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, but most don't let something as trivial as that get in the way of what they believe.
Personally, of the two extremes mentioned above, I do have a tendency to fall into the latter camp, but I justify that by the large number of people I've met who would be equally comfortable flying a swastika as the stars and bars. I know not everybody who thinks the old Rebel flag is cool is a white supremacist, but there are too many out there for my comfort.
Now that you know where I stand - a whole bunch further to the left than most of the left (a good friend of mine from the Kentucky area refers to me as a beady eyed Canadian with my head full of lies) you'll understand why I've never been a big fan of either, what most people refer to as, Southern rock or its country kissing cousin. Personally I don't see why anybody would boast about supporting Richard Nixon and I can't see what it has to do with a part of the world which produced William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, Martin Luther King Jr., and a host of other enlightened people. There's an incredibly rich and diverse musical, and cultural heritage in the South, but you'd never know it by what you hear on the radio or blasting out of speakers at long weekend barbecues.
The irony of this whole Southern rock thing of course is the fact rock and roll was born in the South. 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 that most of the so called founders of rock and roll are now considered icons of country music, but that's a whole other sociological phenomenon best left to cultural historians a couple hundred years from now. What all of this is building up to is the latest release from Alabama native son Grayson Capps, The Lost Cause Minstrals, on the Royal Potato Family in early June 2011.
The last time I reviewed one of Grayson's CDs I said something along the lines of you haven't heard Southern rock if you hadn't listened to his music. It was one of those glib lines we reviewers occasionally spout off when we think we're being smart that end up coming back to bite us in the ass. They might look good as a quote on a media page of somebody's web site, but they really don't mean squat. All it means is I now have had to spend the first part of this review rehashing the whole Southern rock thing in order to peel off the label I so carelessly pasted on him last time. Capps can't be relegated to some backwater genre that makes people think of a specific style of music or a limited world view. 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 twenty year old brandy aged in; rough from the experience of years passing and smooth from the mellowing effects of aging. However its not a single note voice as one moment its 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 rock and roll is. 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 without being sentimental, Grayson Capps is one of the best damn songwriters around today, and this is his best recording to date.
(Article first published as Music Review: Grayson Capps - The Lost Cause Minstrels on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted June 2011)
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.