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Mystery And Manners' Honorary Southern Artists: Volume One

Mystery And Manners' Honorary Southern Artists Overview: Volume One
By James Calemine

                                   “Like Judas of old
                                   You lie and deceive 
                                   A world war can be won
                                   You want me to believe 
                                   But I see through your eyes
                                   And I see through your brain
                                   Like I see through the water
                                   That runs down my drain”
                                                       “Masters of War”
                                                              --Bob Dylan

Certain artists transcend any geographic or cultural boundary. Artists such as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Jerry Garcia, The Band and Clarence White augmented elements of southern music in their own work even though they were not born in The South. These seven artists count as the first volume of an ongoing series of Mystery And Manners’ Honorary Southern Artists. Some of the country’s most esteemed musicians, artists and writers originate from the South, but any of these aforementioned artists defy categorization.


Bob Dylan

Growing up in Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s most profound influences were Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson and Hank Williams—all southern musicians. Dylan’s vision inspired him to perform his revolutionary songs at the civil rights movements of the early 60s during a tumultuous time in the South. He recorded with Big Joe Williams. In the late 60s, Dylan recorded Blonde On Blonde, New Morning, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline in Nashville, Tennessee. In Nashville, Dylan utilized seasoned session musicians such as Charlie McCoy, Kenney Buttrey, Al Kooper, Wayne Moss, Hargus Robbins, Charlie Daniels and even Johnny Cash (for one song). Johnny Cash called Dylan “A helluva poet”. Dylan later recorded Slow Train Coming and Saved in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

In 1989, Dylan returned to the South to make an album with Daniel Lanois—Oh Mercy. The year 1996 found Dylan working with Lanois again on his classic-spooky Time Out of Mind disc. Oh Mercy was recorded in New Orleans, and the Time Out of Mind sessions (featuring southern icon Jim Dickinson) occurred at the famed Criteria Studios in Miami. Dylan also employed the legendary Memphis group, Booker T & The MGs, for his 50th Birthday celebration concert. In his music, Dylan makes reference to Blind Willie McTell, Charlie Patton and Hank Williams. As an enduring songwriter and lyricist, Dylan remains unchallenged...

When asked in 1991 if he sat down with an intention to write a song or did he wait until it came to him, Dylan gave insight to his timeless sense of songwriting: “Either or. Both ways. It’s possible now for a songwriter to have a recording studio in his house and record a song and make a demo and do a thing. It’s like the roles have been changed on all that stuff.

“Now for me, the environment to write the song is extremely important. The environment has to bring something out in me that wants to be brought out. It’s a contemplative, reflective thing. Feelings aren’t my thing. See, I don’t write lies. It’s a proven fact: Most people who say I love you don’t mean it. Doctors have proved that. So love generates a lot of songs. Probably more so than a lot. Now it’s not my intention to have love influence my songs. Any more that it influenced Chuck Berry’s songs or Woody Guthrie’s or Hank Williams’. Hank Williams’, they’re not love songs. You’re degrading them calling them love songs. Those are songs from The Tree of Life. Love is on The Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of Good and Evil. So we have a lot of songs in popular music about love. Who needs them? Not you, not me…”

Neil Young

Canadian Neil Young wrote such original songs the first decade of his career it was difficult to detect any obvious influences. In 1970, Young recorded his best-selling album in Nashville, Harvest. Throughout his career, Young relied on musicians steeped in country roots (Spooner Oldham, Emmylou Harris, Kenney Buttrey and Ben Keith) to strengthen his overall sound. Over 30 years ago, Young bought Hank Williams’ guitar, “Hank”, a Martin D-28 that he used on every song of his 2005 disc, Prairie Wind. Young also showcased “Hank” in the DVD Heart of Gold, a live Young performance at the Ryman Auditorium.

Young told biographer Jimmy McDonough, when asked if he was preaching in his song “Southern Man”, Neil Young retorted: “No. I’m warning. ‘Southern Man’ was more than the South—I think the civil rights movement was sorta what that was about. The far North and the deep South are not very different. They’re extremes. Look at Robbie Robertson—an Indian from Canada who wrote a lot about the deep South…”

Young’s albums, Harvest, Comes A Time, Harvest Moon, Silver & Gold and even a couple songs from his latest CD, Spirit Road, contain a strong country music sound Young always pursued. These days, Young continues recording vital music as well as working with Willie Nelson on Farm Aid, searching ways to utilize Bio-Diesel and promoting his latest film Déjà vu, which explores America’s emotional division regarding the war in the Iraq…which crosses over all state-lines…

The Band

Arkansas native Levon Helm served as the soulful nucleus in The Band. Once Ronnie ‘The Hawk’ ’Hawkins’ back-up group, The Band went on to record with just about everyone in the music business during the 70s. Helm’s formative musical years was spent listening to Memphis radio, playing country, blues and rockabilly with musicians such as Conway Twitty, Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson.

In his book, This Wheels On Fire, Helm wrote about the days when they toured with Hawkins in a route that traveled from Canada to Arkansas: “But when we got back down south, we almost immediately got homesick for Canada again. A lot of honky-tonks we played were run by gangsters. They weren’t supposed to have liquor licenses, so these places were under someone else’s name. It was often hard to get paid after a night’s work. Times were rough, and money was so scarce we had to carry what ‘The Hawk’ called an Arkansas credit card: a siphon, a length of rubber hose, and a five-gallon can. The only way we could get from one date to the next was by siphoning off our customers gasoline while they were still inside drinking. The Hawk told people he was the only rock and roll singer to perform every night with chafed lips from sucking gas.”

The Band incorporated southern-style musical tones into their own brand of homespun music. A classic example of The Band’s crystallization of ‘Americana’ can be heard on songs they recorded with Bob Dylan at their Big Pink house titled The Basement Tapes. A soul echoes in their songs…they’re honorary southern musicians just for the skilled emotions they conveyed in tunes such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Up On Cripple Creek”, “Rag Mama Rag” and “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show”. The Band carried the spirit of the South on every album.

The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones began their career paying homage to old blues musicians. They began as underdogs…a southern theme…and they exercised grace under fire during a legendary career. The Mick Jagger/Keith Richards songwriting team incorporated blues, country and R & B into their own un-mistakable sound. The most ruthless of all rock and roll bands, The Stones never strayed far from cutthroat blues. The Stones’ music casts a long and wide shadow on the music industry and fans alike. Their music represents a timeless cultural landscape. It seems only the Stones could survive wicked mojo of hellhounds on the trail, Satanic majesties and the dark path where an explanation for it all comes down to…it’s only rock and roll…

Keith Richards told Stanley Booth in a 1988 interview about The Stones’ southern musical influences when they set out on their first big English tour with their heroes: “...With Little Richard, Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers…This was our first contact with cats whose music we’d been playing. Hearing Little Richard and Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers every night was the way we’d been drawn to the whole pop thing. We didn’t feel we were selling out, because we were learning a lot by going this side of the scene—where audiences sat and listened and watched, instead of just dancing to it. That was when Mick really started coming into his own.”

Forget the cultural image they conjure these days, and go back and listen to everything The Rolling Stones recorded up until their 1972 album Exile On Main Street. Even these days, The Stones always inject country and blues into their set lists, and their discography speaks for itself…to deny The Rolling Stones as an essential contribution to the music world is to ignore the spirit of rock and roll. It would be nice to hear The Stones record a 2009-2010 country-blues collection of acoustic-based songs to remind everyone of southern music’s provenance, performed by these true legends of American music.

Clarence White

Although Clarence White was born in Maine, his tragic story and undeniable guitar-playing catapults him into The Honorary Southern Artist category. White’s work with The Byrds, Gram Parsons and The Kentucky Colonels forced even the greatest guitarists to acknowledge his talent.

His playing on The Byrds’ Untitled album and The Ballad of Easy Rider define his sound. White invented the B-bender, which now epitomizes an often-used country-hearted twang. When Clarence White was killed by a drunk driver at the peak of his powers, the music world lost a talented soul.



Tom Waits

Tom Waits derived much of his early inspiration from Johnny Mercer, Louis Armstrong, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Leadbelly. Throughout his career, Waits dabbled in jazz, country, and blues to engineer his own indefinable sound. His persona almost reminds one of some manic street preacher from The Book of Revelation. Waits also collaborated with the sinister beat writer William Burroughs on the disc The Black Rider.

When questioned about songwriting and originality, Waits cut to the chase in a 2006 interview when he stated: “Most people are doing bad impersonations of other singers. That’s all I’m doing. James Brown, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan—people like that, rolled into one. You can’t really sound like anybody other than yourself. In the attempt to sound like somebody else, slowly you start sounding like yourself. That’s your journey as an artist, to find out who you are.”

Waits delved into the mythological folklore from the south as a vehicle for his own original musical storytelling. His songs inspire artists from any genre, which places him in the honorary southern echelon. Waits’ albums Closing Time, Swordfishtrombones, Frank’s Wild Years, Small Change, Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, Mule Variations and Orphans captures the brilliance of Waits’ powers at their zenith.

Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia ranks as an honorary southern artist not only because of his early affinity for bluegrass musicians, but his later music pursuits of jazz, folk, country and blues music that served as the backbone to The Grateful Dead’s sound. The Grateful Dead and Garcia collaborated with a variety of diverse musicians such as Merl Suanders, David Grisman and jazz legend Ornette Coleman, along with a long list of others.

In 1982 Garcia provided his perspective on a southern artist that proved quite influential in his guitar-playing. “The way I hear myself is that I hear my influences, to some extent, in myself…I’ve been influenced by people where I haven’t been influenced by the notes they played, but the attitude, the gesture—the other part of it. The substance rather than the form. Like (John) Coltrane. I’ve been influenced a lot by Coltrane, but I never copped his licks or sat down and listened to records and tried to play his stuff. I’ve been impressed with that thing of flow, and of making statements that to my ears sound like paragraphs; He’ll play along stylistically with a certain kind of tone, in a certain kind of syntax, for X amount of time, then he’ll like, change the subject, then play along with this other personality coming out, which really impresses me…”

Even Garcia’s lyricist—Robert Hunter—wrote indelible songs that evoked images of old America that continued the traditions of storytelling which resonated even more when blended with Garcia’s music. The Grateful Dead’s album Workingman’s Dead remains proof of Garcia’s musical navigation to the heart of The Old South…and The Old West…

Look for the next volume of The Mystery And Manners' Honorary Southern Artist soon…

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