Frank Gutch Jr: Brian Cullman, David Bullock, Bill Jackson, and Tom House: People and Stories Behind My Favorite New Music, Plus Notes From the Musical Underground…..
I want to tell you about four musicians— people, really— but I don’t know if I can. Oh, I could tell a few stories, wrangle up some comments and maybe tell you about their music, which is more than likely what I will attempt to do, but I will not be able to really tell you anything about them. Does a resume ever say anything about the person? I don’t think so. But it may be the place to start.
All four are musicians and songwriters. All of them attack their art from slightly different angles. All have suffered from underexposure, at least to my mind. All are friends, though I can really not claim that, our communications having been via the Net and the phone. I do know one thing about each of them. They all have musical souls. Artist‘s souls. And they all have a story. And new albums. Like I said, it’s a start.
Brian Cullman is pure enigma. As much as he works to make music he wants to have heard, he holds it so close to his vest he ends up hiding it. You may have read some of my writing about his last album, All Fires the Fire— how unique and uplifting it is. How the music at times completely overwhelms. How, through the process of recording, he defines synergy in its purest form.
It hasn’t been easy for him, or at least I don’t think so. He has sent numerous emails and I have read them numerous times and I am still at a quandary as to who he really is. He, like many of us, is a music junkie, and that led him to writing. Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone were only a few of the zines he has written for over the years, but that was just the beginning. He soon found himself among the published at Spin and Antaeus, The Paris Review and even The New York Times and not writing about just pop (or western pop, as he is wont to make the distinction) but about music from Africa and the Middle East and other countries and cultures, carried away by the magnitude of it all. He brushed elbows (and probably rubbed against a few as well) with musicians later to become icons but then were just musicians struggling to be heard. He followed many, befriended a few and I would assume lived a somewhat bohemian existence during the folk and then rock heydays of the New York City scenes, living in clubs and soaking up music wherever and whenever he could.
He introduced himself to me because of a piece I had written about Nick Holmes, a musician I have admired for years. I had found Holmes in the very early seventies as a member of White Elephant, a rock/jazz experiment working out of NYC toward the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies. I wrote about the music and the musicians and what I thought had happened but mostly the influence the group and especially Holmes held over me. (Read it here) One of Cullman’s friends found it and sent the link to him and I received an email which said simply, contact me. I did.
At first, we talked about Holmes and his early career and his existence in NYC right after White Elephant. That led to more people and more music from the Big Apple and then people who weren’t musicians— characters and artists and writers. Names dropped but mostly only names because Brian is if nothing else a private person. The stories I did hear I had to promise under threat of death or severe injury neither to tell nor write about. I mean, the guy was hooked up with everyone, even Lester Bangs, and I mention him only because Brian has written about him in passing, so it is no secret. I only mention this for you to understand that for Brian, it isn’t about the names or the stardom, it is about the people.
But we had made this connection and Holmes was the key. I mean, each of us had this admiration, you understand. So I am going to quote him here and I hope he does not take offense because I wish I knew Holmes well enough to have experienced it and could have stated that experience this well…..
I was a musical know-it-all, a snob, a walking encyclopedia of songwriters and songs and the dark smoky places where magic happened. Or didn’t. But I’d never heard anything that prepared me for Nick Holmes. I’d never heard someone whom I’d never heard of before who was that good, whose songs were that powerful, whose voice could take you anywhere (including some dark and private places that you need a passport to go to). There was— and there is— a honeyed richness to his singing that pulls together bits of soul and blues and country into a cocktail which goes down smooth and easy just before it stings you.
I had never heard Holmes live but I understood every word. The man is that good.
It hasn’t been all about Nick Holmes, our communication. A lot of it revolved and revolves around the various members of Ollabelle, with whom Brian has worked— mainly Glenn Patschka and Byron Isaacs, whom regular readers know as a founding member of Lost Leaders. He introduced me to Alice Schneider who records under the name Alice Texas, and others. Every name mentioned has been mentioned for a reason and I have researched them all.
But Brian himself— the writer of reviews, the plunker of guitars, for Brian did finally take up the instrument and create music— has a new album. He wishes I could write about it without mentioning his previous work, or at least tone it down a little. They all do. Imagine being a musician and having the albums you have recorded since compared to The One. (Page? Plant? Nice stuff, but there is no Stairway.) I can’t, of course, for All Fires the Fire is an album of peaks and valleys among orchestral beauty and what Brian has done on The Opposite of Time is return to his roots, though we would not know that because All Fires is the only reference available. Still, think studio and produced to the max and take away the studio and some of the production and you pretty much have it. As good but lesser, you might say.
Brian has a sound. Sure, we all probably have a sound, but Brian’s is more his than others have. It’s his voice and the way he writes songs but more than that, it lies in arrangement. I mean, there he was on All Fires, arranging for what basically was studio orchestra, though rock orchestra it was, and he merely pared it down. The songs? As excellent as ever. Folk, folk pop, gospel, soul, rock (if you want to call it that, though I find it to be much more) with a Cullman touch. All wound together with some of the best lyrics anywhere. Brian digs deep for his musical visions. And they are visions in every sense.
I wish there was a video but Brian has not gotten that far yet. He has wrapped up the album itself but is waiting to launch sometime in the near future. In the meantime, I heartily suggest picking up a copy of All Fires which hopefully you can find at Sunnyside Records. As Brian so kindly explained,
Sunnyside is primarily a jazz label. It’is run by a Frenchman named Francois Zalacain who used to run Universal France. He moved to New York about 30 years ago and started releasing some of the better albums from the Universal France catalog that had fallen through the cracks here ….Baden Powell, Blossom Dearie, Chet Baker, Serge Gainsbourg, and such. They have a good catalog of new artists — Rebecca Martin, Becca Stevens, Ramiro Musotto, Brandon Ross, Ruben Blades, Amadou & Mariam. I don’t really fit into their roster, but let’s face it, I don’t really fit anywhere. They’re nice people, and they answer my calls. That’s more or less what I want from a record label.
Stay tuned for more info on Brian and his recordings. I should be devoting a whole column to his history and background. I will make sure that happens.
You know when I wrote about Brian not wanting his older works to cast shadows on his new album? David Bullock said the exact same thing. Not that David has any older works, you understand, other than what he recorded with Fort Worth legends Space Opera. Maybe he does have tapes from the early days but none that I’ve ever heard. Anyway, you will hear Space Opera only one more time in this piece— a reference to Blue Ridge Mountains from the band’s first self-titled album. When I saw it on the credits, I wondered what David was doing. Could he even begin to better the version recorded back in the early 70s? Turns out, he didn’t have to. Bullock pulled together one hell of a band for the sessions (recorded in Nashville, by the way) and while the song is basically the same, there are twists. For one thing, the band is given a bit of free rein on the instrumental break, they added a pedal steel and cranked up the electric guitar a bit. The big difference, though, is that he brought his wife and daughter in to sing harmonies. I mean, Space Opera were brothers, you know? And that version of Blue Ridge Mountains is sacrosanct. Or so I thought. David simply brought in his wife and daughter to sing with him. First time I heard it, I sat with tears in my eyes. It was beautiful! The female voices lend so much to the harmonies, it is hard to explain. That is David’s family, you know? And how cool is it that they could sing together on one of the best songs he’d ever written? Hollywood couldn’t write something that cool.
For the other five songs, David pulls a few surprises. The opener, Rural Free, is a doppelganger for Stephen Young & The Union‘s Shadowman except for David’s unique voice. Everything else is there— the full acoustic/electric guitar sound, the fiddle fill, the brassy sound of the (I’m assuming this) baritone guitar. It rocks! A step into gospel/soul mixed with pop follows it nicely and has that mid-Phil Keaggy sound on the leads (that’s Johnny Hooper on slide and solo guitar Ladies & Gentlemen!). A little country funk and blues mix things up a little (Live Until I Die) with David dusting off his harmonica a bit, this time Kenny Greenberg handling the solo guitar like a pro (which he is), and David reverting to his old folk days on Gloucester Green. I mean, it is not that far from the old Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit & Greenhill days— and those who don’t understand, look it up. It is Fort Worth history!
David and I have talked a lot over the past number of years. Actually, we have typed. David basically wrote, with my editing, the Space Opera Story, which you can read here. To see this mini-LP/EP actually produced thrills me to death. It is much more than I had hoped it would be, showcasing David Bullock and not just his SO past. His voice is as good as ever, his songwriting is amazing and he had the sense to record this the way he wanted. This is going to sound sappy, but I am sure that the other three members of SO— Scott Fraser, Phil White, and Brett Wilson— are looking down at David with the big thumbs up. Those guys would have loved this. The album is titled In the Waking World. You can purchase the album here.
I am convinced that Australia is another planet. In fact, I know it is. The thing is, I’m not so sure Bill Jackson, who claims to be Australian, really is because one day we skyped and hiding behind what sounded like a Hollywood attempt at the Aussie accent was a born and bred American. After the amenities of saying hello and working out the basics, we got down to brass tacks and found out that Australia is the United States’ Bizarro World and vice-versa. For one thing, you need an Australian/English dictionary to get beyond the basics. For another, when the accent kicks in (and I found that it did), it’s like slogging through molasses, lifting one foot high and the other foot higher just to keep up. But it was one of the most pleasant hours I have ever experienced in conversation. I learned a lot.
I learned that Ruth Hazleton, Bill’s other half (if that term is applicable), knows more about the history of music than Bill and I put together. I learned that Australians have copped the American sense of humor and claimed it for themselves, the dirty bastards. I learned that the outback is Australia’s Arizona or New Mexico and I learned that we’re all in this together— their Right is as bat-shit crazy as ours. I also learned that Australia has had as intense a music scene as has the United States, their folk music history every bit as diverse and important to them as is ours to us.
Of course, I already knew that. My introduction to Bill was his Steel + Bone album and it was pure eye-opener. There seemed to be a bridge between cultures and I was surprised how similar they were. Jackson strengthened that bridge with his The Nashville Session EP, CSS Shenandoah telling the tale of Australia’s involvement in America’s Civil War (If you think I’m going to make this easy for you, think again. You can read my review here).
Bill has been to the States three times. Two of those trips resulted in albums— the aforementioned The Nashville Session was, in fact, recorded in Nashville with Nashville musicians. Just this past year, Bill and cohort Pete Fidler made the trek across the water for another run which resulted in The Wayside Ballads Vol. 2, the followup to June’s Vol. 1, recorded in Australia under the watchful ears of Shannon Bourne. Vol. 2 is set for early 2016 release, so let us talk about Vol. 1.
Bill must have a steamer’s trunk full of songs put together mostly by Bill and brother Ross Jackson, who is an history buff of the first order. Give Ross an idea and he will research it till the cows come home, as the saying goes, though I have yet to hear one about cows— written by either of the Jackson boys, anyway. It is my understanding that Ross is the lyric man— Ira to brother George, if you want a Gershwin analogy, and it disturbs me to have to qualify it but, as Dad always used to say, it ain’t my world anymore. Anyway, a good year ago Bill sent me a bunch of files for what was then going to be one volume of Wayside Ballads— way too many for one volume, though. He called them “demos” and emphasized the “rough” when attempting to explain them but I didn’t hear it. They sounded complete to me. A few of those made it onto Vol. 1. I shall assume that more will end up on Vol. 2.
Here’s the thing, though. While Bill has kept me in the loop pretty much, he hasn’t given me the exact information so I am not sure what will end up on Vol. 2. What I also didn’t know (until this morning, anyway) is that Vol. 1 has been posted for streaming on a bandcamp page. It is always so much better to hear than to be told, correct? So I suggest you head to that page (click here) and experience some of Down Under’s classic roots music as put together by Bill, Ross and helped along by Pete. I shall let the music speak for itself. More on Bill later, hopefully just before Vol. 2 hits the street.
I don’t want to say that I have saved the oddest for last, but I have. Tom House is one of the most overlooked musicians in the world, to my mind. His roots are so deep they aren’t even roots. They are a way of life. I found out from Keith Morris (a musician in his own right and who has just released a smoker of an album titled The Dirty Gospel with band The Crooked Numbers— sample it by clicking here or here) who told me I was either a psychopath or sycophant if I didn’t get House’s music right off (It’s an inside joke). I got it and have been listening and writing about House ever since. The album was titled Winding Down the Road and set me back on my ass right good, it did. Like I said, House’s roots are so deep that they aren’t even roots. The music was spiritual and rough and sleek at the same time. It caught ghosts unawares. It reeked of the rotting wood of houses still inhabited and people who are as good as dead to the world as we know it, a world of outhouses and moonshine and snake handlers and snake oil salesmen.
Well, House is back and in fine form with Songs Like Dreams.. More Like Blood, another entry in the Alan Lomax sweepstakes. Lomax, for those unaware, is responsible for saving much of our musical heritage here in the States. He spent years traveling the back roads searching for music which would have been lost forever had he not set up equipment and saved it for posterity. Mention his name anywhere in the world and people will know of whom you speak. After hearing Songs Like Dreams, I find it hard to separate the names.
House has recaptured pretty much in one take what Lomax was all about. The songs on the album could have been recorded on the porches of any of the shacks in backwoods America Lomax visited. They are cultural as well as musical, historical as well as modern. And they are as American as you can get. Col. J.D. Wilkes of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers tried to put on film what House does on record. What a hint as to what House does? Transpose this trailer to music.
I have no idea whether Wilkes finished the film (I would love to see it if he did), but House completed his album. I think both want to explain the connect/disconnect in cultures. I think they both believe (or in Wilkes’s case, beleive) that if you truly encompass an ideal, that is your truth. No matter what anyone else believes. Or beleives.
I know people who know— know— that animals can communicate with humans. Not just the emotional, but the intellectual. I can see the heads shaking, but it is what they know. All I know is that Tom House and J.D. Wilkes are truly onto something here. Roots are what we return to. Roots is what they live.
I don’t really know if this makes any sense— any of it. All I know is that I have been up all night attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable, or so some think. I struggle like this all the time. It’s the music that sets me straight. Thank the gods for the music.
Speaking of music, how about we get to the…..
Notes… Mark Strong has been fighting hard to get his band Salton Sea on listening lists for the past few years. He’s done nice work. Now, he has a new project as well— Witherwolf. This very short clip (very short) is a teaser I want to follow up on. Shades of the seventies folk/psych movement? Orchestral tubescence? Hard to tell, but you can bet I will be checking him out. Single released October 30th.
Talk about timing! Strong worked overtime to get a video version of the song ready. The song is vaguely reminiscent of another artist or tune which escapes me at the moment. That’s cool, though. This is plenty good.
You want yourself some picking, Shannon Bourne picks away on this video from Down Under’s Russell Morris. Australiana? Sounds like the States to me. Good stuff.
This freaking blew my mind. A film about Bruce Lee (or visitors to Bruce Lee’s grave) which features both Garey Shelton and Bruce Hazen. Shelton and Hazen, for all of you Seattle dinosaurs, were both in the band fronted by Ian Matthews and David Surkamp back in the early eighties. You will know who they are by watching the credits. Interesting short film and the music is form-fitted to the concept.<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/140697539″>Bruce</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user44327209″>Day Road Productions</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com“>Vimeo</a>.</p>
People ask me about Country music and I sometimes point to Charlottesville’s Jim Waive. The guy put out an album which has one of my all tome favorite Country tracks, Why I Hunt. He can do Retro Country, Americana, Folk Country— everything but Modern Country (he can’t afford the pleather hat, trench coat and stack of Marshalls and has trouble posing— I think it’s his hip) and do it all very well, indeed. Much of the time he is supported by his band The Young Divorcees who my C-ville friends tell me is one hell of a band. He is a lyric master (as is evidenced on Why I Hunt and others) and is just far enough outside the Country mold to be just Jim Waive, not Jim Waive, Country Dude.
Here’s some of that good music that there ain’t no more of anymore. From Canada (like that’s a surprise): The Small Glories. Thanks to Jeff Finlin for passing this along.
You know you’ve hit a certain level when your gigs are attended by musicians in quantity. Chris Smither hit that level long ago. Portland, Oregon will have a chance to see and hear what I’m talking about when Smither takes the stage at the Alberta Rose Theater on Nov. 12th. Seriously, Portlanders, Smither is one of the best. If you don’t believe so, watch and listen to this:
My eyes roll back in my head every time I hear guitar that good played as if it was pure second nature. And the guy writes songs, too! Good songs. Sometimes great songs, but always good songs. And he’s a damn nice guy, too.
There have been a lot of damn cool videos put out over the past year. Here is one of my favorites from Stephen Young & The Union. Not only do I dig the music, the film technique fits the song to a T. These guys should be getting way more attention than they are. Way more.
This is their latest video— both songs are from their excellent album Eagle Fort Rumble. Irish, they are.
Seeing Dylan hock corporate wares proves to me that musicians’ ethics have spiraled into the depths of hell. Evidently, money is everything these days. In my mind, Young Dylan is kicking Old Dylan’s ass right now.
I couldn’t remember if I’d heard Matt Bauer before but I knew we had communicated on some level. Then I came across this link to a short piece in Elmore Magazine about his new album. Whether I had heard of him or not, I have now. Take a few minutes to read and listen to I Am Trying to Disappear. He definitely has something. Click here to read and listen.
If you have never heard of Stu Nunnery, you’re not alone. In the early seventies, Stu released an album on a small label called Evolution Records and received a bit of airplay before the label stumbled and died. What happened afterward is the story, though. To make a long story short, Stu worked for a short while as a musician before being diagnosed with a serious hearing disorder and that once promising career died. After decades of not being able to hear correctly, the advances of modern medicine has made it possible for Stu to resume his career as a musician. His story is being told all over and it is a fascinating one. For a synopsis, you can follow this link to Providence Journal‘s piece on Stu and his life. It’s short and an easy read and if you are so inclined, you might just learn something.
Thank the gods for the Boberts of the world. I have been so swamped with research that I almost missed the new Courage My Love video, but our Fearless Leader somehow knew. I want to say, jeez, I remember when they were kids but to me, they still are. More mature, musically (downright grown up, in fact), but still kids. I cannot even imagine how proud the parents must be. Or even Bob.
Bob found this one, too. Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar. I really need to get back to my dumpster-diving ways. This should not have gotten past me. Gospel soul a la Bonnie Bramlett. Good stuff.
Frank’s column appears every Wednesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”