Bob Frank,
Red Neck, Blue Collar
(Memphis International, 2008)

Bob Frank is not to be confused with Bob Franke (rhymes with "hanky"), the Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter who's been working the folk circuit for many years. Frank (rhymes with "Hank") has had a lower profile. I have the faintest recall of an album he recorded for Vanguard in 1972. I may have even had it in my collection once, and that's as much as I can tell you.

I wish, though, that it were still there because -- so I infer from the evidence of his new disc -- I would probably enjoy the reacquainting. Frank's current release, on the always impressive, roots-oriented Memphis International label, is a good one. I read that over the years he's issued a few albums on his own -- pretty much invisibly, I infer; I don't think I've encountered so much as a review -- but happily, Red Neck, Blue Collar is on the market and readily available. It's worth picking up, and Frank is worth getting to know.

His label is promoting him as a pure folk singer. He is that, though these days folk singers who deliver with a twang and set their songs in rural landscapes -- as opposed to those acoustic guitar-slinging "folk singers" who don't -- get tagged as alt-country/Americana artists. But if traditional music is not a source but an influence here, Frank is a folk singer in the way Woody Guthrie, early Bob Dylan, Utah Phillips and John Prine were and are. (You could add Merle Haggard, who's sometimes a folk singer; like the aforementioned, he also has a strong, but esthetically integrated, sociopolitical perspective.) And if you like that sort of thing, you'll love this record.

Seriously demeanored at times, shining a goofy grin at others, Frank seems to be having one dandy time. The feeling is infectious. All of the songs are his own, their subjects touching on politics (the title tune, the surprisingly conceived "Pledge of Allegiance"), working folks' plight ("One Big Family"), marital travail ("Holy Ground," an intensely felt anthem of reconciliation), cowboys ("Out on the Prairie," which -- amazingly -- sounds like a Sons of the Pioneers piece and an authentic Western folk song) and more. This is accomplished, oddly, with four different producers, one of them the celebrated blues/rock 'n' roll/roots figure Jim Dickinson; yet they manage never to step on each other. Red Neck has a tastefully spare, consistently warm and remarkably cohesive sound.

In his liner notes Dickinson, who has known Frank for decades, remarks, "There is something noble about a man whose art is unchanged after nearly half a century." While you couldn't say that about everybody, it's certainly true in this case. Actually, this CD has all the sparkle and freshness of a first release from a much younger man.

review by
Jerome Clark

20 September 2008

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