Along with then-wife Laurie Stirrat, Oxford's Cary Hudson led one of the '90s' most prominent alt-country bands, emerging in the middle of the decade to expand a genre created a few years earlier by Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks. Blue Mountain bid adieu with last year's covers record, Roots, and Hudson has spent much of the last year helping back up fellow North Mississippian Tyler Keith as part of the old-time rock-and-rollin' Preacher's Kids. But now Hudson returns to more familiar ground with his solo debut, The Phoenix (Black Dog Records; Grade: B).
The record is like a textbook on Hudson's particular take on alt-country. The reserved, rural anthem "By Your Side" is the most conventional alt-country song on the record. Everything else is a trip along the stylistic map of Americana. As a Mississippi boy, Hudson's version of alt-country is more steeped in the blues than most, and The Phoenix reflects this. The album's lone cover is an electrified version of Blind Willie Johnson's "God Don't Never Change," while the closing "August Afternoon" is nimble acoustic blues in the vein of Mississippi John Hurt. And Hudson updates his blues repertoire with the Dylanesque carnival blues of "Bend With the Wind," approximating the gleeful growl and vicious one-liners that Dylan presents in similar-sounding songs, even if Hudson's lyrical putdowns are decidedly more earthbound.
But the blues bent is balanced by a lighter shade of roots as well. Southern rockers like "Mad, Bad & Dangerous" and the opening "High Heel Sneakers" are transitional, the latter featuring bluesy riffs and slide-guitar shrieks along with simple down-home party lyrics like "Well, it's midnight in Mississippi/And the moon shines all around/C'mon all you good-time people/We're gonna get on down." By contrast, "Lovin' Touch" and "Butterfly" seem more indebted to El Lay soft rock, alt-country's often unacknowledged forebear, with the former somehow managing to split the thin difference between the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. And while the title song is the most tedious thing on the record, it's useful in that it connects Hudson's roots tapestry to straight country.
The director of the ethnomusicology department at the University of Memphis, blues scholar David Evans, authored a key blues text with the 1978 book Big Road Blues and offers a different kind of scholarly examination of blues culture with his debut solo album, Match Box Blues (Inside Sounds; Grade: A-). But just because Match Box Blues is a scholarly endeavor doesn't mean it's stuffy or distanced. Evans' accomplished playing and appropriately rough singing convey his clear love of blues traditions without sounding overly reverent.
Match Box Blues mostly consists of Evans' versions of early blues standards, with the few Evans copyrights being reworkings of preexisting material. "Aunt Caroline Dye Blues," about the oft-referenced Arkansas "hoodoo woman and spiritual counselor" of the title, mixes original and traditional verses, while Evans crafts "Railroad Blues" from the stray bits of other performers, such as Fred McDowell and Furry Lewis. Evans has made much of his mark by exposing and championing relatively unknown blues performers, and, in that vein, the repertoire on Match Box Blues focuses on early blues artists who, while they may be household names for serious blues fans, are likely to be unfamiliar to more casual fans, including tunes from Yank Rachell, Lemon Jefferson, and Leroy Carr. The most familiar song is likely to be Evans' raggedly spirited ramble through the recently ubiquitous "Shake 'Em On Down."
Evans is probably best known to Memphians as a performer with the Last Chance Jug Band, and fans of that outfit shouldn't despair, as many of Evans' Jug Band cohorts make guest appearances here. Indeed, rather than a straight solo, acoustic blues record, Match Box Blues nods to the jug band tradition with its liberal use of other instruments, including the kazoo, piano, washboard, and jug. This fine album also features detailed, copious liner notes from Evans and fellow blues scholar Andy Cohen.
Recent high-profile releases like the multidisc Malaco Story box set and Rhino's Chitlin Circuit Soul! compilation have helped expose the Southern "chitlin circuit" scene to a broader audience, highlighting a brand of old-fashioned soul music that proudly serves a specific audience (black, adult, working class) and stubbornly persists in a music climate in which the influence of hip hop and modern production techniques have made Southern soul rather unfashionable.
Memphis' Ecko Records is one of the genre's stalwart labels, and the company's latest release from soul veteran Bill Coday, Love Gangsta (Ecko; Grade: B+), is one of their finest releases in recent years. A Coldwater, Mississippi, native who first made his mark on the R&B scene in the early '70s, Coday sounds more modern and urban here than many of his circuit colleagues and also more self-conscious about the undeniable kitsch value the genre holds for many. After a female voice-over proclaims him "armed and extremely dangerous," the opening title track/declaration of principles has Coday winking his way through some priceless chitlin circuit couplets, including "Calling women on the telephone/Gangster-style, like Al Capone," "Breaking hearts is my claim to fame/The Love Gangsta is my name," and, my fave, "The game I play, it ain't shoddy/You think I'm lying, you better ask somebody!"
Similarly, Coday's "On the Chitlin Circuit" takes outsider interest for granted, offering the uninitiated a tour of life on the circuit -- the towns, the clubs, the other performers. And "Hoochie Dance" ("It wasn't so hard to do/This dance I was turned on to") is a loving ode to one of the milieu's trademark institutions (repeated in a "dance mix" at the end of the record).
The comical cheating song "You Caught Me With My Drawers Off" ("There wasn't a damn thing I could do," he croons regretfully) and the standard double entendre of "If I Can't Cut the Mustard (I Can Still Lick Around the Jar)" are to be expected, but Coday also proves he isn't all kitsch with "I Ain't Gonna Cry No More," a fine, serious soul ballad.
A one-off project on the local Goner Records label, Bad Times (Goner; Grade: B) teams Memphis garage/punk stalwarts Jay Reatard (the Lost Sounds, the Reatards) and Eric Oblivian (the Oblivians, natch) with New Orleans' like-minded King Louie Bankston in a thrash-rock session that doesn't quite match the intensity and artistry of Reatard's and Oblivian's other bands but does conjure the same off-the-cuff attitude, evoking the likes of early Replacements. Songwriting credits are pretty evenly distributed, but Reatard, unsurprisingly, steals the show with inspired, shrieking, snot-nosed anthems like "Momma Told Me So," "You're So Lewd," and especially the back-to-back shot of "Listen to the Band" and "Trapped in the City." As near as I can tell, this is vinyl-only, but you should be able to find it in indie record shops.
Emerging chamber-rock band Loggia made their recorded debut last year with a cut on the Makeshift 2 compilation and are heard from again on the fine 7" single "Idris"/"Angels" (Rural Metro Music; Grade: B). On "Idris," Rebecca Green's violin is the lead instrument, soaring over a dual-guitar/drum foundation, vocalist Paul Rauen's subdued singing and cryptic, poetic lyrics coming in after a long, instrumental intro. The flip side, "Angels," is all instrumental.