I've been listening obsessively to "the Anthology of American Folk Music," a reissue of a bunch of 78 rpm records collected and annotated in the 1950s by a lunatic musicologist-film maker-proto-beatnik named Harry Smith.
The release is a work of art in itself and includes a deeply eccentric descriptive booklet by the editor. Everything from blues to gospel, with stops in the Appalachians, is contained within, and the anthology was a major influence on guys like Bob Dylan and Peter Stampfel. I finally understand fiddle tunes.
A Jimmy Rodgers compilation has been in the player a lot lately. A great writer and singer, he pretty much invented country music, with the stalwart help of the Carter Family, who also have been in my rotation. Rodgers played with everybody (recording with Louis Armstrong when blacks and whites seldom appeared on each other's records) and his arrangements go from solo guitar to jazz band.
The Carter Family is another story, never changing from plain two-or-three-part harmony singing backed by autoharp and guitar. For a big switch, there's occasional slide guitar. Varied they are not, and a big dose can be soporific. However, their style is classic, featuring Sarah's inimitable voice and Maybelle's melodic guitar style. Patriarch A.P. Carter had a little industry going, plundering the hollows of the Appalachians for every good song he could find, then copyrighting them under his name. He could pick 'em, though.
I'm enjoying Louis Armstrong's "Hot Five" and "Hot Seven" recordings, the tunes that made his reputation. Johnny Dodds always has been one of my favorite clarinetists and Armstrong plays like the wind and sings pretty good as well.
Kid Ory on trombone just sounds drunk.
Last week, I went to see Wilco, then caught them again on Austin City Limits. To my ears, they're the most interesting band in America. Jeff Tweedy's voice is monochromatic and sometimes his melodic gift deserts him, but the group is fearless, led by free jazz refugee Nels Kline on guitar, who makes a truly joyful noise. They jam, they rock, they do lovely pop that evokes the Kinks or the Beatles, and Kline is just wild.
Speaking of free jazz, Miles Davis' "Dark Magus" has been in the car system lately (replacing Harry Smith). Made by Miles' last band before a mid-'70s retirement from performing, this is simultaneously deep and kinda boring. I saw the band in 1974, expecting to hear some "Bitches Brew" music, and was stunned. I prefer "Bitches Brew" or "In a Silent Way," but this is a band that anybody interested in jazz-rock fusion needs to hear a few times. Murky, funky, fast, slow and just plain weird.
As for weird, I love a band from Philly called Man Man. Think of Tom Waits singing some lost Zappa music; a bit of Eastern European cabaret is the frosting. The band is manic and precise live, with a sound based on keyboards and marimba.
Neko Case is a recent find for me. I want the last album, but have been making do with her Austin City Limits record. It's heavy on the waltz time and carries a limited variety of moods, but her voice is grave and magnificent. Truly.
Two years ago, I saw Steve Earle and he's become a big influence. His last CD, a tribute to his mentor, Townes Van Zandt, won a Grammy this year.
Townes, whom I had the luck to hang out with for a weekend back in the '80s, was a great songwriter by any standard as well as a world-class partier-gambler-screw-up. He was a tortured soul who left us a lovely and sad record of his troubles.
I can't leave out Lucinda Williams, who has been a constant presence in my ears since her classic 1998 "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" CD. She's a literate writer who's got the soul of a punk and plays a blues-country hybrid that can be raucous or moody. Her live record from the Fillmore is a must have, with her voice all torn up and raspy from the road and a crack band-arrangements.