Music » Music Features

Roots-music Renegades

With artists Robert Belfour, T-Model Ford, and Hasil Adkins, Fat Possum Records captures the last gasps of a dying art.

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It was 50 years ago last August that Sam Phillips first heard Howlin' Wolf moanin' the blues on radio station KWEM. He was immediately -- and irrevocably -- struck by the music: "This is for me," he proclaimed, as related in an interview with music historian Colin Escott. "This is where the soul of man never dies." Four decades later, Ole Miss student Matthew Johnson stumbled across a Wolf cassette for $1.99. "Howlin' Wolf really grabbed me," Johnson says. "He sounded so violent, so murderous." Inspired, Johnson took his $4,000 student loan and started Fat Possum, the North Mississippi blues label. His first release, R.L. Burnside's Bad Luck City, sold just 713 copies and, as Mike Rubin noted in a 1997 Spin article, the fledgling label "was almost roadkill."

Fast-forward another decade: It's 2001, and Fat Possum is thriving in the new century with 42 releases under its belt. While the label lost two of its guiding forces to death along the way -- producer Robert Palmer and bluesman David "Junior" Kimbrough -- it's rolled with the punches, and after a few shaky years in the mid-1990s, everything appears to be back under control.

At Fat Possum, of course, under control doesn't mean in control.

Take, for example, T-Model Ford. Clocking in at just under 80 years, the Greenville, Mississippi, growler is as famous for his murder rap as he is for his grinding, stream-of-consciousness blues style. Add a pint of whiskey and a few women to the mix and it's likely the situation will combust. When asked about the circumstances surrounding the sessions for Ford's latest, She Ain't None of Your'n, Fat Possum producer Bruce Watson laughed: "Well, that was when T-Model stabbed Spam [his drummer and long-time friend]. Spam had told Stella [Ford's girlfriend] a lie about goin' with a school bus driver, and T-Model didn't like it." Stella stuck by her man, but T-Model and Spam quit playing together for awhile.

Ford's third album for Fat Possum is a sparse affair, partially constructed from earlier sessions with a few new tracks tossed in for good measure. Spam clip-clops happily along on "Junk" and "Wood Cuttin' Man" (a primitive rewrite of "Crosscut Saw"), but it's the thick, off-balance "Take A Ride With Me" that really gels. Sam Phillips once said, "You didn't just want a guy who could play, you needed to feel his soul." You can definitely feel T-Model Ford's soul on this number -- it descends on the listener as dark and shapeless as a thundercloud. The cut represents Ford at his best -- ageless and sinister.

Then there's Hasil Adkins. Sam Phillips had a chance to sign the West Virginia rockabilly wild man back in 1961, when Adkins sent Phillips a demo of his first single, "Chicken Walk." Adkins had his own one-man band -- One of the Greatest Shows on Earth, Haze Adkins and his Happy Guitar -- formed after hearing Hank Williams on the radio and making the false assumption that Williams was playing all the instruments. Phillips sent back a rejection form letter, as did every other label at the time. But Adkins persisted, releasing 15 singles on his own, including the seminal ("She Said," unearthed by the Cramps years later) and the bizarre ("The Hunch," which renders in graphic detail Haze's homegrown dance craze). A compilation and several releases on the Norton label introduced Adkins to a generation of new fans, including neo-rockabillies, punk rockers, and Johnson and Watson at Fat Possum, who decided to cut their own record with Haze. The unrefined white hillbilly fit right into their aesthetic.

"I'd been a fan for years," Watson recounts, "and we jumped on the project. Matthew and I loaded up the car and went to West Virginia. We set the recording equipment up in his trailer, and we tried to record. He trashed the recording equipment! So we tore all the stuff down and went back to the hotel. We called him, he said he'd sobered up, so 'come on' -- this went on for days. We couldn't get anything on tape. We tried for a week, but he was so drunk that we couldn't get anything on him."

"Nothing I'd ever done has been this fucked up. This was the hardest, believe it or not," Watson admits. The Fat Possum crew returned to Mississippi, where it was another month before they got a phone call from Haze. "He said, 'Man, I'm sorry about that. I went to church last night, and I got right with the Lord. I quit drinking vodka -- all I drink is beer now. I wanna come down there and make a record.' So he came down for a week, then we took a break for a few months, then he came back for another week. At the time, my studio was in my house, so he ended up staying with me."

Watson settles into the story: "He gave me a list of stuff that he wanted -- cigarettes, light beer, and naked movies. Basically we sat around watching pornos and slasher movies, eating pork chops and drinking beer. The first three days he was here, I couldn't get him to record anything. Then I'd be asleep, and he'd say, 'Bruce, wake up -- I wanna record!' At 3 o'clock in the morning, we'd get rolling."

Appropriately, Johnson named the album What The Hell Was I Thinking. It opens with "Your Memories," a mellow country ballad. Things pick up with "Ugly Woman" and "No Shoes," but it's not until the off-kilter "Stay With Me" -- replete with hollers, trash-can drums, and tuneless harmonica punctuation -- that the party really gets rolling. Like his recording sessions, Adkins' live shows are rumored to be hit-or-miss affairs. In fact, Haze has never played a gig in Memphis, a situation that fan and erstwhile promoter Mike Condon hopes to remedy with a show at the P&H Café on December 21st.

At 61, Memphis bluesman Robert Belfour is one of the youngest -- and most together -- artists on Fat Possum's roster. He was born and raised near the label's current location in North Mississippi but moved to the city 40 years ago. He managed to slip under Johnson and Watson's radar until last year, when they released his first full-length, What's Wrong With You. Stylistically, Watson considers the album "a link between Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside," the label's two best-selling artists. Belfour's understated acoustic blues, largely unnoticed by local music fans, have received rave reviews around the world. (Billboard magazine's Chris Morris calls the record "a stone marvel.")

Watson is modest about the recording process, saying "the first thing we did was listen to everything that he does, then we started picking songs." When working with artists as accomplished as Belfour, Watson considers his job simple: "Find the best stuff and get the best out of them."

Sam Phillips had the same approach. "Everything I recorded had a basic gut feeling to it. I tried to help the artists where I could with a song structure or a lyric, but basically I tried to get them to record what they had and to bring out of them what they were. I felt it so strongly it was almost a religious belief. With society changing as it has, I knew this music wasn't going to be available in the pure sense forever."

Watson puts it a whole lot plainer. "We're basically capturing a dying form. These are the last guys doing this kind of music."


Local Beat

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

Local singer-songwriter Nancy Apple is perhaps best known for the songwriters nights and pickin' parties she regularly hosts at bars such as Kudzu's and the Blue Monkey. But now local audiences who have never been to any of Apple's song swaps can get a taste via their television screens. On Thursday, December 20th, at 7 p.m., WKNO-TV Channel 10 will premiere In Their Own Voice: An Evening With Memphis Songwriters, a 60-minute concert hosted by Apple.

In Their Own Voice was taped live at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center a few months ago and features, in addition to Apple, Keith Sykes (the accomplished local songwriter who has had songs covered by Jimmy Buffett and John Prine, among others, and who also hosts a monthly songwriters night at the Black Diamond), Teenie Hodges (rhythm guitarist for the Hi Records house band in the '70s and author of several songs recorded by Al Green), Duane Jarvis (former Dwight Yoakam sideman who co-wrote "Still I Long For Your Kiss" with Lucinda Williams), Sandy Carroll (a blues-based performer), and Delta Joe Sanders (an acoustic folk-blues performer).

The program intersperses brief interview segments with the cozy, informal live performances. Highlights include Hodges playing his classic "Take Me To the River," Sykes' reading of his moving "Broken Homes" from his most recent album, Don't Count Us Out, and Apple's "Fooled By the Heart" from her recent album Outside the Lines.

Local author Robert Gordon will host an It Came From Memphis Holiday Bazaar-O on Saturday, December 22nd, at Earnestine and Hazel's. It Came From Memphis, Gordon's eclectic history of the back alleys and byways of Memphis music culture, has recently been reprinted with a second CD listening companion, and Gordon will celebrate with a night of music, film and video, and visual arts. Musical guests are scheduled to include Jim Dickinson, The Reigning Sound, B.B. Cunningham (of the Hombres, who cut the garage-rock classic "Let It Out [Let It All Hang Out]"), Sid Selvidge, and The Bo-Keys. Artists who will have their work for sale include Jimmy Crosthwait, Charlie Miller, Dan Zarnstorff, and Jackie Ware. Rare Memphis videos will be shown throughout the night.

On Friday, December 21st, starting at 8:30 p.m., Java Cabana Coffeehouse will host an acoustic benefit concert for Hope House. Affiliated with the Junior League, Hope House is a non-profit agency that provides care to young children who are either infected with or affected by HIV or AIDS. Performers at the event will include Autumn Grieves, Jason Freeman, Bella Sun, Jeff Evans, and Jeff Pope. There is no cover for the event, but donations are encouraged.

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

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