set collects—with often extraordinarily good sound quality—key records in blues and hillbilly and Cajun that would have been lost entirely if not for obsessive collectors—sides from Charlie Patton and Ernest Stoneman and Uncle Dave Macon, but also from a great many artists you’ll likely never have heard of but will be glad to have heard.
And Bobby Bare (Senior) returns to the “folk country” hybrid that he was recording in the early sixties on RCA with Darker Than Light, released on the new Nashville-based Plowboy Records label. Bobby interprets such folk standards as “Boll Weevil,” “Tom Dooley and “Banks of the Ohio” with the clean, affecting country simplicity of phrasing that made him a star in the first place, as well as Dylan’s “Farewell Angelina” (he was an early country Dylan interpreter) and a standout, Alejandro Escovedo modern classic “I Was Drunk” for good measure, all backed by members of Robert Plant’s Band of Joy. Bare will debut songs from this album on a Music City Roots broadcast November 14, the day after the CD is released.
- Leeann Ward: Thanks, NM. I like a good pop hook, to be honest. So, maybe I need to try it again.
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
- Jim Z: to call the Dirty River Boys an "Austin area band" is still incorrect. They are based in El Paso.
- nm: Leeann, you and I often have similar tastes in more-traditional country. And, to my ears, Sam Hunt's voice and lyrics …
- Barry Mazor: Matter of fact, as always--I did. The notes say the album was recorded & mixed by and at "The …
- Roger: Looking forward to picking up the Jamey Johnson Christmas EP - love all of those songs and can't wait for …
- Jim Z: that record was recorded in El Paso. (you could look it up) and other than appearing in Austin once in …
- Leeann Ward: Yes, I can always use more dobro in my life! Thanks for the Phil Leadbetter tip! I haven't been able to …
- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim. The record's more or less out of Austin. But I'm sure they're also good in El Paso...
- Jim Z: Dirty River Boys are from El Paso, Texas.