Throne of Their Own

Mississippi's Kudzu Kings rule a little patch of Delta sound

"We see a bunch of familiar faces. One of the good things about playing the same circuit--and we've always been a 'Southern' band, really--is we get to know folks who come out regularly and who we consider friends. And family: My godson lives in Dallas. He's only 2. He hasn't made it to a show yet, but I try to bring the guitar and give him a little live concert.

"It's all been pretty much self done, for years. Up until recently, Robert [Chaffe] even did most of the booking; we finally got some help trying to get into some more festivals. You get more money, for one thing," Ledford says, laughing, "and they're usually professionally done. It's nice to play for older folks instead of always playing for the same college crowd. I got tickled; at the Starkville Festival there was this suit-and-tie fella sitting down front. We were about halfway through the set and his kids wandered off, but he stayed down front having a great old time, clapping his hands--I mean, to look at him, I wouldn't've thought he'd listen to much of any live music outside of church. But he stayed right with us. I love that stuff."

As elucidated on "Bryan's Song," live performance is at the heart of the Kings' aesthetic. It's also the medium in which their musicianship shines to its best advantage. But in a sense--and we're guessing here, you understand--live performance might in fact be the unacknowledged gold standard of popular music.

"I don't know," muses Ledford. "When you think about it, recorded music, as a way of generating income, might be just a blip on the screen--what's it been, 60, 70 years? And as quick as they invent a new recording format, people invent a way to copy that music and pass it on to someone else. Maybe bands are eventually going to have to go back to earning their money the hard way, like people used to have to do it: Take it on the road."

Taking it on the road leads us to a conversation about choreography vs. improvisation, a dichotomy at the very heart of the jam scene's popularity.

"I think the problems with mainstream are pretty well-documented at this point," Ledford says, warming to a topic he'll return to frequently. "The labels are in it to make money, and the best way to make money is to grab some green kid who doesn't know any better to sign a contract where they get nothing except to be a rock star and you keep all the money. That's their business, and I'm not sure they should be faulted for that; they've got bills to pay. But the jam band thing--sure, part of it stems from nostalgia for the Grateful Dead, OK, granted--but I think it also stems from people looking for authenticity in the music they listen to. They don't want something that's already packaged.

"There are people who don't want to make their own decisions, and those people will be pretty happy with Top 40--they want something that's familiar, that sounds like the same song they heard a year ago this time, and that's OK. I've gone to see shows that were completely choreographed, and I had a good time, but I don't think it can compare to listening to someone make it up--or screw it up--right there on the spot. I love to see bands onstage, making it up as they go along. When you listen to bands over a long time, and you've heard them do familiar songs a bunch of ways, and you hear them working out new songs side by side with those, it's almost like you're getting to peek behind the curtain. I think it makes the music more accessible."

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