The term “cowpunk” usually applies to contemporary roots music that ignores slick production values in favor of a stripped-down, rawer, more authentic sound. Fat Possum Records has bragging rights to the label “punk blues,” meaning the lowdown gutbucket licks and wails emanating most strongly these days from the hill country of northwest Mississippi. “Antifolk,” which includes Northeastern “punk/blues,” according to Mike iLL, “means just voice and guitar” under the influence of predecessors as various as Robert Johnson and the New York Dolls, Hank Williams and Beck (“antifolk superstar”).
iLL recently did an eight-week tour, beginning in Manhattan and moseying southwest, hitting Johnson City, Knoxville, Nashville, and Chattanooga before looping over to Mississippi. Clarksdale was his only stop in the Magnolia State, yet it seems one of his favorites, thanks in part to the Shack-Up Inn, a B&B“beer and breakfast”on the grounds of the old Hopson Plantation, a few miles outside of town. After performing for the bartender and then the owner, iLL says, he was offered a place to stay for the night, which gave him a little more time to poke around the Hopson commissary. “It’s an old cotton farmhouse cum antique store cum blues bar,” iLL explains in his Antifolk Road Manual, Volume 1: Punk/Blues (Mutiny Zoo). “The place is huge, and full of the coolest old stuff from back in the day: a barber shop, a post office, cotton scales, lots of old books, guitars, and pictures,” he continues, and notes, seemingly impressed, that Shack-Up is “run as a not-for-profit collective.”
The idea of iLLwhose publicity photo shows him wearing eyeliner and black leather pants, his shirtless chest seemingly carved with his nom de guerrerummaging around in the Hopson Commissary is radiantly authentic in a way that countless performers riding the alt-country/alt-blues wave will never be. There’s no dress-up here: iLL didn’t arrive wearing a new black cowboy hat or a drawl learned from watching CMT videos; instead, he packed up his native Alphabet City punk and New York/Philly hip-hop along with his guitar when he headed South to see and hear what he could. It’s all the more telling that Clarksdale, an economically shaky Delta town whose major draw is the Blues Museum, is mentioned in iLL’s book and that Nashville isn’t.
Antifolk Road Manual contains essays, diary excerpts, lyrics, and music sheets, and it’s a fascinating, if brief and sketchy, readiLL’s writing hasn’t caught up to his intelligence, but he’s got interesting things to say even when he doesn’t say them with much polish. Whether or not folks agree about the quality of iLL’s music or his prose style, few can resist the authority he summons in statements like, “Punks can’t play and folk is for losers. It’s what you do when you get old and have kids.” Not that iLL doesn’t trust anyone over 30, listing Tom Waits, Billy Bragg, Jonathan Richman, and Michelle Shocked among his antifolk heroes. “Fact is,” he continues, “antifolk isn’t a style of music as much as it’s a scene. You don’t quite fit into rock clubs or coffeehouses, yet you can play either. You probably talk to the audience more than at a rock show, but you might curse and spit. You’re part comedian, part musician, part vaudevillian.”
iLL plans to add Memphis to his next tour’s itinerary; check his Web site at www.softskull.com for details.
New and noteworthy
Recent releases of local interest:
♦ Dan Dowling, a solid Nashville-based jazz guitarist, mixes solo renditions with quartet workouts on Hide and Seek, a self-produced disc available via the musician’s Web site, at www.dandowling.com. His playing is tasteful, skilled, and sometimes adventurous, most notably when he’s backed by the likes of bassists Charles Dungey or John Vogt, drummers Waldo Latowsky or Chris Brown, and saxophonists Dennis Taylor or Tom McKinley. The best numbers include “With Strings Attached,” Bobby Shew’s “The Red Snapper,” and a good rendition of “When I Fall in Love,” which features Dowling’s most expressive solo playing.
♦ Irish instrumentalist Sharon Shannon’s The Diamond Mountain Sessions was released March 13 on Nashville-based Compass Records. Shannon offers leads ably matched by a great guest cast of singers. Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Carlos Núñez, and the duo of John Prine and Mary Staunton are among the performers lending their talents to the disc.
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