Ruby Dee & the Snakehandlers,
Miles from Home
(Dionysus, 2008)

File it under "R" -- for Ruby Dee (her last name is Philippa), as well as for "rockabilly" and "roots rock." Plenty of hard-core country accents, too, but most of all, it's the beat and Ruby Dee & the Snakehandlers' chops, humor and solid songwriting that trigger the pleasure.

Though they sound like Memphis circa the mid-1950s, lead vocalist Ruby Dee and the boys -- three in number (on guitar, bass and drums, plus some guest players to mark the occasion) -- hail from Seattle, and this is their second album. (I reviewed the first, North of Bakersfield, in this space on 9 September 2006.) The first was good, and Miles from Home -- though its approach is fundamentally the same; these are players who know exactly what they want to do -- is better.

The songs are all originals except for the rocked-up arrangement of the Hank Williams standard "Settin' the Woods on Fire." And it's not all boppin' at the honkytonk; "Comes a Time" is a slow-dancing weeper. "Round & Round," set to a moody, noirish rhythm, is really quite lovely in a slightly unsettling way. The instrumental "Gunslinger (Return of Nobody)," powered by lead electric guitarist Jorge Harada, lands stylistically somewhere between surf and spaghetti Western.

Though this approach is best done live in its native habitat -- funky blue-collar bars -- Ruby Dee and her band know how to put an approximation of that sound onto an album. If you like rooted electric hillbilly music, you'll have no complaints about what the Snakehandlers do with it. Their love for this distinctive genre, more than half a century old and yet unkillable, shines through.

review by
Jerome Clark

9 August 2008

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