Throne of Their Own

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.

"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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Eric Waggoner