Blind Corn Liquor Pickers,
Anywhere Else?
(Blind Corn Music, 2005)

A friend tells me that 50 years ago there was a joke that went like this:

"Why doesn't Elvis the Pelvis want to go into the Army?" The answer: "Because his twin brother Enis is going to take his job while he's gone."

I'm old enough to remember when Elvis was drafted into the Army, but I was young enough not to have gotten the joke if someone had told it to me, and nobody did. But having heard it now, I know the genesis of the charmingly off-the-wall "Little Enis" on the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers' new (and second) recording. (BCLP are based in Nashville now, moved from their native Lexington, Kentucky.) Performed, of course, as a rockabilly tune -- an acoustic one, propelled by Todd Anderson's bass-slapping and Elvis-accented vocal -- it has Little Enis "rockin' down at the Zebra Lounge ... His head like a housecat, ribs like a hungry hound dog. ... Hell, the man gets laid where another couldn't get a drink." If you lack a sense of humor and/or are dead, you won't like this. If you laugh and breathe, you will thank the music gods, or at least BCLP, for conjuring a wonderful new song out of a dumb old joke.

Nothing else on the album is quite this outre, but nothing fails to entertain, either. BCLP are basically a bluegrass outfit, and every one of the four members has his bluegrass chops down and is at home and ease in the genre. Maybe that's why the approach works so well; if they didn't have the basics in their grasp, they couldn't go beyond them in their surprising lyrics and genially off-center philosophy. Call them bluegrass postmodernists if you must. Jokey, ironic, swept up in explorations of sometimes preposterous fears, insecurities and fancies, they offer up familiar themes and then jerk them sharply leftward. When you've recovered from the shock -- if you haven't already been tossed out the window -- you're positioned to enjoy the rest of the ride.

BCLP never lapse into hipper-than-thou smugness; in fact, the jokes are always on them. And it is probably safe to say that no other bluegrass band ever wrote and recorded a song titled "Europe on $15 a Day" or covered a Talking Heads tune ("Once in a Lifetime").

Of course, they can do it straight if they want to. The CD opens with a blistering, old-timey-flavored ballad about the execution of a real-life criminal, "Bad Tom Smith," both the man's and the song's name. Smith met his end -- at the wrong end of a rope -- in eastern Kentucky in 1895. If he were committing comparable crimes today, we would label him a serial killer. No jokes here, that's for sure. And as good as anything Bruce Springsteen could have written if he wrote bluegrass, "8 Ball" evokes a teenager's lonely, desperate pool-hall dreams. No jokes there, either. While usually managing to undercut just about any expectation the listener brings to them, the songs -- all but one composed by band members -- always succeed not just as ambitious ideas but, more important, as vital, realized performances.

A particular pleasure is "Hi-Ball on a Roll-by," a train song, yet more than that. In this one, whose story you'll miss if you aren't listening carefully, a commuter on an L train imagines himself inside one of those venerable traditional songs where an express is passing high in the mountains with "smokestack shootin' coal dust to the sky ... bound south for Johnson City." I've never been to Johnson City (in east Tennessee) in person, but every time I hear an Appalachian song and fall under its spell, I feel myself in the vicinity. The superficial ironic humor notwithstanding, "Hi-Ball" celebrates a truth known to all who have opened our hearts to those old mountain anthems, which always seem so much larger than their own selves. And us, too.

by Jerome Clark
28 January 2006

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