Mark Lemhouse,
The Great American Yard Sale
(Yellow Dog, 2005)

Late of Memphis, currently of Salem, Oregon, Mark Lemhouse is a rooted singer-songwriter with a distinctive sense of humor. Of course, except for the geography, that also describes John Prine (late of Maywood, Illinois, currently of Nashville). You will not, however, likely confuse the two. While Prine's instrumental chops are modest, Lemhouse's are those of a guitar (and lap-steel and banjo) master; Lemhouse began as a student of the fierce country bluesman Robert Belfour (himself educated by blues immortal Mississippi Fred McDowell). Moreover, one gets the clear impression that in his personal listening habits Lemhouse is more likely to be spinning discs by Mississippi John Hurt and Dock Boggs than by other singer-songwriters. You don't do it this way if it isn't your soul's food.

The Great American Yard Style spans a range of styles sufficiently expansive that it may take you awhile, as it did me, to get a handle on what Lemhouse is up to. Not the sort of artist who knows one thing and contents himself with variations on it, he explores sounds based in multiple strains of rural American music, fusing them in unexpected ways. The most notable such experiment, and the one most likely to grab your attention immediately upon initial exposure, is his recreation of the Appalachian banjo standard "Cluck Old Hen" as an amplified, grungy Mississippi hill-country blues, such as you might hear -- if not in a juke joint where the music is old and loud -- on a T Model Ford record. First time around, I couldn't get past it. I just kept playing it over and over again, happy as a monkey under a full moon.

Some cuts are simple acoustic solos, others full-blown blues-rock 'n' roll, with Lemhouse's beautifully plucked old-time banjo dropping in at surprising and always satisfying moments. Of his serious songs I am most attracted to "I'm Worried," with its unadorned but faultless melody like something out of John Hurt's repertoire, its theme as timeless as human anxiety or "Worried Man Blues."

Lemhouse gives vent to his bent humor in a deeply disrespectful song, "The Unofficial Ballad of Story Musgrave," about a seriously (in real life) straight-laced astronaut. I can't imagine what would possess somebody to write a song about Musgrave to start with, much less this one in particular, with the first-person narrator braying "I'll tell all the chicks I'm an astronaut, I bet that'll get me laid." It does make one curious about the story -- or, one almost wonders, the Story -- behind the ballad. The laid-back near-talking-blues arrangement pushes the already unhinged lyrics into a realm of almost disorienting absurdity, with the Musgrave character trashing Houston as a smelly hellhole, swearing eternal enmity to monkeys and recounting a close call with a bladder accident. I hope all of this didn't drive the actual Musgrave to his attorney's office. Then again, it's at least possible that even clean-cut astronauts can take a joke.

Since I have your attention, please allow me here to plug the label to which Lemhouse is signed, the Memphis-based Yellow Dog Records, whose specialty is artists with one foot in the present, the other in all that went before. The performers, among them Chris Cotton and William Lee Ellis (both of whom I have reviewed elsewhere at Rambles.NET), lay claim to keen understanding of what Mike Seeger calls "the old Southern sound." Just as important, they have the creative sensitivity to carry it into the 21st century without in any way betraying its hard-won integrity.

by Jerome Clark
8 July 2006

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