June 18, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Justin Gage has impressive credentials. He helms one of the most lauded music blogs on the planet, Aquarium Drunkard; runs a record label, Autumn Tone Records (which has put out albums by J. Tillman, Le Switch, and others); DJs weekly on Sirius; and regularly promotes shows not only in southern California but also nationwide.
Along with his wife Melissa, Justin has created the ultimate travel guide to the Mississippi Delta, Memphis & the Delta Blues Trail: A Complete Guide. Southerners by birth, the Gages capture the spirit of the Delta not only through its music, but also through its food, lodgings, history, attractions, and most importantly, its people.
In October of 2007 my wife and I set out from Los Angeles on what would become the first of four research trips to the Mississippi Delta to research our travelogue/guidebook on the Delta Blues Trail. All told, we traveled around the region approximately two and half months; the longest, six-week stretch ended on May 30th 2008. For those unaware, the Mississippi Delta is famously said to begin in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel, in Memphis, TN, and end on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, MS. That’s a loose approximation to be sure, but close enough for government work.
Outside of Memphis, the majority of our travels were off the beaten path – scratch that, many of the locales we scouted out were straight up off the grid, found only by word of mouth. One night we would find ourselves in a dilapidated, rusted out, juke joint down an unmarked dirt road surrounded by cotton fields, and the next, we’d be crashing in a 150-year-old manse on the Mississippi river. Bob Dylan laments the death of American regionalism is his memoir Chronicles Vol. I, but I can assure you that it is alive and well in the Delta. Maybe not for too much longer, but right now you can get in your car, get off the main highway, and time travel without the time machine. There is a reason the area is known as the most Southern place on earth.
Needless to say, that is a lot of time in the car. While the basis of the book is the blues and its surrounding culture, we purposely limited how much we listened to the genre in the car to avoid ear fatigue (you have to remember we were seeing live blues almost every other night). The fortuitous advent of Satellite radio and the iPod were not lost upon us. Being that my wife and I are both Georgia ex-pats who have been holing up in California the past 8 years, we relished the opportunity to spend some time in the Deep South, and the music I remember listening to on constant rotation in the car stereo reflects our nostalgia. Below is a short list of audio that made all of those long roads seem just a little bit shorter.
I’m 33 and grew up 65 miles from Athens, GA. Not surprisingly, R.E.M. is about as embedded in my musical DNA as any one band possibly could be. I don’t know about the rest of the country, but as a kid in the eighties, the band’s music was a mainstay on the rock radio station, and not just after they signed on to Warner Brothers for the “Green” LP, but at least as far back as “Life’s Rich Pageant.” Driving around those windy backroads in TN, AR and MS, with the trees all covered in thick kudzu, I instinctually reached for R.E.M. After repeatedly listening to the three or so albums loaded on my iPod (I think Murmur, the Chronic Town EP, Fables of The Reconstruction and Document were on there), I cued up the iTunes store in a Jackson, MS hotel room and purchased both Green and Reckoning. In 2009, it is easy to forget how Southern this band was during the IRS years. Eccentric and nearly perfect. The drawl and mumble of Stipe’s voice on those early records played out as the soundtrack while shooting photos and taking notes on dilapidated train tracks, rolling cotton fields, burned-out buildings in fading towns, soul food restaurants, BBQ pits, speakeasies, jook houses, riverboats, blues halls and bookstores.
Jazz, soul, blues, folk, country and rock & roll were in constant rotation in my home growing up, and this compilation feels like a bouillabaisse of all of these genres. If you’re not familiar, these collections round up session work the guitarist participated in prior to his work with the Allman Brothers. Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs, Johnny Jenkins, Delaney & Bonnie and many other heavy-hitters make appearances throughout. We must have listened to these CDs at least twenty times. Duane’s slidework on the neck of his guitar followed us around the Delta – so clearly influenced by the ghosts of the bottleneck blues players who now lay in the earth. This is a road trip album if there ever was one.
Caveat Emptor: I host a weekly show on the indie rock station SIRIUS XMU. As I mentioned earlier, the Delta is a region unto its own. You would be hard pressed to find a Starbucks, generic chain restaurants or enormous multi-plex movie theaters. In their stead, you have mom-and-pop establishments that outshine their franchise competitors every time. It would be naïve to think that this is all positive, as the region’s soft economy is the major reason the Delta has yet to be corporatized. Having satellite radio was a way to slip out of the region when one either needed to, or wanted to. When not reading the maps, asking directions or listening to music, we often tuned into news and politics channels. It was not until this trip that I fully grasped just how much of CNN is just looped and repeated over and over and over again. Being in such a rural area without losing a radio signal every thirty minutes was more than appreciated.
Being a voracious consumer of music, I not surprisingly picked up a good bit of music throughout our travels. This included CDs purchased post-show from old bluesmen, box sets from defunct regional labels, oddities and obscurities and a handful of compilations. Probably the one that received the most spins while driving was the he Rough Guide to Delta Blues that I picked up at Cat Head in downtown Clarkdale, MS. Released in 2002, the compilation rounds up a wide range of Delta blues tunes, from luminaries like Son House, Robert Johnson and Charley Patton to those who took up the mantle like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. At 24 tracks, this comp is the aural equivalent to the humid, cotton-strewn lands that gave birth to the genre so many decades ago. Those interested in a Delta blues primer could do much worse than beginning here.
Rolling Stones – Exile On Main Street
Really, there is not much more one can add to the storied legacy/legend of the Stones 1972 murky masterpiece. Sure, it was recorded in France, but this album has the South’s fingerprints all over it. This is an album that sounds like an illicit Delta roadhouse. A staggering juke joint. It swings, it dips, falls down drunk and gets back up. A soul survivor. There were many a late night out on Highway 61 when this album was playing on the stereo with the windows rolled down and a chorus of crickets chiming in. And it sounded just as good the next morning when we would turn the car on in search of a big Delta breakfast, or in the afternoon hitting up those famed and mysterious Mississippi tamale stands. Some albums you can listen to over and over again. This is one of them, and I can’t think of a better place to press play than deep in that Mississippi Delta.
Justin Gage and Memphis & the Delta Blues Trail: A Complete Guide links:
also at Largehearted Boy: