There’s a tendency in many of us – and I say “us” because I’m just as guilty as any Yankee – to romanticize, even exoticize the American South. We like to think that below the Mason-Dixon line there lies an untouched gothic Shangri-La, all dusty highways and dilapidated roadside juke joints, where the radio plays nothing but Hank Williams, Skip James and Charlie Feathers. Deep down, of course, we know that what’s actually lurking in them thar hills are the Mall of America, the Bush family and Faith Hill…but it’s a nice pipe dream nevertheless. And you can rest assured that Saw Mill Man, the incredible debut album by Cast King of Old Sand Mountain, Alabama, will make that fantasy go into overdrive.
Even the back-story sounds like a fanciful work of fiction: King, a 79-year-old man who recorded for Sun Studios in the 1950s before disappearing into a half century’s retirement, has emerged without warning from the very depths of our imaginary South, armed with a voice like cracked earth and twelve stark, eerie, unpolished gems of songs. Hell yes, it’s raw – recorded on four-track with cheap microphones and makeshift cables, in a chicken shack outside Cast’s own house, this shit makes Link Wray’s production sound like Electric Light Orchestra. And yet it’s all these songs need: just an acoustic rhythm guitar strummed by King himself, an electric lead courtesy of Sam Beam-bearded producer Matt Downer, and that voice. On tracks like “Long Time Now” and “Peggy,” King’s vocals seem to leak out of a crackly old transistor radio, increasing the illusion that this is some buried treasure from 1945 and not a brand new record from 2005. The romantics in us begin to swoon. This is pure country music, we say. The anti-Nashville. We construct a mental image of a strange mountain hermit picking in solitude on his front porch, blissfully unaware of the cellular phones, Top 40 radio and cinema multiplexes mere miles away. After all, Old Sand Mountain may only be 800 miles from Ann Arbor, Michigan, but it might just as well be on the Moon. Cast King is our alien cultural ambassador, a real-life novelty from the strange and distant past. And for an instant, that Southern gothic Shangri-La doesn’t seem so imaginary after all.
Except that Old Sand Mountain is only 800 miles away, and Cast King hails from neither the past nor the Moon. He’s living in the same century as the rest of us – and that is precisely what makes Saw Mill Man so startlingly good. Yes, it sounds “old.” But in subject matter, it’s startlingly modern; from the references to psychiatrists and medical marijuana in “Low Low Blues” to the blunt confessions of alcoholism and depression in “Wino” and “Numb,” respectively. Moments like this, contemporary and relevant but never forced, serve to hold our “exotic” tendencies in check; reminding us that King is an absolutely vital force in music, not as some kind of historical oddity but as a living, breathing singer-songwriter. His album may sound reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s American Recordings minimalism (or even his early work with the Tennessee Two), but unlike Cash, King’s legend has not yet overshadowed the person who lies beneath: a person whose deep and often painful emotions are palpable on every last one of these songs.
In short, this isn’t just a cool album or a weird one, nor is it a mere archival goldmine (though Downer’s Alan Lomax-styled historian’s approach should not be left unpraised). It is a great album, pure and simple; one of the most exciting releases of this or any year. Now let’s just hope it doesn’t take Cast King another 79 years to come out with the next one.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins
This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.