Friday, June 24, 2011

Danny Mayer: The Old, Weird Canelands

The old, weird canelands
By Danny Mayer
North of Center

“oh those fabled canelands
they come shimmering back
through two centuries”

—Warren Byrom, “Fabled Canelands”

There is a grand tradition within roots music to evoke what Greil Marcus has termed “the old, weird America,” a sort of mythical, strange underworld of the pre-modern American republic, a place where the boundaries separating blues, country, folk and mountain music do not yet seem to have taken hold. Musically, think Harry Smith’s folkways recordings of the 1920s, Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, the Carter Family, John Hartford’s Aereoplane years, The Basement Tapes, Nebraska, and just about anything by Gillian Welch, Uncle Tupelo or Dexter Romweber.

Marcus used the term to describe how roots music connected modern America with its freakish past at risk of complete erasure: Pre-depression era Chicago confidence men like Yellow Kid Wiel selling fake stock options, nineteenth century medicine men traveling the deep south hawking healing tonics, turn of the century Shakespearean acting troupes floating down the Ohio, early republic religious revivalists setting up tents by the tens of thousands in the wilderness of Cane Ridge, KY, for weeks of Jesus, booze and massive orgies. Think of it as our national id, part fantasy and part historical record, old maps reminding new worlds.

Beginning with the album cover—a Gina Phillips tapestry depicting a pre-colonial Englishman in the opening act of clubbing an Indian—Warren Byrom’s debut solo record The Fabled Canelands is firmly situated within that old, weird America. The songs span a geographic and musical terrain bordered by the Appalachian mountains, the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the Louisiana Gulf coast, though the heart of Byrom’s old America seems to be set nearby the inner Kentucky bluegrass region of his home, a place once thick with stands of river cane standing over ten feet tall, now long since mostly eradicated, which European settlers encountered when first flooding into the area.

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