Jelly Roll Kings
By John Lewis
Call it premillennium tension or postrock malaise--a lack of excitement is permeating the music industry. Grunge is over, alternative is waning, gangsta rap is (literally) dying, and genres such as house, industrial, techno, jungle, trip-hop, ambient, and illbient might move asses, but they've eluded the masses so far. Many folks seem to be waiting for the big bang that will make everyday life seem trivial, if only for a few moments. They're waiting for the next rock and roll, punk rock, or rap. During the lull, it's not surprising to find pop culture embracing the familiar roots of American music.
On the odious side, a watered-down version of country music has dominated the pop charts. Stetson-wearing tarts such as Garth Brooks and Shania Twain are strutting down Music Row and pocketing piles of major-label cash. They're the Nashville version of the American Dream at its wettest, a nonstop commercial appeal for snug jeans, Chevy trucks, and hayloft/honky-tonk fantasy.
The blues has resurfaced in the mainstream too. B. B. King and John Lee Hooker hawk burgers and soda on TV, the Beale Street Caravan airs on public radio, annual blues festivals are thriving, and there are numerous blues sites on the Web. In addition, the House of Blues nightclub franchise is expanding with new locations, a record label, recording studios, and TV and radio programs.
At the same time a more understated but harder-hitting take on the genre has emerged. The most compelling blues discs this side of Alan Lomax are being made by Fat Possum Records, a Mississippi-based label partial to recording guerrilla-style in juke joints, auto-repair shops, and hunting lodges. Offbeat and real, Fat Possum recordings by the likes of R. L. Burnside, CeDell Davis, Junior Kimbrough, and the Jelly Roll Kings have managed to cut through the South Side-sounding, pimp-hat-wearing bullshit that's crowded blues record bins for years and stake a claim for dusty rhythms and muddy melodies descended from blue-black field hands.
Matthew Johnson, 27, started Fat Possum in 1991 while a student at the University of Mississippi. Johnson hung out quite a bit at Kimbrough's juke joint near the Oxford, Mississippi campus, and used his student-loan money to record a few of the native bluesmen who frequented the place. "Blues bars are so dorky," he says, "and I fuckin' hate blues festivals. It's all polished, you know. We try to stay away from that shit. We're like the parent who loves the ugliest child."
Johnson's never been interested in music that goes down smoothly with a few Millers or Coors Lights, and he's not looking for something that'll impress the tourists at House of Blues. He records fer-real, gutbucket blues by men who frequent juke joints, gulp corn liquor, and move with the grace of reptiles. Men who play the blues as a natural, unpretentious activity, something akin to fixing a meal or growing vegetables.
It's an approach and attitude that doesn't easily mesh with a commercial/corporate mentality. Johnson offers an example. "Our guys don't give a fuck about the business," he says matter of factly. "Last year, R. L. Burnside and I were driving to the airport to catch a plane to New York for a photo shoot. Up and back in one day. Anyway, R. L. tells me he knows a shortcut, and we turn onto a gravel road, which becomes a dirt road, which dead-ends. R. L. says, 'You don't suppose they moved the road do you?' I said, 'I don't fuckin' know. I'm followin' your directions.'
"Anyway, we turn around and find the right road. Then, it wasn't long before I discover why we're taking this shortcut. It turns out that it takes us past the liquor store, and R. L. wants to get a six-pack! These were $1,400 plane tickets--$1,400 each! That's a helluva lot of money to us! --and he wants to risk missing the flight for a fuckin' six-pack." Would Sam Phillips have stopped for Howlin' Wolf? You bet.
"Of course I stopped," Johnson says with a laugh. "R. L.'s the man."
They made the flight with just minutes to spare, but that's not terribly important. What's important is the powerful musical force that's able to bridge complex racial and generational divides, and put a white upstart such as Johnson and a black elder such as Burnside on a mission together in an old pickup truck barreling down a dirt road in rural Mississippi.
Thankfully, Johnson has documented his wild ride with about a dozen releases to date. Of these, Burnside's bracing Too Bad Jim, Kimbrough's haunting Sad Days, Lonely Nights, and Davis' bizarre Feel Like Doin' Something Wrong are the finest. Such records have effectively wedded the Fat Possum name to the blues genre, in the same way Sun was known for rockabilly, Atlantic for early R&B, Stax for soul, and Blue Note for jazz. Along the way, the label has picked up a few well-connected admirers such as New York Times critic Robert Palmer, Iggy Pop, and members of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Palmer has produced most of the Fat Possum's discs, Kimbrough opened a string of Pop's shows at Iggy's request, and Burnside recorded and toured with the Blues Explosion.
"These guys are the best musicians playin' in America today," Pop says in an interview. "All this shit gets written about Stone Temple Pilots' drug problems and Kurt Cobain's widow, and these guys get overlooked. But they're head and shoulders above everybody else."
"Fat Possum's a great label," Spencer says. "They're putting out amazing stuff that everybody needs to hear."
"Those guys are criminals, like a James Cagney movie," Blues Explosion guitarist Judah Bauer says. "They're badasses ... They don't give a shit, but they have so much heart in their music. It's refreshing."
This year, Fat Possum's industry presence figures to get a boost from a newly inked distribution deal with Epitaph, the Los Angeles-based punk label best known for its Offspring and Rancid records. Fat Possum spent last year tied up in litigation with Capricorn, its former distributor, and put out only one new disc (A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, Burnside's collaboration with the Blues Explosion). With the legal mess now behind him, Johnson's looking forward to working with Epitaph and releasing a dozen new discs this year. Under terms of an out-of-court settlement, Capricorn will distribute four of the discs and Epitaph will handle the balance.
"The thing with Capricorn was a nightmare," Johnson says. "Total heart-of-darkness. I've got nothing nice to say about those people. They never got what we do. They had no punk sensibility."
Although it seems an unlikely pairing, Epitaph President Brett Gurewitz says the deal with Fat Possum makes sense. "The blues and punk genres are very different," he says, "but they have a close spiritual affinity in terms of being raw, roots music stripped free of pretension ... After meeting Matthew, I realized it also made a heck of a lot of sense on a business level. Like punk rock, the blues has a built-in core of a fan base, and there's an avid, small following for these artists and their sound. With each release, that base will grow if Matthew stays true to his vision.
"That's exactly how I started Epitaph."
The three latest Fat Possum discs--Burnside's Mr. Wizard, Kimbrough's Most Things Haven't Worked Out, and the Jelly Roll Kings' Off Yonder Wall--further Johnson's vision. Recorded "live" with no overdubs, they're exciting, loose, natural-sounding records, fresher than anything currently on the hip parade. They have a daring, visceral vibe that contemporary pop music is always losing and trying to buy back. These old guys rock.
On Mr. Wizard, the 72-year-old Burnside sounds like a man who should have been swallowed by death at an early age instead of living to record and tour as an oldster. It doesn't seem like the human body could withstand playing Burnside's straight-ahead, driving music for five decades. His arresting falsetto opens and closes the disc on "Over the Hill" and "You Gotta Move," a pair of hushed, gospel-tinged tunes. In between, Burnside growls, stomps, slashes, and burns his way through seven numbers, including "Georgia Women," "Snake Drive," and "Tribute to Fred," an homage to his mentor, Mississippi Fred McDowell. Each is a rockin' gem, a rollin' stone.
Kimbrough's Most Things Haven't Worked Out is more laid-back and hypnotic, but no less compelling. Its haunting tunes could have been written at a crossroads on a night when the devil was more interested in getting down and doing the dirty dog than snatching souls. "Everywhere I Go" and "Leave Her Alone" are built on Kimbrough's repetitive, trance-inducing electric-guitar groove; the title track is a skewed take on Southern boogie, right down to its off-kilter picking and easy, ramblin'-man rhythm; Eastern in feel, "Lonesome Road" features Kimbrough's chanted vocal over hushed guitar; and "I Love Ya Baby" and "Burn in Hell" scrape along mightily.
Something of a blues supergroup, the Jelly Roll Kings feature the talents of guitarist Big Jack Johnson, drummer Sam Carr, and keyboardist/harmonica-player Frank Frost. The blues press has been touting Johnson's tasty licks as the driving force behind Off Yonder Wall, but that's probably because they don't know what to make of Frost's eccentric organ style--his wild-card playing breathes new life into old chestnuts such as "Baby Please Don't Go" and "That's Alright Mama" and gives a needed edge to originals such as "Fat Back" and "So Lonesome."
Sometimes it seems as if Frost is off in a personal reverie, playing another song altogether, but mostly he sounds like Booker T. on a binge at the roller rink. It's totally joyous stuff.
Frost's playing also brings to mind Jon Spencer's description of Kimbrough's music. "It's falling apart and falling together at the same time," he says, and the same thing could be said of the other Fat Possum artists. They're unsteady and rock-steady at the same time, and that quality infuses their music with an inner tension that's wondrous to hear.
Loud and proud, Fat Possum's the perfect tonic for end-of-the-millennium angst.
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