Friday, November 23, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: MURDER MADNESS & COUNTRY MUSIC

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
November 23, 2007


One of the rough edges of country music that has been almost completely smoothed out by Nashville tastemakers in recent decades is the great tradition of hillbilly madness/murder songs. Sure, you can sing proudly about putting your boot in the orifices of approved enemies of the state, but you won’t find the likes of Willie Nelson’s “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” or even Marty Robbins’ slightly milder “Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got)” on today’s safe and sanitized country radio.

The world of alternative country, of course, always has had an odd fascination with the dark side of country music.

But before anyone had ever heard the term “alt country,” a band of misfits called T. Tex Edwards & Out on Parole released Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill, consisting of honky-tonk tales of crime and psychosis. Originally released in 1989 on the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, it’s been re-released recently by Saustex, based in Texas. The sound definitely is lo-fi — tinny even — but Pardon Me is a real kick.

To start with, the album contains some well-known classics of the sub-subgenre. There’s the title song, which originally was recorded by Johnny Paycheck. Here the narrator calmly tells a barroom buddy that he’s about to commit a crime of passion.

Edwards does a respectable take on the late Porter Wagoner’s horror tale, “The Rubber Room.” If there’s an Out on Parole reunion, I suppose they could do “Committed to Parkview,” an exploration of a similar theme penned by Johnny Cash and sung by Wagoner this year on his final album, Wagonmaster.

And Edwards does a pretty good version of “Psycho,” which was written by the great blind bard Leon Payne (best known for writing Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway”). A one-hit country wonder named Jack Kittel recorded perhaps the definitive version of this black-humor honky-tonker. Elvis Costello also recorded a version back in the ’80s, though I first heard it done by ex-Angry Samoan Gregg Turner here in Santa Fe. The narrator is talking to his mother, talking about killing a couple, about his crazy dreams, and his doubts about his sanity. “I woke up in Johnny’s room, mama/Standing right there by his bed/With my hands around his throat, mama/Wishing both of us were dead.” But is his mother really listening?

Considering that Edwards doesn’t have the voice of Johnny Paycheck, Porter Wagoner,or even Jack Kittel, the true gems of this album are the obscurities, oddities, and little-known novelty tunes. They include “The Girl on Death Row,” written by none other than Lee Hazelwood (I don’t think he ever sang this with Nancy Sinatra); “LSD Made a Wreck of Me,” a cautionary drug tale (“I started using LSD, it gave me quite a kick/Better than booze and easy to use/But it made me mentally sick”); and “Dolores,” a sad saga of a hapless serial killer who accidentally murders his own sweetheart. If only she’d listened to him and stayed inside!

The weirdest one here is “Strangler in the Night,” which has lyrics allegedly written by Albert DeSalvo, believed by many to be “the Boston Strangler.” When DeSalvo was in prison, a Cambridge record company actually released a spoken-word single with greasy ’50s-style slow-dance rock (reportedly by a Boston band called The Bugs) behind someone with a good radio voice reciting DeSalvo’s lyrics: “I don’t know a woman/And yet I crave on/My mind tells my body/Don’t just stand there, get one!” (You can find an MP3 of the original HERE.)

My one complaint about Pardon Me is that the liner notes should be better. We should know more about Johnny Legend, who wrote the song “Smitty” (and also ballads about the Boston Strangler, the Black Dahlia killing, etc.), and about where these other songs came from. But even without satisfying your inquiring mind, these songs are a twisted delight.

Also Recommended:
* Satisfied by John Sebastian & David Grisman. After immersing myself in the tasty but gruesome T. Tex Edwards album for the purposes of writing this review (the things I go through for you people!), a little nice music sounds pretty good and clears the palate. And good music doesn’t get much nicer and friendlier than this recent collaboration between mandolin master Grisman and former Lovin’ Spoonful frontman Sebastian.

These guys played together with Maria Muldaur and other future stars of folk in The Even Dozen Jug Band more than 40 years ago.
According to the liner notes, they hadn’t seen much of each other in 40-some years. But on this album they sound like they’ve been playing together forever.

My favorite songs are covers of Mississippi John Hurt: “I’m Satisfied,” plus “Coffee Blues,” the song that gave Sebastian’s famous band its name (“I’ve just got to have me my lovin’ spoonful”).

* The Other Side of the Mirror: Live at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 by Bob Dylan. Every few years, I guess, the rock ’n’ world needs another excuse to get all hot and bothered at the holier-than-thou folkie purists who got so hot and bothered over Dylan “going electric.”

This DVD contains that magic moment at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan came onstage with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with their (shudder) electric instruments.

While the folkie hecklers deserve all the scorn they’ve received, watching Dylan’s crazed version of “Maggie’s Farm” captured here shows why they were shocked. Dylan and his band are ablaze. He wasn’t singing about freedom anymore; he was living it.

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