Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy,
Onward & Upward
(Memphis International, 2009)

South Memphis String Band,
Home Sweet Home
(Memphis International, 2009)

The arrangement to Home Sweet Home's opening cut, the famous outlaw ballad "Jesse James," owes an audible debt to Ry Cooder's, albeit sans the lyrics film director Walter Hill added. Nothing wrong or even unusual there; Cooder's 1980 re-creation (for Hill's The Long Riders) effectively defined the song for a generation. It does amount, though, to all but the sole evidence that the South Memphis String Band was not encountered on a Southern street corner a century ago.

Over the past decade or more, neo-oldtime string bands have proliferated. Until then, revival groups followed the example of the first of them, the New Lost City Ramblers, and aped the performances and repertoires of the string bands -- Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers and the like -- whose 1920s 78s preserved ballads and fiddle tunes and pointed to a future when the music, significantly transformed, evolved into something today called "country." The more modern bands -- Uncle Earl, Crooked Jades, Crooked Still and others -- carry on the tradition but revise it in creative contemporary ways.

A guitarist with the hard-rocking roots-blues band North Mississippi All Stars and the son of the late, much-loved Memphis musician/producer Jim Dickinson, Luther Dickinson has joined forces with roots maven Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers) and songster Alvin Youngblood Hart. The result, the South Memphis String Band, is -- no mistake about it -- very traditional. In the hands of these three roots-music masters, that turns out to be something to shout from the rooftops. These guys aren't cloning anything. Even when they cover a Carter Family song ("Dixie Darling"), they don't sound like the Carter Family (or for that matter the New Lost City Ramblers covering the Carters). At the same time, they sound nothing like radical reinterpreters either. The old American musical traditions aren't like clothes they've donned for the occasion; they're more like the blood and bone beneath the skin beneath the clothes. Nothing dead is happening here. This music lives and breathes.

Hart, who has cut several solo albums consisting in good part of rural blues and other folk genres, is one of a new generation of African-American musicians engaged in the rediscovery of the sounds that animated black life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's not hard to think of this hugely gifted man as a Lead Belly for our time. He also happens to be an exceptional old-time banjo player. He employs those skills to good effect on the shanty "Deep Blue Sea," adapted freely from the late Odetta's magisterial, hymnlike arrangement. Then again, he ought to be good at it by now. After all, this is his third time at it; the other two can be heard on his Down in the Alley (2002) and on Otis Taylor's Recapturing the Banjo (2008), where he appears as a guest. Each, of course, is in a distinctive setting, the one constant being Hart's banjo. He is composer of one of Home Sweet Home's two originals, "Bloody Bill Anderson," about the real-life Confederate guerrilla leader and remorseless killer (also the subject of James Carlos Blake's memorable 2000 novel Wildwood Boys, which I suspect may have been Hart's inspiration). It's written with such perfect period pitch that, till I checked the composer credit, I assumed it was a dust-covered Civil War-era gem.

Mathus contributes "Worry 'Bout Your Own Backyard," a splendid piece in the spirit of jug-band hokum. Otherwise, the songs are authentic artifacts of a lost America: chain-gang choirs, black country bands, Appalachian singers, gospel chanters, deep country bluesmen and parlor balladeers. The title song, from the last category, was the work of John Howard Payne (lyrics) and Sir Henry Rowley Bishop (melody), who wrote it for their otherwise-forgotten opera Clari in 1823. The SMSB's skeletal reading is unlike any you've heard, at once richly emotional and artfully free of bathetic overload.

If a broadly similar record, Luther Dickinson & the Sons of Mudboy's Onward & Upward is notably more somber in tone. Three days after Jim Dickinson, whose musical alter ego was "Mudboy," died in August 2009, Luther Dickinson called together some friends -- most prominently, relatively speaking, the longtime Memphis folk-blues cult figure Sid Selvidge -- to express their grief in song.

The songs and performances are religiously themed, both familiar and less so, from hymn, gospel, and spiritual folk-music traditions. There is a marvelous version of "Angel Band" which, unlike most others I've heard, owes only a little to the classic Stanley Brothers rendition. As you can imagine, light heartedness is not part of the program. The music haunts, but it uplifts, too. Beyond that, it's a fitting companion to Home Sweet Home.

review by
Jerome Clark

1 May 2010

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