Grey Music: The Changing Tide
by Erin Sheehy
illustrations Rosie Roberts
There has been an unprecedented spate of country reissues this year, and while many of these contain familiar names, some small record labels have rekindled interest in country music’s true misfits, the people too bizarre to ever make it big themselves. A handful of West Coast labels have been focusing on the late output of singers whose careers peaked in the 1950s. These last hurrahs of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s offer unique insight into the leaps and bounds made in popular music during that time. It’s a sad perspective. Musicians watching the tide change as their own wave recedes.
Papa’s Pinky Ring is an odd 1970 repackage of Trigger Leroy and the Beaumont Beards’ hits throughout the years. It is a concept album of sorts, with Leroy playing a sleazy radio DJ: “It’s 1240 on your PM dial; stay tuned till 2:00 AM baby—my signal should be coming in strong.” His DJ persona introduces every song, playing up the singer’s outlaw reputation: “Here’s another one from that felonious bastard Trigger Leroy,” “Here’s a fightin’ number from those no-good whiskey rags, The Beaumont Beards.”
Leroy’s early songs have the swagger of a young boxer. “Papa’s Pinky Ring” is a genealogy of all the criminals in the Leroy family; in the chorus Trigger explains that growing up he could tell which men had double-crossed his father, Shooter Leroy, because they bore the mark of Shooter’s pinky ring on their cheek. In this early work, The Beards are raucous and chaotic, with Leroy yelping all his lines, and fiddler Bill Uncton adding an old-timey feel to the music.
The later songs are clunky and embarrassing. “Branding You Mine” is in exceedingly poor taste, and “Beatdown Town” is a blatant—and bad—ripoff of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.” Where Lynn sang, he won't cat around with a kitty, Leroy sings, she won’t do doggy with a hound. Unlike Lynn, who changed the game by playing the assertive woman, Leroy just sounds like a dumb bully. Though he never stopped mining his short-lived criminal career for material, Leroy’s late work contains no real threat of violence, and so it becomes self-parody.
From Jake Leg Records comes Spaghetti Western Drive-Thru Buffet, a reissue of the 1970 album by Darren D’Abruzzo, the dairy farmer from Great Meadows, New Jersey who built a career on his unlikeliness as a country star. As usual, “The Italian Cowboy,” (he pronounces it “eye-talian”) relies too heavily on hokey novelty numbers like the title track and the particularly grating “New Holstein, New Geurnsey, New Jersey.” The album is peppered with Guido jokes and petty regional squabbles. This is no doubt one of the reasons that despite a career spanning from 1955 to his death in 1991, D’Abruzzo’s music never took hold in The Southern, but has instead become a favorite among college DJs and New England-based record collectors.
It’s a shame that D’Abruzzo is known primarily for his comedy numbers. Bad taste aside, his voice is clear and soaring, and has a dancing cadence that is pure joy. When he strays from his usual theatrical self-deprecation, D’Abruzzo is unpredictable, both lyrically and musically. Ironically, some of the best country songs on Spaghetti Western Drive-Thru Buffet are about cities. Particularly enjoyable are his cover of Waylon Jennings’ “New York City, R.F.D.”— complete with a spoken interlude about the evils of Times Square—and the self-penned “Mean Ol’ Slot Machines,” an up-tempo bawdy warning about the streetwalkers of Atlantic City.
Though D’Abruzzo typically uses his New Jersey outsider status to make himself the butt of the joke, it is in fact his great advantage. The perspective of a Yankee boy looking towards his pantheon of Southern gods gives great insight into the myth of the cowboy, the myth of the American Man. The last song on the album, “Georgiana”—an anti-“Walking In Memphis” chronicle of D’Abruzzo’s pilgrimage to the town in Butler County, Alabama where Hank Williams grew up—is heartbreaking. D’Abruzzo arrives to find an economically depressed, sleepy burg. He keeps grasping for a spiritual experience, but instead the trip sullies his romantic image of Williams, and the bright dusty daylight of the present ruins his sense of the South as a place where old legends skulk through the night: I didn’t see your ghost / I didn’t hear your song / I had to go on home so I could breathe. In the end, New Jersey isn’t so funny. Rather, its brute reality is a relief.
While tales of woe, sadness, and grief are nothing new in the world of country music, Dee “Minor” Hicks often managed to take things to new depths of self-doubt, self-loathing, and bleak, desperate sadness. Though Hicks hasn’t gained cult figure status, the folks at Seattle based Portland Records are quite wise to revisit his work. His brand of existential despair is more popular today than it was in 1967, when he released what would be his final album, Headless Chicken Coming to Roost.
Headless Chicken was first released as the world surged towards cultural revolution. Told through stories of his crumbling marriage, the album chronicles a man retreating further into himself as he watches the world he knew slip away from him. There are echoes throughout Headless Chicken of Frank Sinatra’s Watertown, that last gasp of a man who can’t keep up with the changing times. In “Ain’t the Kind of Woman (For a One-Woman Man),” a young bride strains against the shackles of marriage while her husband realizes that in truth a life with him will offer her few rewards: When that black cloud passes over her / the lightning flashes in her eyes / she’s back to packing up even though she’s in love / I guess I oughta let this little woman fly.
But the psychic pain of Hicks’ work is deeper and more solitary than mere heartbreak. “A Yodeler (Is Just a Wolf Howlin’)” opens with a crackling clip from Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 1,” then descends into something low and—like most of the album—sparse. Hicks himself never yodels, his deep, near-flat voice and deadened phrasing a counter to the yodeler’s song. Here he picks apart the myth of the lonesome troubadour, claiming that yodeling cowboys are just “wolves searching for their pack”: I got no use for howling when the world it won’t howl back / I sit atop of this old hill, the end can’t come too soon / I’d rather stare at blackness than that bald-faced lying moon. “A Yodeler,” however, falls short of the utterly sinister “I Took the Bull by the Horns,” which turns Wild West bravado on its head: I took the bull by the horns / hoping it would kill me. Hicks did finally take the bull by the horns, so to speak. Or, to use another barnyard metaphor, the chickens came home to roost: he shot himself in the root cellar of his mother’s farm in 1969.
Low Hanging Lassos is an unbelievable collection of rarities, live songs, and previously unreleased material by Sally Mae Jackson—Wanda Jackson’s much lesser known older cousin—and The Sumbitch Band, a notorious gang of musicians who throughout the first half of the 1950s would play behind Sally Mae in the roughest Deep South honky tonks. Bert Sherman, Ervin Lee, and Earl “Nippy” Larson were not known so much for their fine musicianship as for their large knuckles and bad attitudes. Behind Sally, whose ribaldry and barbed tongue were both her legend and undoing, this crew became one of those bands whose shows are used by old timers as bragging rights. Deep in Mississippi you can still find men hunched over their beers, swapping stories of Sally Mae shows like dirty jokes.
The banter from Jackson’s live show is incredible. She tosses tasteless double entendres at the audience and, emboldened by her thuggish backing band, tears breathlessly into hecklers. One track starts with Jackson screaming at a man in the front row who has just drunkenly pawed at her: “You shit-stinking West Virginia hooch tank, you keep your mule hooves off me or I’ll rip out your heart and shit in the hole.”
The true gem of this album, however, is a board mix of a song that Jackson never recorded in-studio but only played live. Long thought to have been lost forever, “Work With Me Henry” is itself a legend among those in the know. Ever since “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” female country singers have been known for their answer songs, reworking the lyrics to misogynist hits in order to show the woman’s perspective. Jackson was known for penning particularly biting answer songs such as “Throwaway Boy” and “(Damn Right) I’m Running Wild,” but it was the much friendlier “Work With Me Henry,” her response to R&B singer Hank Ballard’s 1954 hit, “Work With Me Annie,” that put her on the map—and nearly wiped her off of it. Jackson barely changed the lyrics to the blatantly sexual Ballard song—that had by then been banned from most radio stations—only replacing the name “Annie” with “Henry.” Kitty Wells had found herself in enough trouble with the country music world when she suggested that women were held to standards of fidelity that their husbands weren’t. For Sally Mae, singing baby please don’t cheat / give me all my meat—in response to song by a black bluesman, no less—meant being blacklisted from the juke joint circuit, and having her few local hits pulled off the airwaves. The song nearly got Ballard killed. “I don’t think she realized what kind of risk she was putting me in,” Ballard said in an interview decades after the scandal. “I was receiving death threats.”
After the “Work With Me Henry” debacle, Jackson sank into obscurity. There was a brief revival of interest in her music during the late ’60s. The recording of “Work With Me Henry” on Low Hanging Lassos comes from one of the few performances she gave during that time period. Jackson’s performance is technically shaky, but witty. She takes full advantage of the societal upheaval that occurred since her heyday in the ’50s, adding new lyrics like Don’t you lie so still / Sugar, I’m on the Pill to roaring applause. In the early ’70s a handful of women’s liberation groups tried to get Jackson to perform in some New England “women’s music” festivals, but she declined, saying, “My songs have got nothing to do with those dry-assed Yankee politicians in miniskirts.” Some confidantes claim that she was in fact flattered by the invitations, but illness and a worsening Quaalude addiction kept her from performing. Jackson died in 1977, and according to legend, was still mouthing off on her deathbed.