Ruby Dee & the Snakehandlers,
North of Bakersfield
(Dionysus, 2006)

There is nothing not to like about this band and this record if, like me, you are not fully rational about rockabilly and honkytonk. When I was a little kid in the 1950s, that kind of music scared the hell out of me. To my ear those songs were like menacing voices growling in some fierce, unrecognizable language. They were like nothing else in my life. In due course, naturally, I fell in love with them.

By then reasonably grown up, I understood why: you can't fake music like this. It doesn't lie, and -- explicitly or implicitly -- it's about lust, jealousy, risky behavior, emotions either out of control or getting there. Talk about your adult content. Even during its brief popularity ca. 1957, rockabilly was usually played on the radio only late at night and early in the morning, out of stations deep in the rural South. Respectable, middle-class America was not ready for it. It may still not be. Honkytonk was what blasted out of jukeboxes in joints that my parents warned me against, where hard-looking people drank too much beer and got crazy and where one day I would be pleased to do the same.

The title North of Bakersfield nods to Ruby Dee & the Snakehandlers' home territory, which is Seattle, up the map from the mentioned blue-collar California city. There some of the greatest country music in the world was conjured up in the early 1960s, when Buck Owens got the idea to power heartbroke-and-drunk hillbilly songs with rolling-train rock 'n' roll energy. There was, however, never the slightest question that what Buck & the Buckaroos were doing was country music.

The Snakehandlers certainly have a country accent, heard particularly in Ruby Dee Philippa's mildly nasal, plain-spoken singing, which, joined to acoustic guitarist Liz Smith's more conventionally melodic harmonies, amounts to a preview of hillbilly heaven. The rhythms, however, are rockabilly-cat, delivered in all their boppin' and thumpin' glory by drummer Lewis Warren, lead electric guitarist Jorge Harada, and bassist Pete Smith. Ruby Dee has mastered the Buddy Holly-style hiccup vocal -- listen, for example, to "So Long" -- that drives the rockabilly nut into an even profounder state of mental disorder. If you are one, consider yourself warned.

All but one of the songs are originals, very much in the tradition yet never like thin echoes of ideas sounded earlier and fuller in a distant, halcyon age. The lyrics are Ruby Dee's, the melodies and arrangements her and the band's communal creation. You have to listen closely to hear the words, but they're worth the effort. She's a writer of wit and hard-won worldly wisdom. In that regard, the band's name, one eventually discerns, takes its inspiration not from the practices of an exotic fundamentalist religious sect, but from the more universal experiences of women forced to deal with no-good men. But whether the songs are celebrating the good times or cursing the terrible ones, Ruby & the Snakehandlers can be counted on to make a joyful noise.

by Jerome Clark
9 September 2006

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