Field Reportings from Issue #70
CASE BRIEFING: Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John, due out August 7 on Yep Roc Records, is PETER CASE’s first release since 2002, when both the big-production Beeline and the duo-driven Thank You, St. Jude (with violinist David Perales) hit. But it’s not like Case has been on a five-year vacation. There are the songwriting classes he’s been teaching, and the four-volume memoir he’s writing, As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport. Case tells people his book is the anti-Chronicles. “Bob Dylan went east and made it to the top,” Case likes to say, “and I came west and went straight to the bottom.”
Last year Case played a bunch of shows in the spotlight of A Case For Case: A Tribute To The Songs Of Peter Case, a three-disc compilation on the Hungry For Music label that Case simply calls “mind-boggling.” The tribute featured Case’s songs rendered by artists including Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, Victoria Williams, James McMurtry and Chris Smither.
Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John features mostly new songs and was primarily recorded at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco by Ian Brennan. It’s mostly Case going it alone, playing an old but beautiful-sounding Gibson, the one he cradled on the cover of his 1986 solo debut.
“The guitar’s the band; it gets a big sound,” Case says. “And then it’s all about the language, trying to spit it out in a way that nails it. It’s kind of like the records I’ve always loved, like Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads and Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan’s first four records and Bert Jansch, which I’ve loved since I was a kid. This isn’t a pretend folk record. It’s a pure form of it.”
The few guests who are on hand make a statement, Richard Thompson first and foremost among them. He joins Case on the opening cut, “Every 24 Hours”, which was written, appropriately enough, in the 24th hour just before the session. (“It’s got a guitar thing going on,” understates Case.) The album’s closer, “That Soul Twist”, features Norm Hamlet, Merle Haggard’s longtime pedal steel player and music director. “He played beautifully,” says Case. “It’s not in any way a straight country song, and he just leapt off the cliff with us.”
The two songs that weren’t written specifically for the record have been around awhile. Case wrote “Just Hangin’ On” when he was 15, and “Get Away Blues” dates back to the late 1920s. It was written by Robert Wilkins, a contemporary of and kindred spirit to Sleepy John Estes, the great blues lyricist whose influence on Case over the years is reflected by more than just this album’s title.
“It’s a very open kind of record,” Case says. “It’s the kind of record that has a point of view. You could go into any bar or nightclub in the country, any place where people are, and sing these songs and people would get where you’re coming from.”
He adds, chuckling, “They might not all dig where you’re coming from, but they’re going to get it, you know.”
TURNER’S TURN AT THE RYMAN: It would have been just about unheard of, before today’s ongoing rethinking of record-making and distribution possibilities, for a top act to take a sanctioned side-trip between major releases onto another label. But that’s what 21st-century traditionalist country star Josh Turner is doing.
On April 19, Turner could be found with his versatile electric and acoustic band onstage in Nashville at a packed Ryman Auditorium for his first starring show there, recording a live CD exclusively for Cracker Barrel. The twelve-cut live recording, which combines classic covers with new versions of tracks from Turner’s first two albums, will be made available at the 500-plus locations of the restaurant chain in July.
The live show saw audience members applauding (and more than a few of the female constituents shouting) at some of the deep low-register notes Turner hit in his spirited turns on chart hits such as “Will You Go With Me?” He switched from guitar to mandolin for down-home tunes such as “Backwoods Guy”, and moved from uptempo kickers to ballads with finesse. “Long Black Train”, with its theological warnings and catchy hooks, was introduced with ominous chugging and whistling train noises, yet turned into a crowd sing-along.
Turner’s take on the classics may well have been the evening’s highlight. He offered rich versions of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings”, George Jones’ “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today” and Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive”. The show closed with a rapid-fire succession of stompers, including Johnny Horton’s “One Woman Man”, Waylon Jennings’ “Just To Satisfy You”, and, in a surprise twist, Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Workin'”.
This new closing medley was an alternative to one Turner and band had often featured that included “Diggin’ Up Bones’ and “Swingin'”. “The only problem with that old medley,” Turner told us in an interview after the show, “was that if I went and did a medley with Randy Travis or John Anderson, we couldn’t do it! So we had to choose another set that fans would like, all with similar musical rhythms — and that would never get us in trouble. Plus they’re all songs that I really love.”
During the show, he recalled the multiple ovations he’d received the first time he’d played at the Ryman, an Opry appearance in December 2001 — but not, he underscored, to boast.
“All I could think about was the six ovations Hank Williams got standing right here,” he said, recalling then how Williams had eventually been kicked off the Opry, as did Johnny Cash after kicking out the lights on the same stage. “And I can’t even get in.” (Turner has not been formally inducted into the Opry cast thus far, despite frequent appearances there.)
Paralleling a similar in-store CD-release program by Starbucks, but with a specific focus on country music, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store (the principal sponsor of today’s Grand Ole Opry) has previously released exclusives by Alison Kraus & Union Station, Charlie Daniels, and just recently, Merle Haggard, as well as a Songs Of The Year compilation featuring classic country numbers performed by contemporary stars.
In the wake of last year’s double-platinum MCA Nashville release Your Man, Turner has taken to the road this summer with star billing at the big-time level. He’s also at work on his next MCA disc, which could be out as early as October.
I SEE JAYHAWKS IN L.A.: While GARY LOURIS, guests on the new MARK OLSON solo album The Salvation Blues, that’s not the only collaborative work the former Jayhawks bandmates have done lately. The two, who did an acoustic tour together last year, also recently recorded a duo album in Los Angeles, though the tentative plan is to keep that project under wraps until after Louris releases his own solo debut, likely this fall. Louris posted details about his solo disc to fan sites in mid-May, revealing that it was produced by former Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson and co-produced and engineered by Thom Monahan. “It was recorded pretty much live…drums, bass, keyboards, pedal steel, my lead vocals and acoustic guitar all live in eight days,” Louris wrote, plus “six days of miscellaneous backup vocals and candy.”
ALL THE FIXINS: Last issue’s Farther Along mention of the late Paul Delay identified him as a blues guitarist. He was, in fact, a blues harmonica player and singer. Thanks to Steve Scarrott of Haines, Alaska, for pointing this out….
Another Northwest bluesman, Bill Englehart of Little Bill & the Bluenotes, dropped a line to let us know that the single Bonnie Guitar produced for his band in the late 1950s was “I Love An Angel”, not “Werewolf” (which Guitar produced for the Frantics), as we stated in our feature on Ms. Guitar in ND #67 (Jan.-Feb. 2007).