By Jim Ridley and Bill Friskics-Warren
From the tepid mewling that gets labeled as folk music nowadays, you’d never guess the folk tradition ever contained music as tough and haunted as Dock Boggs’. A coal miner from the age of 12, in and around his hometown of West Norton, Va., Boggs first supplemented his mine work by singing and playing tunes on the banjo. His was a world where fights and guns were common, and two-year murder sentences kept a revolving door on the prisons.
Boggs was discovered in West Norton by agents of the Brunswick record label, who were auditioning local talent. They sent home A.P. Carter; they summoned Boggs to New York in 1927 to cut eight sides. To hear those records today is to hear the shadow of Death moving on the land. In a bone-dry nasal whine, Boggs sings of blood-lust, poverty, and lovesick misery.
After drinking, the Depression, and his wife’s insistence made him lay down his banjo, Boggs vanished into obscurity. That ended when the landmark 1952 Anthology of American Folk Musicalong with folksinger Mike Seegerintroduced him to the folk enthusiasts of the late 1950s and ’60s. The Anthology has just been reissued in a five-CD set to jolt America anew. But no less essential is Country Blues: Complete Recordings 1927-1929, a new Dock Boggs compilation by the Nashville “raw music” label Revenant, which was founded by revered guitarist John Fahey and local attorney Dean Blackwood.
Included are Boggs’ eight sides for Brunswick, along with four songs and five alternate takes recorded for the Lonesome Ace label in 1929. As a bonus, Revenant includes four more tracks by Bill and Hayes Shepherd, two brothers from Kentucky who also recorded for Lonesome Ace. What’s more, the album package is a gem by itself: a CD-sized 64-page book with photos, label reproductions, and scholarly liner notes by Greil Marcus, Charles Wolfe, Jon Pankake, and Barry O’Connell. (Revenant’s design team, Jeff Hunt and Susan Archie, deserves kudos for the strikingly austere and elegant look.) The record isn’t out in stores until February, but copies are now available for $20 directly from the label.
If this sounds like a shameless plug for Revenant, it is. Revenant continues to shame all but a fistful of local and national labels in quality, ambition, packaging, and commitmentand that includes an imperviousness to the whims of the marketplace. Upcoming releases include additional volumes of the American Primitive prewar gospel series, as well as CD retrospectives of Harmonica Frank Floyd, Charlie Feathers, clawhammer banjo player Buell Kazee, and steel guitarist Rev. Lonnie Farris. Americana be damned; this is roots music. That someone’s willing to risk his shirt to make these treasures available is gladdening. That someone’s willing to do it in Nashville is dumbfounding. Contact Revenant at P.O. Box 198732, Nashville, Tenn. 37219-8732, or e-mail the label at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you tried unsuccessfully to find a copy of Pan-American Flash, the wonderful debut CD by local honky-tonkers Paul Burch & the WPA Ball Club, your troubles are over. The record, which was nominated for a Nashville Music Award but was available only as an import from the French label Dixie Frog, has been picked up for domestic release by Checkered Past Records. That places Burch in the company of fellow Nashvillians Tom House and Lonesome Bob, who both put out fine records last fall on the Chicago indie-country label.
Burch was one of the leaders of the honky-tonk renaissance on Lower Broadway a few years back: He served as bandleader and guitarist for Greg Garing at Tootsie’s when Planet Hollywood was just a threat. In the years since, when he hasn’t played percussion with Lambchop, Burch has earned a reputation as one of the few songwriters and bandleaders on the scene capable of adding new wrinkles to classic country.
If you can’t wait until Jan. 20 to pick up Pan-American Flash in stores, comb local record shops for Burch’s just-released follow-up CD Wire to Wire, also on Dixie Frog. And be sure to catch Burch when he plays Guido’s on Jan. 26. Or catch him a few days later, on Jan. 30, when the WPA Ballclub, Lambchop, and several other bands play a farewell to Lucy’s Record Shop.Jim Ridley
If Polygram imprint Island releases it as scheduled, Angels With Dirty Faces, the hotly anticipated fourth album by Tricky, likely won’t include the anti-corporate broadside “Divine Comedy.” After learning of Polygram exec Eric Kronfeld’s racist slur alleging that virtually all African Americans working in the music business have criminal records, Tricky recut the track, targeting his ire specifically at his record company. “Every black man in the music industry has a criminal conviction,” he rails, over a maelstrom of corrosive beats. “How can you say that with conviction?/Who I am, Polygram/Fuck you niggers/Polygram!/Ya fuckin’ niggers.”
Pre-released to selected media sources, the single isn’t in stores yet, and there’s no word yet whether Island will still be releasing Angels. But when the album finally comes out, you can bet that toxins from Tricky’s spleen will be all over it.Bill Friskics-Warren
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