Ramblin' Man 

Ron Franklin settles down with City Lights, his most high-profile release yet.

By his own admission, musician Ron Franklin is "just trying to hang with whatever's happening at the moment."

That decision has taken him from Memphis to Amsterdam and, more recently, on a coast-to-coast U.S. tour dubbed "The Unknown Tour."

Think of it as "Have Guitar, Will Travel": "If you can play a song, somebody is bound to give you a biscuit," says Franklin, who's spent the last few months on the road, performing wherever he pulls in for the night.

Some of his favorite shows, he says, occurred in New York City, where he hooked up with fellow Memphians Lorette Velvette and Alex Greene and their East Coast group the Kropotkins for performances at Tonic and the WFMU Record Fair.

"Memphis is my favorite urban place, but I prefer to stay in motion," Franklin says. "I love being here, but I also like looking out the window and being on the move."

His affinity for perpetual motion also marks his musical career, which has included stints in Jack Oblivian's group the Tennessee Tearjerkers, Austin's South Filthy, and his own bands, the Ron Franklin Entertainers and the Natural Kicks.

Various affectations, ranging from Franklin's appreciation for various noms-de-plume (he produced his newest album, City Lights, which is due this week, under the moniker Leroy Star & Flapper) to his time as an ex-pat in Europe and his love of the Southern mystique, bring to mind another Memphis rambler, Tav Falco.

Like Falco, Franklin has cultivated a talented yet loosely configured crop of backup musicians, including drummer Ross Johnson, who has performed with Falco's group Panther Burns on and off for the past 30 years.

Falco, however, views himself as a performance artist who has used a chainsaw to draw attention to the wild rockabilly and roots music of this region -- and there the similarities end.

Franklin has no need for such antics. On songs such as "Little Suzie" and "Gloryland," his musicianship, augmented by a stellar cast that includes Jim Dickinson and Adam Woodard on the keys, bassist Jeremy Scott, pedal-steel player John Whittemore, banjo player Randal Morton, and percussionist Greg Roberson, shines through to stand front-and-center.

Cut, like most of Franklin's other work, at Willie Mitchell's Royal Recording Studio in South Memphis, City Lights evokes the sounds of Chicago's Chess Records rather than the revolutionary arrangements Mitchell is known for, particularly on a well-placed cover of Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days," re-interpreted with a revival-like fervor.

Gospel-influenced tunes such as "Beyond the River" and "How Free Will I Be This Morning" shift the mood from a stompin' Sunday-morning service to a twangy cowboy's lament, while the album's opener, "Warming by the Devil's Fire" and "What Is This Present Moment" rock like outtakes from the Band's Moondog Matinee.

"It's a familiar room," Franklin says of the decision to cut at Royal. "Depending on what I hear in my head, I get a sense of where I want to set things up. Having Dickinson play with us was pretty wild. I really don't have any memory of actually playing at that session. I do recall listening in on the headphones. What Jim was playing has ultimately affected the way I perceive these songs, long after I'd written them."

The album follows closely on the heels of another Franklin release, Blue Shadows Falling, recorded at Royal with bassist Ilene Markell, pianist Gerald Stephens, and drummers Renardo Ward and Paul Buchignani. Yet while Blue Shadows Falling is available as a self-produced, limited-edition CD, City Lights will be released on Memphis International Records, which gives Franklin access to a publicity department and international distribution.

"I made the record first, and [the Memphis International deal] just kinda happened," Franklin recalls. "I've been working on so many other things that it seemed like this could make getting the album out easier.

"Everything fell together," he says of the label's decision to drop the record this weekend, when music-industry executives representing the fringes of Americana music are in town for the International Folk Alliance Conference.

Franklin will be appearing at the Hi-Tone Café Thursday, February 22nd, opening for Jonathan Richman. Friday, he'll play a free concert at Shangri-La Records. He'll perform twice at the conference itself, including a Saturday-night slot during the International Music and Dance Festival, open to non-registrants for a nominal fee.

"I plan on hitting the road right after the Saturday show. I'm headed to Austin," Franklin says. "By next month, I'll be in L.A. Here in Memphis, all my stuff is just stashed away."

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