Beige Like Folk: America Sings the Mumford Hymns

October 11, 2012

Late September 2012, the headphones blew up with bliss for a new ear-candy kiss. Listening to the new release since before dawn, I prayed over the computer keyboard and wrote on Facebook that I was drinking my Mumfords and listening to my morning coffee. The mixed-up metaphor did not require correction. Mumford and Sons make us all feel connection to a power greater than ourselves. The sophomore album Babel stands out in a season of great albums to sustain community, explain self, and maintain spirit.

That first week of Fall, I couldn’t walk anywhere on the college campus where I work without someone asking me about the new Mumford disc. The students were excited to share these epiphanies with me, knowing I was a veteran of five Mumford shows: two Bonnaroos, one Ryman, a Railroad Revival in New Orleans, and most recently, Gentlemen of the Road in Bristol. Stuck at the top of the charts as the best-selling record of the year, Babel brings the wild news that folk is once again the new pop and that these Brits are the best American band.

Recent drops by native sons Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, or Old Crow Medicine Show no- doubt dial-in to the same Americana revival at the intersection where folk meets rock and pop and country, but in some strange turn that’s similarly brought us Beatles, Stones, and U2, the United States of Listening Sensibility hinges on the rustic banjo sting of how an American idiom gets interpreted by inspired imports. When the pseudo-hobo train-hopping meets the prep-schooler’s chart-topping, the popular culture gets soaked in sepia-tinted photographs and earth-toned authenticity. Not dayglo but khaki, not shimmery sheen but olive green, not sky blue like jazz but Carhartt beige like folk. Plain but filled with platitude, not ashamed of gratitude.

A common conversation on Twitter and Facebook confirms the conviviality and convergence of our Mumford moment. Our ears and spirits reconnect as our souls get drenched in rocking banjos and redemptive blood. The Mumford mania soaks folks in biblical imagery, but an audience doesn’t mind spiking the communion grape juice or spicing the faith journey with ferocious f-bombs. Mumfords make postmodern hymns as dusty as Dylan but as dangerously contemporary as anything hip hop or techno could hope for.

The backlash against Babel has been thankfully confined to the crustiest snarks inside the rock critic intelligentsia whose cries of boring conservatism cannot put a dent in our boisterous sing-alongs, infectious memes circulating and myths percolating from campus dorm shaking to car stereo shouting. The record by no means condones or upholds the ubiquity of Babylon; rather, it humbly confronts the greed and the pride of walls that will either crumble of their own weight or be torn down by hands like ours.

The Mumford formula finds strength in weakness, finds voice in “grace and choice.” This isn’t Top 40 gospel; it’s the gospel gathering enough acoustic confidence to occupy the Top 40 with a holy cup of folkster fury. This isn’t the stuff of superficial sin cities but sinners confessing sins and setting out “to serve the Lord.” These whispers in the dark are screaming at dawn: this isn’t your only chance, but by gosh, the Mumfords suggest, don’t blow it. Forgive but don’t forget. Live and love for today. Don’t burn out or fade away.

For a pop culture perched atop imaginary towers of narcissism, Mumford and Sons offer a vigorous valley of profound patience for the people bred towards impatience and instant gratification.

Kneel. Wait. Touch the ground. Forgive. Tweak your head to touch your heart. This is holistic hootenanny for the fragmented and fractured. Sure, it’s not the return of the 70s “freak folk” as the Brit-crits blithely badger the sons of an evangelical revival, but this summer-camp altar-call is freaking phenomenal. The fans of psychedelic folk may look elsewhere; the mind-altering nature of God always makes the strictly secular cultural guardians uncomfortable.

As we surmise, an instant classic takes us by surprise. The 21st century update to “Freebird” is another “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” another arm-waving set from a quartet qualified to sing about Jesus and release cover songs by American 60s greats without them winking or us cringing.

Ghosts and hope, lovers and light, feet and knees, haste and wander: the poetry drips like a waterfall,  melts ice after a deep freeze, flips a switch to the turn the lights back on inside a cynical self, rips like a roatrip waiting for a thousand sunrises. Don’t confuse their earnest yearning with clobbering certainty, though, for these are songs for serving and learning, not turning or burning.

Lest people perceive this soaring universalism and spiritual populism as some kind of creepy uptight piety, it seems the band members themselves are hardly as serious as the songs. From a distance, it even looks like they are robust partiers sipping the strong stuff, even though this listener-fan-reviewer loves the fact that even the debut Sigh No More came out after I got sober. Never having heard the Mumfords while drunk serves me forever strong and singing along, a tall glass of cold water or mug of hot coffee for the sunniest of sainted and dry intoxications.

The rock n roll inside this folk revival insists to roll us and persists to save us. No sea of quiet or army of acoustic can hide the arena-worthy aspects, and frankly, the kids fighting to find tickets will find some peace when these gents offer shows in giant venues. Don’t believe any of the negative hype and remain a believer.

This album gives and gives and forgives, nothing shy of the soundtrack to your savory living, a constant reminder of hope’s fire and your heart’s desire. Nothing about Babel can be construed as a step backward, and even for those who claim they’re just treading water, they are treading water in a soul-thrilling river Jordan for the Facebook generation, where our ears get perpetually baptized and our fears have forever capsized. –Andrew William Smith, Editor



Moved Like a Mountain by Blue Like Jazz

April 16, 2012

Even though the writers and directors and actors don’t know me, Blue Like Jazz (the movie!) takes my entire life story of falling-away-from and back-to-faith and packs it into two hours of screen time and two semesters of rebellious soul-searching debauchery at Reed College in Oregon.

Writer Donald Miller (who is an alt-rock boy-version of Anne Lamott or Mary Karr) and Jesusy-grunge-rocker-turned-film director Steven Taylor (not to be confused with Steven Tyler or several other people with the same name) have collaborated to create an authentic celluloid memoir and arthouse filmic calling card for the post-counterculture joy and hope of the emerging church.

Blue Like Jazz chronicles the coming-of-age of an intelligent nonconformist falling from faith and wrestling with truth and temptation. Blue Like Jazz is the inverse of  a flick like Saved which uses humor and love to look at kids being atheist, sexually active, or queer at an arch-fundamentalist Christian high-school. Blue Like Jazz flips the script and sends an emotionally vulnerable and questioning Christian into the throbbing drum machine of the secular anti-Jesus, the beer-and-recreational buzz-soaked campus where DIY-everything and far-left performance-art flashmobs are only part of a philosophically deep and politically ponderous hedonism.

Not dissimilar from all the DIY-grassroots hilarity and politically-left righteousness that seals the sexy appeal of places like Reed (okay, I went to Antioch in Yellow Springs for about a year in 86-87), Blue Like Jazz itself is the beneficiary of a DIY-movement. The closing credits list names and names of people who helped fund the project via What a statement of community that is!

Blue Like Jazz should make fundamentalists and fringe freaks equally uncomfortable— because with blistering indy-rock dramedy it bites back both at far-right hypocrites and at leftish existential heathens. But mostly, Blue Like Jazz might move you, even if you don’t identify so severely and seriously and eerily as I do. It surely moved me like a mountain as it moved to me to weep—first at the folly of worshiping at the altar of a juicy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll and finally at the folly of the cross and following faith to find Jesus a second time on the other side of the hangover.

I laughed hard and cried hard at all the versions of myself that I found in Miller’s altered-for-screen versions of himself. Here’s hoping this doesn’t get too pigeonholed as only-fit for high-school and college-age youth-group outings. This movie is meant to mean more to more kinds of people, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. —Andrew William Smith, editor


Coming Full Circuital: Jacket Jams Monastic & Fantastic

June 6, 2011

The review-as-press-release-quipping-common-wisdom concerning the rock kings of the Kentucky hills on their sixth studio release implies that it’s the “return to their roots record” – that is, the return to hairy masculine pyrotechnic roots rock in reaction to the fairly fairy funky flourishes of Evil Urges. Perhaps it’s that – but it’s more than that.

With the many philosophical readings of the album’s title (and title track) Circuital shaking the trees of Appalachia, there’s no doubt that this record rides a wide river of meaning. Thus, the return to form returns to being born – not so much a return to their roots, but a return to our roots, to the roots of humanity, to the circuit of life where a tribe of earthlings does their “Victory Dance” of simply waking up to the “First Light” of a spiritual reality.

With his monkish humility, muppet mop, and wizard’s beard, Jim James has always rocked his frontman mystique like a renegade mystic, peddling rock n roll parables and koans of a Zen Jedi sensibility with sudden doses of Jesus and the devil thrown in to keep us guessing. Churning out albums and tours “on the circuit” like a fiery preacher or rodeo star matches work ethic with a wandering wisdom and yearning for greater truth, beauty, and freedom.

Culminating the band’s career to this point, Circuital could be listened to as a coherent religious statement, a new testament of a band’s enduring magic and magnificence on the edge of midlife maturity. In our world’s menu-driven kaleidoscope of easy downloads and fleeting fads, My Morning Jacket craft an old school and epic modernity, full-length albums worth dusting off the headphones and turning off the lights for, for focused and mellow front-to-back sonic contemplation.

My Morning Jacket are a band that give me hope that “The Day Is Coming” when all our splicing and dicing of contemporary music subgenres will collapse back into the more generous and inclusive categories of rock and pop, where music’s communal impulses will return us to our primary purposes of improving our world. Listening to “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” – a song that’s been in the Jacket & James’s live sets for some time now – I cannot help but want it to become the campfire classic of the 21st century, a sort of New Age mantra-mashup where “Kumbaya” meets “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” It’s a glorious track of holy hummin’ and strummin’ that’s always existed in the heart and that I can’t imagine ever growing tired of.

I don’t know about you, but this Jacket fan had more than a few demons I had to get “Outta My System” over my years of indulging in the seedier sides of the music scene. Today, this charming track could be listened to with humility or nostalgia by some fans and as a warning to others, cautioning both against prodigal excess and excesses of piety. The sudden switch to the slick, sick, and slinky jam of “Holdin’ Onto Black Metal” keeps reminding us about the dark side even as it ages into a humorous and health distance from it. This record dances in the deeper grooves, all about a band growing up before our ears and eyes, gifting us with lessons about growing up.

With abiding respect for rock’s many rivers progressing toward an ocean of awesome, My Morning Jacket tap twinkly and tweaky sources of playful genius and balance these with reverence for songcraft, cultural evolution, and spiritual awakening. Their popular progress has been steady and slow and while not as gargantuan as peers like Fleet Foxes or Kings of Leon or any of the Jack White projects, they remain my favorite of the 21st century bands for their courageous sincerity and complex simplicity. This is a circuit I’ve been on since 2006, and one I’d like to stay on with the band for as long as they’re working it and bringing us back to the place where we all began and begin again.

–Andrew William Smith, Editor (Circuital was released on Tuesday, May 31. Visit

Combination, Collaboration, Liberation: The Best Music of 2010

January 1, 2011

Each employing different methods of compiling and listing, Interference editors and webzine writers bring you some “Best Of 2010 musical picks.

Luke Pimentel, Editor

5. LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening

4. The Walkmen, Lisbon

3. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs

2. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma

1. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor

Colin Alford, Contributing Writer

The End of ’10: A Music Fan’s Favorites

It’s the end of December, so its the time of year when music fans nitpick, bicker, and argue heatedly over what should be considered “the best”.  Personally, I spent most of 2010 with 2009′s albums in heavy rotation, so I’m not qualified to judge what was best this year.  Since most of the albums I bought will end up being praised on various high traffic blogs or large circulation magazines, I’ve decided to skip the critic in me and write as a music fan.  Few of the records I picked up this year were acutely memorable; therefore, I am limiting my list to songs only.  So without further ado, here’s my 2010 aural report.

Mac Miller – “Outside”

I’m not typically a fan of rap and hip-hop.  I’m also not overly enthusiastic about songs singing the praises of the drug culture.  However, Mac Miller’s ode to the blithe and bucolic days of youth always puts a bounce in my step and a smile on my face.  The best songs make a synesthete out of even the tone deaf, and “Outside” vividly conjures sunny, Southern days spent sliding on creek beds and warm, summer nights on back porches with coolers full of beer and the best of company.

Jamey Johnson – “Can’t Cash My Checks”

For many of us, the last years of the “naughties” will be remembered as a time when money was itself a luxury item.  Jamey Johnson’s album, The Guitar Song, perfectly captures the fear and uncertainty present throughout the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Especially haunting is his song “Can’t Cash My Checks.”  On the chorus, Johnson moans, “You can’t cash my checks/And you can’t feel this hunger/You can push me into the water/ But you can’t hold me under.”  During a time when the middle class is shrinking, the poignancy of Johnson’s lyrics transcend the class lines typically drawn by country music, making this song a true work of art if only for its timeliness.

Yeasayer – “Ambling Alp”

If Hell were personalized, mine would be a room with The Breakfast Club on eternal loop while a man in spandex with big hair played me songs composed on his keytar synthesizer.  That being said, Yeasayer’s retro infused romp through the 80′s, “Ambling Alp”, has been the most repeated song on my stereo this year.  The gooey, flashback inducing intro is instantly memorable, and the drum beat, hook and melody sound like they were stolen from Phil Collins’s wet dreams.  If you like your sugary sweet pop music with more than a dallop of reverb and a side of sawtooth leads, this song is sure to satisfy.

Arcade Fire – “Modern Man”

I have finally reached the age when many of my friends have graduated, have real jobs, are married, and have kids.  So when I first heard Arcade Fire’s newest album, The Suburbs, I was intensely moved.  “Modern Man” is the track that stands out the most, as it epitomizes the angst only the aging young can have about their lives.  The vocal performance bellows the urgent dread of becoming numb to youthful passions while the guitar hook is pure, juvenile pop.  Though the album ultimately closes the chapter on the frivolity of juvenescence, this song encapsulates what it feels like to be stuck in the mire that is growing up.

Josh Ritter – “Another New World”

If there was ever a musician who deserved the title of poet, it is Josh Ritter.  His 2010 release includes what will undoubtedly be his lyrical masterpiece, “Another New World.”  Using the same meter as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, Ritter crafts a story of adventure, intrigue, heartbreak, and ultimately despair through a captain and his beloved ship, the Annabel Lee.  In 7:39, Ritter amalgamates the best of 18th century Romantic literature into a single song.  This gothic horror version of Captain Ahab cannot be topped by any of the best 1960′s folk songs.

Far East Movement – “Like A G 6″

Every year, Top 40 radio never fails to provide me with a guilty pleasure.  While Kesha kept me busy last year and most of this year, “Like A G 6″ quickly became my favorite way to feel guilty when I heard it last month.  The simple, repetitive beat raises my primal urge to move, and there is something oddly sexy about the boozy, nonchalant vocal delivery on the chorus.  I have no idea what the lyrics say nor inclination to find out, but I’m sure that the Far East Movement will keep my head bobbing into the new year.

Amelia Tritico, Contributing Writer

I’m an avid music listener, but it takes me a while to warm up to the current musical trends, so much so that I’m usually at least one year behind.  For example, though “Gold Digger,” by Kanye West debuted in 2005, it didn’t show up on my radar until 2009.  Yeah, that’s how far behind I am.  I like to look at it as me savoring what I am listening to.  This year, I’ve become enamored with the Glee Season 1 soundtrack, The Best of Etta James and all things Southern Rock.  Just to show that I’m not completely out of the loop, however, I have complied a list of my top albums of 2010.    (These albums were actually released this year, and these artists are actually current.)

My Top Albums of 2010 (in no particular order)

Ray LaMontagne and The Pariah Dogs – God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise

I’ll always be a fan of this guy.  This album is little bit rootsier than his previous albums and definitely a big step away from the horns-driven “You Are The Best Thing.”  Nevertheless, it’s beautiful in its own rite.  My favorite track is “New York City’s Killing Me,” but the rest follow suit right up to “The Devil’s in the Jukebox.”

The Dirty Guv’nahs – Youth Is In Our Blood

This album takes number one for my summer jams!  I dare you to listen to “We’ll Be the Light,” “Baby We Were Young” and “It’s Dangerous” without at least tapping your foot.  Expect great things from these guys in the future.  Six intelligent, passionate guys from Knoxville, Tenn. on a mission to show people what rock ‘n’ roll is really about.  It’s feel-good music at its very best with life lessons snuck in when you least expect it.

Cee Lo Green – The Lady Killer

A little out of place in my top albums, Cee Lo Green’s The Lady Killer made the top cut for me simply because I just love R&B.  There’s a lot of good, modern R&B out there, but I’m a sucker for the artists that hint at throwbacks while creating amazing, new music.  I really feel Cee Lo Green hit the nail on the head with this album.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals – Grace Potter & The Nocturnals

Potter first caught my attention a few years ago with This Is Somewhere, so I anxiously anticipated the release of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals. I definitely wasn’t disappointed.  With more polished lyrics and punchier melody lines, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals have established themselves in the world of rock ‘n’ roll and aren’t going away anytime soon.

Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues

Earle is my completely new artist for 2010.  I had never even heard of him until I was asked to write a review of Harlem River Blues. One listen through the album, and I was hooked.  “One More Night In Brooklyn,” was stuck in my head for at least a week, and “Christchurch Woman,” has that repeat button quality.  Great album overall!

Carole King and James Taylor – Live At The Troubadour

Okay, you got me, the material on this album isn’t exactly new, but it’s refreshing that after fifty-plus years of making music for King and forty-plus years for Taylor, they still have that special spark.  All my favorites from both of them were on the album, and that’s why it made my top albums of 2010.

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Though I haven’t quite caught the Mumford & Sons fever, yet, I have listened to the album a few times through.  I am in tune enough to know that these guys are huge.  I’m sure I will love them by this time next year.  Talented blokes from England that have a knack for literature through song, how could I not end up loving them eventually?

She & Him – Volume Two

Volume Two continues the mission of Volume One: create simple music while paying homage to those who created simple music before them.  Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have a knack for creating great music.  I didn’t like Volume Two quite as much as I liked Volume One, but I liked it enough to look forward to hearing Volume Three should they decide to make it, and I hope they do.

Andrew William Smith, Editor

I’d have to say that 2010 was another great year for new music. This list comes in the form of an annotated playlist that includes the artist, a song, the album release date, all followed by a brief comment on the music’s emotional/spiritual impact on my life.

Kanye West–Lost In The World (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, released November 22, 2010) Without weighing in on the layers of love, hate, and hype that surround Mr. West, “I’m lost the World/I’m new in the city” captures a year of much transformative transition for me where the angels and devils of reality revealed their faces oh-so-clearly.

Cee Lo Green – Old Fashioned (The Lady Killer, released November 5, 2010) In a century where old-school has felt entirely fresh, it’s hard not to get intoxicated by records that sound this timeless.

Yeasayer – I Remember (Odd Blood, released February 8, 2010) A hidden spring gurgles up tribal memories for the future, narrating liberation and romance as it goes down, outside my head and in my headphones.

Jonsi – Go Do (Go, released April 5, 2010) Euphoric Icelandic vegetarian falsetto sings in English what could easily be the anthem for my life (and also, apparently, for car commercials) on an album of sweet affirmation. “You will survive we´ll never stop wonders/You and sunrise will never fall under/We should always know that we can do anything.” May it be so! And what are we waiting for?

Sufjan Stevens – Now That I’m Older (The Age of Adz, released October 12, 2010)

Wisps of wisdom, whispers of reflection, and in this refraction, I finally got infected by Sufjan’s vision. Impending maturity feels better by the day.

Frightened Rabbit – Swim Until You Can’t See Land (The Winter of Mixed Drinks, released March 1, 2010) An anthem and epiphany of letting go and moving on. Song still moves after multiple listens. Listen: “Swim until you can’t see land/Are you a man or are you a bag of sand?/Up to my knees now, do I wait? Do I dive?” And finally: “Let’s call me a baptist, call this the drowning of the past.”

Band Of Horses – Evening Kitchen (Infinite Arms, released May 18, 2010) Crafted songcrafters come crisply into cozy maturity, singing songs that linger on the soul, leaving a sweet aftertaste of truth: “And if you’re ever left with any doubt/What you live with and what you’ll do without/I’m only sorry that it took so long to figure out.”

Kings Of Leon – Pickup Truck (Come Around Sundown, released October 19, 2010)When I moved to the mid-south from the midwest in the mid-90s, I had no idea that our music city would become the icon of rock that it is. These kings follow the footsteps of the king and give good guilty pleasure and hometown pride.

J Roddy Walston And The Business – Used To Did (J Roddy Walston And The Business, released on July 27, 2010) I “used to did,” but “now I didn’t.” Tell it like it is (!) in balls loose lightning boogie.

The Black Keys – Next Girl (Brothers, released on May 18, 2010) On Brothers, the Keys get honest, and so must I: as in life, so in love, we make mistakes, and we move on. I am so glad that I too got another chance.

John Mellencamp – No Better Than This (No Better Than This, released August 17, 2010) It defies and fulfills logic that the same man who thrilled the radio with “Hurt So Good” or “Jack and Diane” some three decades ago would be a wise-and-fit elder and prophetic poet of a country-church-meets-hotel-room Americana. Go John.

Robert Plant – Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down (Band of Joy, released September 14, 2010) Traditional and medicinal, this magical hymn makes amends and bends the narrative. Nothing against Zepheads pining for a reunion, but these Nashville-fueled folk-fusions bury the dead of that epic past with a musical dawn we all hope will last.

Laura Marling – Devil’s Spoke (I Speak Because I Can, released March 22, 2010) Forget all notions that folk this good, this haunting, and this beautiful is all pentangled up in the past. Marling moves the mountain of your soul with her sole sincerity and stunning singing.

Ray LaMontagne And The Pariah Dogs – Devil’s In The Jukebox (God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise, released August 17, 2010) Maple syrup slips on an old mountain road as Ray rips Joe Cocker-croons about yellow moons, a slinky serenade with slow sexy steam—kitchen kicking summer soundtrack still soothes on winter playback.

Delta Spirit – Devil Knows You’re Dead (History From Below, released June 8, 2010) Give a man a roof and road and a lyric sheet to pen eulogies like this.Matt Vasquez visualizes with his mouth a musical truth outside time but for our times and of our time. I am honestly surprised this record has not found a wider audience and a higher acclaim.

The Tallest Man On Earth – Burden of Tomorrow (Wild Hunt, released April 13, 2010) Gritty folksinger Kristian Mattson is “carving riddles,” and we are fed when we listen.

Justin Townes Earle – Workin’ for the MTA (Harlem River Blues, released September 13, 2010) Just his name conjures a jones for his voice, Justin Townes Earle owns retro folkabilly with metro sensibility and sears the ears and banishes fears.

Ryan Bingham – The Weary Kind (Crazy Heart Soundtrack, January 19, 2010) Bingham brings it on this song and on his album Junky Star. I began the year in a ball of tears in an almost-empty Nashville movie house on a weekday afternoon. We drove an hour to see a film which unrolled our lives on celluloid. This song won an Oscar for its plaintive summary of the alcoholic artist’s path. It sounds so sad, but its message is ultimately so hopeful.

Mumford & Sons – Roll Away Your Stone (Sigh No More, released February 16, 2010) On the hottest and dustiest of afternoons that would be Bonnaroo, I crammed to the front of the tent to sing this song out-loud with a few thousand other frenetic fans. Like so many other songs this year, the lyrics here say what I am thinking before I think, tapping my feelings with profundity: “It seems that all my bridges have been burned/But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works/It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart/But the welcome I receive with the restart.”

Anais Mitchell – Why We Build The Wall (Hadestown, released March 9, 2010) Duets and collaborations remind that music is ultimately a community affair for campfires, barn-raisings, work parties, weddings, funerals, rallies, protests, and prophecies. Mitchell and an army of friends make it real for all-of-the-above-and-them-some, preachin’ it with such precise passion that we don’t mind her preachin’ about walls and how wars are never won and how poverty is the enemy.

Natalie Merchant – Peppery Man (Leave Your Sleep, released released April 13, 2010) While some critics cast aspersions at Merchant for getting too maternal and professorly on this dynamic and dissertationesqe collection, the combination of folk genres and folksy themes is anything but sleepy. When Natalie toured through Nashville and brought these songs to the Ryman Auditorium, she mentioned the powerful experience of working with our own gospel luminaries the Fairfield Four on this phenomenal track.

Mike Farris & The Cumberland Saints – Down On Me (The Night the Cumberland Came Alive, released October 26, 2010) Another great gift of the last year: further discovering rock-blues-gospel-Americana sparkplug Mike Farris and getting the spirit at the revival of his live shows. On this disc, a cast of collaborators (including the McCrary Sisters, daughters of the aforementioned Fairfield Four) and local champions take it to church (literally, in this live recording cut in a local sanctuary) to offer musical healing and Nashville flood relief.

Patty Griffin – Move Up (Downtown Church, released January 26, 2010) Mike Farris most likely got the idea to record at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church after collaborating on Patti Griffin’s deeply personal, heartfelt, and universally-appealing folk-gospel album simply called Downtown Church, one of many recent efforts to tastefully and dramatically bridge the indy-folk-Americana and traditional gospel genres.

Mavis Staples – Wrote A Song For Everyone (You Are Not Alone, released September 14, 2010) Getting “born again” (again!) as a Christian in middle age can really alter one’s music-listening-as-meditation habits, and I am so thankful for all the great gospel that crosses-over to indy and inclusive and intelligent, making an altar of sound in my heart and mind. Mavis Staples is a grand matron of rock-pop-gospel anthems, and this new record really earns an “Amen.”

Lizz Wright –I Remember, I Believe (Fellowship, released on September 28, 2010) Following in the steps of the Staples family tradition as well as that of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Lizz Wright spins so much sweet honey to soothe the sinner’s soul with a testimony towards salvation and liberation.

This playlist aired live on Monday, January 3 at 8pm CST on Teacher On The Radio on WTTU 88.5 FM in Cookeville, Tennessee.

“Elvis Presley & America”: Roadtrip Research Into The Myth & Mystery of the Man & His Fans

August 16, 2010

The King of rock and roll left us for the kingdom of heaven some 33 years ago today. To honor and better understand the myth, mystery, and man, I decided to embark on a research journey to a private Elvis museum followed by a visit to the Elvis Week festivities.

The hundred-degree swelter could have melted us, and a heat index even higher couldn’t stall a later-summer musico-historical mission to Memphis and northern Mississippi. When we arrived in the town of Holly Springs, the rain that misted the late August afternoon refused to cool.

And as we stood at the gorgeous and grotesque gates of Graceland, Too, our wanting the weather to cool proved a weak desire compared to the weirdness that awaited us.

As we knocked on the metal door, we resisted the urge to cut-and-run to the campground without even meeting the object of our pilgrimage. After waiting a spell, we paced the perimeter of the grounds.

All the covered windows blocked the outside light and life, and the potential eminence of the place presented a wrecked and weary luster, a limping passion that did not peddle its presence or market its meaning, like the overtly commercial Elvis industry we’d discover just to the north in Memphis.

Back at the front gate, the wait continued. I cracked the mail slot to catch a glimpse of the interior’s magnetism and a whiff of what the summer heat could do to the smell of a place like that. When we were finally greeted by our host, we offered our five-dollar donation without being asked and soon learned that he would not mind our documenting the entirety of the experience. Aside from the moldy mood and utterly unarchival nature of the place, aside from the religious refusal of daylight in a fantasyland where it’s always night, and aside from the monk I’ll call Mr. McLeod’s lack of a recent bath, it’s obvious that the King’s cult requires at least one devotee like this, a first father of fandom and funky folk culture.

McLeod’s magical interior insists on itself, in stacks of plastic totes and army lockers packed with his personal library, with the rest of the epic display a swampland Smithsonian of rock memorabilia, a three-dimensional collage and living hallucination of boyhood in old age. The Elvis souvenirs and artwork and clippings and costumes and kitsch that cover every inch of the shrine show us as much about the devout possession of fandom-as-monastic-vow as they do about the particular and universally cataloged object of obsession.

Each room of this decaying pop culture cathedral is a heartbreaking hotel on a lonely street because its only full-time resident is a father and former husband who has renounced his family and all ways of the outside world to build a private Elvis emporium. In the plushest part of the pad, he apparently sleeps on a tiny bed made on top of some portion of his extensive collection, placing himself prone before a shining altar of old-school, widescreen TVs (each connected to a VCR to capture any mention of Elvis on tape). He even had us read, as if it were holy scripture, from a three-ring binder that kept his log of Elvis-mentions on television.

A portal to the world he never sees, the array of video projections provides a living oracle to the outside and an almost demonic testimony to his disconnection and domestication. But the Elvis cult knows its place in an even larger cosmology, and at the sight of the glowing-lawn-Jesus in the Christmas room, McLeod informs us that he and Elvis both worship the real King.

In order to keep this shrine, his Taj Mahal of Elvisology, open 24-7 for 365, McLeod claims that the local police keep him cared for by visits and deliveries, fed as he suggests on a diet of pizza, carryout, and Coca-Cola. His lucid tour-guide rambling resembles speaking-in-tongues, fueled in part I imagine because he subsists on a case each day of the caffeinated-sugar juice, the perfect  communion beverage of an all-American pop culture church rooted in the gospel of Elvis.

If Elvis had a gospel, what would it be?  Would it be his songs and his movies? What about his cultural message and mythology? I’m admittedly not a card-carrying member of the Elvis cult or even a super-serious fan of his music the way I am a fan of other artists, but as a hardcore American music fan myself, I feel I need to learn a proper respect for his place in the history of rock and roll, for as Greil Marcus mentions in Mystery Train, “It is often said that if Elvis had not come along to set off  the changes in American music and American life that followed his triumph, someone very much like him would have done the job as well. But there is no reason to think this true, either in strictly musical terms, or in any broader cultural sense. It is vital to remember that Elvis was the first young Southern white to sing rock n roll, something he copied from no one but made up on the spot.”

Outside Graceland the next morning, the marquee of a Days Inn sported a John Lennon quote expressing a similarly proper honor: “Before Elvis there was nothing.”

On Saturday morning, we also saw runners finishing the Elvis week 5K race, a woman with extensive Elvis tattoos covering her otherwise naked shoulders, middle-aged men with Elvis hair and bulging midriffs who would open their mouths to emit Elvisesque mumbles, and a mall full of Elvis stores packed wall-to-wall with every imaginable thing of King bling. For a price, Elvis icons and Elvis images and Elvis clothes are all available to take home.

Often confused by the crude cheesy ubiquity of  the Elvis business or his eerie reputation as royalty, I sometimes forget the core essential that: a world without Elvis could have been a world without rock and roll as we know it, a world without so much that I love. Instead, I remember that the measure of the myth comes from the mysterious birth of a musical form that’s given the world so much unmeasurable joy. American music also gives the mixed message of American history a pure shot of much-needed social redemption. Borrowing from gospel, country, and blues, Elvis evoked a new America as his tunes cut a precious and permanent path through the old one.

Rejecting Chuck D’s assertion in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” that Elvisology is inherently racist, I accept U2’s utter fascination with Elvis as Americana itself — especially as expressed in tracks like “Elvis Presley and America,” “A Room at the Hearbreak Hotel,” “Elvis Ate America” or in the Memphis segments of Rattle and Hum.

Just as I split my Memphis-Mississippi excursion between the Elvis Week /“Elvis Everywhere” research and some political and spiritual soul food from the National Civil Rights Musuem and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, what rock and roll really represents is not white racist appropriation of black music but a truly integrated industry before that was common and an example of racial harmony during a period of racial tension.

That message began one of my last long weekends before a new semester at the Black Keys show in Nashville. Even though the band members from Akron, Ohio are ostensibly Caucasians, their most recent album was called Brothers for a reason. Popular music provides that place within a band or within a genre or even within one person where all the tensions of race and class temporarily transcend.

According to Marcus, Elvis was that kind of person, a living symbol of the American democratic spirit who “not only embodies but personalizes so much of what is good about this place” — especially “a love of roots and respect for the past” but also “the kind of racial harmony that for Elvis, a white man, means a profound affinity with the most subtle nuances of black culture combined with an equally profound understanding of his own whiteness.” –Andrew William Smith, Editor

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