Are You Ready for the Country? The Shiners Live in New Yawk
“Down South they don’t care how close you get, so long as you don’t get too big; up North they don’t care how big you get, so long as you don’t get too close.”
—former presidential candidate & diet guru Dick Gregory
Last night I saw Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play on Broadway. Topdog/Underdog is the tense tale of adversarial brothers, allegorically named Lincoln and Booth, who inevitably come to a tragic end. Yet how that fable went down was not the most shocking moment of the evening. Naw. That came when, riding the bus home, I discovered the driver was listening to the Grateful Dead. The surprise was that he was black. Of course one saw blackfolks on Dead tour (and now Phish etc)—- used to even be co-ed delegations from those bastions of black collegiate tradition and propriety, Morehouse and Spelman in Atlanta—- but invariably they were of the “Ras” and boho variety. I oughtta know—- I’ve come to my redneck culture chronicling via a misspent adolescence in Deadhead-dom. Still, after all these years of playing “Count the Crazy Dada Negro” at Crowes shows and Furthur Fests, I could be faintly shocked by a button-down, shorn and uniformed driver on the MTA grooving on “Ripple” (and I don’t mean the wine so popular with ebony consumers). Rolling through the tonier realms of Manhattan Island, he was playing a boot, by jiminy!
Just goes to show that no matter how much we on the dusky side of the Great Divide love to help perpetuate the notion that nothing much has changed in this place we call America since the antebellum period, things really are different. And for those of us more interested in culture than politics, it’s heartening to realize that 400 + years of social exchange has finally brought about an irrevocable, if unstable pass, where the suburban “wigga” can dig the country-ass Nappy Roots and the least likely brotha needs him some Jerry to get by. Alas, the previous evening at Rodeo Bar, the legions of black, country music fans “discovered” during the 80s & 90s New Country boom were not in evidence. In a place as cosmopolitan and diverse as the Hilly Island, one would expect a few curious heads to have peeped critic Chuck Eddy’s listing in the Voice and come on out for some roots conjuring. They done did themselves a disservice because experiencing the hoodoo of The Shiners might coulda changed their lives. Indeed, although Topdog/Underdog was aptly scored to snippets of Soul Brother No. 1 and Mr. Boom Boom Boom John Lee Hooker, the sound designers should’ve added the Shiners’ music to the mix, full of dark portent belied by a goodtimes gameface as it is.
Now, I ain’t fluent in Ebonics; these lurches through language are the result of my Daugherty County (GA)-based grandmother’s voice rising up in me as I assess what really ought to be the Shiners’ universal appeal. Just their name causes fond recollections to surface—- of bare feet in red dirt, the glint off my Grandaddy’s Cadillac, of greedily strolling the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly and eating myself sick off bullets in my cousin’s yard. The projects at the other end of the street where Rodeo Bar is situated loomed in my head throughout the band’s two sets, like some lugubrious tableau vivant of Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” featuring the peanut shell-strewn bar at its heart—- the small stage containing the band replacing one of the sci-fi oases at the painting’s center. The Shiners’ peerless brand of avant-Appalachian sound standing in for the fountains spraying on the myriad black and white figures peopling The Garden. The notion pervaded my senses that all the colored humanity in those projects should be packed into the gritty bar quaffing the musical moonshine the band has to offer. Who more so than those public housing dwellers intimately waltzing with quotidian miseries (like having your grandmother evicted because someone possessed “rocks” on the premises) could need a fresh wind of country music in their lives? These are times of flux and renewed (dangerous) nationalism when country remains the final frontier yawning wide for some intrepid brothers and sisters to “boldly go” where extremely few have gone before.
I’ve been reading British journalist Peter Doggett’s tome on the history of country rock. It posits that country took such a large share of the record consuming public as the 80s faded into the 90s because (white) adults just couldn’t bear “that rap noise.” Well, be that as it may, black radio didn’t cotton to rap until the 90s were underway. And most black music fans that know who Joe Tex was don’t want to listen to that “hippity-hop” either. Country is the perfect genre for them to embrace at this odd, unstable time when folks are deciding what being American will look like in the ages to come. If country is indeed the “white man’s blues,” what better site for both sides of the Divide to reconnect? And these Richmond, Virginia-based Shiners, oozing laidback charm, spinning haunted visions and danceable jams, seems prime to crossover to that vast, untapped audience. (If only WBLS would be so inclined to program them!).
Reflecting upon Topdog/Underdog, a friend of the family opined that the tale of “hustling and healing” could just as easily have been about poor whites; that the patois, pathology, gamesmanship, sense of abandonment and so on were equally the preserve of the two segments of the population always promoted as at odds with one another. Parks’ play, while running on specificities of African jive, could be set in a double-wide trailer with very little tweaking. Which proves out the episodes of country and blues blending that began well before Don Was masterminded Rhythm Country And Blues. We are the same folks with the same woes and joys. So wouldn’t it be nice if we could truly come to mutual understanding and equality as the new millennium dawns? Bronze Buckaroos, it’s high time to ride again
To my mind, the Shiners are among those placed to lead the charge that might bring The People out of the twang closet. Expanded to a wild whirligig of a nonet featuring Yankee mandolin-player R.Q. (who sometimes switched to guitar) and lap steel ace Travis Charbeneau, the Shiners “Orchestra” slayed every heart in the house. Each decade since the 1950s has seen visionaries rebelliously blur the lines between country and rock and revolutionize both genres in the process, from Carl Perkins to Gene Clark & Michael Nesmith to Joe Ely & Kris Kristofferson to Howie Gelb (whose Giant Sand was to go toe-to-toe with the Shiners in Philly the next evening) & Jason Ringenberg to Will Oldham & Gary Louris. And now these wise, weird Virginians, led by the Freed refugees from Dirtball, have knowingly and self-assuredly sauntered onto the scene to play haunting songs exploring temptation, damnation, bad love, lingering regret, ribald toasts, blissful dissipation and southern pride. In process, they draw on all the deep roots spawned by their home turf, the richest region of the Lower 48: folk, blues, bluegrass, country and rock. Hell, by the end of the second set, they even reclaimed psychedelic excess from the lost electric ballrooms of San Francisco and delivered a honky-tonk jam spooky and trippy enough to make those Kentish rebs in the Rolling Stones envious. The sole moment of surprise arose from the band’s XXX bluegrass take on standard “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, as these ears are now so accustomed to the North Mississippi Allstars’ country blues spin.
We already knew Shiners front man Wes Freed was a maverick due to his memorable appearance and to the singular folk Gothic of his artwork which graces canvases, pieces of wood and album covers. Freed’s gift places him among the greatest folk painters in the wake of the late Bill Traylor and Purvis and certainly one of the best rock conceptual artists since the apogee of Pedro Bell’s Funkadelic uvre. Freed’s artistry carried over to the ease with which he slipped on and off stage, allowing his band members the spotlight, never dominating the flow but ably giving voice to the collective’s wry and murky trickster worldview. Friends from the raucous audience also wandered up to the microphones, freely offering backing vocals and howling like a coyote in Freed’s stead when he fell hoarse. The singer has the genuine and arresting gruff vocal command and imposing persona the bandwagon seems to be heedlessly attributing to Andrew WK these days (at least all the critics in New York If garage rock is making it’s big comeback, where does that leave the barn rock of the Shiners, their friends the Drive-By Truckers et al?).
The band is piloted by affable lead guitarist and vocalist Steve Douglas, also a Planetary Records exec. This late modern version of Leon Russell (who successfully directed bands, choirs and Shelter Records simultaneously) called the numbers and kept the train a-rollin’, Douglas’ sly humor and alertness casting him alternately as the rodeo clown or Freed’s straight man.
Terry Douglas on banjo, guitar and accordion was the hardest working woman in show business, her quiet grace the very glue that seemed to hold the bacchanal together. And the rhythm section and Yankette Erin Snyder’s fiddle seemed to be on some ancillary planet, mining the stardust that was the integral ingredient of what the band were brewing. Greg Harrup & Brian Larson mos def made you want to turn up the barn your feet and mind could so readily envision. The lilting rhythm underscoring the country’s taboos in lyrical form was narcotic. At one point, the banjo, mandolin and steel hung together in such perfect rapport it seemed like apocalypse.
The beautiful, flame-haired, barefoot siren that is Jyl Freed rocked her hips towards the moonlit firmament of Cosmic Americana, matched her mate’s keening, plaintive lines in perfect harmony, kept her cigarettes lit and Dixie beers in steady supply. This sweetheart of the Rodeo Bar crooned and howled and got down on her knees seemingly prostrate before the protective deity of the honky-tonks and hollers who must watch over the Shiners as they crisscross the country in a vast, lumbering blue Econoline van emblazoned with a white guiding star on its anthropomorphic forehead.
Kudos should also be given to whichever bartender dominated the evening with his chosen mixtape. I heard the following in great succession as interim tunes: “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother”, “With A Little Help From My Friends”, “Fixin’ To Die Rag”, “America”, “Cry Me A River”, “I Walk The Line”, “Feelin’ Alright”, “The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down” and on.
As my show musings came to a close, I finally, ecstatically discovered that my cable service includes CMT. And got to see Travis Tritt’s video for the great “Modern Day Bonnie And Clyde” at long last, wherein he sings, “Well it’s a long way to Richmond, Heading north on 95 ” A sentiment the Shiners must know well. They are just as much questing and mercurial outlaws as the reluctant criminal Ol’ Billy Bob enacts in the video musicians as colorful as the characters peopling their leavened southern gothic narratives. The Shiners are remaking the country (place, genre, mythos) in their image as they go down the road, scorching earth in their exhaust. Rednecks.org includes a long-ass list of “You might be a redneck” symptoms including: “Directions to your house include turn off the paved road.’” You can just see the Shiners rolling up some rutted hill homewards in the faithful Ole Blue.
Now that I’ve willfully broken many of the prime directives recently outlined for rockcrit by Michael Corcoran in the Austin American-Statesman, y’all of every hue can see that you need these musicians to shine a light on you. Conclusion is the Shiners are stepping into the gap partly caused by the fracture of Lincoln’s shooting, aiding our troubled land’s ongoing reconstruction project by staying out on the road and swinging with The Folk. It doesn’t hurt that they’re the nicest bunch of musicians I’ve ever met this side of guitar great/avid fisherman Jimmy Herring. Call it what you will—- hillbilly soul, honky-tonk funk, rebel boogie—- the Shiners’ music is the clarion call of Afro-Celtic futurism (the score to what the League of the South’s New Dixie Manifesto ought to hope for). Wes Freed’s “cover” of Bosch’s “Garden” could be recast with the ever-antagonized brothers and sisters of today hanging out in Lucite trailers and the harvested fields, mixing and mingling, supping on barbecue and corn liquor. The peeps at DixieNet want the South to secede again—- but as Dick Gregory punned, we got to get closer. The Great Divide that proved such a rich seam for the Band to mine (see the aforementioned “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down”) is killing us. The other hot rock news du jour is the re-release of Scorcese’s concert film requiem for the Band, 1976’s The Last Waltz. Well, we the People are amidst our Last Waltz right now and the question to ask is, When the dawn breaks over the amber waves who among us will be left standing? Probably those who’ve learnt to appreciate Hank Sr & Hooker equally. The Circle that latently holds the union together could be sautered anew in that hypothetical Garden, the hillbilly hymns of Bonnie Blue, Turn Up The Barn and all serving as healing balm. On Harrup’s tune, the Family Freed earnestly sing, “We won’t break the circle, we’re just tryin’ to get by.” These are words for all of us forever tainted by the nation’s endless horse opera co-starring Honest Abe & John Wilkes Booth to live and thrive by. This here redneck negress gal, a Georgian and Virginian once-removed born below the original Mason-Dixon Line, is sho’nuff paying heed.
Who knows: may just whip up some hoecakes for the Shiners’ next down home barn dance. Can a Soul Train line be adapted by the Caller?
Badass brotha catch a ‘ho
Spend yo’ dough
And away we go . . .