The best country and rockabilly music is one step from crazy. Jeff Evans and Ross Johnson have each walked miles of those crazy steps. Witness their new album Vanity Record on Spacecase. Songs that became classics, whether cult or for real, become intentionally cringe-worthy with only a little nudge from an insolent master.
"He'll Have To Go" is a sturdy laying down of the law in the hands of Jim Reeves. When Evans and Johnson tackle the song, you can imagine the protagonist hanging up the phone and getting his ass kicked by a waitress an hour later. It's oddly more real. It's hilarious. If Evans and Johnson make the song their own, that should not come as a surprise. Evans is encyclopedic on the topic of who recorded what and when.
"A few years ago there was that Dylan documentary," Evans said. "If you played 'House of the Rising Sun' — it was on his first album — it was associated with Dylan. And I guess it was known around Greenwich Village and the East Coast, where Dave Van Ronk had been playing it for years. And I could go on an on. It's nothing new."
When Evans, who now lives in Como, Mississippi, came to Memphis from Ohio, he learned that truth when he encountered Jim Dickinson.
"It was like history repeated itself here. I knew of Jim Dickinson from the Dixie Fried record. Years ago, our band the Gibson Brothers played 'Casey Jones.' But we got it from the Furry Lewis recording. Then we came to Memphis and found it was a staple of known cover songs among the guys older than me. We came by it honestly. So I laughed at having just found out that the train track that runs in front of our house is the track that Casey Jones made his final run on. That was kind of surprising. And there was this song that he credited to J.B. Lenoir: 'Down in Mississippi Where I Come From.' I never heard the original, the J.B. Lenoir. That was my point on the liner notes: that Dickinson, in taking a song and claiming it, was kind of like 'I own it now.' I guess that was a thing."
Vanity Record was recorded at Dickinson's Zebra Ranch studio in 2008. The sessions feature Adam Woodard, John Paul Keith, and Greg Roberson. Dickinson played some guitar and piano and sang on the record too. The delay in releasing the record makes its publication all the more important.
"This was an album that almost didn't make it," Evans said. "We've got some new people [with Spacecase] who put out another recording I did in 2001 with the C.C. Riders. They did something with Alicja Trout, a 45, I think. So we've got some people in California who believe in us and think we have some talent. That's nice to find."
Evans and Johnson are both fixtures of the Memphis music scene. The Flyer has interviewed Johnson twice recently, which is editorially unconscionable. So, this time, we caught up with with Evans. My first memory of Evans involves him sprawled across the hood of a hearse parked in front of the Antenna Club.
"I had two hearses," Evans said. "Then a guy in the band bought himself one. So, in the apartment building, it drove the neighbors nuts just to have to see these things parked on the street all the time. But there is a fine Memphis tradition: The back of one of Sam 'The Sham' Zamudio's records had a hearse."
[In 1966, in an interview with Roger Elwood for Teen Trends, Zamudio said, "Once, I fell out of a hearse (the one I use with my act) doing 65 miles an hour. I went out on my hands and knees ... skidded about 200 yards on my back ... broke my leg. According to everything reasonable, I should have been killed. Yet I survived."]
"I think his was a Packard," Evans continued. "I was at Empire Pawn on Summer Avenue. At the time, I had the hearse. I didn't have an extra car. It was a '74 Cadillac. So Sam the Sham was in the pawnshop looking around. I think by that time he had become a preacher and was teaching guys who were at the penal farm how to read. You know, preaching and stuff. So he goes, 'Hey, is that your hearse, man?' It was cool to meet him during the time when I had the hearse. I guess the hearse has a distinguished tradition in music."
Evans is also an acolyte of rockabilly curiosity Charlie Feathers.
"You have to picture 30-something years ago: There was no Internet. Trying to collect records, especially Charlie Feathers records, they were only produced at about 300 at a time. His stuff was rare and was collected by collectors even in the 1950s.
"I drove a truck all over the state of Ohio. So I got to look for records on my boss' dime while I was waiting on pick-ups. Somewhere in Ohio, I found a two-volume, two-record set. It was two sets of LPs. By this time, some of the records had been made in the 1970s. So his hair was white. You pictured a bar band at the Vapors club or Hernando's Hideway, but playing really weird music. The other thing was that his son Bubba was playing guitar. He was probably a teenager then, playing traditional blues and the rockabilly stuff. But he's playing a wah-wah pedal. He's really cutting up on it. So they were the craziest records.
"There's a book called Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick. It talks about [Feathers] being an ex-race car driver, an ambulance driver, and Sun recording artist, who was playing at a place called the Hilltop on Lamar. He's talking about Charlie's set. When I moved to Memphis, I got to see him play a couple of shows: one at the Vapors club and another at the Americana club. It was his 60th birthday. One time he was really well-behaved and the other he was so critical of the band that he walked offstage. And his son was in the band."
Evans, an Ohio native, served hard time on the Memphis music scene in the late 1980s through 2010, when he moved to Como.
"In 1986, Tav Falco invited us to one of Misty White's Hell on Earth Halloween parties. Antenna had a Halloween show the next night. We drove down from Ohio and played both shows. Tav Falco was known for those great silkscreen, fluorescent posters that he would make. We were added to the bill later. So, we had this great poster that said "Hell on Earth ... And Gibson Brothers." Obviously, he had scratched it onto the negative. It was so tiny that you'd have to take a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass to see it. We're on the poster. But it's so tiny. We were happy to come and play. It was a neat scene. You know Hell on Earth; it was probably a dozen bands on the bill. So it went until six in the morning. Coming from Ohio, we just thought Memphis had this amazing music scene."
Jeff Evans and Ross Johnson will perform at Bar DKDC on Saturday, February 8th.