"Geoff Muldaur & The Texas Sheiks" - 2009
„My crazy little projects…“ American roots music legend Geoff Muldaur like to have his tongue planted firmly in his cheek when it comes to speaking about his work. With a fair amount of understatement the still very active blues legend covers up the fact that his music supplies a profound sense of meaning for the still young century, a time progressively marked by the loss of collective cultural memory. Geoff Muldaur is a man for musical projects out of the ordinary. His individual knowledge and skills not only qualify him as an accomplished intermediary between past and present. In an offhand kind of way, he’s a guardian of musical traditions, intensively channelling past riches and providing new life for old forms. The Texas Sheiks project was sparked by intensely personal motives, however, inspired by a spirit of brotherhood. Harking back to a time long since past, almost half a century ago..
Like some other white and middle-class kids at the time, New York-born Geoff Muldaur caught a contagious bug in the conformist 1950s. A virus that caused him and his friends to go back into the distant mists of time, to the early days of blues, jazz and folk traditions. With arcane and mysterious figures visiting via old 78s, changing lives forever in the process. Artist/eccentric/collector Harry Smith had presented many of these obscure voices from the American past on his „Anthology Of American Folk Music“, released in 1952 on Folkways Records from New York City. Like members of a secret brotherhood, young enthusiasts started tracing these voices, connecting in spirit and sometimes in person. Travelling the Deep South, discovering a mythical world of secrets, later termed “The Old, Weird America” by critic/essayist Greil Marcus. A deep cultural heritage, providing a new and authentic America far away from the plastic world of shallow consumerism endorsed by contemporary mass media. Geoff Muldaur has been busy working on these discoveries all of his musical life: as a young hipster with the Jim Kweskin Jugband, as a part of the Woodstock scene, in a stream of musical projects leading right into the present. Today, Geoff Muldaur is an elder statesman of American roots music.
Fast forward into the present… And welcome to “Sheiksville”. It’s a great place to be.
In early 2008 Geoff Muldaur and producer Roger Kasle made a positive decision in the face of adversity. Their mutual friend Stephen Bruton, Texas music man extraordinaire, was fighting cancer. With and for the ailing Stephen – wandering dictionary of Texas music, beloved and respected colleague/friend – musical signals of personal relief and artistic diversion were meant to be set, with a small group of players gathering for spirited musical sessions in Austin, TX. Players who inhabit the worlds of their musical ancestry like second nature. The world of old bluesmen and acoustic music from the Deep South – Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas. Featuring songs from the traditions of string band music, country blues, jump blues, Texas swing. When Muldaur made the call they all came. From Texas: Stephen Bruton (guitar, mandolin, vocals – Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, T-Bone Burnett, Delbert McClinton); Bruce Hughes (bass / vocals – The Resentments, Poi Dog Pondering, Jason Mraz…); Cindy Cashdollar (National and steel guitars / dobro – Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Paul Butterfield, Asleep At The Wheel, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison…); Johnny Nicholas (vocals, guitar, harp, Asleep At The Wheel). From California: Suzy Thompson (fiddle / accordion - Bay Area old time music scene). Special “guest sheik” emeritus: Jim Kweskin, vocals, guitar. Last but not least “head sheik” Geoff Muldaur (vocals / guitar / 6-string-banjo).
Why TEXAS SHEIKS? The answer takes us back to the 1920s when Rudolph Valentino’s flick “The Sheik” established him as the new prototype of New Romeo and seducer. To be seen not just on movie screens in Los Angeles and New York. Also in Mississippi, where African-American strings bands were courting black and white audiences with a heterogeneous sort of musical repertoire. Two main ensembles have been adopted by musical historians today, due to their popularity and skills: “The Beale Street Sheiks” featuring songster, bluesman and Father of Memphis Blues Frank Stokes; and “The Mississippi Sheiks” featuring the Chatmon family. Songs from both of these groups have found a new home in the irresistible TEXAS SHEIKS songbook. Legitimate successors in a special genealogy for sure…
String band music today is widely considered to be a subgenre of American „oldtime music“. The music is played with just a few stringed instruments, fiddle and banjo the most venerable ones in terms of historic importance. There is no shortage of connections to the deepest folk traditions of American music, from African-American 19th century pioneers to Caucasian country and bluegrass bands of later periods. In the US, the genre is by no means just for the conservative domain of society. The „O Brother…“ phenomenon paved the way for a spectacular renaissance for various strands of old-time music, especially from the 1920s und 1930s. Oldtime is cool these days. There are countless brilliant bands with young players to be heard on club and festival stages, providing new energy and new life for old traditions, sometimes playing material that ethnologists can trace back to the griots of Western Africa and the Caribbean. In today’s Global Village, the folk process is alive and well.
There was no separation of black and white strands of tradition with the Mississippi Sheiks – maybe for the very first time in the history of American music. „Rebellion against routine seems to be their strong theme,“ Bob Dylan once wrote about his perception of the group and he might have been right. „I can’t be good no more / Like I did before / I can’t be good, baby / Because the world’s gone wrong“ – the album’s first track is a true Mississippi Sheiks classic and leads us straight into the depths of the “Old, Weird America”. Once it was Dylan singing this lyric, now it’s Muldaur, with his very own mix of detachment and passion. A magical voice with a singular approach still. But he not the only Sheik who likes to sing: Johnny Nicholas and Stephen Bruton take turns as well. There certainly is a great variety to be found with the Sheiks and – very much in line with historic Sheiks principles – no separation of the black and white lines of tradition.
TEXAS SHEIKS are revisiting some true legends here: Big Bill Broonzy & Washboard Sam, jugband music pioneer Gus Cannon, Western Swing stars Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Delta blues legend Skip James, Beale Street Sheiks, Frank Stokes and Robert Johnson. On top of these, there is an extra dose of pleasure to be found in the more obscure parts of the Sheiks repertoire: „Blues In The Bottle“ – a 1928er pioneering Western Swing tune by Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers. „Don’t Sell It“ – Don’t Give It Away“ – a 1937 milestone of string band history by Buddy Woods & The Wampus Cats, the first interracial ensemble of the genre. On top of that there is „Under The Chicken Tree“ – a 1927 example of songster hilariousness by Earl McDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band. There also is „Cairo Blues“ a 1929 classic by mysterious country blues singer Henry Spaulding.
But that is not all. At the very end of the album, there is a special train coming : “I’m going where the Southern crosses the Dog…” – the lyric to W.C. Handy’s 1915 “Yellow Dog Blues” starts at a mythical - and real – Mississippi crossroads. Now it’s also taking us away on one of the finest albums of traditional American music in recent memory. Bookend to a compendium of songs made only richer by the passing of time. Music from Sheiksville – a place of remembrance and a place for celebration. A pretty friendly place after all: Inviting, joyful, blessed with a sense of friendship and camaraderie, marked by timeless musicianship. Welcome again to Sheiksville – it’s a great place to be.
Texas master musician Stephen Bruton passed away in Los Angeles on May 9th, 2009. He was sixty years old and had just completed a very final work with his long-time friend T-Bone Burnett. The TEXAS SHEIKS project is the next to last project Stephen Bruton was able to finish. For close friend Geoff Muldaur it was „… one of the most enjoyable times we have ever had in the recording studio.“