howdy from the air-conditioned station in muggy stl, all
hope your summer adventures are exciting or worthwhile or something
here’s some new goodies we’ve gotten at the station recently that you all can look forward to returning to (or listen to live on summer shows, of course):
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder – Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947
Skaggs is a veteran of mainstream country and bluegrass scenes (an opry-member, even). He was once very popular in the 80s and early 90s–a pop crossover success for the earnest bluegrass speed-picker. Always quite a technically-skilled dude, the years have fortunately roughed-up his sometimes bland, high-lonesome whine (that’s what they call that nasal tenor, close-harmony thing you hear in bluegrass). Along with this, during the last decade or so Skaggs has thankfully lessened his reliance on slick, wanky 2nd/3rd wave virtuoso tropes (tricks of the trade and production values employed by the yngwie malmsteens of bluegrass, basically). This has apparently left him an austere, accomplished traditionalist.
Here he and his hot backing combo extremely faithfully remake the first true bluegrass tunes ever, originally performed by Mr. Bill Monroe (w/Flatt & Scruggs, natch). Mr. Monroe was, of course, the man who literally invented the bluegrass genre (fusing old-time tradtions with his hip, sleek sound), apparently debuting it in 1946-7 with these featured tunes.
Skaggs renditions are charming and tasteful, but also extremely faithful and conservative, so I find it hard to recommend these too heartily to anyone except those who can’t stand 1940s production values (idiots). So, I guess give it a listen but also seek out the originals.
Well, one exciting bonus is special guest Mr. Earl Scruggs himself (at age 84), the inventor of Scruggs-style banjo-playing who played on the original versions of these tunes. So listen to that track anyway.
Skaggs Family 2008
V/A – Classic Piano Blues from Smithsonian Folkways
This excellent collection surveys piano-based black music spanning the first half of the last century (mostly), ranging from jump blues to boogie woogie, chicago blues, tin pan alley/vaudeville (almost minstrel-style) stuff, stride, a coupla numbers with jazzier chord voicings and phrasing, and lots more stuff… Loads of StL natives or associates represented too, which is always nice.
Any attempt to pick out the gems is kinda impossible on such a quality compilation (and a task perhaps a little too steeped in personal biases, especially in my case), but here goes, anyway, some hits from the smithsonian vaults that just about bowled me over:
James P. Johnson turns in two lovely numbers that showcase his mastery of stride-style piano: a technique arising out of the fading flames of classic Ragtime (and it’s considered the East Coast counterpart to Ragtime, which was primarily a Midwest phenomenon). Where classic rags are highly percussive in a layered, additive sense, stride style is more syncopated and makes use of a jazzy-shuffle (whereas joplin is always on the beat). This distinction is maybe exagerrated because a lot of our knowledge of ragtime comes from hand-punched piano rolls, which are inherently kind of jittery.
The first of the two tunes–”Yellow Dog Blues” features singer Katherine Handy Lewis, the daughter of none other than W.C. Handy who wrote “St. Louis Blues,” he the father of big band-style blues music–the sort of orchestrated bluesy records that first had pop success (early pre-clapton white blues, I guess…). She sings with a phrasing and cadence similar to that on the handful of surviving recordings of true vaudeville blues – a nasal and exagerrated style distinct from the classic Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith female blues crooning, though there isn’t really any of the wacky yodeling associated the vaudeville style (the true origin of mainstream country yodeling via emmett smith–maybe a later post?). Very cool stuff, basically.
There’s two 1960s numbers from the St. Louis-based albino boogie-woogie pianist Speckled Red who I tend to dig a lot. Red had a big hit with “The Dirty Dozens” – a classic toast blues in the talky, pre-rap tradition of witty insults strung together over a percussive vamp. The two cuts featured here showcase his very intense, rhythmic phrasing, and “how long blues” (one of the two) is a slower ballad-blues type not usually associated with him, giving his shouty vocals the limelight for a change.
I’m naturally inclined to dislike Chicago style hot blues guitar licks, so the tracks in that style appeal to me less, but that’s just a personal preference. Champion Jack Dupree’s “Black Wolf Blues” is a pretty rock’n roll early RnB number with some party blues washboard and that’s definitely a gem.
One standout in a set of classics is “Big Fat Woman,” in which Mr. Huddie Ledbetter aka Leadbelly clonks some chunky piano riffs instead of the fat twelve-string strumming he’s associated with. This cute tune’s on the catchier end of the convicted felon’s output (on the “Rock Island Line” side of the spectrum I’d say), with some goofy scatting interludes.
Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, and the Honeydripper Roosevelt Sykes make some lovely appearances as well and Victoria Spivey turns in the lovely “You’re my Man,” a late career Greenwich village scene-era recording from one of the early masters of pre-war female blues.
Check these out in the (sort of) brand new Folk/Blues New Release Section wahoo! along with some older entries:
Marcia Ball – Peace Love & BBQ (white chick cajun party blues)
Michael Johnathon – Walden: The Earth Song Collection (earnest green folky decides to haha adapt thoreau with fingerpickin, also features nice renditions of better traditional tunes)
Peter Karp – Shadows and Cracks (over-clever bluesy twangy rock that works really well occasionally and mostly falls flat, name-dropping camus, dumas, mtv…)
Casey Driessen – 3D (nugrass fusion from accomplished fiddler, features bela fleck)
also, LISTEN TO MY SUMMER SHOW – PBJ ORANGE BLOSSOM SPECIAL SUMMER EDITION WAHOO
EVERY SUNDAY ALL FUCKING NIGHT WHICH MEANS 8PM TO MIDNIGHT CENTRAL TIME
over and out