When Elvis and others started recording back in the fifties down in Memphis for Sun Records they took the music they grew up listening to on the radio and melded it to what they heard coming out of the black communities. Although it was called rock and roll, it bore very little relation to the music we call by that name today. If anything, it sounded a heck of a lot like what we now call rockabilly.
Probably some so-called folk purists, anyone who thinks that folk music has to be played on acoustic instruments only, would argue that I'm off base, but I think what they were doing at that time was folk music. If folk music is supposed to be music that reflects the the people of a particular region, i.e. the music of the folk, than people like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis were doing that for the people of their region better then anybody else had done before.
When I think back over the music that I'm familiar with from the last thirty to forty years, the rock and roll that I've liked the best has had roots running back to a certain community or region. It doesn't matter whether the community has been the slums of Brixton in London England or the streets of Spanish Harlem in New York City, the music has grown out of something and has a connection of some sort to a people's voice. Now I don't know if it's because I tend to gravitate to this music over others or not, but it seems like I'm hearing more and more regional music these days. One guy who recently came to my attention playing music along those lines is Grayson Capps
I first heard him on a release of stripped down out takes of some of his older material on an album called Songbonesand was blown away by his voice and the lyrics to his songs. I contacted his label, Hyena Records, to see about getting more of his music and they sent me out an advance copy of Rott 'N' Roll slated for release on September 9th/08. Unlike Songbones, which was just Grayson and one other musician, Rott 'N' Roll is him with his band, The Stumpknockers, going at it in the studio.
Grayson was born in Alabama in 1967 and grew up surrounded by artists, poets and musicians. He went Tulane University in New Orleans on a theatre scholarship and it was while in school he formed his first band. Although both that band and a subsequent one achieved recognition and gained some acclaim, they both ended up self destructing. It was while he was living in New Orleans though that he made the connection that would start him on his solo career as a singer songwriter. His father had written an unpublished novel, and a film maker friend of his turned it into the 2003 movie A Love Song For Bobby Long staring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson. Grayson wrote four songs for the soundtrack and had a small part in the movie.
Since then he has released three recordings, If You Knew My Mind, Wail & Ride, and the previously mentioned Songbones, toured North America and Europe, and been forced to move from New Orleans to Tennessee after Katrina wiped out his home while he was on tour in 2005.
Rott 'N' Roll was recorded in his home studio in Tennessee and he and the Stumpknockers recorded their tracks live, with the majority of what was used coming from the first takes. While obviously that accounts for some of the raw and vibrant energy that comes through on this disc, the songs; their subject matter and Grayson's ability to bring people and places to life in a song, are what make this recording truly special. Anybody can do a "live" studio recording, but if the material sucks, the recording is still going to suck in the end - needless to say the material on this disc doesn't suck.
Musically it's an amazing hybrid of country, New Orleans blues, and raw rock and roll that can't help make you think of boarding houses on dusty back streets in the old, ramshackle parts of some faded Southern town you've never heard of. You know, the kind of places where the paint on the clapboard has seen so much sun, rain, and wind that whatever colour it might have once had is long gone. Nobody hurries on these streets because there's no reason to. Whatever work there is to be had comes in fits and starts, and most of the day is spent sitting on the porch listening to the flies buzz.
Of course it's a different story when the sun goes down and the fire flies start dancing and the couple of street lights come on. Music spills out of doorways leading into kitchen parties where men and women sit drinking beer and whisky around the peeling linoleum. Or down at corner there's a band playing in a bar where the only air conditioning comes from the condensation on the bottles and cans of beer. There's an edge to the night that is a little dangerous, but mostly just alive. There's still life in these streets, but if you don't know where or how to look you won't see it.
Grayson Capps' songs see into these houses and show us the life and vitality that exists under the seemingly dead or somnambulistic exterior. Poets, preachers, prostitutes, and others come and go in his songs. Laughing, crying, and just going on about the business of living their lives in an environment that the majority of us no nothing about and will probably never even notice. There's nothing sentimental or romantic about his songs, or the people who live in them, but he sees them for who they are and not what they look like. Most of all though he refuses to dismiss or ignore them, and reminds us that they exist and feel just like the rest of us.
If you like your music, rough, raw and honest, accompanied by lyrics that are a mix of poetry, bourbon, humour, and empathy, than you need to listen to Grayson Capps. Rott 'N' Roll will make you realize that you've never actually heard Southern rock before - everything else was just a pale imitation of this - the real thing.
(Originally posted July 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.