JIMBO MATHUS SENDS OUT SPARKS
WITH BAND OF STORMS EP, RELEASING MAY 6
ON BIG LEGAL MESS LABEL
Nine-song collection a mini-primer of “folk music”
from the fertile pen of the born-and-raised Mississippian and Squirrel Nut Zippers founder
TAYLOR, Miss. — Trying to pinpoint the musical proclivities of Jimbo Mathus is a bit like trying to predict the path of lightning. You never know where his seemingly limitless creative energy might take him next. But you can bet those bolts of inspiration will produce something you need to hear.
His latest project, the nine-song EP Band of Storms, out May 6 on his Big Legal Mess label (via Fat Possum), is a brilliant collection of what he characterizes as “just some odds and ends … you know, folk music.”
Well, that depends on your definition of folk music. If it includes Stonesy R&B grooves, straight-outta-Nuggets rawk, deep blues, barrelhouse honky-tonk, a string-laden murder ballad and Louisiana-accented bluegrass, then yeah, we could call it folk. As filtered through the fertile mind of a diehard Southerner, born and raised in Oxford, Miss., not much more than a stone’s throw from Tupelo, Holly Springs and Clarksdale. That is, right in the birthplace of American roots music.
“It’s just a continuation of the work I’ve been doing for, shoot, the past 20 years,” Mathus says. “There’s no big overall, arching thing. It’s just random notes out of my brain.”
But then he reveals that there is a theme of sorts, and that most of the subject matter is reflected right in Erika Jane Amerika’s cover art. It features a maniacal-looking Mathus standing near a cypress swamp, holding his lightning-struck Epiphone guitar in one hand and a fiery bible in the other. A lightning-zapped Econoline van hovers above him; gathered at his feet are an alligator, his Catahoula dog and a snake-handling Yemayá (the “great mother” of Santeria religion).
All his writing has basically the same theme, Mathus says. “It’s dealing with nature — forces beyond us — and trying to sum it up in my little cave paintings that we call recorded songs.”
Those “little cave paintings” were created at Dial Back Sound, the Water Valley, Miss., studio owned by Fat Possum Records partner Bruce Watson. Mathus has birthed loads of material there; he’s able to jump into the studio just about whenever motivation strikes. The situation is so ideal, Mathus closed his own successful studio a few years back; he was no longer interested in running it after finding so many fulfilling opportunities at Dial Back, including producing and accompanying other artists.
He uses the winding eight-mile drive from his home in the tiny artist enclave of Taylor, Miss., to think about projects. “If it’s me or if it’s somebody else, it’s all the same,” he says. “We just study on it, trying to make it as great as we can.”
Mathus doesn’t even list individual credits on his albums because, he says, they’re so collaborative. But he plays just about all the instruments, augmented by helpful friends. In this case, they include Watson as executive producer; Mathus produced. Bronson Tew engineered, mixed and mastered — and played many instruments, too. Also contributing are Ryan Rogers, Eric Carlton, Will McCarley, Jamison Hollister, Jim Spake, Mark Franklin and Stu Cole, who plays bass in Mathus’ most renowned musical endeavor, the Squirrel Nut Zippers. (He’s also a member of pal Luther Dickinson’s South Memphis String Band with Alvin Youngblood Hart, and credits Luther’s late dad, famed pianist/producer Jim Dickinson, as the source of much of his musical mojo.)
The result is an ode to what Mathus calls the “primal Southern groove.”
There’s only one co-write — the twangy “Play with Fire,” also credited to his late friend Robert Earl Reed. “He and I were pretty close collaborators,” Mathus reflects. “This was one he wrote right before he passed. He left me all his music to carry on with, and every so often, I’ll just pull out one of his sheets and cut one of his songs. He had never recorded this one. I just showed the band and we did one take.”
Mathus says he loves its almost desperate imagery; hissing like a snake, he sings, “Yes, let’s play with fire/Let’s cross in front of trains in the darkness, feel the flames/oh, yes, let’s play with fire.”
Of that hiss on each “yes” he says, laughing, “I guess every song, I’m getting into character.” Then he adds, “The way you say the words is very important. If it’s a rock ’n’ roll song, you maybe got 20 words. You gotta squeeze the most out of ’em.”
He does exactly that in “Massive Confusion,” the garage-rocker that serves as a straight-up homage to the Replacements, Bobby Fuller Four and the Ramones — and contains what he’s sure is the first-ever rhyme of “yemaya” and “FBI.”
“I wrote it when I was getting audited by the IRS and I was trying to save my fuckin’ ass,” Mathus explains. “It’s just super-punk rock. I came up in the ’80s and the Replacements turned me on to songwriting. They showed me that I could actually write songs. I’m 48, but I’m still a punk rocker.”
Mathus has stories about every song, starting with the rollicking, horn-pumped rock of the opener, “Gringo Man.” He wrote it on a cheap guitar rig he picked up at a Christian supply shop in Jackson, Tenn.
“Sometimes a guitar will write its own song,” Mathus says. “It was like a little cardboard amp with a plastic cord going to it; I made that almost clichéd little rock ’n’ roll riff. But it’s like Keith Richards said about Jimmy Reed: He wrote the same song over and over, but he never did the same thing twice. It’s about celebrating the groove.”
The honky-tonk blooz of “Can’t Get Much Higher” was one for the piano player, Mathus says. He borrowed some of its lyrics from one of his heroes, Charley Patton — father of his nanny, Rosetta Patton.
Dramatic pedal steel and strings give “Stop Your Crying” a Southern gothic turn, with Mathus’ voice going from big and angry to almost plaintive as the song reaches its murderous climax.
“I think it’s one of my best vocals I’ve ever done. But it’s extremely personal. I wrote it for someone very special,” he says, not mentioning who.
“Wayward Wind,” inspired by an Emmylou Harris lyric, has elements of an Irish/English/Scottish drinking song — and was, indeed, written while Mathus was playing U.K. beer halls with his “brother from another mother overseas,” Ian Siegal. “With songwriting, you just pick up scraps and try to turn ’em into a whole page. This one kind of fits in with the theme of desperation, of somebody leaving,” Mathus says. “The blues is all about movin’ on down the line.”
Resonator echoes convey the more elemental blues of “Slow Down Sun,” on which he beseeches the sun, the wind and the rain not to hurt his true love with lines like, “Hold up rain/don’t let your waters down/I’m afraid my baby might slip in and drown.”
“Keep It Together” sounds as if George Harrison might have written it, but Mathus says it came to him after watching the documentary about fellow Southerners Big Star.
“I listen to blues, jazz, country and gospel, but I’ve never listened to rock bands at all, since the Replacements and the Ramones — since the ’80s,” he says. “But I was really touched by the sounds, the chords, the layering of the guitars and the melodies that they brought.”
He leaves us with the mandolin plucks, boot-heel stomps and yowlin’ yelps of “Catahoula” — written, like many of these tunes, in the dog days of summer. “You’d be surprised how much rhymes with Catahoula,” he says, laughing again. “It’s going back to the old balladry days where you state your case right at the top of the song; you give the geography and the whole synopsis right there at the top.”
Speaking of synopses, we should mention Mathus’ career credits include working with Buddy Guy and Elvis Costello, among other luminaries. He says he’s also getting ready to fire up the Vaudeville-meets-swing band Zippers, who had a platinum-selling album and played President Clinton’s second inaugural, among other high-profile gigs. But in the meantime, he remains ready to catch those bolts of “rambunctious creativity” whenever they strike.
LATE LOST-SOUL SINGER-SONGWRITER DENNY LILE’S DEBUT ALBUM AND STORY EMERGE AFTER 40 YEARS IN THE VAULTS VIA CD + DVD SET
Hear the Bang: The Life and Music of Denny Lile spotlights a masterful-but-obscure artist whose music foreshadowed Americana
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Denny Lile was a local legend — a gifted songwriter, singer and guitarist who seemed poised for fame, but his once-rising star sputtered out in a tragic spiral that ended with his death from alcoholism at age 44 in 1995. The new CD-and-DVD set Hear the Bang: The Life and Music of Denny Lile blends Lile’s brilliant and visionary unreleased debut album with a documentary film that tells his ultimately tragic story. Within its fabric lie 16 songs that foreshadow the arrival of the Americana genre and were recorded at the same time as Neil Young’s foundational Harvest album. Lile’s story also stands as a broader fable. It parallels that of many other formidable regional talents who lived and died in obscurity within the sprawling landscape of American popular music. The set will be released on October 16 on Oxford, Mississippi’s Big Legal Mess Records.
When Big Legal Mess head Bruce Watson — who, as co-owner of Fat Possum Records, has specialized in resurrecting and releasing obscure-but-great music from the South since the early ’90s — first listened to Hear the Bang, the debut full-length that Lile recorded in 1972, his reaction was typical of those who get their initial earful of the brilliant singer, songwriter and guitarist’s work. “I thought, ‘My God, I can’t believe nobody’s heard this,’” he recalls. “‘This guy’s a great singer-songwriter who never got his due. I’ve got to put this out!’”
Lile’s recordings, which spent four decades entangled in a web of legal issues, reveal an artist of subtlety and depth, with a streak of melancholy. His songs, including the haunting title track and the country-rocker “Looks Like the Feeling’s Slowly Fading,” often deal with lost love and its complexities: longing, alienation, issues unresolved. But with his honey-and-butter voice and shimmering lightning-strike guitar, even the bitter pills go down sweetly. As with Harvest, the songs on Hear the Bang — which was recorded when Lile was just 21 years old — are filled with imagery from the American landscape: rivers, freight trains, blue jeans and tee shirts, sun-dappled spring days. Also like Harvest, the instrumentation blends acoustic and electric elements — including Lile’s own six-string and dobro — mostly played by musicians who performed with Lile in various Louisville-area bands: the Matchbox, Soul Inc., Elysian Fields, Otis and Puddinfoot. Of course, there are also unqualified love songs, like the moon-eyed “Rag Muffin” and the soaring “Oh Darlin’.” And “’Cause You’re Mine” taps the era’s psychedelic vein with its ringing raga-like chords.
As these musical gemstones reveal, and Lile’s surviving bandmates and one-time obscure artist whose music foreshadowed Americanasong publisher attest in the documentary DVD, melody and lyrics were the cornerstones of his art. He polished them until they gleamed, sometimes working on a song for more than a year before revealing it even to his closest collaborators. Forty-three years later, these tunes are still radiant and remarkably undated.
The film was made by Lile’s nephew Jer, a 39-year-old Zionsville, Indiana-based custom guitar and amplifier maker. Denny has hung over Jer’s life and his own
career in music like a specter. By the mid-’80s Denny, battling alcoholism, was largely estranged from Jer’s father Dwight and his family. So the movie is as much the tale of Denny Lile’s rise and fall as an attempt by Jer to get to know and understand his uncle as a man and an artist.
Including interviews with Denny’s friends, bandmates, business associates, ex-wife and daughter, and a Ken Burns-like assemblage of still photos and artifacts, the doc begins with Denny’s childhood, which was fractured by his parents’ divorce. The break-up greatly affected Denny’s outlook, which was already emotionally insulated due to their style of parenting. “We were expected to take care of ourselves,” Dwight explains. “Mom and dad were not nurturing.”
Melancholy and insecure, Denny nonetheless rose to fame around his native Louisville with a series of bands and had numerous near-scrapes with the big time, including a major-label signing that crumpled before he entered the studio to cut an album and a disastrous no-show at Nashville’s annual country music confab Fan Fare, where Denny was unable to take the stage after drinking too much in an effort to calm his perennial stage fright. Denny’s biggest break arrived when Waylon Jennings recorded his song “Fallin’ Out” and it became a top 10 single on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in 1987. He built a studio and bought a conversion van with the money. As his relationship with his wife and daughter fell apart due to his alcoholism, that van became his home. It was also where he died, alone.
Jer Lile described the process of making the film as both enlightening and heartbreaking to Insider Louisville writer David Serchuk. “I’ve talked with all these
people to get a better sense of who he was, and that kind of makes the sense of loss a little more intense, more defined … I can’t tell you how often I’ve cried during this process.
“If I could have dinner with anybody, he’d be at the top of my list,” Jer told Serchuk. “I’d want to find out why … why couldn’t you kick it? You had people that loved you, talent and all these opportunities to succeed. It seemed like every time he made a step forward, he took two steps back.”
# # #
For more information about Denny Lile, please contact Conqueroo:
Cary Baker • (323) 656-1600 • firstname.lastname@example.org
LONG LOST SOUL MAN IRONING BOARD SAM COMPLETES COMEBACK
WITH NEW ALBUM ‘SUPER SPIRIT,’ 2015 PERFORMANCES AT NEWPORT,
JAZZFEST, 2014 SET AT LINCOLN CENTER
BIG LEGAL MESS DEBUT OUT OCTOBER 2ND
“Legendary” (Billboard) soul man Ironing Board Sam—long lost for a time—has completed a comeback to the music world. This year will see Big Legal Mess Records release his label debut ‘Super Spirit’ on October 2nd, a performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Already, he played at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival earlier this year and Lincoln Center Out-Of-Door last year. The artist behind a series of in-demand 45s from that era, Sam was also a regular on 1960s soul TV program Night Train. eMusic has called him “a true maverick.”
For ‘Super Spirit,’ Ironing Board Sam traveled to Producer Bruce Watson’s Dial Back Studio in Water Valley, Mississippi to record with guitarist and co-producer Jimbo Mathus, drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), bassist Stu Cole (Squirrel Nut Zippers). Using Sam’s ‘60s and ‘70s singles as inspiration, Watson chose songs from the repertoires of Ann Peebles, The Gories, Jimbo Mathus , Jack Oblivian, Roy Hawkins and more.
A flamboyant dresser, an eccentric inventor, a philosopher, and a musical showman, Sam also became the spokesman for the Faultless Starch brand in a national ad campaign this year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxGPdiiXZhE
Living Blues Magazine named him Comeback Artist of the Year in 2012 and Musician of the Year (Keyboard) the following year. He toured Australia in 2013 and France in 21014. The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) said of his Australian tour, “Ironing Board Sam, 73 years young, sang like his pants were on fire and attacked his keyboard as if it had sinned.”
Ironing Board Sam was interviewed last year by PBS Newshour as part of its profile of the Music Maker Relief Foundation: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/music-maker-eases-blues-artists/
Sam earned his nickname by mounting his keyboard on an ironing board with a strap that allowed him to walk the stage while playing, much as he did at Lincoln Center in 2014, where fellow Music Maker Relief Foundation artists Dom Flemons, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, and Albert White joined him on stage.
For more information on Ironing Board Sam, please contact Nick Loss-Eaton at email@example.com or 718.541.1130.
82-YEAR-OLD MISSISSIPPI BLUESMAN LEO “BUD” WELCH RAISES SONIC HELL ON HIS RAUCOUS SECOND ALBUM FOR
BIG LEGAL MESS RECORDS
Featured by The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy:
Garage-rock flavored I Don’t Prefer No Blues
features guests Jimbo Mathus and Sharde Thomas,
and production by Bruce Watson
BRUCE, Miss. — At age 82, bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch rocks on stage like a
teenager — dancing and spinning as he beats out jagged chords and grimy solos on his pink, sparkle-covered guitar. That raw youthful energy and Welch’s old-school juke-joint jones blend full-throttle in the 10 songs on I Don’t Prefer No Blues, his second release for Fat Possum Records’ subsidiary Big Legal Mess. The album is a garage-blues manifesto that weds waves of prickly six-string distortion and gutbucket drums with Welch’s smoke-and-ash voice and mud-crusted guitar — and lives up to Fat Possum’s history of producing edgy but deeply rooted recordings by artists like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside.
I Don’t Prefer No Blues is the follow-up to last year’s Sabougla Voices, an all-gospel disc that marked Welch’s debut as both a recording artist and a songwriter. That album was heralded as a fresh breath of rust-bearing air — a throwback to an era of rural music free from outside influences and a reminder that blues-fueled primitivism is still personified by a handful of living Southern artists.
I Don’t Prefer No Blues is what the preacher at Welch’s church said when he found out Welch was making a blues album. “Up until Sabougla Voices came out, I had only played spirituals in the church and in tents for about 50 years,” Welch explains.
But these days Welch does prefer blues. Playing blues on stage since Sabougla Voices’ release has proven transformative for the octogenarian resident of Bruce, Mississippi. He’s toured parts of the U.S. and Europe, and played for audiences of all ages at international festivals and such prestigious events as the Americana Music Association Festival and Conference in Nashville.
“I’m doing things I never thought I’d do,” Welch relates. “I never thought I’d get to play outside of Mississippi or travel to other countries. Now I’m playing for all kinds of people and seeing the world. Just so, the first time I had to go on a plane I thought they’d have to blindfold me, knock me out and tie me up to get me on board. I’m also keeping all my bills paid up to date, which I couldn’t before.”
Getting on board for his first blues album was easier. Big Legal Mess owner and house producer Bruce Watson took the wheel, steering Welch into crunching, genre-blending sonic and creative territory. “The deal I made with Leo was the first record would be gospel and the second would be blues,” Watson says. “Honestly, I was just trying to do something different than your typical blues record — trying to fuck things up a bit. I think I succeeded.”
That’s clear from the opening cut, a take on the traditional “Poor Boy.” The tune, which is the sole track produced by Mississippi neo-trad firebrand Jimbo Mathus, frames Welch’s scorched-oak singing with a rattling drum kit, upright bass, a choir and the angelic voice of Sharde Thomas — a doyenne of ancient Mississippi music who inherited the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band from her late grandfather Othar Turner. The contrast between the innocence in Thomas’ honeyed tones and the weathered experience in Welch’s woof antes up the drama that’s maintained throughout I Don’t Prefer No Blues.
Mathus also added clangorous guitar to the album. “Girl in the Holler” thrives on his and Welch’s angular, dueling riffs. And Mathus provides psychedelic fuzz for the Watson-penned “I Don’t Know Her Name,” where Welch literally barks for his would-be lady like a lusty dog.
Welch’s “So Many Turnrows” is about his many years plowing behind a mule during his youth and young manhood. “I grew up on a farm and had to walk two miles to school in the rain and mud,” he recounts. “Most of the time we didn’t have no money from March to November, when the crops came in, but I made it through eighth grade and then I started plowing mule and hoeing cotton.” Welch worked as a logger for the 35 years before he retired in 1995. “I stood next to that chain saw all day, so that’s why I don’t hear too good.”
Which explains the consistently raw, buzzing volume of Welch’s guitar, both live and on I Don’t Prefer No Blues, where his guitar colors even the blues classics “Sweet Black Angel” and “Cadillac Baby” with a patina of rock ’n’ roll overdrive.
“Playing guitar is my favorite ‘like,’ ” Welch says. “I learned by hearing records by Jimmy Reed, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters … and I saw them when they came through Bruce. I once even had a chance to audition for B.B. King’s band, but I didn’t have the bus fare to get to Memphis.”
“Right now is a great point in my life,” Welch continues. “I’m doing things I’ve never been able to do before and I feel good doing them at an age when a lot of people are dead. So as long as I can I want to go around the world trying to send satisfaction to people. Doing that is a great feeling to me.”
For more information about Leo “Bud” Welch, please contact Conqueroo: Cary Baker • (323) 656-1600 • firstname.lastname@example.org
“Jimmy the Kid by Jimbo Mathus ” was recorded at Jimbo’s Delta Recording Service in Como Ms in 2006-2007. It signalled a departure from the more bluesy recordings Mr Mathus had been releasing since disbanding Squirrel Nut Zippers and doing a four year stint with blues patriarch Buddy Guy.
“I was seeking to put more honky tonk and country harmony singing in my music”, says Mathus. The recording involved a rotating cast of characters from the Memphis and North Mississippi as well as future members of Mathus’s current Fat Possum Records based Tri State Coalition . The recording includes some of Mathus’s best songwriting and some true honk tonk gems like “check out time”, and “Highway at Night” as well as some good old redneck rock and roll.
The recording and original artwork by Mathus has been unearthed and properly released now by Big Legal Mess . God bless Mississippi and pass the antiseptic.
VISIONARY SOUTHERN SONGWRITER JIM MIZE CREATES AN ECCENTRIC, HYPNOTIC ROCK ’N’ ROLL MASTERPIECE
Arkansas native’s breakthrough plumbs the depths of love — reflected via a life amidst hurricanes, tornadoes and auto wrecks — with help from fellow mavericks Jimbo Mathus and John Paul Keith
CONWAY, Ark.—The South has a legacy of great, iconoclastic storytellers — artists with a kudzu-shaded vision that cuts straight to the core of the human soul. Arkansas native Jim Mize’s new breakthrough album, simply called Jim Mize, stakes his claim among them.
As its nine songs reveal, Mize is a primal rock ’n’ roll visionary who colors his music with hues borrowed from blues and garage psychedelia, and writes with a stark brevity that punctuates every heartbeat of the characters who draw the attention of his pen: car parkers and bar tenders, boozehounds and love-drunk couples, the longing and the satisfied, the faithful and the lost.
Songs like “Drunk Moon Falling,” culled from an overheard conversation at an Austin restaurant, and the gorgeously textured “Eminence, Kentucky” reflect the same dirt-road view of life limned with traces of the surreal that permeate the writings of such masterful Southern novelists as Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, both of whom hail from Oxford, Mississippi. Coincidentally that’s also the home of Mize’s label Big Legal Mess, a subsidiary of Fat Possum Records.
Mize has spent most of his 57 years wandering among such characters. As an insurance adjuster traveling the South and West for more than 30 years, he’s seen people at their most resilient and at their most vulnerable.
“I’ve been through nine hurricanes and I don’t know how many tornadoes, and seen way too many car wrecks where people got killed,” Mize says in his big, bawling voice. “I saw two guys carrying a rolled up carpet with a pair of legs sticking out of it after Hurricane Andrew in Florida … and all kinds of people pushed to their limit. That’s connected to the songs I write. I always keep my antennae up. All of my tunes boil down to one thing, and that’s observations.”
Listening to Jim Mize, it’s easy to observe that despite all of the harsh reality Mize has experienced, he’s still an incurable romantic. “Rabbit Hole,” which kick-starts the album with Mize’s hypnotic, staccato guitar, is about falling helplessly into the vortex of love. And “This Moment With You” captures the ignition point of blissful, all-consuming infatuation. The emotional flip side is the bare-knuckled “Bleed,” in which a couple slices each other’s hearts with intractably venomous words.
“I enjoy love songs the most, whether they’re happy or sad,” Mize muses. “With love, you can never run out of things to write about. But the most important thing is, my songs have to be honest. When I’m out there playing I believe every damn word that I’m singing.”
Mize is joined by two fellow maverick Southern songwriter-guitarists on his third album: dusty blues modernist Jimbo Mathus (formerly of Squirrel Nut Zippers) and burgeoning American root-pop alchemist from Memphis John Paul Keith, who take turns as instrumental foil to Mize’s raw-but-inventive riffing and expressionistic solos — a style he developed playing juke joints, sock hops and dive bars around his native Conway, Arkansas, which is 30 miles, but a world away, from the concrete corridors of state capitol Little Rock.
Mize still lives in Conway, although he spent time in Germany after faking his ID to enlist in the Army at age 17. And while the dirt road he grew up on is now paved, little else has changed. Despite Conway’s bucolic college town status, in true outsider fashion Mize prefers keeping to himself. On Saturday afternoons, when his wife’s gone grocery shopping, he can be found pacing the front porch of his house, cogitating over chord changes and the other makings of new songs. “That’s my favorite time to write,” he says. “Or at night in my living room over a toddy. I love the writing process and I like to write mostly when I’m by myself, which makes sense, because I’ve never really fit in, exactly, even when I was kid. I guess you could say I was a misfit.”
Being a juvenile loner sharpened Mize’s perspective as an artist. At age 12, while struggling to get a handle on guitar — “I never could copy what musicians played on records worth a damn,” he offers — Mize fell in love for the first time. He lost his heart to Glenn Campbell’s 1968 hit “Wichita Lineman,” swooning for Jimmy Webb’s sweeping, orchestral arrangement. Mize’s affection for the song may have been ripened by the fact that his father was a wire chief crew for the telephone company, but “Wichita Lineman”’s combination punch of textural sweep and artful lyrics sent his head spinning and inspired Mize to spend his alone hours writing songs.
“From then on, I understood how powerful words could be in creating pictures and I understood that the notes on the guitar weren’t as important as the sounds it could make,” Mize attest. “Today I base my songs on the chords and riffs I come up with, but what I really do is think sonically.” That explains Mize’s arresting use of open tunings and slide guitar textures, as well as the adventurous route of his solos in numbers like “Eye to Eye,” where Mize’s guitar see-saws between two notes, dancing like the seductive Gypsy described in the song before exploding into a series of growling partial chords.
Mize didn’t enter a recording studio until his late 30s, instead channeling his creative energy into stockpiling songs and occasional live performances. Initially both reflected his passion for the classic country music he heard on the radio and on TV, as well as the blues that seemingly crept out of the soil in Arkansas and Mississippi. As time passed, rock also slinked into his musical vocabulary and fellow eccentrics like Tom Waits and Junior Kimbrough took their place alongside Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf and Merle Haggard among Mize’s influences.
Mize says his “big break” came in 1994, when he was cutting some demos at Fat Possum’s studio in Water Valley, Mississippi with label co-owner Bruce Watson, who has since produced all of Mize’s recordings. “Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirrat from the band Blue Mountain were there, and when they heard my song ‘Let’s Go Runnin’ they decided to record it,” he recounts. That well-loved tune appeared on Blue Mountain’s 1995 disc Dog Days.
The new Jim Mize captures its namesake at the apex of his art and follows 2000’s No Tell Motel and 2007’s Release It to the Sky. Together they trace his evolution as an off-trail songwriter distilling his influences into an original voice of power and depth. Those recordings and his ongoing relationship with Blue Mountain, who also cut Mize’s “Emily Smiles,” have given Mize his own eager fan base. But so far he hasn’t traveled beyond Arkansas’ bordering states as a musician, limiting his extended forays to investigating insurance claims. Which is how he likes it … for now.
“The music business is tough,” Mize observes. “My friends in bands tour, and I’ve got to admit that crowding into a van, sleeping on people’s floors and eating bad food is not for me. I like livin’ comfortable.”
But Mize plans to become a guitar-toting road dog in just a few years. “When I retire I’ll have a good pension so I can stay in decent hotels and eat good food. By then, I’ll have a bunch more songs, too. I’ll be ready to roll the dice and live my dream!”
The Soul of Designer Records captures the nexus of Bluff City soul and spirituals, pays tribute to the entrepreneurial spirit of label founder Style Wooten and to legendary guitarist/producer Roland Janes
MEMPHIS, Tenn.— If passion and fervor were electricity, the performances on The Soul of Designer Records could put the glow in every neon sign in the city on the Mississippi River where they were recorded.
Between 1967 and 1977 Designer label founder Style Wooten and his studio main man Roland Janes, a heroic figure in Memphis music, produced between 400 and 500 gospel singles. Many of the artists they recorded came from Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, but as the label’s reputation grew they began arriving from more far flung locales — Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Ohio, the Carolinas, Florida, California — sometimes literally waiting in line for their turn to cut at Janes’ Sonic Studios.
What’s astonishing is how seamlessly this set’s 101 songs by dozens of groups and solo acts lock together. That’s due to more than the unbridled sound of pure faith welling up in the varied voices of such largely obscure performers as Elizabeth King, who wails like Aretha on “Testify for Jesus,” and Rev. Leon Hammer, who howls like Blind Willie Johnson on “He Won’t Deny Me.” Many of these numbers share a badass, wild-eyed energy — the same primitive, reverb-soaked mojo that drives the classic Memphis rockabilly, garage rock and blues that was Janes’ specialty. The protean roots rocker also plays guitar on many of these sides, drawing on a do-it-all trick bag of riffs that range from needlepoint blues licks ’n’ leads to funky James Brown-style strumming to bristling country bends to unrepentant power chords.
The Designer singles also capture the evolution of Memphis blues and soul as reflected in their sanctified cousin of a genre. The musical timeline starts in 1963 with the traditional quartet approach of Grand Junction, Tennessee’s Gospel Songbirds, who telegraph call-and-response vocals over simple blues chord changes, followed by the hot Bobby “Blue” Bland boogie of the Dynamic Hughes Gospel Singers’ “Beautiful City.” It climaxes in the Hendrix-fueled six-string of Elgie Brown, whose 1975 “When Jesus Comes” and “A Helping Hand” navigate a psychedelic sea of wah-wah, phase shifter and distortion pedals.
Along the way there are stops for the New Orleans second-line grooves of the Foster Brothers, the driving post-Stax urgency of the Magnificent Soul Survivors and the Mahalia Jackson-influenced Cora Bell Watkins, whose 1973 “Love King Jesus” sounds like an anachronism among the frequently percolating singles of Designer’s later years, wrought in the city where the Staple Singers and Al Green were cutting Top 40 pop crossover smashes.
What’s also astonishing is that none of this — the variety, the quality and durability of the material, the consistently impressive level of talent — was calculated. Designer was a “custom” record label, a now-vanished musical equivalent of a vanity press. With few exceptions, the groups and artists who recorded for Designer paid owner Style Wooten a fee, advertised once in the ’60s at $469.50, for cutting two sides in the studio. There were no fancy talent scouts involved. Performers contacted him, and anybody with the cash, sometimes paid in rolls of quarters on the installment plan, could make a record — just like Elvis did on his first visit to another famed Memphis institution, Phillips Recording Service.
“His attitude was: ‘Come in and cut a record and I’ll give you 25 copies. When you sell those, come back and buy another 25,’” Roland Janes told Michael Hurtt, who authored The Soul of Designer Records’ entertaining, informative liner notes.
If the artists slated to record hadn’t brought sufficient musical support for the work at hand, Janes would strap on his guitar or call on his cast of studio players to fill the keyboard, drum or bass seats as needed. Typically the performers that cut for Designer were amateurs: truck drivers, barbers, school teachers, farmers, housemaids and factory workers who played gospel music on the side. Most came to Sonic Studios as part of a long-weekend pilgrimage to play gigs around Memphis and the Delta. Some were more accomplished. Memphis’ own Jubilee Hummingbirds, for example, launched the careers of soul greats James Carr and O.V. Wright and remain in operation today. They’re represented here by four tunes including the tremolo-guitar spiked “Stand By Me.” Others, like the Mighty Blytheville Aires of Blytheville, Arkansas and Alberta Powell, for whom no biographical details can be found, literally had their day in Sonic and quickly slipped into history.
What nearly all of Designer’s customers shared besides religious conviction was the wide-eyed thrill of recording in a real studio for the first time, and that’s audible throughout this ambitious collection.
The Soul of Designer Records is also a tribute to Style Wooten and Roland Janes, who were truly mavericks in an industry, city and era known for iconoclasm.
Wooten was a literal giant of a man, standing six-foot-six and with a full, furry beard and a wax-tipped handle bar moustache. Born Jesse Corbett Graham in 1921, he was an enigmatic character who led a band, ran a trucking company and started a music management company that all bore his adopted moniker before launching Designer when he was already in his forties. He also founded the pop oriented J’Ace Records.
Wooten knew how to make a homemade blackjack, enjoyed driving the smallest cars that could contain his broad frame, had issues with alcoholism that toppled his first marriage and is rumored to have left secret bank accounts all over Memphis when he died in his sleep in 1998. As his son Jason told Hurtt, “You knew parts of him, but you never knew all of him ’cause he never told anybody.” Yet those who did business with Wooten spoke of his fair, honest and pleasant nature.
Janes and Wooten intersected shortly after Janes opened Sonic in 1963. By then Janes had already laid the foundation for his place in music history. Starting in 1956 he was the house guitarist for Sun Records, playing on singles by Jerry Lee Lewis (including “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”), Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Rich, Sonny Burgess and many others who would define the sound of rockabilly and nascent rock. He also became a skilled engineer and producer, developing microphone placement and tape-to-tape recording techniques that helped revolutionize recording. Janes built Sonic after a faltered attempt at running his own Rita Records label. And at Sonic he minted the sound of Memphis ’60s garage rock, working with a plethora of teenaged bands with names like the Yo-Yo’s, Flash & the Casuals, the Rapscallions and the Memphis Charms. On weekends he and Wooten made gospel recordings for Designer.
Janes closed Sonic in 1973, leading Wooten to purchase his own gear and move the Designer Records operation into his home at 3373 Park Avenue in Memphis. But Janes kept on as a session player and producer until his death last year, at age 80, once again manning the board for Sun Records founder Sam Phillips at Phillips Recording, and cutting tracks for a string of albums by his many torchbearers, including Mudhoney’s Tomorrow Hit Today in 1998.
By the early 1970s, Designer Records was one of the most successful independent gospel labels in the United States due largely to its sheer volume of releases and Style Wooten’s unmitigated willpower. And while today many of the artists who took advantage of Designer’s services have given up performing, and a good many have also given up the ghost, The Soul of Designer Records upholds Wooten’s promise that for a reasonable fee their musical pursuits will be immortalized.
Mississippi’s Water Liars will release their self-titled third album on February 4th, 2014 via Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum Records.
“My sisters were the heavens / My brothers were the depths / Now I’m rolling into battle with a smoke between my lips,” Justin Kinkel-Schuster sings on “I Want Blood,” and it’s a presiding image on Water Liars. Joined by GR Robinson on bass, and fresh off the success of sophomore album Wyoming and the reissue of debut LP Phantom Limb – both released earlier this year – Kinkel-Schuster (vocals, guitar) and Andrew Bryant (drums, vocals) strut into this effort with their feathers out, driven by a need to create. Forget taking years to release a new album; Water Liars don’t know how to stop working. A punk aesthetic – a desire not to overdo songs until they’re shiny with emptiness – is the band’s defining feature, and it’s why their songs are filled with such raw sorrow. To call the songs here an improvement over what they’ve done before would be to sell the earlier work short: Wyoming, released in March, earned praise from The New York Times, Alternative Press, Penthouse, and All Music Guide, among others.
Recorded over three studio sessions in Water Valley, MS in late spring and summer, Water Liars finds the band expanding on Wyoming’s classic, soulful songwriting and warm yet heartsick expanse. The songs, written by Kinkel-Schuster and fleshed out with Bryant on the road, were tracked mostly live and exhibit diverse and divergent styles. Opener “Cannibal” sets the tone with resounding guitar and crash of drums; “I Want Blood” is a bright, resonant embodiment of the band’s determined spirit; “Let It Breathe” offers a heartrending, haunting appeal of simply guitar and vocals, as bare as it is vulnerable; “Ray Charles Dream” is a blistering take on ‘50s rock/pop; and “Swannanoa” is poignant, rolling waltz. A study in contrasts, the album captures the stark dynamics of both Water Liars’ live show – the restrained moments made all the softer by their roaring bookends – and their lyricism, all the while effortlessly towing the tenuous line of harsh and tender. For every lonesome ache, there’s a hopeful promise; for every stumble into despair, a wide-eyed reach for life’s wonder; for every broken heart, there’s one patched back together. These are songs about leaving and staying, about lost fathers and new loves, about distance and memory. A full track listing is below.
Water Liars track listing:
2. War Paint
3. I Want Blood
5. Let It Breathe
6. Tolling Bells (For Molina)
7. Ray Charles Dream
10. Last Escape
11. Turn Me On
Water Liars tour dates:
- Feb 14 – Proud Larry’s – Oxford, MS
- Feb 15 – Martin’s – Jackson, MS
- Feb 18 – Vinyl – Atlanta, GA
- Feb 19 – Normaltown Hall – Athens, GA
- Feb 20 – The Royal American – Charleston, SC
- Feb 21 – King’s Barcade – Raleigh, NC
- Feb 22 – The Mothlight – Asheville, NC
- Feb 24 – DC9 – Washington, DC
- Feb 25 – Milkboy – Philadelphia, PA
- Feb 26 – Mercury Lounge – New York, NY
- Feb 27 – Cafe Nine – New Haven, CT
- Feb 28 – Book and Bar – Portsmouth, NH
- Mar 2 – Club Cafe – Pittsburgh, PA
- Mar 3 – Beachland Tavern – Cleveland, OH
- Mar 4 – The Union – Athens, OH
- Mar 5 – The Brass Rail – Ft. Wayne, IN
- Mar 6 – Schubas Tavern – Chicago, IL
- Mar 8 – Off Broadway – St. Louis, MO
- Mar 10 – The Basement – Nashville, TN
BOBBY BARE JR’S QUICK FACTS:
• Has a degree in psychology from the UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE.
• Made 2 albums for Immortal Records with his band “BARE JR.” -
one for Sony Records in 1998 and one for Virgin Records in 2001.
• Born raised and still lives in Nashville, TN.
• Is VERY afraid of elves.
• Has 3 children -two boys and one girl.
• Nominated for a Grammy at the age of 6 years old for a duet with
his dad called “Daddy What If” – written by Shel Silverstein. That year the Grammy for “Country Duet of the Year” went to THE POINTER SISTERS.
• Believes that blue is a flavor and not a color nor a feeling.
• Has made three albums and one EP for BLOODSHOT RECORDS
• Co-produced his dad’s last record THE MOON WAS BLUE in 2006.
• Grew up in HENDERSONVILLE, TN with George Jones and Tammy
Wynette as his next door neighbors.
• Has been romantically linked to the BOB’S BIG BOY boy.
• Can NOT speak Mmandrin Chinese.
• This 7” was recorded at Dial Back Sound Studio in Water Valley,
MS with producer Bruce Watson.