Sparked by the recent inaugural Uncle Tupelo tribute show in St. Louis, I am posting some chapters from my unpublished musical memoir that deal with those guys. This is Chapter 118, twelve chapters along from my previous post, "Picking and grinning". The band Enormous Richard became the band Eleanor Roosevelt, which evolved into a field recording collective. Uncle Tupelo pops back into this account of some of our folklore projects.
By Chris King
Anthony Seeger must have taken a break from dancing with the Indians in the Amazon, because Smithsonian/Folkways finally got around to releasing its Bascom Lamar Lunsford CD I instigated. The release was announced that summer at the festival in Asheville Bascom had founded.
I was unable to attend, though Jo Lunsford Herron later played me a video of the event, and sure enough, “a young man in a rock band from St. Louis” was thanked from the grandstand and in the liner notes. I puffed up at my first folklore credit.
LIj and I put out a cassette for the Grebo elder Nymah Kumah. His Grebo archive deserved a 10-disc boxed set, not a 90-minute cassette, but we were penniless. Seeger wouldn’t release it on Folkways, and our usual lack of business sense and patience with tedium kept us from working the marketplace to find Nymah a deal. Never mind its chintzy aspect, our tape made the old Grebo clown more proud than anyone who ever unfolded a thank-you note at a Grammy podium.
We staged a release party for Nymah at Focal Point in St. Louis. It was well-attended, since word had spread among drum connoisseurs — the one type of person I have ever seen Nymah Kumah disappoint. These guys came in talking math. They were interested in learning new time signatures and syncopations. It was a little like the people who descend on distant corners of the earth just to check one bird off their career list of species sighted.
Nymah Kumah wanted to talk humanity, not math. The drum was just another voice to him, not an instrument for technical display. He refused to pull a drum pattern out of the context of a story and teach a rhythm in isolation. A lot of drummers showed up buggy-eyed with anticipation, but went home grumpy that night. That was fine with me. They all bought cassettes, which they could pause and rewind as often as needed to nail down the latest exotic rhythm pattern.
Nymah’s local girlfriend, the Goddess of Illusion at fifty, showed up at the gig with a warm smile, and went home with a warm smile, taking a grinning Grebo songster with her. I let them sleep late the next morning, since we had no pressing travel plans. When I went to retrieve him in the afternoon, Nymah answered her door naked. The image of that old man’s bare bum busting back up the steps will accompany me to the grave.
We mailed the hippie commune East Wind copies of Nymah’s cassette, but paid no visit this time around, as I was needed elsewhere. Lij’s ambitions for the Rosco Gordon record were outgrowing the field of folklore. He thought the old man had another hit record in him.
Lij wanted to build a band around Rosco through overdubs in Nashville, but he couldn’t work with those rotten piano tracks. So I put Nymah on a plane to Boston and drove Lij in the equipment-crammed Birthplace (my battered 1987 Cavalier) back to New York, where we borrowed time on a family Baby Grand that lived in Lij’s brother’s Brooklyn apartment.
Rosco, we learned, had diabetes. He took a break from our session to jab a needle of insulin into his little belly.
At least he didn’t sing his ulcers into aggravation during this session, though there was nothing we could do to stop him from playing ferociously enough to rip himself apart.
“I’m running out of chances,” Rosco said. “At my age, one day is two weeks. One month is two years.” He worked out this confusing math on a scrap of paper and left it with Lij, as a reminder of urgency.
Lij jumped right on those overdubs. He was trained to build a recording from the drum tracks up. For the Rosco record, we already had piano, guitar, and lead vocal tracks, so Lij’s instinct was to get the drums next. He called me down to Nashville, and we built our studio in the basement of a local drummer named Ken Coomer.
Uncle Tupelo had crept into our life once again, we would have thought for the last time. When Tupelo’s drummer, Mike Heidorn, left the band to raise a family, they replaced him with Ken Coomer, who then joined Jeff Tweedy in his new band Wilco after the Jay-Jeff split. Wilco was exploding in ways unknown to Uncle Tupelo or any of our peers, and had given Coomer a taste of life in a plush tour bus with beds, a fridge, a mini recording studio, and a professional driver behind the wheel.
But Coomer still knew the root, the real deal, when he came across it. “Come on!” he said, as Lij set up microphones, and I stir-fried cactus in Ken's kitchen. “Let’s get one with Rosco!”
Getting one with Rosco was no simple task. No amount of drummer’s math would prepare you for it. The Rosco rhythm had a logic all its own. It was not a question of keeping time, but rather following the unpredictable rhythmic instincts of an unusual old man. You had to learn his mood for changes.
Rosco’s beats changed in ways they don’t teach you in music school or in a pop band like Wilco. I thought of the chicken Rosco used to get drunk and set atop his piano. Maybe we should have got a chicken drunk, let it dance, and had Coomer play to that. We had no use for a click track. Maybe what we needed was a cluck track.
From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore (unpublished).
Previous posts in this series
In the hothouse basement
The allure of the ever-elusive exposure gig
Opening for Uncle Tupelo
A meeting in Old Blue
Strangers in the village
Managing your religion
A farewell to Old Blue
No Chris Bess
Jamming with the dead
Fruits of the tunes
Picking and grinning
The record Lij and I produced for Rosco Gordon was released by Dualtone Music Group in Nashville as No Dark in America (2005). The cover art, above, is by my friend George Davidson of Athens, Ga.