Good Things Also Come in Threes (The Jackson “Gooseball” Fielder Trilogy, Th’ Legendary Shake Shakers Tentshow Trilogy, and Three Gems from Space Opera)… Plus Notes
Or fours or fives or sixes, depending on what they are, but for the purpose of this column I limit it to threes. After all, there are three strikes in baseball, three downs in Canadian football (which is a much better and more exciting game than American football as far as I am concerned), and three goals to a hat trick. Tony Orlando and Dawn knocked three times, the third time’s the charm, and there were three blind mice.
The number three presented itself this past Christmas when I finished reading Rick Norman‘s trilogy based upon the life of one Jackson Fielder, Jax to his family and Gooseball to baseball fans. Three books which delved into what seems like the lives of three completely different people but in reality just one. Reality? Not really, but by the end of the third book, I felt that the reality existed. If not in truth, in terms of the stretching of same.
There is a fine line between truth and fiction and I think anyone who really studies them struggles with it. We all have instances in our lives which blur the line, in which maybe a line was crossed or a left turn put us on a different path. Fielder’s life was full of them and perhaps that is why his life was so worth writing. I have to assume here because Norman has never told me how he came to write the books (I wonder, as the first— Fielder’s Choice— was published in 1991, the second— Cross Body Block— in 1996—, and the third— Bat Day— in 2006).
I only found out about them during casual conversation with the author, a mere mention piquing my interest. Norman, you see, is father to Judson and Joe Norman of Research Turtles fame, and since discovering that band a number of years ago, a relationship developed. It is not easy making it in today’s music world (if that isn’t stating the obvious, I don’t know what is) and my enthusiasm for the band and the music gave Rick and I real common ground. Mostly we talked about the band and its struggles, but we found mutual interest in sports, legal issues and a number of other topics. I had no clue regarding his writing. Then, it happened and I don’t even know how. The book appeared. Not just one, but three. Perhaps I mentioned baseball, perhaps he brought up his writing. It didn’t matter because not only was I intrigued (I, myself, have a novel about baseball somewhere amongst my many boxes of effluvium— not completed and really hardly even started— which strengthened my resolve to find and read Norman’s books), I was fascinated.
To explain, let me just say that I am as avid a reader as I am music enthusiast and that books about baseball are a special favorite. I grew up reading biographies of baseball players— Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Cy Young— any and all I could get my hands on. In later years, I delved into the many attempts at fiction (The Year the Yankees Won the Pennant, which became Damn Yankees when it came to the stage and the silver screen; A Pennant for the Kremlin; Rhubarb— H. Allen Smith‘s superb book about a cat which inherits a major league baseball team which also made it to the silver screen) before finding what I would consider the cream of the crop— Robert Coover‘s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.— J. Henry Waugh, Prop., David James Duncan‘s The Brothers K, and W.P. Kinsella‘s excellent series of books using the sports as a theme, the most known being Shoeless Joe, a novel which should never have been attempted on the silver screen (Field of Dreams) alongside Bernard Malamud‘s The Natural. As books, they held water and, as usual, Hollywood spent so much time altering the script so that the common movie fan could make sense of them (it is called “dumbing it down” that I hardly recognized the story lines.
So, baseball and Rick Norman? I was ready.
Norman sent me a copy of Fielder’s Choice first and I waited until the setting was right to crack the book. To qualify my earlier statement, I don’t think I was quite ready. It was about baseball, yes, but that was hardly the theme. True, a young Jackson Fielder was the centerpiece, of sorts, and he did develop a submarine pitch which was not easy to hit, but it was as much about growing up in the South as it was anything else. Brothers Jugs and Jude and neighbor Dixie played big parts as did Maw and Paw and it plays out like what someone might expect from Ring Lardner, young Fielder spewing vernacular much in the same vein as Jack Keefe, a bush-leaguer not really known for “speechifyin’” in Lardner’s book, You Know Me, Al. Norman delves beneath the characters themselves, putting Fielder through his paces in Arkansas, the majors, and Japan (Fielder, in fact, is telling his story to a major as part of his debriefing after being released from a prison camp). Baseball is the thread, but there is a lot more there than that.
Cross Body Block barely touches upon baseball and only slightly on football. It is 25 years later and Fielder is named interim football coach through no fault of his own. He never made it in football. Brother Jugs knew his didn’t belong and, after hammering him into the turf in the first book, told young Jackson that he was no footballer, that baseball was his game. The thing is, this is not about football as much as it is about family dysfunction as anything. The three Fielder boys had each made their way through Dixie, first wed to Jugs, then to Jude. When Jackson had enough of Jude’s mistreatment of Dixie and his namesake, Jackson (Jugs’ son by Dixie before he was killed during the War), Jackson sent Jude packing and settled into what he had hoped would be a quiet family life. What happens is a family tragedy and a study in dysfunction.
Bat Day, the third of the trilogy, finds Fielder at age 84 and trapped in a world he could never have imagined. He is waiting to die, sharing a room with Japanese twins who share parts of the same body. He is on the whole non-responsive but there are reasons beyond age and, well, without giving the whole thing away, comes upon two people who end up acting as advocates with not only Fielder but the Japanese twins. Suffice it to say, the situation is palpable and we begin to see the Real Jackson Fielder as well as the other characters unfold in a story which could easily have been written by Kinsella or Duncan.
When I put Bat Day down, I was a bit overwhelmed, the three books rushing into my mind at the same time. Each seemed to have been authored by a different writer, each approached from a different direction, each stood on its own. And yet together they melded into a story which needed all three. Three phases of the life of Jackson “Gooseball” Fielder— three completely different phases, to make things clear. A triumph of will, of writing, of storytelling.
I won’t give up the ending. It is a shocker, to be sure, but of a positive note. Three more books to add to my collection. About baseball, yes, but about so much more. I sweated through The Universal Baseball Association, weaved and bobbed my way through The Brothers K, was enthralled by both The Natural and Shoeless Joe. It is hard work, sometimes, reading a book, but when they are as good as Fielder’s Choice, Cross Body Block, and Bat Day, that hard work is justified.
It seems like only yesterday that I was writing for Swampland and came across Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers through a good friend of mine living in South Carolina. He used to run into David Lee on occasion, who was then playing guitar for the Shakers, and told me a few things about him and I, not having heard and not even heard of The Shakers or David Lee, put them on my list. They had just put out the third of a trilogy of albums which comprised what they termed The Tentshow Trilogy and readily agreed to be interviewed while heading across the States on their way to playing SXSW. After that interview and a thorough listening to the Trilogy, I sat down to write a review of the three albums. I have the full interview somewhere, which I will post when I find it. This is, without a doubt, one of the coolest approaches to music I have ever heard/felt/seen.
Open the flap of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers’ “Believe” CD and you find a picture of J.D. Wilkes, David Lee and Mark Robertson on the steps of a church, each white door emblazoned with a cross. It is a scene reeking of the South, suspenders and rolled up sleeves and casual but formal white shirts and, of course, Wilkes’ white socks. It could be a scene straight out of “Mississippi’s Burning”, with all of its intensity and negative connotations. To Wilkes, though, it is a reflection of the True South, a land slowly disappearing, replaced by a much more sinister South, an homogenous South. A Corporate South.
Wilkes would take the Gothic South to the Corporate South anyday. “The Southern Gothic,” he explained in a recent interview, “is all counter to the original Goth thing where the kids dress up in the stripey clothes and reflect ‘Beetlejuice’. That is a cartoon-ish version of like a medieval fantasy. That is not what we are. What that is based on, originally, is a belief that there is beauty to be found in the grotesque, in the dark and disturbing. That is kind of what the Southern Gothic thing is, but rather than it being Frankenstein and werewolves, it is slavery and inequity and hellfire-and-brimstone religion. Out of some of those edgy and dark experiences grows something great and wondrous and worthy of celebration.”
Wilkes would more than likely not include the Shakers’ “The Tentshow Trilogy” among the great and wondrous, out of humility if nothing else, but he might be wrong. The Trilogy, comprised of “Believe” (2004), “Pandelirium” (2006), and “Swampblood” (2007), is an amazing work full of everything we identify with the South and yet find repugnant. Or is it? Perhaps, if you take Wilkes at his word, it is one of only a handful of works which really gets it right. Tossing aside political correctness and the views of The Media, Wilkes went for Truth’s jugular vein, looking at the South through the eyes of the unbiased, or at least as close as he could come, being from Paducah and all. With Truth in mind, Wilkes and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers have presented musical portraits which can hardly be denied. That is, if you Believe.
From the opening track, you know that the Shakers are onto something a little different. “Agony Wagon”, with train whistle beginning, kickstarts the album like a cross between a Bar Mitzvah and a scene from “Bonanza”, Duane Eddy guitar supplying solos over a klezmer/gypsy mix, clarinet thrown in for good measure. And the ride begins. “Creek Cats” sounds tame before what is to come, shuffling polka beat driving a Beefheart-sounding entity. Wilkes falls into vox mania on “Where’s the Devil… When You Need Him?”, channeling voice through a distortion box or some such magical device, breaking out only on the chorus, where he powers through to the next verse. “Piss and Vinegar” has a bit of funk in there somewhere, Mark Robertson giving up his treasured standup for a Strap-On Electric Bass, as they list in the liner notes. Solid rockin’ blues this is, Nick Kane emulating the overamped rhythm guitar of Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun”. Wilkes pulls out his secret weapon here, the mouth harp, and makes it wail. It goes on and on, styles ranging from blues to rockabilly to country to hard rock to gypsy and klezmer and beyond. On some songs, they utilize them all and it makes you wonder how far they could go. The titles? “County of Graves”, “All My Life To Kill”, “Cussin’ In Tongues”, “Bible Cyst” and so forth, every one of them packed front to back with Wilkes’ sometimes disturbing and always point-on lyrics. They even throw in a blues jam on “Fistwhistle Boogie”, an instrumental featuring Wilkes on, what else, the fistwhistle (on which he plain kicks ass).
The madness continues on 2006’s Pandelirium, the Shakers up-tempo opening track “Ichabod!” a manic Russian hat dance worthy of The Ed Sullivan Show and complete with Russkie “hey”s and maniacal laughs. It ends in (what else?) a typewriter lead-in to “South Electric Eyes”, something else altogether, perhaps a demented Seven Dwarfs’ eye view of southern politics, past and present. From there, it’s another ride through Wilkes’ South, keying on the weird and the cult, the prejudices and the Truth. Musically, it is all over the place and adventurous as hell, from the the rockin’ blues of “Somethin’ In the Water (The Union Carbide Blues)” (ten-to-one you already know what that is about) to the Tex-Czech mix of “Iron Lung Oompah” and its “Gilligan’s Island” vocals to the cartoon-ish sound of “Monkey On the Doghouse” and its sinister, not so hidden message. Perhaps this is Wilkes and band’s tribute to the circus aspect of The South. Only Wilkes knows.
Swampblood rounds out the Trilogy. Written in virtual soundtrack form, it wraps an intro and outro around the album’s four “real” songs, those standing out as single entities. Lightly plucked banjo and monk-like background chant lead into a lighter-than-Shakers’-normal “Old Spur Line”, shuffling rhythm carrying light rhythm and blues into a Spaghetti Western break. “Hellwater” is swamp rock of a sort, choogling guitar and electric piano beneath a strangely subdued Wilkes vocal. Back to the circus with “Easter Flesh”, guitar having a curious but apt Duane Eddy edge. Then, there is the coup de resistance, “Swampblood”, which may be used in an upcoming HBO presentation. A classic blues rocker with a one-chord organ and absolutely magical guitar behind Wilkes’ smokin’ mouth harp and vocals. This would have hit written all over it if the world had any class (which it doesn’t), but those in the South will know. The outro of “dusk” finishes the first part of the album, a 17-second electronic collage. Then, the fun begins- ten short and lively tracks laid out in quick succession, each with its own sound and feel and important to the message. Gospel, country, old-timey, swing and other influences tap out “Born Again Again”, “Jimblyleg Man”, “Angel Lust” and “Preachin’ At Traffic”, to name a few, Wilkes pulling out the stops and fleshing out the story, capping the whole thing off with a pause before taking “Bright Sunny South”, the theme in “dawn”, into the sunset.
This is no fluke, this “treulogy”. Wilkes is using his trilogy to eulogize a South he dearly loves. It is more about Truth than most will realize. Wilkes has a different vision. You might even call him a visionary, what with his documentary “Seven Signs” now completed. If you hold “The Tentshow Trilogy” up next to the screen, you will get a better picture of what he is trying to accomplish here. Even if you don’t get it, this is some of the most adventurous and creative music out there.
And don’t think that the rest of the Shakers are just along for the ride. Mark Robertson has been with Wilkes for nigh on seven years and works a studio along with co-producing the Shakers and shortening his right arm visibly by slapping the upright basslike a madman. David Lee is fast becoming a guitar legend of sorts, having worked with Gretsch to create the Gretsch 6136DL, a guitar he obviously loves to play. Thus far, only one is in existence, though plans are to market thirty before deciding whether to continue production. They aren’t cheap. And Brett Whitacre, well, he’s just itching for the road. The Shakers kidnapped him from his previous band, Chicago power punkers The Saps, but the split was totally amicable. Brett’s brother is now The Saps’ drummer and it is all in the family.
Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers started out as Those Legendary Shack Shakers, by the way. Steeped in rockabilly (Wilkes refers to it as “Rockabilly 101”), their one album, “Hunker Down”, captured the genre nicely. Then it was The Legendary Shack Shakers, whose Cockadoodledon’t album supplied the rockin’ track (“CB Song”) used on one of Geico’s classic commercials— the one in which the gecko drives a toy sports car into a normal sized parking spot. In that case, the music made the ad.
“The Tentshow Trilogy”, though, is by Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, in its present form for a couple of years now. These guys love playing together. All four call it “fun”. Maybe it is, but it’s “fun” that takes ten pounds off you whenever you play. I wish I had their water concession. I’d be a rich man.
The present, at that time, was 2007 and I thought for sure that The Shakers were going to take the world by storm. They surely convinced me that we needed more than a little mania in a business somewhat toned down more than I liked. Still, it made its point. Since then, the band has had a few personnel changes but the Colonel is still upfront with that fistwhistle and still setting the pace. It doesn’t make any difference when this was released. This kind of music is timeless.
Space Opera had never intended their albums as a trilogy. Indeed, each of them was born individually and under different circumstances. The first, the famed first self-titled album released on Epic Records, was the only legitimate release— legitimate meaning backed by a major label. The circumstances which led to them signing with Columbia/Canada and Epic/USA is a long story and not one to get into here. If you are interested, however, you can read the whole fascinating tale by clicking on this link to the No Depression website.
The gist of it is that the band, knowing they had something unique, spent years developing and honing their style while their friends and cohorts shopped the band. Among those friends were such personages as Eric Andersen, Kris Kristofferson, Rex Farr, manager Michael Mann and others, people devoted to the band and its music. The details are many and the story long, but they managed, after a handful of years, to get the labels mentioned above to sign on the dotted line. It was a sweetheart deal, the band handed a producer but mostly left on their own at the brand spanking new Manta Sounds studio in Toronto. The label(s) might have regretted that deal, the band having more of a perfectionist’s attitude than anything as they kicked things into overdrive when the money ran low. Mann remembers the time he spent on the phone with label people begging for more time and money, which the label(s) supplied. When the album was ready, the band wasn’t, their stage equipment not quite completed, so there was no tour, no sales and, unfortunately, no contract. The option for the second album was dropped and the band fell into obscurity.
Which did not mean that they did not gain a following. The album, supplied to radio stations across the board, did get airplay in some markets and a following developed, but not enough to warrant more money. Add a frustration within the band and the result was a short breakup before rejoining forces. The second attempt (and third, fourth and fifth, evidently) was without a major label but they plugged on. In 1999, they recorded a second album which passed under my radar until I was contacted by a friend, John Reagan, who wanted me to write about the band. We emailed back and forth until the members were ready— both Scott Fraser and Phil White were very ill by the time I came into the picture, then the work began. David Bullock was kind enough to send a copy of that second album, also titled Space Opera, and I was quite impressed. I was also sent a dubbed copy of the Whistler, Chaucer, Detroit and Greenhill album, recorded with T-Bone Burnett in the bands pre-Space Opera phase.
I did two phone interviews with White, a couple of question/answer emails with Fraser, but the majority of the work was done by Bullock through email. We were over three years in the piecing together of the story and a few months working out details. When it was done, both Bullock and myself felt that we had covered the story as best we could.
During those emails, Bullock let drop info regarding a few recording sessions, and I kept bugging him about them. Surprisingly, as busy as he was, he went into the studio with those tapes and came out with a third album which he dubbed Safe at Home. I had been waiting a long time and had an urge to hear Singers and Sailors, a track played on Radio Station KFAD which had received quite the response. There are, in fact, two versions of that song on the album, one combined with a Fraser tune title Father, the second a stand-alone. After receiving my copy, I played that album exclusively for a week.
The point being this: I thought there had been only one album. Upon contacting Bullock, I was made aware of the second. After the story was finished, Bullock began working on Safe at Home. A trifecta of magnanimous proportions, as far as I was concerned.
You will never convince me that three is a bad number. I have more instances I could use to explain the importance of the number, but these make my point. Know what, though? I believe it is time for some…
Notes….. Show of hands. Anyone heard of Lenny Breau? Has anyone heard Lenny Breau? Does anybody know what time it is? Seriously, does anyone really care? I knew a handful of guitarists (and guitar enthusiasts) who did and do, one of whom is Buck Curran, who keeps digging up legends for fear that they will be forgotten by all and not just the vast majority. God forbid we should just allow innovative and downright brilliant-at-times musicians to fall by the wayside just because that vast majority is too preoccupied or lazy or too lost to find them, so Curran, a multi-instrumentalist of growing repute (and for good reason) has taken it upon himself to highlight the past, present and future of the real soft underbelly of the music world. His last push has been for Breau, a guitarist I learned about decades ago when That Dorm Guy kept pulling out the occasional album and saying, yeah, John Renbourn and John Fahey and Wes Montgomery (and so many others who over the years gained huge followings) are good, but have you heard this guy? Converts may have been few, but those who converted were and are now die-hard fans and on occasion reach into their bag of tricks to pull out what has been called over the years genius and innovation by guitarists who should know. The albums of Lenny Breau. Watch this short documentary. Listen closely. The man speaks not only with his voice and brain, he speaks with his hands. My thanks to Buck Curran, who is a constant reminder of how easy it is to get lost amongst the mountains of trees in an ever-growing world of music. Ladies and gentlemen, here is a bit of music history for you and myself.
Sometimes it’s the combination. Here is The Green Pajamas doing an old Woody Guthrie tune which many of you will recognize.
There aren’t very many videos out there featuring one of my favorite bass players (now a recording engineer), Sheldon Gomberg, but here is one I missed. A bit of funk and groove served up by Gomberg, Stevie Gurr, Rob Brill (drums), and the two-handed, one-mouthed Jerry Peterson, who reminded me of the good old days of Blodwyn Pig and Jack Lancaster. Watch and learn.
Canada’s Rick Maddox, who along with others gave us The Beige‘s very impressive El Angel Exterminador a few years back, has released a book/compact disc of his new band’s project, Sunbelt‘s Cabalcor. Basically, it is a look at a corporation town, that corporation involved in extracting oil from sands. I have no idea what goes on in Maddox’s head, but he strikes gold more often than not. Available from Off Season Records and Anvil Press in Canada.
It’s finally out! Doug Hammond and daughter Tatiana have finally finished their new Daisy House album, Crossroads, and it is a freaking killer! I had not heard their music until last year when I was treated to three albums which brought the sixties alive, with updates. Absolutely topnotch Pop, performed and produced beautifully. Here is the title track (and trust me, the bar was set with this song and every song reaches this high). Listen closely. While others are whiling their ways through the quagmire, this is what they need.
Lowland Hum is releasing their new album, Thin, on February 10th. What I’ve heard thus far is pretty nice, though I really need a few more listens to tell. Still, here is a look at their first video from that album.
Haunting new track by Sharon Koltick.
Sun Ra fans should be beside themselves with this collection of space-age goodies.
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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