By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It's tough to be the Kings.
Ask Bryan Ledford: four shows, count 'em, in 24 hours. That was yesterday's itinerary.
"Oh, man," he says, when asked to recount them. "Let's see; we played late Friday night from 12 to 3, then we played at the Starkville Festival at noon yesterday. After that--yeah, after that we played the Double-Decker Festival, and then later that night we played at a bar in town called the Library.
"Is that it?" he asks himself quietly. "Yeah. Yeah, I think that's it."
Oxford, Mississippi--home of William Faulkner, Ole Miss and the Double-Decker Festival at Oxford Square--is also home to the Kudzu Kings, a not-really-bluegrass sextet whose aesthetic leans decidedly to the surreal. And like that fabled Southern town, there's a lot going on below the surface.
To pick up on the Kings is to fall into a world of songs about breakups, hangovers, stepping around with (and on) your baby, lost lovers and nearly lost dogs, and a whole host of other items impossible to pin down. But give that a pass for a moment, and consider the origins.
A New Jersey bassman by the name of Dave Woolworth, who'd played in the reggae and metal scenes in New York, moved to Mississippi to pursue a graduate degree in physics. Between classes he also gigged around MS, eventually pulling a brief stint in the pit for a local mounting of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Tate Moore, a MS native who was doing solo acoustic shows at area bars, also performed in Rocky, in the role of Frank N. Furter. Moore and Woolworth began performing together, eventually hooking up with New Orleans-bred keyboardist Robert Chaffe and a handful of other musicians.
As the Kudzu Kings, the band became a local's rave around Oxford. In particular, they got to be a crowd favorite at a local watering hole where Greenwood-born Ledford was tending bar.
"To be honest, I'd never played much mandolin or banjo," says Ledford of the time when he developed into a regular member. "I was always more of a guitar player. But by the time I started playing with those guys, I'd got to where I could work the mando and banjo without too much trouble. So that's what I brought with me."
By the time Ledford joined, the Kings had three years together as a solid outfit; but with the addition of bluegrass instruments, the Kings suddenly got a lot of attention as a "bluegrass jam" band--a tag that, Ledford stresses, was never strictly accurate.
"We do get hit with the bluegrass thing a lot. But really, we don't play bluegrass. For one thing, I know who the real bluegrass players are; I have their records. We know bluegrass players, and I'll guarantee you we're not that. There are bluegrass bands out there on the jam circuit--the String Cheese Incident and Blueground Undergrass and some others--but the Kings started as a straight jam band."
Nonetheless, the Kudzu Kings' style emerges from a variety of influences, of which bluegrass is surely a dominant one. "It's a very democratic band," Ledford concedes. "There's never been any one unifying theme. Robert Chaffe is from New Orleans, so he brought a lot of that New Orleans piano sound with him...Dave's more of a country guy; he likes Willie and Waylon. I've always been an acoustic player, mainly. We've always approached it like, OK, everybody bring what you've got to the table and let's see what happens."
What happens, to judge from a release like 1999's rollicking Y2KOW, is a devil's mix of performance styles that nonetheless keeps one foot planted firmly in the Delta. The opening cut, "Hangover Heart," kicks off with a pure-country banjo rill and fills out to an electric guitar solo, backed by a solid two-four snare beat (not to mention dead-on lyrics like, "I'm sleepin' in my clothes again and tellin' friends I'm fine").
In fact, much of the Kings' basic idiom is trad-country, from instrumentation to deep-Southern vocal phrasing. But the final product is a sound at equal distances between country, blues and indie smartass.
"I'm amazed at all the crap that's on the radio," Ledford sings giddily on "Bryan's Song." "Just when I think it can't get worse, it does." Conversely, the Kings' music--literate and complex, without ever coming off too snotty for its own good--steals outright from a host of traditions and comes up a winner nearly every time.
Here, for example, is the triple-shot that closes the album: "Jaco's Lament," a three-minute country goodie about Woolworth getting post-breakup visitation rights to his and his ex's mutually owned weimaraner; "Bound for Zion," a Reverend Gary Davis-style gospel rave-up; and an unlisted, purely psychotic talking-blues bio of fellow Mississippi bluesman J.B. Lenoir (who, we are helpfully informed, "swung...his ASS off...every time he plaaayed!").
Clearly, there are only so many places you can hear a sequence like that. If the Kings borrow liberally, then they wear their many influences on their sleeves--and like their Delta forebears, they've worked out their chops not in the studio but as a live act. Eight years of weekend-warrior tours have solidified a fan base in the Southeast, particularly on the jam band circuit; but the Kings' music tends to attract a wider demographic.