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.

Milton Babbitt: Mississippi Composer

Many Mississippians have become famous in the world of music as well as in the world at large: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Rogers, not to mention Elvis Presley, but one Mississippian who is a titan in the sphere of 20th century music will likely never become known outside of a select group of musicians and musicologists for whom his works constitute a mind-boggling landmark in musical composition and theory.

babbitt-77de1550dc265fcd1e5459dff8e7c0002add47cfIn all honesty, as a somewhat tone-deaf wordsmith I can’t even begin to encompass the achievement of Milton Babbitt, which to the best of my understanding (another admittedly modest attribute) lies in that arcane area of human intellect where music and mathematics merge, a slope of Parnassus I’ll never attempt, much less scale. Perhaps my fellow laymen might be sufficiently impressed to know that among his many, many awards, Babbitt received a citation from the Pulitzer judges in 1982 “for his life’s work as a distinguished and seminal American composer”. Yet for all that his work was of the most esoteric nature and his accolades are of the highest order, Milton remained a down-to-earth sort of man, fond of baseball and beer, and like any good Southern boy (he claimed Mississippi as his home), ate grits every morning of his life when he could get them. In a 2000 interview with Jason Otis of The Northside Sun, Babbitt said that his father moved to Jackson from Omaha where he was a mathematician at the University of Nebraska because C.W. Welty, Eudora’s father, made him an offer that according to Milton, “he couldn’t refuse. My being born in Philadelphia was the result of the fact that my mother was a Philadelphian and she would always go back to be with her parents when her children were born. So I and my two brothers were born in Philadelphia, but we all grew up in Jackson. My parents and a brother are buried there. Jackson was my home”

Two years later in an interview with American Public Media Babbitt said, “My early musical influences began in Jackson, Mississippi. Here I grew up, of course, and my first musical influence came from a violin teacher with whom I went to study at the age of 4. She gave me a violin, and as I practiced, I thought, this is exactly what I’d like to be doing in music—don’t ask me how or where—although I wasn’t really all that excited about the practicing. If you want an anecdote, I’ll tell you one. My teacher was a lovely and sophisticated woman who had studied with Leopold Auer.”

“I know you Yankees think that if you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, you went around in bare feet, but we lived in a very cultivated crowd. Our public school was very sophisticated, and we were taught how to speak English in a very special way, because we were told that we were the last bastions of high culture. It was a little bit of that that brushed into everything. Anyway, my teacher, Ms. Hutchison, said one day to me, ‘Well, if you’re really interested in playing the violin, why don’t you see if this is the kind of music you might play?’ And she gave me the violin part of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, which I took home. Now this was a violin concerto that I had never heard performed; we didn’t have an orchestra, and remember records were very far and few between, so we didn’t have a record of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto either. And I thought that if this was all that a violin concerto was, why couldn’t I write one of my own? So I started writing something I called ‘Violin Concerto for a Single Violin.’ I could’ve been very chic; I could’ve called it ‘Violin Concerto for Solo Violin,’ but I wasn’t that mature yet.”

“The truth of the matter is, after my experience with the violin concerto, I suddenly realized that the violin didn’t get you very far socially. Nobody really wanted you to play this damn solo violin. So I went to the local band director, the man who ran every band in town, the lovely, lovely Italian who didn’t speak very much English, but who had a very good musical background. Let me tell you, this is America, so I might as well tell you how he got there. He got to Jackson, Mississippi, from one of the smaller towns in Italy by virtue of a beautiful Mississippi girl who went to Italy to study voice—what else? That’s very American. She brought him back to Jackson where she thought he could be a big important person. Well, he was, relatively speaking. So I went to him, and I said I wanted to study the trumpet. And he said, ‘Why do you want to study the trumpet?’ I named all these jazz people of whom he had never heard who played trumpet or cornet. He said, ‘Look, you’re obviously interested in music. Play the clarinet because when you play band arrangements they have the violin parts, and you’ll learn a great deal about music, and you’ll learn a great deal more music that way.’”

“So I agreed and I took up the clarinet. That became my primary instrument. I played the clarinet and eventually saxophone. All throughout high school I played in every kind of band, everything from an imitation Guy Lombardo to an imitation Ben Pollock, which means, you know, the range from what would then be called popular music to jazz. My early influences, however, I must tell you, were largely in popular music—all kinds of popular music. And you’ll be amused to know that while I was in Jackson, Mississippi I never heard a note of country music. The country people are out there, but we’re not country people. We didn’t hear any country music. We never heard any blues either, though the blues virtually originated in Jackson, but that was not us. It didn’t have anything to do with race—by the way, that’s a great mistake—it had to do with education. We went to Davis School, which, well, you want me to tell you an anecdote about that? I’ll tell you because it involved somebody else who came from Jackson, Eudora Welty, with whom I grew up. Her father was the president of the insurance company of which my father was the actuary and vice president, so we literally grew up together. Eudora Welty went to the same public grammar school that I did, the Davis School, and you can guess which Davis that was: Jefferson Davis, of course. So anyhow, the story was that [Eudora] would go down to the ladies room where the students were in their little stalls, and our English teacher, Ms. Granbury, would come down there, and if she heard a single grammatical mistake in the conversation among these stalls, she would immediately tell them, ‘Go to my office when you have done what you have to do here.’ They would be reprimanded and disciplined.”

The Babbitt House in Jackson
The Babbitt House in Jackson

“So much of what we are is what we were,” Babbitt told Otis. “I spent my time in Jackson hearing and playing music that I would not have heard if I had grown up anywhere else. Jazz musicians from New Orleans would come up from the river and I often used to play with them on Saturday nights. Our music teacher didn’t play records for us because there weren’t any records to play. We learned to read music and to play music and to listen to music. It was extraordinary. It’s not the kind of musical education I would have gotten in New York, but then I was exposed to a great deal of jazz and popular music that I might not have been exposed to elsewhere.”

Many thanks to Barbara McLaughlin, former resident of the Babbitt House at 1117 Kenwood for help with this article.

Ars Voces: Eric Stracener – Playing for a Song

My dad and my brother played guitar, but I didn’t start playing until I was a senior at Millsaps, when I was doing an honors thesis that was driving me crazy. I was a huge music fan, but I’d never played anything. I was also writing things like any silly English major in college taking creative writing classes. I’d always liked music as much as or more than I did literature, and songs are easier to write than novels. I grew up in Mobile, where my oldest and best friend, Will Kimbrough was a professional player, an original song-writing guy from the age of 16 on, an unbelievable record freak. And he was touring! He was our conduit for stuff like The Clash and The Jam; not as much punk as sort of punkish rock-and-roll. Not that I’d call The Clash punk; to me they’re the greatest rock-and-roll band ever. We were lucky there because one guy could change the field.

I’d been in a punk band in Mobile, “Joe Strange”, and I wrote songs then. We weren’t bad; we were okay. But I started playing on stage again when I was in school in Oxford. Law school was so boring, and I was around people who were so incredibly different from me. I was seven years older than most of them, for one thing, and they were all a bunch of Republican yuppies, who with a few exceptions just bored the shit out of me. So I hung out with the quirkier people in Oxford, and I think I wound up there for a reason. I started writing songs because I knew I was never going to be a hot-shot guitar player; I couldn’t play “Stairway to Heaven”. I knew I was never going to be in a band because I was a great this or that, and I wasn’t going to be just another white dude playing in a blues band, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to play “Mustang Sally”. I didn’t want to be hustling money for playing stuff that I had no business playing, so I didn’t, and for better or worse, this is what I started doing.

When I turned 30 my good friend Eileen Wallace sent me a book she made: she’d made everything, the binding, the paper, the cover. I started writing things in that, and I’ve never stopped. And I’ll tell you, the voice memo function on an iPhone has changed the way I write songs. Now if I’m doing something else, something boring, just driving, or maybe watching a game, I can hit the voice memo, and mumble some stuff, and keep it to work on later. It helps. You know how this is as a writer; it comes, and you only catch a tiny portion of it in the net. My favorite songwriter, Richard Thompson, carries a notebook with him everywhere. It just ups the odds of not losing something important. When I’m writing songs just for me, as opposed as to for a band or someone else, I always tell myself they have to be okay just to play on an acoustic in front of people. Maybe that’s folk music; I don’t know. If they work like that, it’s okay because a lot of the time when I’m playing, it’s solo. I like to perform; it’s thrilling to play solo, but it’s kind of scary. I mean, it’s just you out there on the tightrope. It’s easier for me to play in front of 100 people I’ve never met than in front of 10 people I know. Denny Burkes is the best musician I know, so if I’m playing in front of Denny, it’s different. It’s like reading some of your stuff at a writer’s workshop instead of reading to a bunch of students. But I like it.

I can’t sing too great, I’m an okay guitar player; nobody’s going to ask me to be a singer in their band. The reason I play and sing is so that I can do my songs. I think once you find the way you get stuff out, if you find it, whether it’s building model planes or whatever, you’re lucky. I’m lucky in that I can write for myself; I don’t have to please anybody else. I don’t have a record executive breathing down my neck, so I can write whatever I want whenever I want. I think music is moving more away from a business and more into an avocation because anyone can make a record now, and hardly anyone can make any money because it’s all free. In a weird way, it’s going back to what it was like for people in the early 20th century when on Saturday nights people played music and traded songs just for the art, for the fun of it. That’s why I do it; I’ve made hundreds of dollars!

I’ve put out two albums. Neilson Hubbard produced the first two; Will Kimbrough will produce the next one. When I get into conversations over what I’m going to do, I always have people who’ll tell me, ‘Well, you need to market yourself; you need to do this, you need to do that …’ and I keep thinking, ‘Okay, why? So I can do what?’ Right now it makes me incredibly happy that I have people covering my songs; I can’t get a bigger compliment. I’ve gotten weird reviews from places like Holland and Belgium, but I think most of that is people see you’re from Mississippi, and they’re like ‘Yeah, yeah, Mississippi!’

I have some songs I’ve been working on for years. “Her Grief is a Man” came easily, out of a difficult situation. Some songs are from personal experience, some are just flat-out, straight-up fiction. I don’t know how that happens. I’ll be on a run, say, and the cadence of the run determines the meter of the song; it just starts. A lot of them start on the guitar. Inspiration is fleeting, but you can up the odds by picking up the guitar and playing one every now and then. You’ve got to work a little bit. If someone covers one of my songs and sends me a bunch of money, great; I’ve had some calls about songs being placed on television, and that hasn’t happened yet, but if it does, it’s great. I do want to make records, and it’s driving me crazy that I’ve not put one out in five years. I love “Leaves of Tennessee” and I have a few more I like very much in this batch. By my standards, it’s going to be a very good record, but it costs money and takes time, and I’ve had things to happen in my life which have made finding the money and time to make a record a relatively low priority.

My daughter, who is 10, is the best critic I have. She’ll come in, and I’ll be playing something, and she’ll ask, ‘Is that yours?’ ‘Yes,’ I’ll say, and usually she’ll go something like, ‘Meh,’ but the other day, I’ve got a new one that I just finished, and I heard her humming the chorus. And that’s when you know that it’s a hit; a hit is a hit, whether it hits your house or hits the world. People respond to a good song. What I think is my best stuff, some people don’t. There’s a song of mine called “Levee” that I thought was pretty good; I was trying to write something different, a two-step, and I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that’s the best thing I’ve ever written. What I hope that means is that the more I write, the higher the bar is raised and that my weaker songs in the next batch will be better on average.

And that’s a great thing.