Various Swamp Cats and Nots
By Grant Britt
Greensboro, North Carolina’s Swamp Cats have had a thirty year love affair with hokum. A mix of jug band music, early jazz, Appalachian string band music, blues, and western swing, hokum’s roots go back to 1830s minstrel shows. Country music pioneers like North Carolina’s Charlie Poole adapted it, swing jazz in the ‘30s exposed it even more, bluesmen spread it wider still, and Western swing borrowed heavily from hokum-infused r&b. The Cats blend all that and the Jewish wedding celebration music known as Klezmer as well for a bubbling, cross-cultural stew.
Swamp Nots is a conglomeration of Cats from various stages of Cat development with the addition of some recording Cats who never were road or recording Cats before. So it’s the Swamp Cats sort of, but not.
Lyrics are croaked courtesy of Ben Moore, veteran Cat road dog and gravel-voiced former pitchman for New Orleans stuffing and spice makers Zatarains. Mandolinist Gary Silverstein tinkles around the melodies backed by brother Chuck on guitar. Long time Cat Paul Doc Fribush tootles on clarinet and puts in some solid work on Hawaiian Steel guitar and harp, and old time Cat Scott Manring also contributes guitar on the Appalachian fiddle tune “Yes Pappy Yes.”
Louis Armstrong’s “Dippermouth Blues” jangles along merrily without benefit of horns, Gary’s mandolin ringing out the notes as cleanly as if they came from the bell of Armstrong’s trumpet. Santo and Johnny’s ‘59 instrumental classic “Sleepwalk” is hokumized by Gary’s mandolin replacing Johnny’s guitar while Doc plays Santo’s steel lines underneath. The effect is like getting shroomed at an old time string band campground and letting all your preconceptions about the music drift away with the melody.
The Not Cats toss in a little New Orleans style fast-paced jazz with “Panama,” then finish out the mix with the Klezmer number “Russian Waltz,” with Not Cat Scott Walker’s cello adding a classical touch.
Nots is a grand tour of no-holds-barred hokum, a mash-up of styles and genres that make labels meaningless. Just listen and enjoy.