By Bruce Sylvester
Let's talk about a few recent rootsy discs – most with their own distinctly regional flavor.
We can start off with Yvette Landry & the Jukes' Louisiana Lovin' (Soko), which she produced with guitarist/duet partner Roddie Romero. It concentrates on songs from their native southwestern Louisiana's singers and writers – especially R.C. Guidry (better known as Bobby Charles). From the pen of Rudy Toombs, “Daddy Daddy” increases the Latin groove on Ruth Brown's 1952 rendition. “I Almost Lost My Mind” turns into a two-step unlike its slooow tempo on Ivory Joe Hunter's 1950 original and Pat Boone's 1956 chart-topping pop cover. Says Landry, “I chose songs that I wanted to dance to.” Their pleasure in the recording studio is so clear that we pick up on it as listeners. The CD's cover says it all: smiling Landry sitting on a bare wood floor surrounded by vintage 45s and her guitar.
Gruff-voiced Louisiana bayou boy Tony Joe White's swan song Bad Mouthin' (Yep Roc) has a totally different mood – dark and bluesy. White, who died at age 75 on October 24, first won fame by penning Brook Benton's “Rainy Night in Georgia” and his own granny-gobbling single “Polk Salad Annie” (which Elvis Presley covered so drollly). Recorded in his barn with his 1965 Fender Stratocaster, bone-lean “Bad Mouthin'” has five of his own compositions and seven from his country blues forebears like Charley Patton and John Lee Hooker. White once that his music's foundation was “from hearing blues singers play guitar with maybe just a harmonica or stomping their feet for accompaniment.” Here the vintage vibe – especially Hooker's – is strong, though White's lyrics move the blues into the 21st century on satiric “Rich Woman Blues” (“Got a telephone call this morning. My baby wrecked her Mercedes Benz.”) sung in a Hooker-like voice. Women in John Lee's songs didn't own three-bedroom condos like this one, but, hey, the blues inevitably evolves over time. Note: No grandmothers were harmed in the creation of this album's songs.
In the 1970s, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard's Hazel and Alice awakened people to how country once sounded, with piercing mountain harmonizing predating bluegrass. Naomi Judd says their LPs inspired her and daughter Wynona in forming The Judds. Dickens, the voice of West Virginia's coal mining communities, died in 2011 at age 85. While cleaning out a closet, Gerrard (now 84) came upon a box of seven-inch reel-to-reel tapes from before their commercial recordings. Now, Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969 (Free Dirt) presents 19 of the tapes' songs amid laughter and talk of how a song might be done. Plenty of the compositions come from Alabama's Louvin Brothers and, no surprise, southwestern Virginia's Carter Family, though the duo's repertoire was simply songs that they liked such as the Everly Brothers' debut hit “Bye Bye Love” with Hazel on autoharp. “This Little Light of Mine”'s stunning call-and-response harmony comes from the Louvins. Dolly Parton (a Real McCoy like Hazel) penned nostalgic yet realistic “In the Good Old Days (when Times Were Bad).” Though Merle Haggard wrote “Sing Me Back Home” in the voice of a condemned prisoner, it probably (regardless of its setting) spoke to plenty of homesick rural migrants to the Baltimore/Washington area where the duo met. The CD's songs aren't on their long-ago LPs, the audio quality is generally decent, and the verve is astounding.
Lastly, let's turn to New Englander Al Basile's part sung, part narrated Me & the Originator (Sweetspot) – a shaggy dog (or shaggy bluesman) tale turned into an audio autobiography of a totally fictional musician whose success began with a fortunate surprise and a lie. The cast of characters includes a thieving manager, the woman of the bluesman's dreams (“Her right eye was brown. Her left eye was blue. She could look straight at me and still be looking at you.”), a comic strip beauty, and the obsessive fan who knows more about him than he remembers about himself. Eerie fate enters the picture too. Duke Robillard's solo guitar introduces each chapter. Says Basile, “It's a story about blues songs – how they came to be, and who can claim them as theirs – that speaks to the history of the music as we've inherited it.” As for recording the CD, “Usually we track the songs in an order that makes sense for the way the day is unfolding rather than in any particular order. The sequence [on a CD] is determined later, when we're done with the mixes. This time, I gave the guys advance notice of the narration (even though they wouldn't [necessarily] be playing on those tracks) so they would understand the story and how the songs fit in. I'd already decided the sequence while writing the narrative and the songs – planning grooves and keys to lead the listener through the story of the narrator's life. Then we actually recorded the songs in sequence. That way the guys could attend to details knowing exactly what the listener would have heard in the preceding song, and what the next one would be like. This involved the players on a new level, and I think it shows in the flow of the album – there's a natural inevitability that leads you through the story.” Hmm.