Friday, July 02, 2010

Hamper McBee: The Good Old-Fashioned Way

Hamper McBee

The Good Old-Fashioned Way

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Drag City

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According to Tennessee legend and his own self-mythologizing, at various points in life, Hamper McBee was a moonshiner, army man and carnival barker. He also reportedly worked as a mule driver, timber cutter and construction man. He drank a little bit and then drank a whole lot more, spoke in a down-home Southern drawl and had the type of facial hair that would make Franz Nicolay jealous. He was an amateur musician and consummate yarn-spinner whose rough edges perfectly captured the spirit and tone of the songs he'd play. He could have been a character from a Tom Waits song.

McBee's reputation as both an irreverent lyricist and an eccentric interpreter of songs has afforded him a modest cult following in the years following his death. That reputation is primarily tied to 1978's Raw Mash: Songs & Stories of Hamper McBee, an impossible-to-find and altogether-too-brief glimpse of the McBee mystique. That album has now been repackaged with a dozen or so previously unreleased tracks as The Good Old-Fashioned Way, which pretty much contains as much McBee as anyone could ever possibly need or - for those who aren't on board - want. It's a niche item to be sure, but for listeners who fancy themselves students of American, English or Irish folk music or who simply need another peculiar artist to complement their Baby Gramps, Daniel Johnston and Vic Chesnutt records, this reissue should suffice.

Among the many singers who have tackled traditional folk ballads, McBee's approach was unarguably unique; he sang unaccompanied by any instrumentation, his weathered voice sounding as dusty and boozy as anything you'd find on a Harry Smith anthology. None of the songs McBee covers on Way are particularly obscure - McBee favors standards like "Black Jack Davy," "Streets of Laredo," Jack of Diamonds," "John Hardy" and "Knoxville Girl" - but stripped of any instrumentation and propelled by McBee's ragged voice they are undeniably powerful and show just why there's nothing quite like these bizarre songs. The album closes with a previously unreleased version of "Dark as a Dungeon" - that famous miner's lament that has been covered by the likes of giants like Dylan, Cash, Louvin and Nelson - with McBee's brief version stripped to the bone and evoking the song's desperation and fatalism in a way those masters never quite did.

This sincerity and obvious appreciation for the past sits uneasily alongside McBee's absolute lack of political correctness or basic decorum. While McBee originals like "Jasper Jail" and "Wauhatchie Yards" fall neatly within folk's common motif of downtrodden, hard-luck protagonists, elsewhere McBee celebrates folk music's vulgar side. It's not quite Nick Cave absolutely obliterating the Stackalee ballad, but a few inclusions come close. He clearly gets a kick out of the crude "Sally Make Water" and the even cruder title song, and also offers a "damn limey" version of "Cabbage Head," complete with a cockney accent and no attempt at subtlety ("When I came home the other night drunk as I could be/ There's was a thing in your old thing where my old thing should be"). This blue material is augmented by several of the musician's profanity-laced monologues, where he talks about his frequent bouts of public drunkenness, how he'd swindle lovestruck boys out of their money when he worked in the carnival, what it's like to guzzle still mash and why he's glad he's an Episcopalian ("they believe in drinkin,' and hell I do too"). It's the type of stuff you don't talk about in polite company, but one gets the impression that McBee never really gave a damn about polite company.

Charles Wolfe's liner notes from the 1978 album are reprinted and the package's overall aesthetics are solid; for those wired a certain way, The Good Old-Fashioned Way is a music collector's dream, as it combines the intimacy of a home recording with the occasional coarseness of a treasured bootleg. This album is not for those who offend easily, and, coupled with an abrasive personality that some listeners could find grating, it's hard to imagine McBee appealing to a broad audience or getting much widespread attention. Still, I suppose stranger things in music have happened, and it doesn't get much stranger -and, at times at least, better - than Hamper McBee.


Anonymous said...

I think it shows a man that has been around.Saw the good side of life ,the bad side of life and just made the most of it.We need more like him.

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