I doubt there’s been any geographical area of the United States as romanticized or as vilified as the South. You either have people believing in the ball gowns and splendour of Gone With The Wind or writing the whole area off as being awash with red-necked bigots. Of course neither is the truth. Actually there’s an incredibly rich, diverse musical and cultural heritage in the South, having produced the likes of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, and Martin Luther King Jr., among other enlightened people.
The region also gave birth to rock and roll, of course, where Southern boys named Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny and their Sun Records label mates started combining the music their parents listened to with the stuff they heard leaking out of the black sections of town. Heck, you can trace the beginnings of rock and roll back to the early 1950s and the stuff a guy named Hank Williams was recording. It’s ironic, actually, that most of the so-called founders of rock and roll are now considered icons of country music.
Descending from this heritage comes the latest release from Alabama native son Grayson Capps, The Lost Cause Minstrals, on Royal Potato Family. He might be from the South and write the occasional song about characters and locations from the region, but there’s a quality to his music allowing it to cross borders and be accessible to listeners no matter where they reside.
Listening to the opening track, “Highway 42,” I was struck anew by the power of his voice, the lyrics which travel places not often found in a pop song, and his continuing ability to take a style of music that has been around for sixty some years and make it sound as fresh as the first day it was recorded in that store front studio in Memphis. Boy-leaving-girl songs are a dime a dozen in pop music, but introspective boy singing about his biggest problem being how he always blames somebody else for his problems isn’t something you hear very often, if ever. Heck if you can even name another song using narcissistic in any context, let alone appropriately like in this one, I’ll be surprised.
I was having the hardest time trying to figure out what it was about the vocal harmonies during the chorus of “Highway 42” that sounded so damn familiar. It finally hit me on my second time through listening to the disc that he and his co-producer, and partner, Trina Shoemaker, had taken bluegrass vocal harmonies and worked them into the chorus. By all rights it shouldn’t work, who ever heard of a bluegrass vocal break in the middle of what is essentially a rock and roll song? But it does and it sounds great in the way something bitter combined with something sweet will taste far better than either individual flavour would on its own.
Like those who first developed rock and roll Capps has listened to the music around him and incorporated it into his sound. As he has lived in New Orleans and Tennessee as well as his native Alabama those influences are a little more diverse than is usual for a rock and roller. While tastes of a few of these have shown up in earlier recordings, The Lost Cause Minstrels sees them beginning to coalesce into a sound; the sound of Grayson Capps. Gospel, country, bluegrass, New Orleans brass and blues are all part of that sound and are woven together in intricate patterns underneath his lyrics. You can’t always hear them front and centre in every song, but one way or another they’ve each played a role in the material on this disc.
Whether he’s singing about local history with his story of how one man and a group of his buddies revived the Mobile, Alabama Mardi Gras after the Civil War in “Ol’ Slac;” ruminating on the state of the world in “Chief Seattle” or simply singing about being in “Yes You Are,” “Paris France” and “Rock and Roll,” he treats his subjects with equal sincerity and respect. His voice still sounds like how you’d imagine the oak cask a 20- year-old brandy aged in; rough from the experience of years passing and smooth from the mellowing effects of aging. However it’s not a single-note voice as one moment it’s full of mischief and fun and the next he’s pulling at your heartstrings and brain cells while he contemplates the serious side of life.
Both rock and roll and Grayson Capps were born in the Southern states of America and they both bear the mark of the region’s musical influences. However while Capps makes no attempt to hide who he is and where he comes from, his music is no more specific to one region than is rock and roll. Simply put this is some of the best rock and roll in its purest form you’ll have heard in a long time. Intelligent without being pretentious and emotional with being sentimental, Grayson Capps is one of the best damn songwriters around today, and this is his best recording to date.
Photo credit: Grayson Capps by Adam Smith