Larry Brown Amen, the winning debut album of Missing Cats due for release in September, is the collaborative effort of longtime friends Jojo Hermann (piano/vocals) and Sherman Ewing (guitar/vocals). They became acquainted back in the ’80s at Columbia University, and sharing a passion for songwriting, they formed Sherman and the Bureaucrats and played together until Hermann moved to Mississippi, while Ewing remained in New York. Hermann began playing with the Athens, Georgia band Widespread Panic in 1992.
Ewing, after playing with various bands around the city, began a solo career in 2002. The two reunited in 2006, started writing some new songs and resumed touring with material from their solo albums, Sherman’s Single Room Saloon and Hermann’s Smiling Assassin.
The new album, described by Hermann as “New York City meets Mississippi meets Athens, GA meets Nashville,” features a dozen songs, 11 written by some combination of the two artists and at times a friend or two. Joined by a stellar host of musical cohorts—Sam Bush, Anthony Krizan, Luther and Cody Dickenson, Chad Cromwell, Guthrie Trapp, Mike Mills, Jesse Alexander, among others—they recorded the album live in Nashville over four days with Grammy-nominated producer Jon Randall Stewart. What they came up with is an album that can best be described as rock and roll roots with an edge.
Although you can’t always tell who’s playing on each individual track, there is some truly fine instrumental work throughout the album. Listen to the guitar work at the end of “How We Go From Here” and especially “Half Way to the Top.” These are musicians who can rock with the best of them and when they get a chance to let loose, they make the most of it. The raucous “Body in the River,” which has echoes of early Bob Dylan in the vocals, has them at the top of their game. Hermann works the keys with passion, and Luther Dickerson adds some powerful guitar lines. “Marissa” is a traditional rocker with a catchy hook. Hermann’s piano reminds me of the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino.
“Highwire,” the album’s only major change of pace, gives Ewing (who does all the lead vocals) a chance to show his softer side with a sweetly elegant ballad. “Your Guess Is as Good as Mine,” while also slower in tempo emphasizes a darker resignation in the tune’s lyric. Most of the songs on the album have the singer in the gritty blues mode that really defines what seems to be the Missing Cats’ signature sound.
And now, a word about the title song. If, like me, your first association with the Larry Brown of the title song is basketball, you will appreciate Jojo Hermann’s explanation. Larry Brown, he says was a writer, “one of the greatest writers,” to come out of Oxford, Mississippi. This would include among others William Faulkner and John Grisham. The song, he goes on, is based on Joe, a novel about a drunk who antagonizes the people he loves—thus the lyric “drive away the people I love.”
Larry Brown Amen is an auspicious debut for Missing Cats. Songs like “Larry Brown Amen,” “Cleanse the Lepers” and “Body in the River” illustrate the breadth and originality of the duo. Ewing and Hermann have put together an album that melds that originality with some of the best in tradition. The album is a masterful amalgam of new ideas in older forms. These are musicians who know what they want to do and know how to do it. It is a pleasure to listen to them.