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Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Moonshiner's Life

Posted By on 07.08.10 at 11:59 AM

Hamper McBee: The Good Old-Fashioned Way
  • Hamper McBee: The Good Old-Fashioned Way
I'd never heard of Hamper McBee until the new reissue The Good Old-Fashioned Way (2s and Fews/Drag City) crossed my desk. McBee's name sounds like the title of a 70s TV show, maybe about a lovable, rascally kid who gets into some new kind of trouble each week, but he was actually a singer and all-around one-of-a-kind character from Tennessee—not just a stunning balladeer but also a storyteller, carnival barker, and onetime moonshiner. He cut an album for Prestige in 1964, now incredibly rare, and he was the subject of a 30-minute film made in 1977 by Sol Korine (father of enfant terrible filmmaker Harmony Korine) and Blaine Dunlap called Raw Mash. The following year Rounder Records released an album of the same name featuring informal recordings made while the film was shot.

The new 29-track CD (also available as an LP—they're short tracks) includes lots of additional material from the same sessions, recorded in McBee's living room in Monteagle, Tennessee. He sings a staggering variety of mountain ballads and early country songs a cappella, with a deep, throaty soulfulness that recalls the way southern Americans transformed old British folk songs into what became country music. His repertoire choices seem guided by his love of storytelling: there are cowboy songs like "Streets of Laredo," the American murder ballad "Knoxville Girl," and the Merle Travis mining song "Dark as a Dungeon." He makes each song his own, proving himself a stellar stylist, and often interrupts his renditions with spoken asides, explaining their context in his charming vernacular.

As soon as he finishes singing the Appalachian folk classic "Cabbage Head (Three Nights Drunk)," a version of which by Coley Jones was included on Harry Smith's iconic Anthology of American Folk Music, he mentions the "limey" version of the song. "That's out this damned world, which is not even fit to put on a tape," he says, then immediately starts into it, singing with a thick British accent. At the end of the hilariously salty "Sally Make Water," a ditty about, well, Sally's prodigious pissing ability, someone in the audience asks, "Is that all of that?" and McBee responds, "Hell, ain't that enough? My God," giving a hearty laugh. Elsewhere he tells wild stories, including a few of the time he spent in jail for moonshining; in the video clip below he gives some background to his song "Jasper Jail." Here you can listen to his powerfully beautiful version of "Wearisome Farmer."

This is the second release on Drag City's 2s and Fews imprint to feature a cappella singing from the south—the label's debut release by Kentucky coal miner and singer Nimrod Workman. As with Workman, the label has organized an album-release event at Intuit Gallery; this one's on Saturday from 6 till 8 PM. They'll screen Raw Mash and play the album; label boss Nathan Salsburg will be present.

Here's a clip from Raw Mash.

Today's playlist:

Henry Kaiser, Where Endless Meets Disappearing (Balance Point Acoustics)
James Hand, Shadow on the Ground (Rounder)
Koln-Oslo Protocol, Koln-Oslo Protocol (Künstlersache)
Nmperign, Ommatidia (Intransitive)
Dastan Ensemble & Salar Aghili, In the Name of the Red Rose (Celestial Harmonies)

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