Cast King – Long time coming
“You’re gonna have to speak up some, and slow down,” intoned the craggy drawl that came over the line. “I don’t hear so good.”
The voice belonged to Cast King, the singer, songwriter, and player of guitar, mandolin, and fiddle from Old Sand Mountain, Alabama, who turns 80 in February. His wife Helen had called him to the phone. The occasion for my call was the release of Saw Mill Man, King’s first album after a lifetime of making music — the last 45 years of it exclusively in church, at funerals, or on the porch at home.
I had been instructed to speak loudly, and to enunciate clearly, both by King’s publicist and by his wife, so I began the interview again, unsuccessfully, with my first question.
This time, though, King made things easier for us both.
Clearly not registering my question about life in the saw mills in and around Sand Mountain, he asked, “You want to know about my music?”
“Well, my first band was the Country Drifters,” he began, to my considerable relief. He was referring to the hillbilly dance band he put together after a tour of duty in Germany, with the Army’s 106th Infantry Division, during World War II. (King’s wife later clarified that he also had led a band before going the service, a proto-bluegrass outfit called the Alabama Pals.)
“We played in Nashville on the Roy Acuff Show,” King went on, talking about the Drifters. “We played in Knoxville and on bills with Carl Story, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, and this boy [Hank Locklin] who wrote ‘Send Me Your Pillow To Dream On’.”
After enumerating the nine band members of the Drifters, from his piano player to his “trumpet man” on down — “The lead guitar picker was Johnny Walker; now he worked with Jean Shepard for 10 years” — King concluded, “It doesn’t leave much, when you split your money up. At one time it was hard to make it in music. We played so many places, for maybe two or three dollars apiece.”
King remembers playing as far north as Chicago. The only real shot at the brass ring his Drifters likely had, though, came in the early 1950s, when Sam Phillips invited them to cut a few sides at Sun. The band recorded eight different titles during their five-hour session in Memphis, most, if not all, of them written by King. One number, called “No Time To Pray”, featured a female singing group billed as the Miller Sisters. Another went by the title “When You Stop Lovin’ Me”.
“We weren’t gonna record that,” King said of the last of these. “We thought it was too much like the Louvin Brothers.”
The Louvins, of course, became the most famous product of Sand Mountain; King knew them when they still used the surname Loudermilk. The area was rich in music at the time, with King picking up things on the guitar from a musician named Harry Smith whom his wife swears was a better player than Chet Atkins. The Delmore Brothers came from the area around Sand Mountain as well.
The recordings that King and the Country Drifters made for Sun finally surfaced, some 30 years later, on a set released by Bear Family. Instead, however, of the masters they recorded for commercial release, King insists that Bear Family issued “practice tapes.”
“That was a big disappointment,” he went on. “They sent me the album of that. They called me the mystery man because they couldn’t find me.”
King likewise considers the recordings on his new CD to be practice tapes, and in some respects, they are, being the product of home picking sessions captured on a cassette four-track and a minidisc recorder. Accompanying King on electric guitar throughout is Matt Downer, the man who steadfastly sought out the old man and convinced him to record again.
Yet homespun as they are, the twelve tracks on Saw Mill Man also reveal King to be a highly accomplished songwriter, and a moving, if limited singer after the fashion of Cowboy Jack Clement. Liquor, heartbreak and murder figure prominently in King’s narratives, and his rhythms typically press, whether in subdued rockabilly mode or by way of gutbucket shuffles.
King disavows any direct musical influences, but the postwar honky-tonk of Hank Williams, Ray Price and Webb Pierce clearly is a touchstone here, and quite possibly a sound that King helped shape. Listening today, it’s also hard not to hear Michael Hurley in King’s “Wino”, a song that resembles Hurley’s immortal “Werewolf”, harmonically and otherwise. The creaky neo-Appalachian cadences and lilt of Tom House’s undersung music likewise come to mind, right down to King’s singular songwriting voice, which routinely yields indelible mystical-existential plainspeak like, “Numb as the knob on the door.”
For the record, King really isn’t a “saw mill man,” having worked in the mills for only a brief time when he was 14. He quit playing music professionally at age 35 when, as his wife put it, “he got faith and joined the church. He couldn’t go into those places, the nightclubs and dances, no more.”