This week’s Compact Capsules zeroes in on four recent releases from Oakland-based HighTone Records. The label dubs this latest flurry of recordings “Big Noise from Springfield, Missouri” seeing that the four acts represented each makes its music out of that Southern Missouri metropolis situated on the cusp of the Ozarks. Usually when conversation turns to the bastions of country music, it’s places like Nashville, Bakersfield, and even Chicago and Shreveport for that matter, that garner the bulk of the attention. Yet Springfield, Missouri, once home to the Ozark Jubilee which rivaled similarly styled music variety shows like the Grand Ol’ Opry, Louisiana Hayride and National Barndance, has its own storied past when it comes to country and hillbilly music. Hosted by the great country crooner Red Foley, it was the Jubilee that beat the Opry to the switch when it came to broadcast television securing a nationwide slot on ABC in 1955, and where it remained for five years. It was the Jubilee that gave rise to such performers as Brenda Lee and Porter Wagoner, while the town itself was where country singers such as Wynn Stewart, Marvin Rainwater and rockabilly Ronnie Self all cut their performing teeth. Lou Whitney was just hitting his teens when as a youth in Phoenix, Arizona and would tune into the Jubilee on the television each Saturday night. He’d catch the music bug in a big time way and in particular, twang fever thanks to the country slant of the show. Next thing you know, Whitney would be sneaking listens at Phoenix recording studios and clubs to the likes of Duane Eddy, Al Casey, and Lee Hazelwood. Whitney would attend college in Tennessee working towards a degree in real estate. On the side he’d work as a sideman in a variety of soul bands. He’d eventually take a job selling real estate in of all places, Springfield. That was 1971. He’d quit the job after a year and form a band playing Top 40 covers. That would evolve into a new wave band and finally in 1980, become The Morells for which he is most widely known. Another Whitney band, The Skeletons, would also spin off. Whitney would eventually open his own recording facility called The Studio which is still going strong to this day. Considered one of the foremost producers when it comes to roots recordings, it is a place where performers from Wilco to Syd Straw to Robbie Fulks have all cut records under Whitney’s watchful eye. It is Whitney, who at 62 years of age is busier than ever, is the common thread across the four albums comprising “Big Noise from Springfield” one release of which comes from his long time band The Morells while the remaining albums from acts such as the Domino Kings, Brian Capps, and the Belairs are each produced by him.
Think About It
Whereas not very prolific on either the recording or live front, consider The Morells the next best thing to the celebrated band NRBQ when it comes to bar band rock and roll. And rock, with plenty of roll, sets the stage for Think About It. Celebrating 25 years in the business, the 11-track recording is the combo’s first release since its 2001 release Shake and Push. That release, by the way, broke a 19 year drought. Roadhouse music, plain and simple, that moves from swing to rockabilly to big twang to cool blues to balls-to-the-wall rock and roll is the music menu for Think About It. With long-time Whitney running mate D. Clinton Thompson leading the charge on guitar, the album moves between a stash of nifty covers and fine originals. The former include an ultra-hip rendition of Duane Eddy’s talking blues styled cult classic “Guitar Man”, a hard charging cover of “Girls Don’t Worry My Mind” with barroom piano and all taken from the catalogue of old time country duo the Delmore Brothers, “Ups and Downs” and “Let’s Dance On” from Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Monkees, respectively, and a sinfully cool take on Chuck Berry’s “Nadine” which leads the album off in spot-on fashion. Simply put, these guys know how to pick ’em. The original numbers, five in all, are no slouches moving from the instrumental “Popbelly” featuring some great back and forth between Thompson fingerpicking on the guitar and Dudley Brown on the keyboards to the good time blues of “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark At You Anymore” and summertime shenanigans of the garage-styled rocker “Cool Summer” with its side of Beach Boys helium harmonies. The Morells have never been about taking the listener deep relying instead on solid musicianship and songs ready made for hoisting a few to down at the roadhouse. Think About It is right in line. (HighTone Records, 220 4th Street #101, Oakland, CA 94607, or www.hightone.com)
The Domino Kings
Some Kind of Sign
Walk Through Walls
Springfield acts The Domino Kings and Brian Capps each prefer to hang their respective hats more on the rocking side of the alternative country rack. For The Domino Kings, the great sounding Some Kind of Sign is the group’s fourth longplayer and arguably its most realized production to date. With Whitney at the controls, the band moves effortlessly between full-bodied roots rockers (the leadoff track which doubles as the title track being a prime example), shufflin’ country (“Walk Away If You Want To”), ballads, and even a slice of Latino-flavored retro rock ala the catchy “Pain In My Past”. At the same time, the band demonstrates some pretty solid songwriting chops where deep-hearted balladry (“A Million Miles From Here” and the ultra-catchy “Lying Next To Me”) stands toe to toe with honky tonkers brimming with crafty wordplay (“Pain In My Past”, “It’s All Over But the Crying”, “Bridges I’ve Burned”).
Go back to the Domino Kings’ 2000 release Life & 20 and it was bassist Brian Capps who handled the bulk of the lead vocal chores for the band. Blame it on the old creative differences for Capps’ departure from the DKs not long after that release. A lifelong Springfield native, Capps traces his love of country and rockabilly back to a Johnny Cash show he attended with his parents in Springfield when he was all of five years old. Capps’ stellar debut called Walk Through Walls follows a blueprint not far removed from the Man in Black’s repertoire on that night years ago, that being tunes awash in the honky tonk and rockabilly spirit. The album’s 10 cuts mix seven Capps originals with covers of songs by Rodney Crowell (“Standing On a Rock”) and Merle Travis (“The Devil to Pay” and the classic “Dark As a Dungeon”). Possessing a highly likeable singing voice, musically speaking Walk Through Walls is all freshly delivered with an appealing retro glaze and presents an artist in Capps to keep a watchful eye on.
Got Love is the HighTone Records debut for Springfield-based blues rockers the Belairs. A hard-working Midwest combo formed in 1981, the longplayer offers up 11 tunes that straddle the rock and soul side of the blues. While a decent sounding album, there’s nothing groundbreaking here which gets me to thinking that this a band for which the recorded work just doesn’t do justice. In other words, catch ’em live if they ever get out this way. Frankly speaking, I’d rather spend my listening dollar on some of our own solid local entities traversing the same turf as the Belairs, cats such as a Dave Howard or Thom Enright.
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)