If anyone can drag old-timey string band music — guitar, mandolin, and the occasional banjo lick — back into the spotlight, it's the South Memphis String Band.
Luther Dickinson mined Mississippi Fred McDowell's hill country blues for the foundation of his guitar work with the rootsy North Mississippi Allstars. Jimbo Mathus was one of the founders of swing revivalists the Squirrel Nut Zippers. And Alvin Youngblood Hart successfully channeled the Mississippi Sheiks' repertoire for the soundtrack of the 2007 period piece The Great Debaters.
In lesser hands, the South Memphis String Band's debut, titled Home Sweet Home, would come across like some ethnographic dissertation doomed for the dusty halls of academia.
Instead, Dickinson, Mathus, and Hart blow the dust off tunes like "Eighteen Hammers," a field recording from Parchman Farm, and "Let Your Light Shine on Me," a gospel number from Blind Willie Johnson, and play them as they were meant to be heard — full throttle and sans irony.
"Good music is always relevant," Hart says.
The era plundered by the South Memphis String Band is the epoch of circa-1930s jug bands like the Mississippi Sheiks and Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, who parlayed the sorrows of the Great Depression into raucous, devil-may-care double entendres like "Bed Spring Poker" and "My Pencil Won't Write No More" and honed in on the nation's troubles via mournful blues such as "The World Is Going Wrong."
With the current unemployment and home foreclosure rates, we need a similar diversion. Or, as the late Jim Dickinson wrote in the liner notes to Home Sweet Home, "It's a good time to listen to the blues."
According to Hart, the South Memphis String Band has simple roots.
"Luther, Jimbo, and I had gotten together on other projects that never saw the light of day, but we picked this one and pared it down to the three of us to see what we could get going," he says.
"We got together at the end of last April and loaded up Jimbo's van with our instruments and beer and a couple of books — Alan Lomax's Folk Songs of North America and a book about Missouri bushwhackers — and that's how we got started," Hart continues. "We worked up our set while driving across Arkansas to our first gig in Dallas. It was, 'I got one, you got one, let's try this.' It was organic, and once we got our set together, it worked out pretty well."
Lomax's book, a 600-page anthology that catalogs the melodies, chords, and lyrics of hundreds of works in the public domain, yielded a bedrock of material, including several songs that were transmogrified from Old English to American culture, like the meditative "Old Hen" sung by Dickinson and "Deep Blue Sea," a sea chantey previously incorporated into the Allstars' repertoire.
"I had one song I wrote, 'Bloody Bill Anderson,'" Hart says. "He was one of them Missouri bushwhackers that we had the book about. Jimbo wrote a song, 'Worry 'Bout Your Own Backyard.' We were just rolling across Arkansas in the middle of the night, getting our inspiration, listening to Dock Boggs, reading tales of murder, and singing about outlaws."
Recording the 12 tracks for the album — live, with no overdubs — came even easier. One session was captured in a radio station studio while the South Memphis String Band was on tour in Washington, D.C.; another, in Mathus' studio space in Como, Mississippi.
If the South Memphis String Band runs into any difficulties, it will be in finding time to tour. Mathus has a string of solo dates that run through mid-March, the Allstars just reunited for a 28-date U.S. tour, and Hart plans to head to Europe.
So, for now, Memphis International Records is giving Home Sweet Home, which arrived in stores on January 19th, a soft release.
"We're gonna make the time to hit the road toward the end of March," Hart says. "We'll hit the upper Midwest and the East Coast and take it from there."