Kudzu Kings: Ruling Funktry

Kudzu Kings began their reign on a stretch of Harrison Street that descends east of Lamar down to South 14th through and into Oxford’s arguably greatest band venue, fostering ground for a rockin’ Southern music culture.

At the top of the hill, Proud Larry’s; at the bottom, The Gin—the matriarch of Oxford’s bar scene—and in between was Ireland’s (later Murff’s, and now Frank & Marlee’s). While Ireland’s has been unjustly derided as a “blue-collar bar” and because of its lack of pretention (pool tables, dart boards, and Lance snacks) had its share of bubbas bellied up to the bar, at any given time you’d find people from all walks of life there swilling beer (among them Larry Brown) and at night listening to some of the best music in Oxford.

Singer and rhythm guitarist Tate Moore and bass player Dave Woolworth, affectionately known as “Kudzu Dave,” who had a weekly gig at Ireland’s, hooked up with electric guitarist Max Williams, formerly of The Mosquito Brothers, a New Orleans-style funk band. Williams drafted Mosquito Brothers drummer Chuck Sigler and keyboardist Robert Chaffe. “We merged both bands because Tate was playing with Dave, doing the acoustic thing,” Williams said. “So I was like, ‘Hey, I know some other cats that know how to play music, why don’t we just make a band out of it?’” They were soon joined by George McConnell, a co-founder of Beanland, Oxford’s premiere band during the late 80s and early 90s.

This lineup was the root of the Kudzu Kings (the origins of the name are a matter of dispute) in late 1994, and they soon spread up and down Harrison Avenue. “You know, what’s interesting was that it was really like ‘The Battle of Harrison Avenue’ for where the Kudzu Kings would play that week,” Moore said. “It was between the Gin, Ireland’s, and Proud Larry’s. I think there was actually a week or two when we played all three places.”

“We were still doing a house band sort of thing every week at Ireland’s, which was pretty much a bar locals went to, our friends,” Williams said. “But little by little the college kids started to realize how much fun it was, and they started coming too. Soon we had all kinds of people having fun and that’s when we started having to find places big enough for everybody.”

“It was Mondays at the Gin, Tuesdays at Ireland’s,” Chaffe said. “Every week, that was a given; Larry’s would be somewhere in the Thursday, Friday, Saturday mix. “We had a lot of gigs in the early days, and we developed a good chemistry early on. Packing the Library (a large venue west of the Square) came a bit later.”

The group has described their music as “funktry,” a unique version of syncopated country that nobody had really done before (“Except for maybe those groovy 70s era recordings from Willie Nelson,” Chaffe said), with an infusion of muddy New Orleans funk that got people moving. The lineage of Kudzu Kings is easily traced to The Tangents, a subject of legend across the state and beyond. The Tangents brought their own spectacular blend of blues, jazz, and rock to Oxford many times in the early 80s and sowed the seeds that sired Beanland.

“When I was with Beanland, we were trying to be the Tangents,” McConnell said. “With their soul, their camaraderie, their stage presence, they were a huge influence on me when I got here to Ole Miss in 1981, and when I caught them at the Gin, I was like, ‘Who ARE these guys?’ They were the Bad Boys from the Delta, man. They could play those old songs as well as anyone could, plus they did it with their own style. Beanland had some legendary shows with the Tangents at Syd & Harry’s; we’d swap sets, but they always closed the show and ended up mopping the floors with us. That carries on with the Kudzu Kings, so we’re going to do a couple of Duff’s songs, ‘Peace Lily of the Valley’ (about a bend in the Sunflower River) being one of them, another being ‘234’ (a room number at the Holiday Inn in Greenville).”

Kudzu Kings’ biggest early break came in 1996, when they opened for Widespread Panic at Mud Island in Memphis. “That’s when we fell into it,” Tate said. “I remember seeing Jeff Bransford backstage and he was like ‘Hey man, how did you guys swing this?’” They have shared the stage many times with Widespread Panic (McConnell eventually joined up with Widespread Panic in 2002, but has since left). Kudzu Kings toured together for almost ten years (1994–2003), garnering a significant following in their native South as well as in Colorado and Texas playing at several big music venues and sharing stages with the likes of Bob Weir, Leftover Salmon, Ratdog, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Junior Brown, and Aquarium Rescue Unit. The band has also collaborated with musicians such as Chris Etheridge, Bucky Baxter, John “Jojo” Hermann, Cody Dickinson, and Tony Furtado.

Kudzu Kings (1997), their debut CD, was produced by Grammy Award-winner Jim Gaines. In his review at Allmusic.com, Richard Foss said, “Picture in your mind a really good country band that has been playing the biker bar scene for a while. They’re tight and energetic and rowdy, and everybody works together really well. Now lock that band in a room with a whole bunch of Grateful Dead and Phish CDs and several dozen cases of beer, and tell them that they can only come out when the beer is gone and they have heard every album at least twice.” Foss called their music a mix of honky-tonk, country-rock, and jamming. “Many of the songs will be about getting drunk, getting laid, and being broke,” along with ones about relationships (“It’s a Play,” “Streetwalkin’”) and free verse set to music (“Amsterdam”), but Foss concedes that “the focus is on party music … The track that pushes this over the edge to greatness is ‘I Love Beer.’ ” Other crowd favorites are “Panola County Line” and “Mississippi Mud.”

By this time, Kudzu Kings were playing places such as the Varsity Theater in Baton Rouge, Tipitina’s in New Orleans and Newby’s in Memphis, as well as venues in Colorado such as The Fox and Boulder Theatres in Boulder and The Gothic Theater in Denver. Y2Kow (1999), the band’s second release, was co-produced by the band and Jeffrey Reed of Black Dog Records. By then the first of many changes in the lineup had taken place, with Ted Gainey replacing original drummer Chuck Sigler, and Bryan Ledford, a protégé of bluegrass musician Ed Dye, replacing Max Williams. Ledford brought an element of both bluegrass and gospel to the Kudzu Kings’ sound, and Y2Kow included new favorites like “Hangover Heart” and “Bound for Zion.”

After their watershed 2000 performance at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado—again opening for Widespread Panic—the Kudzu Kings found themselves at a crossroads. Resisting offers of a nation-wide tour, the band endured further lineup changes and decided to mostly book shows themselves. They toured heavily, but not for long. By 2003, the wear of nine years on the road was showing, the crowds were smaller, and a third album was cashiered. Since that time, the band’s members have for the most part moved on to other projects, but they still play together, keeping the brotherhood alive. While Proud Larry’s is going strong, the down Harrison Street scene is gone, but that sound lives on, and after twenty years, Kudzu Kings are bringing it back to Oxford with a show at the Lyric Theatre on Van Buren Nov. 28.

“I want to warn everybody that Dave Woolworth has gathered up jugglers, fire breathers, dancing girls, and nubile young ladies to serve drinks. Not only that, we’re holding a lottery for a tea cart we’ve been threatening to give away for years,” McConnell said. “We’re bringing in about every drummer we’ve ever played with, most all of the guitar players from over the years, lots of guests to sit in throughout the event, trying as best we can to begin with the songs we started with and move through the history of our music. We hope to show that there isn’t a band without progression.”

“This is the first time we’ve ever been really able to capture the group in all of is different phases,” Chaffe said. “Most of our former members are coming back, so it really feels like family when you go back twenty years and think about all the people that have gone in and out, all the relationships we’ve had. It’s going to be neat to bring this all together on an emotional level on top of the purely musical statement. I didn’t envision myself in Oxford twenty years later, but it just so happened that the relationships that were made as a direct result of being in this band have shaped my life in more ways than just the band itself.”

“It’s only been a good time,” Woolworth said. “In all marriages you grow, and when you’re a band, in a sense you’re married to everybody else. We’re still able to do things together. That’s exciting.”

All photos courtesy of Kudzu Kings.

Beanland: Rising from the Riverbed

With Beanland: Rising from the Riverbed, Scotty Glahn and Kutcher Miller have distilled the essence not only of a hot jam band but of a special milieu. beanland_imageArt fares best in an open forum, and in the 80s and early 90s no freer field could be found than in Oxford, Mississippi, where a variety of thriving businesses supported an eclectic marketplace for invention that Mississippi will never see the likes of again. In those halcyon days, Willie Morris, Barry Hannah and Larry Brown contributed their literary wattage to an arts scene already illuminated the bright musical lights of the Hilltops/Blue Mountain, the North Mississippi Allstars and, of course, Beanland. It was a heyday of the muses; throw in a couple of Jere Allen’s brilliant brushstrokes, and you have nothing short of a red clay Parnassus.

Rising from the Riverbed attempts to and largely succeeds in capturing the freewheeling, lackadaisical and somewhat dissipated spirit of that time and place. This achievement proves to be somewhat of a drawback, however, since the result is a roman à clef best appreciated by those who were there then and know or knew members of the cast of characters. It’s an insider’s view into a seminal period in the cultural life of Oxford. Interviews add to the film’s appeal (Barton made the cut). Nostalgia is not a bad thing, especially when it’s worked out so carefully and lovingly. Allow me to tip my hat to Glahn and Miller not only for recognizing Beanland as worthy of a broader stage, but also their foresight in documenting a very special time in a very special place.

http://risingfromtheriverbed.com

Saving Trumpet Records

309 Farish Street, the home of Trumpet Records, is a ruin.

Trumpet Records was the first record company in Mississippi to achieve national stature. The premiere releases by Mississippi blues legends Sonny Boy Williamson II, Elmore James and Willie Love appeared on Trumpet in 1951. Early Mississippi gospel and country artists also appeared on the Trumpet label.

The impact of Trumpet Records on American music has been profound and lasting, but the site of the studio is rapidly decaying. The building that housed this jewel in the crown of Mississippi music has not only lost its luster, but it’s become a dilapidated shell. While the roof and walls are intact, they’re barren and pitted, covered with patches of peeling paint and without windows, open to the erosive elements of weather.

Musician Sherman Lee Dillon is the driving force behind a group of people who seek to preserve and restore the building with an eye to commemorating Trumpet Records and its music. “What we’re trying to do is ensure that the old building where these legends laid down some the most famous tracks in Mississippi music is preserved. Maybe we can even to get some momentum going towards the restoration of Farish Street itself.”

Dillon notes that the 30-year efforts to restore the Farish Street District by massive infusions of public funding have stalled. “We think it’s worthwhile to give private initiative a chance.”

To that end, Dillon and his group have secured a lease on 309 North Farish Street, one of the few privately-owned properties in the Farish Street Historical District. Dillon said that he asked the owners not to lease or sell 309 Farish until he had an opportunity to restore it.

Sherman Lee Dillon
Sherman Lee Dillon

“They have stuck to their word for three years and not seriously entertained any other offers,” he said. “But I have not been able to find any pockets to get money from, and I am in not in a situation for matching funds. The city does nothing to support the project, even though the mayor drops by from time to time.  I can’t wait any longer. If I can’t get the money to restore it, Trumpet Records goes on the block.”

Dillon said that once the building is secured, he will work on creating a nonprofit business, a museum and a recording studio. “I am personal friends with musicians who have played with several Mississippi blues people, Johnny Taylor, Milton, Bobby Rush, Dorothy Moore, BB King and Albert King.” Dillon points out that while Trumpet had some national recognition, their recordings of local celebrities might be one of the most interesting aspects of the proposed museum.

“There are collections of ‘The Hillbilly Sides’, spirituals recordings, rock-a-billy recordings as well as blues recordings that connect to people still living in the area,” he said. “The singers and artists that didn’t quite have the combination to go national, are often the most fun,” he said. “These songs would be on a jukebox for people to sample and pictures of them people would be on the wall.”

“The problem is that there’s no money for restoration,” Dillon said. “The agreement I have with the owners is for two years’ rent, $48,000, paid in advance within 30 days. That money will be used exclusively for the restoration of 309. Any money that comes from the operation of 309 for the next two years will be to further the services of the restoration.

“All I can say is that if this doesn’t work, a golden opportunity has been missed.”

Details available at Save Trumpet Records

Rankin County Redux

During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became legendary as dazzling gathering places filled with music, dance, drink (and a few bullets, mind you), as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans. In Jackson, this glittering venue of vice and iniquity became known as the Gold Coast.

Also known as East Jackson, the Gold Coast was that area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Though it covered barely two square miles, it was nationally notorious. In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins, who declares, “There is no coast except the hog wallows of the river banks, but plenty of gold courses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”

Goins cites one Pat Hudson as the first to see the lucrative possibilities of booze and gambling near the junction of two federal highways (80 and 49) across the river from Jackson. Before then there was only a scattering of gas stations, hot dog stands and a few corn liquor peddlers. Then a certain Sean Seaney began selling branded liquor, and his place, called The Jeep, became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze. He was soon joined by others. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of order, but as soon as he cleaned out one place, another opened up. After he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.

This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. In December of 1936, Governor Hugh White ordered the National Guard into a business on the Pearl River where liquor was seized, but a Rankin County chancellor later ruled that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement. The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision and by that time the liquor was flowing again, but the governor, too, bided his time and did no more.

By the Forties, the Gold Coast had flowered into a vigorous black nightclub scene. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (one of the few hotels in the South that catered to Negros) with its famous “Off-Beat Room”, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others featured entertainment by national acts such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horn and Billy Holiday as well as local blues legends Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson. These establishments even ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate, including one that offered a “special bus” to the Gold Coast from Farish and Hamilton Streets.

By 1946, Rankin County was paying the highest black market tax in the state, but these golden years of the Gold Coast came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when club owner Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met each other at place called the Shady Rest only to gun each other down in a shootout. Their deaths spelled the end for the old Gold Coast. Others had been killed, of course (bodies had been being fished from the Pearl for many years already), but this double homicide involving a local constable so aroused public opinion that afterwards operations never dared be so blatant.

In the 50s, the area became dominated by a colorful bootlegger named G.W. “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought the Gold Coast as securely under his suzerainty as any corrupt satrap might. But his reign, indeed, the Gold Coast as an entity, ended in 1966, when Mississippi finally repealed Prohibition and liquor became available in stores all over Jackson. (Not, ironically, in Rankin County, which is still “dry” for liquor.)

Beale Street is a big draw now, and the French Quarter will (thank God) always be the French Quarter. But the Gold Coast is gone. Attempts have been made at some sort of commemorative festival, but the good citizens of Rankin County seem to prefer that this celebrated venue of vice and joie de vivre remains lost in a maze of time, asphalt and blue laws.