The rolling bars of piano licks. A brief, but striking, high-octave guitar note. This is the stuff of rockabilly lore, or, at the top of one late summer release, history meeting modern times.
Then comes the opening lyrical salvo.
“I’m the sister of a hell-raiser,” Linda Gail Lewis snarls on “Round Too Long,” the opening number of Wild! Wild! Wild! This fast-paced romp punctuates the start of the varied new Bloodshot Records collaboration between Lewis, sibling of the legendary Jerry Lee Lewis, and folk troubadour Robbie Fulks.
“This ain’t an old folks’ reunion. This ain’t a Johnny Cash song,” Lewis continues on this lead track, defiant, sure-footed, and poised to make her work stand out from the glut of legacy acts and backwards-looking poseurs on the scene.
Funny enough, then, when Fulks in the next song contradicts her – in a sense – by pointedly referencing Merle Haggard’s “Swinging Doors” and Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River,” two absolute classic country touchstones. “Willie, Merle, and all those outlaws,” Fulks sings, “was all that daddy’d ever played.”
Such is the balance to achieve – it’s a struggle, really – in 2018 roots music. Acts may distance themselves from the “old folks” of the 1960s and 1970s country era in an attempt to create something striking, while at the same time showing reverence to those who paved the way.
It’s a delicate juggle that’s particularly tricky here on Wild! Wild! Wild! given the initially puzzling pairing of Lewis, blood kin to a rock and roots music king, and Fulks, a current-day iconoclast who likely will remain on the fringes for the remainder of his career.
Lewis and Fulks, see, share little more than love of elemental roots music, track records of high output and low levels of mass-market attention. The 71-year-old Lewis scored a top ten country album, Together, in 1969 with her brother. Since the early 1990s, she has released more than 20 records, including 2000’s You Win Again with Van Morrison. Fulks – nearly 20 years her junior – has steadily released underground folk LPs since the mid-1990s, including 2016’s Grammy-nominated Upland Stories.
But somehow, as odd as this union appears on paper, it works: Lewis and Fulks harmonize in sheer beauty throughout Wild! Wild! Wild! Those vocal fusions are particularly pretty on the slower numbers, like “That’s Why They Call It Temptation,” which features a flood of rich, flowing pedal steel lines.
Elsewhere, “Memphis Never Falls from Style” sounds a little like hot jazz, or early blues. As another oddity on Wild! Wild! Wild!, it’s a song that name-checks both Booker T. Jones and Big Star. “And the hipsters go for Austin,” Lewis, backed by sleepy horns, sings. “But Memphis never falls from style.”
Actually, it’s a lovely tribute to the “Birthplace of Rock and Roll,” a city that Jerry Lee Lewis helped put on the map when he, along with other pioneers like Cash, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison, set creative fire to Sun Studios in the 1950s.
They all melded elements of country, rockabilly, and blues into rock. It was messy, but legendary. Three quarters of a century later, descendants like Linda Gail Lewis and boundary-pushing adventurers like Fulks keep trying their hand at putting these pieces together.
Wild! Wild! Wild! – in practice – is one such mixed-success Americana grab bag.