Mud Boy and the Neutrons may be virtually unknown outside West Tennessee and the Mississippi Delta, but over the past 23 years, the band has become a Memphis institution, an avatar of the city’s big, greasy heart. Memphis music writer Robert Gordon goes so far as to call them “the missing link between the Rolling Stones and [late blues legend] Furry Lewis.” Gordon’s characterization of his hometown favorites is right on the money: Mud Boy plays artlessly brilliant covers of every type of down-home music imaginable.
The band’s recorded legacytwo full-length albumsis as scant as it is hard to find. But now, thanks to the good folks at Koch International, healthy portions of both albums have been reissued on CD. The new compilation, entitled They Walk Among Us, includes most of Known Felons in Drag, a studio session released in 1986 on the French New Rose label, and Negro Streets at Dawn, an astonishing 1993 document of Mud Boy in concert.
Onstage, the band’s entourage often includes dancing girls, acrobats and horn sections, but its core lineup features Memphis music impresario Jim Dickinson on piano and Hammond B-3, anthropologist/Elektra recording artist Sid Selvidge on acoustic guitar, Lee Baker on lead guitar, and puppeteer Jimmy Crosthwait on washboard and assorted percussion. Everybody sings, though only Selvidge has what might be considered a conventionally good voice. There is no “Mud Boy”the group takes its name from an offhand remark made by longtime friend and associate Ry Cooder.
“We were trying to put together a band that was unsignable,” Dickinson recalled in a recent telephone interview. Despite the fact that the foursome once recorded some “overwrought” demos for Warner Bros., his comment is no joke: Mud Boy was born of a staunch commitment to obscurity. Dickinson and Selvidge wanted nothing to do with the headaches that go with touring to promote a record. Both had just started families, and both had tasted disappointment from previous dealings with the music business. Indeed, Dickinson had been burned at least twice: once in 1964, when he recorded an ill-fated single for the Southtown label, and then in 1972, when he made his legendary Dixie Fried album for Atlantic but had no band to take on the road to support it. Dickinson, perhaps best known as a producer (Big Star, the Replacements) and session musician (the Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark), has pretty much done things his own way since.
“When we got together, we were like the white boys of the ’60 blues festivals,” Dickinson says of Mud Boy’s roots. “We actually started playing together acoustically in a biker bar.” But those early gigs scarcely hinted at the inspired lunacy to come. The edition of the band that eventually evolved into Mud Boy and the Neutrons rehearsed for a full three months before its debut performance. When the group’s rock ’n’ roll medicine show was finally unleashed on unsuspecting Memphians, it was calibrated for maximum impact.
“Our whole thing was satirical,” admits Dickinson. “We were crazy white guys up there acting nasty. We wore costumesthis sort of space-drag, George Clinton type of thing. And we got the same reaction everywhere. Most of the audience would make for the exits as soon as we’d start playing, so we always knew that the people who stayed were serious.”
An appearance at the Beale Street Music Festival in the spring of ’78 proved too much for everybody, however. Scandalized by the graphic gyrations of Mud Boy’s dancing girls, city authorities pulled the plug on the band mid-performance; despite the lack of amplification, the group kept playing. But, fed up with being hassled, they decided to call it quits not long afterward. Even then, they went out with a flourish: Billing their final show as “The Tennessee Waltz,” they used video cameras and mock opulence to create a send-up of the baroque excesses of the Band’s farewell concert earlier that year. Dickinson estimates that Mud Boy has since made “several dozen comebacks,” likening each one to an over-the-hill wrestler who can’t resist climbing back into the ring.
Periodic speculation about reunions notwithstanding, the Koch International reissue must serve as the band’s musical testament, especially for those of us who’ve never witnessed the spectacle of Mud Boy live. The CD contains seven of Known Felons’ 11 tracks; sound-wise, it’s a dramatic improvement over the sludgy mix of the original vinyl. Even though the record features nothing but covers, Mud Boy doesn’t just reify the past: Whether it’s “Shake Your Money Maker” or “Shake Sugaree,” the band always manages to leave a good bit of dirt on whatever it touches.
Baker’s lecherous deconstruction of Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” for example, makes even Jerry Lee Lewis’ barely contained version seem tame by comparison. Bob Dylan’s “Memphis Blues Again” gets completely demolished. Dickinson proudly admits that he stole the idea for the revved-up arrangement from former Black Oak Arkansas frontman Jim Dandy. Everything else is pure Mud Boy, though, from Baker’s savage guitarwhich sounds like shards of flying glassto Dickinson moaning like a swamp thing drunk on one too many mouthfuls of rich Mississippi alluvium.
Dickinson insists that Mud Boy performs its more raucous material for “the fans in the stands” and that the quieter moments on Known Felons, especially the gorgeous a cappella reading of “Can’t Feel at Home,” best represent what the band is about. But after being accosted by the outré live recordings from Negro Streets at Dawn, I’m not so sure.
Negro Streets is named for a line from the Allen Ginsberg opus “Howl”; like Ginsberg’s poem, it must be heard to be believedportions are as wild as anything in the catalogues of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. “Land of 1,000 Shotguns [Part 2],” a riotous marriage of Chris Kenner’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and Junior Walker’s “Shotgun,” finds vocalist Baker rendering double entendres like “gonna dig potato, gonna pick tomato” droolingly explicit. “Money Talks,” an out-and-out subversion of the Sir Mack Rice original, conjures up images of Elmer Gantry doing a vocal cameo on Exile on Main Street. Dickinson’s stream-of-consciousness preaching, replete with lines like “Fair’s got nothing to do with it/Fair’s what you pay when you ride the bus/Fair is where you go to see the pigs race,” evokes Clarence Carter’s equally astonishing monologue on “Dark End of the Street.”
As much as anything else, Mud Boy’s music reflects its members’ coming of age at the dawn of rock ’n’ roll. “If there was any place to be on earth during the ’50s, it was Memphis,” says Dickinson, who likens the first time he heard Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers to a religious experience. “An inevitable collision of the races was taking place,” he adds.
Indeed, it was during the ’50s that Dickinsonunder the tutelage of Butterfly Washington, a black musician friend of his parents’ yard manlearned things that his mother, who’d played piano in the Baptist Church for decades, couldn’t possibly have taught him. That’s also when deejay Dewey Phillips’ broadcasts on WHBQ introduced Shelby County’s white teenagers to black music and rock ’n’ roll, indirectly helping to break down some of Memphis’ racial and cultural barriers.
“At the time, I had no idea how unique and powerful listening to this crazy guy was, but now I see remnants of Dewey Phillips every day,” Dickinson observes. “He formalized a mind-set that we all participated in.” Mud Boy and the Neutrons’ obscure legacy confirms as much; it’s one of the most freewheeling manifestations of this uniquely Memphian sensibility that many of us are likely to run across.
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