Thursday, July 15, 2010

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: GUNS, GUITARS & KELL

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 16, 2010


With all due respect to Funky Donnie Fritts, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and all those other icons of guitars, grit, and dusty glory that Kris Kristofferson names in the introduction to “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33,” Santa Fe’s Kell Robertson should have been on that list, somewhere near the top.

He’s a poet. He’s a picker. He’s a prophet. You know the rest. Robertson, who is somewhere in the vicinity of 80 years old, just released his latest album, ’Cause I’m Crazy, his first in nearly seven years.

Like his previous CDs, Crazy is a lo-fi, warts-and-all effort, deftly underproduced by Robertson’s cohort Mike Good, a musician who records under the name Blonde Boy Grunt. Kell cusses and fusses and clears his throat. It’s clearly not ready for modern country radio or any other civilized medium (I’ve been playing it on my show and have no intention of stopping).

Living the life: I interviewed the singer for a short profile in No Depression magazine in 2004. (For that story I also went to one of his local gigs where he intimidated some patrons of a now-defunct hippie café by growling, “I’m gonna take all your organic sandwiches and throw ’em in the woods and make you eat bologna/Because I’m evil,” as the climax to a blues song he performed.)

Robertson was born in Kansas, and, according to him, his stepfather kicked him out of the house at age 13, launching his years of rambling. He has worked as an usher in a movie theater, a fruit picker, a dishwasher, a soldier during the Korean War, a DJ at country and jazz stations, a bartender, and — this is the only one I have trouble believing — an insurance salesman. Robertson said that he considered a career in law enforcement and even took some classes at a police academy in California.

But poetry and music are his passions. Seeing a Hank Williams show in Louisiana was a turning point in his life, he said. But Robertson is far better known in poetry circles than he is in the music world. He published a mimeograph poetry magazine called Desperado in the ’60s and has issued 17 books of poetry. The liner notes of his previous album, When You Come Down Off the Mountain, contained a quote from Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “I would say Kell Robertson is one fine cowboy-poet, worth a dozen New Yorker poetasters. Let them listen and hear the voice of the real America out there.”

Robertson landed in Santa Fe sometime around the turn of the century and has been here since.
’Cause he’s crazy: The new album starts out with some classic outlaw bravado. In the title track, Robertson sings about being compelled to go into a tavern, even though “every time I go in there, they throw me out.” (It’s ’cause he’s crazy, and he’s in love.)

The next song, “Guns, Guitars, and Women,” celebrates a long life of trouble: “First man I killed was down in Dallas/I was only 21.” Later in the album there’s “Down the Bar From Me,” which is about some of his fellow saloon denizens. “There’s one old lady showin’ her bullet scar,” he sings, a hint of lust in his voice.

“Migrant Farm Worker” sounds like a modern Woodie Guthrie song. It’s about the toil and trouble of field workers with their “overalls trimmed in manure.” The chorus speaks not only to a feeling of anonymity but also a fear of being trapped in some bad karmic Möbius strip: “Who will remember me when I am gone/Who will remember me then/When they bury me ’neath that cottonwood tree/Will I have to start over again?”

Robertson offers his take on religion on a few songs. “Singin’ for Jesus” is about a street preacher. “I’m screamin at them sinners to come back to Jesus ... but he’s gonna pay me back some day. ... I’m down on skid row selling salvation ... but you know, boys, salvation is free.”

In “Jesus Christ Is Dead,” Robertson sings: “They nailed him to a tree/And the only way he can live again is inside you and me.” “Great Big Donut,” a song he says was inspired while sitting on the can watching the spiders on the wall, is a shaggy-dog parable about God trying to save the world by sending us a mysterious rolling pastry.

With “Lookin’ For Somebody to Kill,” you know you’re in for trouble from the first line, “I lost my heart in a barroom in Juárez.” Indeed, he’s looking for someone to kill, but when you learn who his victim is in the last verse, you may be shocked.

Actually this song seems to be the third part of a trilogy of songs about drug addicts. “Maria Elena” is about a doomed woman: “The powder they gave you is mixed up with death/You’re finding it harder to catch up with your breath.” The next song, “Junkie Eyes,” is about an encounter with a strung-out prostitute: “Lord, lord, them junkie eyes/Everytime you see them something dies/Something may be crawlin’ around inside/what’s left are them ravin’ junkie eyes.”

There are a couple of new versions of songs from previous albums — “Madonna on the Billboard” and “Mary Lou” (the tale of a “good-time gal”). The new versions don’t add that much to the old takes, and I’m not quite sure why they’re here. But both are fine songs, and they do fit in with the others.

The official conclusion of ’Cause I’m Crazy is “As You Still Got a Song.” Robertson sings again about getting kicked out of bars, but like the refrain says, “As long as you’ve still got a song, everything is all right.”

I’m glad Kell’s still got these great songs.

Kell on the radio: Kell Robertson plays live on The Santa Fe Opry tonight. The show starts at 10 p.m on KSFR-FM 101.1

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