More than 35 years after his debut, Memphis-bred songwriter Bob Frank delivers an official folk-song follow-up.
A product of the Memphis coffeehouse scene of the '60s, which also helped mold such local music fixtures as Jim Dickinson and Sid Selvidge, singer-songwriter Bob Frank seemed to be on the verge of something big back in 1972, when venerable folk label Vanguard signed him and released his debut album, a collection of original songs titled simply Bob Frank. The label organized a showcase concert at New York's storied Max's Kansas City venue, but a stubborn, unsteady Frank defied his benefactors by refusing to perform songs from his album at the event.
After his first shot torpedoed, Frank stopped recording music for nearly 30 years.
He still wrote and occasionally performed, but he'd set aside any notion of a professional music career. That started to change earlier in this decade, when Frank began recording and self-releasing a series of new albums, often with the help of old Memphis friend Dickinson, who would go on to use Frank's anthemic "Red Neck, Blue Collar" as the lead track of his 2006 album Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger for the local label Memphis International.
With Frank's reputation suddenly recharged, Memphis International came calling, and on February 19th, it presented the first label-released, widely distributed Bob Frank album since his Vanguard debut more than 35 years ago.
The album, itself called Red Neck, Blue Collar, culls original songs written over the course of Frank's life, including a new version of "Judas Iscariot," a jaunty talking blues about events preceding the crucifixion of Jesus, aka Judas' "Gypsy sidekick," which first appeared on Bob Frank.
Frank leads off the record with the title track, a steady, resigned, matter-of-fact reading that contrasts with Dickinson's angry, sardonic version.
Depressing in its seeming timelessness, "Red Neck, Blue Collar" targets widening income gaps and wars that aren't fought by the men who start them: "Put 'em on the front line/Let 'em take the hit/They're strong on heart and long on grit," Frank sings. "Tell 'em it's for Mama/It's all that is required/Let 'em be a dog/Walk straight into the fire."
It's a strong, unflinching song, but what really makes it work is that there's nothing condescending or presumptuous about Frank's "they." His class-based animus is rooted in his own experience, something that comes across throughout Red Neck, Blue Collar.
"Monroe, Louisiana Pipeliner's Brawl" is an autobiographical story song that mines Frank's own stint working on a Mississippi gas pipeline. "One Big Family," which contains the refrain "Why does their ass ride first class while I'm barely staying afloat?," was written for a union rally.
But, for all his working-class anthems, Frank doesn't come off as a predictable modern liberal. On "Pledge of Allegiance," he baldly states, "If this is a Christian nation, we oughtta heed the words of Christ" en route to the admonishment, "What good is it to put God in the Pledge of Allegiance when you don't have Jesus in your heart?"
Elsewhere on Red Neck, Blue Collar, Frank pays tribute to the Southern life he left roughly 40 years ago. "Canebrake," with Dickinson's sons Luther and Cody offering back-up, is a swampy tribute to Frank's West Tennessee upbringing. "Holy Ground" is a slice of hillbilly gospel. "Little Ol' Cabin Home" comes off as a tribute to rural Southern living.
Whether Red Neck, Blue Collar is a start to the next chapter in Frank's circuitous music "career" remains to be seen. But even as bookend to this onetime Memphis hopeful's aborted start, it's welcome. — Chris Herrington