Swampy, sexy, boozy ‘n’ twangy stuff, courtesy Light In The Attic—with everyone from Tony Joe White, Bobby Charles, Townes Van Zandt, Bobbie Gentry, Jim Ford and JJ Cale on board, it’s the sound of weekday woes weeknight woo, Saturday night sinnin’ and Sunday morning prayin’, equal parts outlaw country, Memphis gospel and New Orleans boogaloo.
BY FRED MILLS
Light In The Attic’s archival savvy in unearthing the unknown and obscure while connecting the dots to the familiar and, in some instances, wildly popular, has probably never been quite so expertly rendered as on its two volumes of Country Funk. The initial installment, 2012’s Country Funk 1969-1974, brought together the likes of Tony Joe White, Bobby Charles (profiled by BLURT prior to his death) BobbieGentry, Dale Hawkins, Link Wray and Larry Jon Wilson (also the subject of a BLURT interview conducted a few months before his death), and such lesser-knowns as Dennis The Fox, Gritz, Cherokee, Jim Ford and John Randolph Marr. In doing so, the titular genre country funk finally got its due, and while the 16-song collection necessarily overlaps with its mossier sibling, swamp rock, there’s no question that Country Funk provided an invaluable service by introducing a key musical time, place and sound to a new generation of acolytes.
About to hit stores on July 15 is Country Funk Volume II 1967-1974, and even though it’s not quite the revelation that its predecessor was, by bringing together under one roof everybody from Hoyt Axton, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton to Donnie Fritts, the Great Speckled Bird, Larry Wilson & Johnny Watson and—in an encore appearance—Jim Ford, it makes clear that the aforementioned “service” is nothing less than a personal mission by music supervisor Zach Cowie and LITA’s Matt Sullivan and Patrick McCarthy.
Among the highlights for Volume 1 are Hawkins’ insistent Stax/Volt-style maneuverings through “L.A. Memphis Tyler Texas”; Mac Davis’ slice-of-Southern-life narrative “Lucas Was a Redneck,” which on first listen will have you swearing it’s actually Tony Joe White; White’s own “Stud Spider,” oozing with White’s slyly lascivious charisma; Wray’s part-acoustic/part-electric “Fire and Brimstone,” a track from the guitar shaman’s notorious self-titled 1971 detour into country and roots music; and a brilliant, swampy oddity called “Hawg Frog” by what appears to have been a one-off summit, billed to “Gray Fox,” among some MGM-contracted studio musicians.
(Aside: as welcome as Bobbie Gentry’s “He Made A Woman Out Of Me” is, with Gentry the only female included here, it opened up the compilers to accusations that they should have been more diligent in their search for distaff proponents of the form. That would be corrected on the second installment, which included a number of country-funkin’ femmes.)
In the intro to her liner notes to the album, journalist Jessica Hundley poses the question, “What in the hell is country funk?” Somewhat frustratingly, it turns out to be a rhetorical query rather the setup for a payoff, as the somewhat rambling liners steer clear, for the most part, of cultural and contextual dissection, relying instead upon track-by-track descriptions bolstered by quotes from some of the musicians. White, naturally, gets the lion’s share, at nearly 4 pages of the 32-page booklet, which additionally features reproductions of LP sleeves plus wonderfully stylized pen-and-ink renderings, courtesy Jess Rotter, of the artists themselves.
But maybe that’s for the best, because when it comes to music like this, feel is everything, analysis secondary. No better example of just that can be heard than on Jim Ford’s “I’m Wanta Make Her Love Me”: against a sinewy, R&B instrumental backdrop of insistent bass, psych-twang guitar and intermittent horn jabs, Ford proclaims his intentions in a voice that’s equal part lusty leer, starry-eyed optimism and gospel-soul genuflection (before the altar of womanhood, natch – or at least her daddy). It’s easily the funkiest, stankiest number on the album, so much so that it could pass for a long-lost Parliament-Funkadelic track rather than the work of a white man from below the Mason-Dixon line, although Ford does emit one telling Southernism when he enthuses, hillbilly-like, “Why, she’s a dilly, Papa, pretty as the Mona Lisa!” In that moment, and at other stray points on this superb collection, you stop wondering about who these folks were and what they were all about, and just soak in the vibe. When the record’s done, you might not necessarily be able to define country funk, but you’ll sure recognize it when you hear it in the future. Get fonky, y’all.
And then do it all over again with Country Funk Volume II 1967-1974. Boasting the above-mentioned heavy hitters as well as Jackie DeShannon, JJ Cale, Bobby Darin (!) and Kenny Rogers, there’s plenty more to help you get that feeling. The (hopefully ongoing) series converses in the vernacular of what is presumably a recognizable dialect now—swampy, sexy, boozy, twangy and, yes, undeniably funky stuff. Packaged, as previously, in a handsome tip-on gatefold sleeve with illustrations by Rotter (who additionally collaborates with writer Hundley for a comic book story on the gatefold titled “Country Funk: A Luv Story Starring The Hot Dawgs”), Country Funk II is another collector’s delight.
With any such compilation, the fresh discovery factor always holds the most potential, and CF2 does not disappoint. From Jim Ford’s psychedelic funk blowout “Rising Sign” (as noted previously, Ford was one of the clear standouts on CF1, and here he does not disappoint) and Donnie Fritts’ truth-in-titling “Sumpin Funky Going On” which out-swamps even the likes of Tony Joe White, to Hoyt Axton’s down ‘n’ dirty chicken-pickin’ stomper “California Women” and the perpetually underrated Thomas Jefferson Kaye’s sinewy, sexy “Collection Box,” this is the sound of weekday woes and weeknight woo, Saturday night sinnin’ and Sunday morning prayin’, equal parts outlaw country, Memphis gospel and New Orleans boogaloo.
And for sheer jaw-dropping oddball genius it would be hard to top “Nobody,” a gonzo slice of psychedelia stitched together by… drumroll please… Larry Williams, Johnny Watson and The Kaleidoscope. Look up those names if you have to. Other familiar names with winning tracks are Townes Van Zandt, Dillard and Clark (that would be Doug and Gene) and Ian & Sylvia Tyson’s early band the Great Speckled Bird. One big surprise: the inclusion of the ever-delectable Jackie DeShannon, who gamely attempts The Band classic “The Weight,” a somewhat odd choice given how tall a shadow that tune casts, but for the most part she holds up her end of the bargain.
Meanwhile, and curiously, some of the aforementioned heavy hitters have the least interesting turns on the album. Willie Nelson’s 1975 tune “Shotgun Willie,” for example, has all the right components in place—loping beat, Memphian horns, humid Muscle Shoals vibe—but it’s still a slight number. And Dolly Parton, typically, sucks all the air out of the room with a boot-scootin’ piece of fluff called “Getting Happy.” Those quibbles aside, the listenability factor of the album remains high, and overall it is highly recommended.
Overall, if the first volume was a five-out-of-five star precious gem, this one’s a respectable four-star diamond in the rough. The fact that the two releases have already sparked a serious Jim Ford obsession on the part of yours truly would suggest that Light In The Attic has succeeded once again. To quote a semi-famous politician, “Mission accomplished.”