EDDIE DEAN: Recently Discovered Musical and Sundry Delights (Arthur, 2008)

Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)

Recently Discovered Musical and Sundry Delights
By Eddie Dean

Chango Spasiuk, free concert at the Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center
“I refuse to look like an old woman knitting,” said tango great Astor Piazolla, who broke tradition by always playing his bandoneon while standing. And here’s Chango Spasiuk, another Argentinian bandoneon master, sitting in a chair onstage with his instrument slinking over his knees draped with—a QUILT. But the wild-eyed, long-haired son of Ukrainian immigrants by way of Misiones province looks more like Rasputin than a knitter, like he’s ready to ambush the black-tie Bushcovites gathering down the red-carpeted Hall of Nations at another gala benefit for the masters of war. This isn’t the city music of Piazzolla. This is chamame, a down-home country music like the kind you’d hear at a backwoods wedding in northern Argentina when everybody’s had too much vino tinto and a summer storm’s brewing and the bride and groom have fled the scene. Spasiuk’s chamame has his own touches, a Marc Chagall-fiddler and “cajon peruano” percussionist. His bandoneon is a magic box that breathes, stirring the stilted, conditioned air inside the Kennedy Center, as the chandeliers weep and even the ushers prick up their ears, while outside the Potomac River turns into the coffee-hued, snaking Rio Parana. After the show, Spasiuk talks about his influences: “My father was a carpenter and musician who played at local dances and parties, and my uncle was a singer. I grew up listening to the music from the region of the rivers, the folk music, the polkas and the shotis, and chamame is the strongest color of this mestizo music. I didn’t become a musician after I saw or heard music being played on TV or in a movie or on a stage. Music was everywhere, in every social situation. My music is an utterly happy music but at the same time melancholic and sad.” His favorite musician, he says, is Beethoven.

Magnificent Fiend, Howlin Rain (Birdman/American, 2008)
The Black Crowes have been trying to make a record this good for 20 years, and these young bucks nail it right out of the shoot. Horns of plenty, and heaping helpings from the bottomless well of deep groove. As Greg Allman sang, “The road goes on forever.”

Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost by Tony Russell (Oxford Press, 2007)
You’ve already heard about Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, now meet their kinfolk, the thousand-and-one tongues of pre-Nash Trash hillbilly music: Seven Foot Dill and his Dill Pickles, South Georgia Highballers, Bascam Lamar Lunsford, Red Fox Chasers, Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers. They’re all here looking alive as you and me. Old-time music fiend Tony Russell came from England to travel the dusty backroads and knock on many a screen door to find the stories behind the mysterious names emblazoned on the old 78s. The meaty bios are salted with rare photos and period illustrations, such as a Depression-Era newspaper ad for a $3.85 Disston Hand Saw (“Mirror polish, striped back, beautifully etched, Applewood handle, fully carved”) of the sort played by Highballer Albert Eldridge, whose expert bowing “produced a sweet otherworldly humming that anticipates the oscillating electronic sounds of the Theremin.” Seems like it’s always Brits like Russell and Dickens and D.H. Lawrence with the keenest insights into the old, weird America.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (Vintage, 1990)
Before Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy, the Spanish-American Southwest had Willa Cather to make an epic of its bleak and beautiful landscape. Instead of horse rustlers and outlaws, the male-bonding celebrated in this novel is the friendship between a pair of French Catholic priests out to save souls in mid-19th-century New Mexico. They’re not just packing Bibles and rosary beads, though, they’re packing heat: “‘You dare go into my stable, you [blank] priest.’ The Bishop drew his pistol: ‘No profanity, Senor. We want nothing from you but to get away from your uncivil tongue.’” Gimme that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.

The U.S. Navy Band Brass Quartet show at Rockville Town Center
Good to hear the tuba out in the open. A century ago, it was the original Miami Bass, and it can still get to the bottom like nothing else. Except Bootsy.

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“One More Trickster Gone”: Eddie Dean salutes R.L. BURNSIDE (Arthur, 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov. 2005)

Late-Night Thoughts on R.L. BURNSIDE & the Indestructible Beat of the Blues
By Eddie Dean

You have to meet your heroes whenever you can, so I accosted Shelby Foote a decade ago as he was leaving the men’s room at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

The 80-year-old author of The Civil War: A Narrative, rightfully called our American Iliad, was minutes from delivering a lecture to a packed auditorium, and he was in hurry to get to the podium. I wanted to give him a story I’d written about an obscure country-music rebel named Jimmy Arnold.

Hailing from southwest Virginia, Arnold had transformed himself from a shy skinny mountain kid into a bluegrass-biker outlaw of Orson Wellesian proportions. He tattooed himself from head to foot like a Celt warrior of old (including a panther on his cheek, a lion on his forehead, and Christ on his throat) and recorded a sui generis concept album about the Lost Cause, Southern Soul, before dying at age 41 of heart failure. I figured Foote would be interested to know that Civil War buffs came in all shapes and sizes.

I didn’t want to battle the post-lecture autograph crowd, so I figured now was the time for the hand-off. He took the package graciously, and I never expected to hear from him again.

Several months later, though, came his reply, in the same dip-pen cursive scrawl that he’d written 500 words a day for more than 20 years to finish his masterpiece. He thanked me for the story and the cassette of Southern Soul I’d included, “both of which made me deeply regret not having seen him [perform] live while he was still with us. Pretty soon, I fear, we’re going to run out of people like him & we’ll be much poorer for the loss.”

His words came to my mind when I heard that R.L Burnside had died in September.

R.L. was another hero of mine, and we’re running out of people like him. He was a trickster figure right out of Southern folklore, full of mischief and uncommon mettle. His signature, “Well, well, well,” was at once bemused and menacing, an open declaration of war against easy sentimentality and crap romanticism.

R.L was a realist, and as such took it as his beholden duty to tell the truth as he saw it. The witness to disaster—his own and those around him—must do something more than simply mourn. He’s got to testify. And must not only endure, as Faulkner put it, he must prevail. R.L. had his own way of saying it: “Hanging in like a dirty shirt.” It was an art that arose out of sheer stubbornness as much as anything else. He took the shit that life threw at him and tossed it right back, again and again and again.

When I got word of R.L’s death, it hit extra hard, because Shelby Foote had died only a few weeks before. I recalled our second, (and final, exchange. I’d written a brief reply of gratitude to his thank-you note, telling him that I rated Skip James higher than Robert Johnson as the ultimate bluesman. I knew he was a Johnson fan all the way, which his post-card reply confirmed. I also threw in a mention that John Keats was my favorite poet, and he agreed, adding, “Keats is my man too, I only wish he’d lived to be nearly 80 like Robert Browning.”

Thinking of these two old lions now gone, these two neighbors (they lived just 40 miles apart, Shelby in south Memphis, and R.L in north Mississippi hill country) of a South long dead and gone, it hit me that R.L. was the Browning of the blues, a late bloomer who gained more power and force with time, that rare musician who burns brighter as the years go on.

The late writer and record producer Robert Palmer “rediscovered” R.L. in the early ‘90s and his liner notes to the Fat Possum classic, Too Bad Jim, bears repeating for its insight into R.L’s love of chaos as a philosophy of life:

“One of the most productive album sessions began on a rainy Sunday afternoon with a rapid-fire sequence of disasters. A bass literally fell apart, a drum kit broke into pieces and finally a heavy glass door fell out of its frame for no good reason and was prevented from smashing the recording board only through the timely intervention of the producer’s skull. Far from being deterred, R.L. was positively beaming. He seemed to enjoy these incidents immensely, and by the time we’d cleared away all the damage he was in an inspired mood, ready to rock.”

As good as Too Bad Jim is, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey is better. Recorded two years later with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a rented hunting lodge, it is, among other things, the hardest-rocking album ever made by a 70-year-old. It has been described as a party record, which it is, in the same way that the Stooges’ Funhouse is a party record. Even here, instead of grandstanding and showboating like every other elderly bluesman has done at one time or another (and you can’t blame a single one), R.L. will have none of it. He is a conduit, a cosmic joker talking trash and invoking the chaos of the universe. The band doesn’t let him down.

A few years after Ass Pocket of Whiskey made R.L. a sensation on the underground rock circuit, I went to see him at his home in the hill country near Holly Springs, MS. It was early January, in between tours, and he was nursing a cold. Even so, he was cordial and full of good cheer, as he must have been with a hundred other journalists who tracked him down in his final glory years.

Inside his small brick house, a dozen or so family members and hangers-on were crowded around the TV set, watching the western Tombstone starring Kurt Russell on cable. Nobody paid any attention to either myself or R.L. as he ambled back to the kitchen to make me a drink. They had seen this interview scenario many times before, whereas movies like Tombstone held up to repeated showings.

R.L, sank into a couch in ante room off the kitchen, and I took a seat opposite. He was tired, he needed the rest.

After a while, a party of young musicians came through the front door. It was the North Mississippi All-Stars, here to pick up R.L.’s son Garry in their van. Garry was playing with them that night at a show in nearby Oxford. The bandleader, Luther Dickinson, ended up into the back room where we sat talking. He’s a young dude with long hair and a quick smile, and, when he saw R.L., his smile got bigger and he went over to say hello.

Luther seemed to sense R.L.’s fatigue, and he knelt down so he could listen better to what he was saying. All I could hear of their conversation was a lot of ‘Yes sir’s” on the part of Luther and a lot of chuckling from R.L. I am no stranger to Southern ways, and I could understand that Luther was a well-brought up young man, but this was something much more than mere respect for your elders.

It was a beautiful scene, the young acolyte at the feet of the sage, paying tribute and also gleaning the kind of sustenance that can’t be found in guitar instruction manuals. I will always remember the glow that came over R.L’s haggard face as he bantered with another of his sons, this one adopted, who will carry on his ways, to not merely endure, but to prevail: Hanging in like a dirty shirt.

“ICE CREAM FOR CROW: In the Shadow of the Valley of the Bomb Pop” by Eddie Dean (Arthur, 2002)

Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (Oct. 2002)

ICE CREAM FOR CROW: In the Shadow of the Valley of the Bomb Pop
Last Notes from the Great Lost Big Lik Expedition
by Eddie Dean, with photography by Dave Brooks

I first discovered the power of a Fudge Bomb when I was surrounded by a family of Blue Ridge Mennonites who hadn’t seen the ice cream truck for a week. All their Fudge Bombs had run out days ago, and their Snow Cones and Chocolate Chump Bars, too. Their sturdy white frame house sat on a hill in Greene County, Virginia, and I was parked before it in my truck, both of us coughing up dust after the long climb up the winding gravel driveway. These people were hurting badly. We were here to help them.

For generations, locals have found this rocky region as poor as a snake. But it’s been a goldmine for interlopers—first the folk-song collectors and then the government men and the social workers and finally the movie stars here for peace of mind and land for their trotting horses. The movie stars didn’t buy ice cream, not off a truck anyway. Just about everybody else did, though. At least, they did back then. This was 20 years ago, before gourmet ice cream and the culture of instant gratification. If you lived in Greene County, the only way you could get a Fudge Bomb was from my truck.

A Fudge Bomb is a brown and yellow “quiescently frozen confection” impaled on a stick and molded in the shape of a Sputnik-era nuclear warhead. It is infused with an equatorial stripe of artificially flavored banana that beads with tropical sweat when unveiled in the July heat by a Mennonite housewife in a gingham dress. At the time I was selling them, a Fudge Bomb cost 60 cents, a crucial dime more than its red-white-and-blue cousin, the Superstar Bomb Pop, but well worth the extra investment. No mere popsicle, a Fudge Bomb is a bona fide meal.

The Mennonites are a strict denomination. For them, every day is a holy day, and they dress and try to behave as such. But there is nothing in their rules that forbids the indulgence of sweets. And no visiting preacher ever inspired more joy than did the driver of the truck with the BIG LIK license plates. I would often linger in the shade as the family members gathered on the green lawn, becalmed by the sacrament of ice cream. The rippling folds of the Blue Ridge mountains stretched to the horizon, as big white clouds drifted by like so many covered wagons. At such a moment of a bright Sunday many summers ago, I understood why their ancestors decided to nestle here instead of pushing west. This perch would do fine until the Battle of Armageddon.

Those were good customers, that family, one of several Mennonite families on the route. They even bought ice cream for their livestock. They had a goat named Curly leashed to a tombstone in the family graveyard, a stone-walled plot near the driveway. His reward for keeping the grass trim was an ice-cream sandwich. The Mennonites were businesspeople themselves. I’d often pass roadside stands where they sold homemade peanut-butter pies to the weekend tourists from Washington D.C. They were better off than most of my customers, who had little in worldly possessions other than the junk accumulated on their ramshackle properties. Yet even the most destitute were no less faithful when that ice-cream bell came ringing. For them, the unbidden arrival of the BIG LIK truck was proof that even if they weren’t among the affluent or the righteous, they would not be denied their just desserts–even if it meant scraping together a fistful of pennies for a 25-cent popsicle.

Behind the wheel of BIG LIK, in the shadow of the hazy, hallucinatory Blue Ridge, I believed I’d found my calling, though at 20 I would have never used such a word. All I knew was that it didn’t seem like work and it beat delivering pizza in a borrowed car. What began as a seasonal job during my time at the University of Virginia held me in Charlottesville well after graduation. It wasn’t driving the truck that hooked me: I fell for the geography. I’d grown up in the lowland Piedmont of Richmond, and there was something about this rugged landscape that moved me. Whatever the reason, the mountains cast a spell that I couldn’t shake.

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AMERICAN BEAUTIES: Eddie Dean on the downhome country music festival photography of Leon Kagarise (Arthur, 2008)

From Arthur Magazine No. 32 (Dec 2008)…

American Beauties

Leon Kagarise was a teetotaling amateur photographer who captured the bucolic vibes of the now-forgotten country music festivals that flourished along the Mason-Dixon line in the ’50s and ’60s. Award-winning journalist Eddie Dean tells Leon’s story and shares some of his extraordinary photographs in this expanded excerpt from the new book, Pure Country

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TONIGHT (Wed Dec 10) in Brooklyn: PURE COUNTRY celebration with "first lady of banjo" Roni Stoneman and writer/historian Eddie Dean


Process Books and Arthur Magazine present


A very special evening with the First Lady of Banjo

A celebration for the release of the book Pure Country. The show includes rare color slides of hillbilly stars and their fans from the ’60s music park scene, along with stories by the book’s writer Eddie Dean and a live performance by legendary banjo picker (and Hee Haw star) Roni Stoneman. Both will sign books after the show.

ALL AGES / $10

The Bell House
149 7th St (between 2nd Ave & 3rd Ave)
Brooklyn, NY 11215 (718) 643-6510

Buy tickets here:


Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, country music’s most legendary performers played backwoods stages in outdoor music parks, live and unfiltered. It was a time when Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and George Jones mingled up close with fans like kin at a mountain family reunion. These dollar-a-carload picnic concerts might have been forgotten if it hadn’t been for Leon Kagarise. An audio engineer by trade, he began recording the live shows on reel-to-reel tape and shot hundreds of candid color slides of the stars and their fans.

Music journalist Eddie Dean spent many hours interviewing Kagarise before his death in early 2008. His introduction and accompanying text tells how an obsession created a view into a lost world that challenges easy assumptions about Country and reveals a secret history of Country music in the ‘60s, when the industry largely turned its back on its rural roots and produced a slick, studio-centric product known as the Nashville Sound.

Forced into commercial exile, traditional country performers scratched out a living in the outdoor-music park circuit, where Kagarise served as their unofficial court photographer. With a meticulous and loving eye, Kagarise captured dozens of classic country and bluegrass artists in their prime, including June Carter, Dolly Parton, Bill Monroe, Hank Snow, The Stanley Brothers, The Stonemans, and many others.

Over a decade, he amassed an archive of over 600 color slides and 4,000 hours of pristine-sounding live performance as well as radio and television recordings, some of the only known surviving documents of the era. Pure Country presents 140 of Kagarise’s stunning color images, most never seen in print, from an archive now considered by historians to be one of the richest discoveries in the history of American music.

Eddie Dean, who wrote the foreword and the text of the book, will be narrating a slide show of images from the book of such country legends as George Jones, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl amongst others.