Don Nix: Goin’ Down: The Songs of Don Nix

[12 January 2003]

By Barbara Flaska

Little did my rural mail carrier know he was delivering an incendiary device when he slipped that brown flat cardboard mailer in that nondescript rural mailbox on the crooked post. I happened to watch him ease the package in and then for some reason made a mental note of how he pulled a quick jerky u-ey in the gravel before accelerating away down the road trailed by a cloud of dust. I could describe how within moments of that, the package was in my shaking hand and I was skipping back up to the homestead as I am sometimes known to do, but the short and breathless version is: I won the record lotto. Don Nix & Friends were goin’ down in my player and the CD hasn’t seen the light of day since. This is the best, bar none, Southern fried boogie I have heard since Lord only knows, because I certainly can’t remember back that far, but at least 20 years or so.

Days of rapturous listening elapsed before I even cracked open the liner notes, which looked like they were printed on dirty linen or an old pull-down window shade that had snapped loose of the wooden roller. I took a quick look at one of the sepia-tinged antique-freak promo photos, and then closed the booklet straight away, because I just didn’t want this to end too soon. Don Nix, one of the original proto-type models and distinctive maker of a unique genre, has re-emerged and given his collection of hits a completely different flavor.

If you’ve been exposed to the exuberant kink of Southern fried boogie, you’ve had something to do with Don Nix. After founding the Mar-Keys with some high school friends, he was an essential ingredient of Stax and Shelter records and the Alabama State Troopers. When thinking of Don Nix, also think Lonnie Mack, Leon Russell, Furry Lewis, Freddie King, Albert King, and Delaney and Bonnie. Nix had a guiding hand in 55 albums plus a wrote a string of hits which made other people famous, which resulted for him in two Rolls Royces with shiny square radiator grills, a Rip-Van-Winkle relationship with some serious downers, and different styles of facial hair, but now he’s back sitting pretty in the cheap seats. That string of hits also make up this CD’s repertoire, but performed here ably by the composer himself assisted by a group of friends that include Steve Cropper, Bonnie Bramlett, Leslie West, John Mayall, and on and on.

The first cut sets le mood boogie gonzo. Sparse plucked blues notes are pulled off an electric guitar and combine with stuttering snares and a low growling bass that’s bent to sound like some big animal breathing. This is “Black Cat Moan” complete with Nix’s hoarse fractured singing, and an electric slide-guitar mewling in response that is reminiscent of the best old players. As soon as Nix began singing “ooh-ooh-ooh-oohs” across the song’s swaying bridge, I began feeling a little funny, and figured I had swallowed a time capsule and was exhibiting almost indescribable but probably permanent side effects.

Speaking of effects, guess what instrument is back again in raunchy rock ‘n’ roll? Maracas! Shaken not swirled and once as much a part of rock ‘n’ roll as tambourines, but sadly neglected of late. Here, not used at all like its percussive contemporary, that ubiquitous tambourine sitting on top of every ride cymbal to add a little chatter. No, these are beans, seeds, and maybe bits of broken glass jumping around inside gourds on sticks and sounding sometimes like water hitting a greasy hot griddle. Maracas that I imagine are not shaken in two pairs by some pouty-lipped studio tech but maracas that are probably roped to the inside of Nix’s knees while he does some weird shaky snaky dance.

Track 2 “On the Road Again” is a skipper, meaning I’ll skip writing about it now and just play it next week and likely for a week straight. But it’s one of the most curious of American road songs. The normal roil of daily events combine to drive the singer barking mad and straight out of the house into the rain. He’s willing to endure the rigors of the road just to distance himself from the hard strange life at home, where all images of domesticity have gone completely awry and twisted: “My baby joined the Navy and left for the Coast, but still this day is better than most”.

“Going Back to Iuka” (made famous by Albert King) is gritty, tasteful, and weird, which showcases Nix’s masterful production techniques. Occasionally wild and screechy, always funky, quirky, and sometimes loud, but with nothing over done or out of place anywhere on the whole record. And the big show stopper, “Goin’ Down”, a Southern rock anthem covered by hundreds of other bands, is a version like no other. With organs and pianos, and no less than four guitar solos by four separate guitarists, the last solo heavy on the fuzzy-wuzzy pedal with an exceptionally beautiful tone. For those who think they wanna rock, “Goin’ Down” has more than enough grease for any guitar hog to happily wallow.

Not that it would make a difference to any but my rural route mail carrier, I’m recommending Goin’ Down. While the title is a bitter mock, reminding me of what’s happening to our economy, political process, not to mention all that other stuff, this record makes me feel strangely better. And Goin’ Down is such a perfect record for those who have grown more than slightly weepy for the doo-dah days of yore.

Well, I could go on, but I’m certain your fingers feel much warmer now.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/nixdon-goin/