Thursday, June 09, 2011

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: Southern Storytellers Jimbo & Levon

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 10, 2011

Jimbo Mathus covers a lot of Southern-music ground in his new solo album Confederate Buddha. With his band, The Tri-State Coalition, Mathus romps through blues, honky-tonk, and Allmanesque boogie. The influence of gospel music is apparent on some tracks, and there are even some Southwestern sounds in the Mexican-influenced ballad “Aces & Eights.”

There is just about everything but the neo-Dixieland/ vaudeville sounds of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, the band that launched Mathus’ career in the ’90s. As a SNZ fan, I would have liked some of that, but hey, it’s his album.

Most of my favorites here are the simple country and blues songs. “Leash My Pony” is a hearty blues, starting off with an acoustic guitar lick. The band is nice and loose.

“Town With No Shame,” a honky-tonk lament with a mournful steel guitar, sounds like something Ry Cooder would have pitched to The Rolling Stones. “Glad It’s Dark” shows the influence of Doug Sahm. It’s a country weeper, but instead of fiddles and steel, it features an electric organ.

Where Mathus excels is in the great tradition of Southern storytelling. “Jimmy the Kid” (not to be confused with the Jimmie Rodgers song of similar title) is an old-fashioned outlaw ballad — rock ’n’ roll style. Perhaps it’s an “autobiography” of ol’ Jimbo in a fanciful kind of way. “He went back East and he came out West/A .45 pistol strapped to his chest./Down in Texas he robbed the Alamo/The poor boy was stranded in a herd of buffalo.”

“Aces & Eights” is about the killing of Wild Bill Hickok by the coward Jack McCall, who inspires the wisdom, “There’s nothing worse than a desperate man who holds a grudge.” The title of the tune refers to the cards Hickok was holding when McCall shot and killed him — according to legend, a pair of aces and eights — which became known as the “dead man’s hand.”

One little puzzle:the Mexican music is historically inaccurate, as Hickok was killed in Dakota Territory (as Deadwood fans all know.) Maybe the mariachi touches were to give the song a Marty Robbins feel. Whatever the case, it works.

The final song, “Days of High Cotton,” reminds me of The Band’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” It’s a sad tale of economic ruin coming to the South told by a narrator who has seen much better times.

The only trouble with this record is that sometimes the music drifts into a generic late-’70s Southern rock sound like you might hear on an old Dickey Betts solo album — a little overproduced, a little uninspired. I’m thinking of tracks like “Wheel Upon Wheel” and “Walks Beside.” These songs aren’t bad; they’re just not as ear-opening as the others.

Also recommended:

* Ramble at the Ryman by Levon Helm. Levon Helm is basically all we have left of The Band. Rick Danko is dead. Richard Manuel is long dead. Robbie Robertson hasn’t made music that sounds like The Band — or is nearly as good as The Band — in decades. I don’t know what Garth Hudson is doing.

So Helm is it, and dang if he still doesn’t make you smile when he opens his throat and sings songs like “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag.” These songs and other Band classics are ancient and I’ve heard them a million times, but Helm and his current group showed at this 2008 show in Nashville that they still live and breathe.

No, Helm’s voice isn’t what it was way back when. He’s had struggles with throat cancer, and there were a few years when he couldn’t sing a note. So he’s helped out by a small army of guest stars including Buddy Miller, John Hiatt (who trades verses with Helm on “The Weight”), and Sheryl Crow, who sings the Emmylou Harris part on “Evangeline.”

Actually though, my favorite guest vocalists are the lesser-known ones. A guy called Little Sammy Davis sings a couple of songs, the best being a blues tune called “Fannie Mae.” Then there’s Teresa Williams, one of Helm’s background singers, who rages during her solo number “Time out for the Blues.”

Undoubtedly the prettiest song here is “Anna Lee,” a song from Helm’s 2007 album Dirt Farmer. Helm sings accompanied only by Larry Campbell on fiddle and his daughter Amy Helm and Williams singing harmonies.

My only complaint here is that Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” isn’t included in this show. Helm and crew have been known to do the song in recent years, as evidenced by a handful of substandard audience videos on YouTube. (Pardon me. I already ranted about my love for this song a couple of weeks ago in this column.)

A film of Ramble at the Ryman was broadcast on PBS and has been released as a DVD.

Enjoy some videos, kids:

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