Work in record stores for long, and you'll see them: occasional releases you might call magnetic records. Records you put on the store system, and within moments customers - hipsters, middle-aged couples, and folks you thought were just killing time 'til rush hour was over - are drifting over to the counter, saying, "Um, what're you playing?" (Civilians can observe this phenomenon in High Fidelity's Beta Band scene.)
I saw it last week, when somebody decided to spin the new T-Model Ford disc, Bad Man (Fat Possum). T-Model (his Mom called him James) is an archetypal blues man, been in every kind of trouble there is - including a chain gang - and is one of the few of his sort still living, much less making records. Ford usually performs with only a drummer named Spam as accompaniment, and supports his grizzled vocals with a guitar that sounds familiar, but skewed. As producer Jim Dickinson puts it: "in violation of conservative form, he erases the bar lines and plays every note like a new down beat, no rigid four, no neo-African polyrhythmic syncopation. It's straight ahead stomp, the endless boogie, a deep furrow stubbornly plowed through the black dirt." Fortunately, Dickinson isn't looking for a job, 'cause I couldn't say it better.
In fact, Dickinson is already moonlighting from his producing gig. His first record under his own name (James Luther Dickenson, that is) in 30 years is called Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis), but it won't hit stores until October 22. There are certainly bits of the blues on it, but the overall sound is as eclectic and hybridized as you'd expect from a man who has produced everyone from Big Star to Screamin' Jay Hawkins. From the Stones-y countrified blues of the opening track, to "I Gave Up Smokin'," which sounds like a honky-tonk standard played after closing time in the dingiest dive off the Vegas Strip, it's schizo enough to make you laugh, coherent enough to keep you listening. Especially tasty is the ballad of "Billy the Kid and Oscar the Wilde," which sounds like Townes Van Zandt by way of Nick Cave.
While we're talking about folks whose descriptions of their music trump anything others could write, I had an e-mail chat recently with Kevin Russell, whose Gourds have a new disc out called Cow Fish Fowl or Pig (Sugar Hill). When I marvelled at the number of Gourds-related releases hitting the shelves this year, he played it down in a way nobody else could: "This is what we do. We make music, we write songs, we play them. It happens the way yer feet came to you or the way sleep happens. The way the bowels tell you what needs to happen. This is how it all goes on. And, when one lives in a moment that happens as this that I have just told you, one finds that whatever creative impulse one might have is amplified and dried and salted and eaten like jerky from the crypt. I write just to write, like some folks do crosswords puzzles or watch movies or whatever, I write songs to stay even and bloomy."
I was also curious about the number of hippies I see at Gourds show, since many long-standing Gourds fans seem to disdain the tie-dyed crowd. "We have met a lot of old Dead heads through our playing music," he said. "Hippies, in general, are no worse than any other self-absorbed sub-culture. They all have good things and bad things about them. I like a hippie every now and again. They have 'special' dances that are supposed to invoke spirits or something. I like those kinds of dances, generally. They also usually have nice produce. I really like the ones that do not bathe. The ones with dreads, Trustafarians, they are usually pretty smart. I don't care for, how do you spell it, 'Put-chooly.' It lingers like dirt in the hair, but, if dirt in the hair was a smell, that is what it does. Some people who like it are friends of mine and they are nice ones. But, I do not smell them sometimes."
Again: I couldn't have said it better myself.