Old times revisited.
This delicious Mid-South roots-music testament is the product of an impromptu three-day recording session organized by Luther Dickinson at his family's Zebra Ranch studio. Admiring a photograph of Valerie June — at that point only an acquaintance — playing banjo, Dickinson began to think of other women in his acoustic/roots music orbit — Amy LaVere's upright bass, Shannon McNally's guitar, Sharde Thomas' fife and drum — and how they might fit together into a band.
Dickinson summoned them all — like the set-up of a blockbuster superhero movie — to Zebra Ranch with the only instruction to bring along a couple of traditional songs or covers they'd be interested in playing. Almost instantly, they had a band. Three days later, they had this terrific, warm, loose-limbed album, recorded with the palpable intimacy and casual swagger that the late Jim Dickinson made a Zebra Ranch staple.
The eclectic material — all covers, ranging from '60s/'70s folk-rock and singer-songwriter country to ancient country-blues traditionals — features each of the four women on lead vocals at least a couple of times and excels when the interaction is most tangible.
The album opens with the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sittin' on Top of the World," a longtime regional blues staple. Thomas — the youngest member of the Wandering and the granddaughter of late North Mississippi blues legend Otha Turner — gives a charismatically indolent lead vocal after launching the song with interplay between her fife and Dickinson's mandolin. LaVere, McNally, and June share vocals on the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman," with LaVere's bass and palpably compassionate line readings ("I hope they get home all right") standing out. McNally gender-flips Kris Kristofferson's "Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)," playing off June's banjo counterpoint. June wails her way through the Robert Johnson classic "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day," with Thomas and LaVere making the song motorvate in a way that's rare.
These four women fit together so well — musically, vocally, conceptually — that it would be a shame if Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here ends up being just a one-off project. — Chris Herrington
The Wandering will make their live Memphis debut at the Levitt Shell on Saturday, May 19th. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Free.
This Luther Dickinson acoustic roots-music project is as communal as the Wandering but maybe a little rowdier. Recorded on the quick, using vintage equipment, at Jimbo Mathus' Como, Mississippi, studio, this second South Memphis String Band album improves on the band's off-the-cuff debut both musically and thematically and turns the original trio into a quartet, with Dickinson, Mathus, and Alvin Youngblood Hart joined by Justin Showah, of Mathus' band, along as a fourth member.
The interest, between Hart and Mathus in particular, in regional history and culture gives "Old Times There ..." an unvarnished, confrontational vibe, both in Mathus' originals and in cover material that draws on early 20th-century acoustic blues and jug-band musicians such as Gus Cannon, Furry Lewis, and the Mississippi Sheiks. Covers such as the Sheiks' "Turnip Greens," Cannon's "Can You Blame the Colored Man" (a sardonic vision of Booker T. Washington meeting President Teddy Roosevelt), and Lewis' "B-L-A-C-K" stand out on an album that dives into the rich, twisted racial history of America and particularly the South — slavery, war, reconstruction, Jim Crow.
"B-L-A-C-K" is recorded as an ebony-and-ivory duet between Hart and Dickinson that pays homage to a nervy version an elder Lewis did with white Memphis guitarist Lee Baker once upon a time. Instead of shying away from the messiness at the very roots of American "roots" music, the South Memphis String Band reclaims it all with a knowing irreverence. — CH