various artists,
Mad Dogs & Okies
(Mint Blue Island/Concord, 2005)

Longtime big-league rock drummer Jamie Oldaker has assembled a bunch of rooted musicians, a few with Oklahoma birth ties, the rest -- one presumes -- honorary Okies by their association with the Tulsa native Oldaker and other of the Sooner State's pickers and pounders. Whatever the inspiration, or however thinly plausible the claim to the name, Mad Dogs & Okies turns out to be likable, laidback company. The title parodies the notorious 1970s sex/drugs/rock 'n' roll/touring carnival Mad Dogs & Englishmen, back in the heyday of Joe Cocker, Leon Russell and Delaney & Bonnie Bramblett.

The performers range from the superstar likes of Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and Eric Clapton to the obscurer but no less worthy Zadig & Marcella, Joe & Ellen and Wiley Hunt. In between are half-famous cult artists such as Tony Joe White, J.J. Cale, Taj Mahal and Ray Benson. The biggest surprise here is the semi-legendary Willis Alan Ramsey, who recorded one album in 1973, wowed critics and every one of the relative few others who heard it, and hugely influenced the emerging Texas country/folk singer-songwriter school most famously associated with Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett. Ramsey's cut, the unadorned but captivating folk-blues "Sympathy for a Train," ought to ignite anticipation for his soon-to-be-released second album, produced by Oldaker. In a generally comparable vein, Hunt's "Shotgun Shack" sounds more modern -- if you define "more modern" as like a hillbilly-boogie tune out of the 1940s.

On the other hand, Taj Mahal's exemplary reading of "Stagger Lee," written more than a century ago about an actual barroom murder in St. Louis, is an honest-to-god old song. The rest of the cuts, all blues-inflected genre excursions, venture into r&b, gospel and country. Even Peter Frampton comes across as a grizzled roadhouse traditionalist. Though her time in the spotlight is three decades gone, Bonnie Bramblett still has the chops, proving it in the gritty, horny "Make Your Move." If not much of a singer, swamp-rocker Tony Joe White uses his thin, spidery voice to thread misty late-night magic around Cale's "Magnolia."

Mad Dogs & Okies settles early on into a sweet, agreeable groove and never lets up. Nobody, including the unthreatening-looking beagle on the cover, seems pissed off at much of anything, not even the no-good men and women without whom the blues would only barely exist.

by Jerome Clark
9 December 2006

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