Most country and folk music fans know the Appalachian murder ballad “Knoxville Girl”. The song has been covered by everyone from old time acts like the Blue Sky Boys, the Wilburn Brothers and the Louvin Brothers to more contemporary performers such as the Lemonheads, Elvis Costello, and Nick Cave. “Knoxville Girl” is said to have deep roots that can be found in places as early as the Elizabethan era, but its theme about killing a girl who has rejected her suitor has proven to be timeless for many male singers. The same is true of the murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio”, which shares the same story. The traditional song has been a staple of the country folk repertoire and famously covered by such luminaries as Johnny Cash, John Baez, Pete Seeger, and Doc Watson.
Jim Lauderdale and Robert Hunter have rewritten these two songs and combined them into a new one, “Louisville Rock” on Lauderdale’s new release, Patchwork River. The story is the same. Boy meets girl. Girl rejects boy. Boy kills girl. The details about the town of Knoxville and the Ohio River are slyly alluded to, as well as the fact that “this story has been told before”, but Lauderdale adds a new slant by adding a horn section and turning this into a rhythm and blues song. This effect makes the song simultaneously fresh and timeless.
Lauderdale and Hunter co-wrote all 13 songs on the new disc. Hunter, famous for penning the lyrics to many a Grateful Dead tune (re: American Beauty, Workingman‘s Dead) adds his trademark eccentric style of associative wordplay to many tunes, especially the title track (an example would be, “Served you breakfast on a supper tray/Got no eggs but I saved some shell/Lost the clapper but I found the bell”). Other songs may have more conventional style country lyrics, but there is always a certain amount of weirdness to be found in the lines. Whether the songs concern young love (“Turn to Stone”), a love that never blossomed (“Far in the Far Away”), the love of friends (“Jawbone”) or a long time love (“Good Together”), love seems to be at the center of almost every track.
Musically, Lauderdale’s tunes have a natural flow that allows him to use his guitar to forward the melody and play rhythmically at the same time. He’s ably joined by such notables as James Burton (Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson, Emmylou Harris) on electric guitar, Garry Tallent (Bruce Springsteen) on bass, and Al Perkins (Flying Burrito Brothers, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen) on pedal steel guitar for several cuts. They turn even the simplest song into something meaty and substantial through clean and tasty playing.
Purists might quibble that this disc is not really country. As noted, there are elements of rock, folk and rhythm and blues here, and every song seems to incorporate more than one musical style. The record will probably be lumped into the Americana section of most music stores, but that seems to be a cheat. Patchwork River’s title refers to a patchwork, and like the artifact to which it refers the music borrows bits and pieces to create a whole larger and more complex than just the sum of its parts. This country is supposed to sound like something whose wholesomeness derives from being coarse rather than refined, like whole grain flour and blackstrap molasses. The music’s value resides in its materials’ richness instead of its distillation.