The Incomplete Guide to Roots Music
Orange County may be famous for ska and punk-hey, why not call it "skunk"?-but taking place right here and now is an authentic roots renaissance. Like all pop genres, the scene is fractured, but not so fractured that we can't identify a few similarities: classic forms and styles; emphasis on craft and musicianship over flavor-of-the-week dicta; timeless music that sounded good when it first surfaced and in every era since. Music is not a date-stamped entity; a style that initially evolved in 1920, 1940 or 1960 isn't invalid just because radio programmers and record-company cretins decide its time has passed. What sounds good, sounds good.HILLBILLYCountry-music fans across America are fighting the record-company-fabricated clowns wearing surrogate-penis Stetsons and 10-pound belt buckles who enjoy a near monopoly over the country-music airwaves-even to the exclusion of such living legends as Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. A new school of hillbilly folk music is struggling to return country to its roots with an emphasis on writing from the heart, playing with licks to perk up a jazz musician's ear and presenting songs with the Nudie-suit flash of the pioneers. The Nashville-spawned hat acts dominate the charts, but the upstarts look poised to grab some of the glory as the millennium dawns. SCENE LEADERS: Guit-steel hot-shit Junior Brown, the eclectic Ray Condo & His Ricochets, twangin' Wayne Hancock, yodelin' Don Walser, Dale Watson, the Derailers, the Hollisters. LOCAL HEROES: Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys mix Western swing, hillbilly boogie and rockabilly with great results; Sandy is poised to make his move to the majors. Chris Gaffney, a true working-class hero, has a voice that will make you wanna cry in your Coors and then whomp some line-dancing ass. YA GOTTA LOVE IT: More than any other roots genre, the latest wave of hillbilly acts seems to be getting the music right. The playing coming from the scene is uniformly superb and true to American tradition, the songs are eminently catchy, and the work ethic is in-your-face. As with the punk explosion in the '70s, the standing order is being questioned, reassessed and rejected, and Nashville is getting nervous enough that it's entered its own act into the root sweepstakes with BR5-49. Remember when Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt and Paul McCartney released their "new wave" albums in the early '80s? Never underestimate the tricks up Nashville's sleeve. DEMERIT POINTS: Too much blatant imitation of past legends dominates the revivalist music: Junior Brown is Ernest Tubb, Dale Watson is Merle Haggard, the Derailers are Buck Owens, Wayne Hancock is Hank Williams, the Hollisters are Johnny Cash. Sure, they add their own flourishes, but there's no denying the sometimes slavish resemblance to their mentors' work. One can only hope that as time passes, these artists will come more into their own. Meanwhile, OC fans should be proud that Big Sandy and Gaffney sound a lot more like themselves than anyone else. ROCKABILLYEver since the Stray Cats dug up the hillbilly/ rock & roll hybrid and brought it back to mainstream pop audiences in the early '80s, a small but fiercely devoted cult of rockabilly fans has endured. The cult has grown into a phenomenon in recent years with the advent of such rockabilly-based festivals as Hootenanny and Viva Las Vegas. Grease-domed, tattooed fans in cuff-legged Levi's are a commoner sight every day-particularly in rockabilly-crazed OC. "Psychobilly" -a more aggressive and punky offshoot of traditional rockabilly parented more or less by the Cramps-also has its adherents, but don't count this moldy old fig among them. The music is punk in attitude, but this is not for kids straight out of the garage: the guitar style requires some heavy-duty chop-slinging, and the rhythm-section work must be tight and ferocious. Of course, that hasn't stopped weak and wanting bands from feebly trying to play a style they're not ready for. SCENE LEADERS: Many old-timers are still on the circuit: the Collins Kids, Wanda Jackson, the Blue Caps, Ray Campi, Ronnie Dawson and Sleepy LaBeef, to name a few. Some younger bands of varying merit include Russell Scott & His Red Hots, the Reverend Horton Heat, Hillbilly Hellcats, Deke Dickerson & His Dekes of Hazzard, Kim Lenz & Her Jaguars, Billy Bacon & the Forbidden Pigs, the Hooligans, Hot Rod Lincoln, and the Sun Demons. And cadge in the category-defying Southern Culture on the Skids; although it's not really a rockabilly band, rockabillies make up a good portion of its following. LOCAL HEROES: Former Stray Cat Lee Rocker now leads his own band with superb guitarist Adrian Demain onboard. Former Rockin' Rebels' front man Eddie Hill currently mom 'n' pops it with his wife, Shannon, in the Jitters. If Billy Zoom ever decides to play rockabilly again, he will automatically be King of the World. YA GOTTA LOVE IT: Rockabilly is the best music in the world to drink, fuck, fight and drag race to. The wild guitars, the percussive slap of the bass, the driving backbeat and the wailing vocals sound more dangerous than a roomful of drunken men with chainsaws. DEMERIT POINTS: A growing number of rockabilly fans take era-mimicking to disgraceful new lows by adopting the racist attitudes of the '50s. I remind those IQ-challenged souls that no self-respecting Klansman of the day would have listened to Elvis, Gene Vincent or Johnny Burnette, as they played what was called "nigger music" and that those musicians named many black artists as their primary influences. SWINGIt's a great thing that swing-the most complex and rewarding form of pop music this country has produced-is being quarried as an alternative to the mindless hack-din of alternative and mainstream rock. But the "swing" on the radio these days is more akin to Pat Boone singing Little Richard than the classic sound of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, et al.: it's a compromised, whitewashed caricature of true swing, largely played by former punk rockers with neither the skill nor historical knowledge to pull it off. Bands that can actually play the stuff a little still elect to embrace all the posing and trendiness the "scene" demands. That said, it's still good to hear screaming horns back on the radio, and perhaps with time and practice, some of the groups will evolve into legit swing bands. SCENE LEADERS: The woeful Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin' Daddies have the big hits but represent the worst the genre has to offer. The Brian Setzer Orchestra (led by the former Stray Cats front man) and Squirrel Nut Zippers are among the most interesting of the lot. Royal Crown Revue, which was doing this before anyone else on the list and whose sound has become something of a template for younger groups, has improved. Other bands include the Jive Aces and the Big Six from England; also playing the clubs are the New Morty Show, Indigo Swing, Swingerhead, Mighty Blue Kings and Blue Plate Special, just to name a few. LOCAL HEROES: The Eddie Reed Big Band, James Intveld's Swing Sinners, and Johnny Fabulous and the Big Shots. YA GOTTA LOVE IT: Any music that removes pop culture from the negativity and prevalent "I'm a bad motherfucker" posturing is a good thing. Hey, some of the bands may blow, but at least people are having fun with it rather than screaming for their heroin. DEMERIT POINTS: Swing remained jazz-based music even in the very capable hands of novelty performers Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan and Louis Prima, and there's a galling omission of anything resembling jazz in the neo-swing scene. Calloway was a clown, but he sang like a sonnavabitch, and his band-which always featured a host of the top names on their respective instruments-kicked ass with the best of them, including Basie and Ellington. The fear here is that an entire generation is growing up thinking "Zoot Suit Riot" and "Go Daddy-O" define swing without hearing so much as a note from Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, Roy Eldridge, Anita O'Day, Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Jo Jones or any of swing's real creative geniuses. BLUESMany of the blues' great artists have passed on or become incapacitated in recent years-Luther Allison, Junior Wells, Johnny Copeland, Katie Webster, Albert King and Albert Collins among them. Yet some veteran and younger acts always pick up the torch and carry on. Acoustic or electric, blues is most effective when performed by people who've lived the life and studied the music-as opposed to those who carry on the odious tradition of minstrelsy that has always plagued the music. But in the hands of a master who instinctively recognizes the blues' essentially human elements and its ability to connect directly to the soul, nothing sounds better in a smoky juke joint over a few tall cold ones. SCENE LEADERS: Let's not belabor the obvious here with names like Guy, Cray and Hooker. Traditionalists like young'un Cory Harris and old'uns Cephas & Wiggins, Robert Lockwood Jr., and Taj Mahal keep the down-home porch lights burning bright. Olu Dura earlier this year released one of the most original and creative blues albums heard in eons. Sapphire-the Uppity Blues Women put a feminist spin on the blues' old themes and are always a great time live. Koko Taylor and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown are among the veterans whose talents have only gained depth with the years. LOCAL HEROES: James Harman is a stalwart of West Coast blues (a jumpin', rockin' style as friendly to dancers as swing). Harman Band alumnus Kid Ramos-either as a bandleader or guitarist with the Fabulous Thunderbirds-is an energetic guitarist always worth catching. English-born Peter Dobson is a virtuoso country-blues picker and singer. Will Brady, Joe Racano and Rod Frias (who also fronts blues-rock band Rod & the Pistons) fold their personal experiences, politics and blues into their singing and songwriting. Reliable sources sing the praises of Bourbon Jones. YA GOTTA LOVE IT: Screaming guitars, whooping harps, impassioned vocals-at its best, the blues' primal power to move, empower, inspire and toy with every spectrum of the emotions is unparalleled. DEMERIT POINTS: There's nothing more insipid than a bad blues band. SOUL/CLASSIC R&BHow sad that this genre is all but moribund in the '90s, usurped by hip-hop and contemporary R&B. A few icons (like Al Green, Dr. John, Etta James, Willy DeVille, Southside Johnny and Aretha Franklin) are still kicking, but it's been a while since they released real soul albums. We must somehow deal with the fact that Montel Jordan and Boyz II Men are about as close to soul music as we're going to get. SCENE LEADERS: Light black candles and pray to weird gods that some record company signs Sam Moore, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke (or any of the other many soul giants still alive) and lets them strut their stuff before it's too late. Lenny Kravitz has been known to breathe hot soul on occasion. Younger acts like Earl Thomas and Storyville tease us with what might be but seem lost as they experiment with outside influences and forms in search of a receptive audience. LOCAL HEROES: The possibility of a soul resurgence originating in OC lies in the hands of two bands: Barrelhouse and Soul Candy, both of which are great groups with gifted, charismatic front men. Why doesn't someone offer them a record deal? RIGHT NOW! YA GOTTA LOVE IT: Talking with Barrelhouse's Harlis Sweetwater or Soul Candy's Baby G., both young men passionate about keeping soul alive, it's clear there is hope for the future even against the dourest of odds. These cats are heroes! DEMERIT POINTS: The Blues Brothers.ROOTS REGGAENot to be confused with dancehall, ska, ragamuffin or any of the other offshoots of real reggae-or the slick, polished, commercial tripe so prominent in SoCal. In its pure state, reggae is like melodic soul with a social and spiritual conscience. Reggae spawned one of the most important artists of the 20th century in Bob Marley and a couple of others (Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh) just a few notches below. Played well, reggae music is soothing, hypnotic and uplifting without being wan, syrupy or boring. Often played with a number of percussion instruments, layered horns, wah-wah effects and tribal-sounding vocal harmonies, reggae offers multiple tonal textures in a form that's pleasant and palatable without being blatantly sweet or commercial. SCENE LEADERS: Marley has seemingly dozens of offspring on the circuit, with Ziggy and Julian most closely capturing Daddy's vibe (sadly, Ziggy also appears in Cover Girl commercials). Veterans like Cliff, Steel Pulse and Burning Spear remain vital as well, and what's left of the original Wailers still sounds fine as led by Junior Marvin. I haven't heard Wailing Souls, but reliable sources say they're swell. LOCAL HEROES: The inspired Carlos Chin-led Black & White is a youthful group with a most prodigious sax player who will be John Coltrane someday. If the band seems at times unduly possessed by the spirit of Marley, it will bear close scrutiny as it matures and develops its own sound. King Arthur & the Royal Posse boast a charismatic front man and a vibe darker and creepier than you'll find in most SoCal reggae-meisters, and it works. YA GOTTA LOVE IT: Against all better judgment, listening to pure roots reggae makes smoking dope seem like a good idea all over again. DEMERIT POINTS: Against all better judgment, listening to pure roots reggae makes smoking dope seem like a good idea all over again. Also, there's the matter of white guys with dreadlocks. SURF ROCKGuitar fetishism-not that there's anything wrong with that. Nothing's as chilling as a stinging, vintage Fender guitar through a vintage Fender amp with the reverb cranked up all the way and played by guys who think lyrics suck. The emphasis is on tone over chops, timbre over volume, melody over flash. The sound of surf-guitar instrumentals has remained virtually unchanged for 35 years, ever since it was born here in OC, where it still thrives. SCENE LEADERS: Mostly OC veterans like Dick Dale (who created the style and now lives in the desert), the Chantays, the Surfaris and the Torquays. The Ventures are still on the scene as well. Also, check out heavily surf-influenced but not strictly surf bands like Southern Culture on the Skids, the Hellecasters, San Diego's Skid Roper, and Long Beach's Del Noah & the Mount Ararat Finks. LOCAL HEROES: Newer bands like the Sting Rays (teenage sensations!), the Lively Ones, the Eliminators and the Breakers. It's near impossible to miss the influence of surf on punk bands, including Agent Orange, who claimed (very hacked) that the Offspring had lifted a surf riff from them when, in fact, said riff appeared to have been produced first by God himself, Dick Dale. YA GOTTA LOVE IT: Pulp Fiction brought surf rock back to the masses, even though surf had nada to do with heroin, buggery, murder, foot rubs or anally retained watches. DEMERIT POINTS: Instrumental surf rock's cousin, vocal surf rock, is quite possibly the silliest, whitest pop music ever made.
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