Roots Watch: Walking Into The Light…Side
Pssst. I have some shocking news to reveal: For some time, apparently, there have been some points along the roots music spectrum where the talent to amuse is commonly relegated to secondary status as less significant, less special, and even less demanding of technical proficiency than bringing audiences to tears, working them into a lather, or pointing them towards heaven. Artists regularly working those somber neighborhoods tend to be highly wary of getting caught demonstrating the wit they may secretly possess or toying with life’s absurdities. It’s bad for the ol’ image—be that of the extremely earnest, unremittingly grim, pristinely unworldly, or sternly lecturing varieties. Personally, I’ve experienced a generous complement of comic relief from all of those in the past week or two, and with several new releases arriving from the lighter side, so can you.
The incomparable Fred Eaglesmith brought his Travelling Steam Show gang to Nashville’s Bluebird Café on January 23rd, bringing along the so-far lesser known but also far from sober-sided openers The Fabulous Ginn Sisters and Bill Poss. With his comic timing, large supply of inspired, often (but not exclusively) goofy songs and “just one of the guys—but a smart one” style he’s been one of Americana’s (Canadiana’s?) most endearing performers for years. If you’ve never caught his act, you ought to. For all the laughs, he really knows his country music, inside and out, and more big-time artists seem to be catching on to his gifts; Miranda Lambert’s recorded his “Time to Get a Gun” and Alan Jackson his “Freight Train” (Fred’s got a lot of songs about means of transportation and reasons it’s necessary to get out of town) and got to perform his memorable “I Think You’re Careless with My Love’ on Letterman. This tour features songs from his latest, collection, 6 Volts, which features his right-on-target observations on Johnny Cash-come-latelys (“You like that picture when he was giving them the finger; too bad about all that religion, but you sure do like Johnny Cash now.’) and the truth about his own, often under-seen shows (“Every night in all those bars, we played like we were stars.”)
There was a thick air of anticipation (and other things) January 18th in the packed East Nashville Rehearsal Hall, just a few blocks from where I type, as the wily Todd Snider previewed his next CD, out March 6 or Thirty Tigers/Aimless records, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. Snider makes much of his shambling “just a hippie” shaggy dog monologue and (some time) song style (as the CD title reminds you), but in fact his strongest material is tightly crafted, smartly finished, and engagingly hook-filled. The topical side of his writing (which is consistently from a liberal-to-left perspective, whether you happen to like that or not), has become more pointed over time; with few cows sacred, including some left-sided ones. Her takes on the “New York Banker” on this oncoming one (“Good things happen to bad people”) but also, in “Precious Little Miracles,” with tender crooning tones, those charming kids we’ll just “never understand”–the sort who, for instance “drive around looking for people to kill. They can be a handful.” Both were live show stoppers, as was his new cover of Jimmy Buffet’s “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown,” which I suspect will appeal even outside of East Nashville.
You might think that the instrumentally masterful Homer & Jethro would have dispelled the notion that comic country performers are necessarily any less proficient at the performing craft than others, but it’s still a rare day when the musical prowess of joke makers is noted, so a shout out to The Cleverlys for the instrumental and vocal capability they show on their new self-titled CD, which features their patented down home bluegrass take on the likes of “Walk Like an Egyptian” and their “In the Pines/Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” medley. The jokes in the approach show, without showing off, a deep understanding of how the songs and bluegrass work, the expectations of both, where they mingle and where they clash, all performed in all non-innocent innocence, which is to say: This stuff is funny. The visuals add an extra kick to these slick gentlemen’s live shows; they may have passed on their very special salute to Katy Perry for this initial CD because that one’s not quite the same without seeing it in action—though I hope they’ll put out a version anyhow.
Early warning: On February 28th, Ray Stevens, one of the Nashville granddaddies, daddies and misplaced uncles of comedy in music of multiple varieties will release an all new, long brewing 108-track box set of his own highly polished and knowing turns on songs from across the history of pop tune laughs, Ray Stevens’ Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music. Ray, of course, started scoring top ten hits, most of them comic, some fifty years ago, and has rarely paused since (“Ahab the Arab,” “Gitarzan,” “The Streak,” “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival”). The massive collection, unique in my experience, evokes the comic mastery (and songs) of Spike Jones, The Coasters, Roger Miller, Alan Sherman, Homer & Jethro, Randy Newman, Steve Martin and many more, in, encyclopedic, alphabetical song order, so you can always get to the one you’ve just gotta hear easily. I’ve had an early preview, and Ray’s masterful, knowing takes on this wide variety of the light stuff is special—far removed from some K-tel/Dr. Demento reissue anthology. More on this one later on.
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