Why The Blues Is Not A Soundtrack For Selling Beer

When you've served time for murder like R. L. Burnside has, you've likely got something to sing the blues about. And we're not talking "Miller time."

Like a lot of music fans my age (26), I really don't know as much about the

blues as I should. Sure, I have a couple of Howlin' Wolf and Robert Johnson

albums in my collection, and a used copy of LeRoi Jones' Blues People

sits on my bookshelf. But I only pull them out rarely, usually because they've

been cited as a resource in a book or article I'm reading. It is in part people

like me at whom the new T-Model Ford record Pee-Wee Get My Gun (Fat

Possum) is aimed.

For my friends and me growing up, the blues was history.

We knew there were still practitioners, but we thought the good stuff was part

of the past. And since it was past history, we regarded it as music we could

always catch up on later. As high school kids we had more immediate catching up

to do on the Stones and Ramones. College may have offered me the best chance to

get up to speed, but in those years I found myself swept up by a fascination in

punk labels such as Dischord and Lookout, and arty outfits like Sonic Youth and

the Velvets.

I was smart enough to know that Jon Spencer wasn't playing

the blues himself--after all, I had listened to the Robert Johnson and

Howlin' Wolf reissues more than a few times. But I wasn't versed in Lightning

Hopkins, Elmore James, or Muddy Waters. I knew their names and reputations, but

that was about it. And I knew even less than that about contemporary bluesmen.

R.L. Burnside? Junior Kim-who?

For a lot of us who ignored it, the blues

tacitly came to be embodied by the slick, deceptive images on beer commercials

and the like. Even if we suspected the emptiness of such presentations, we had

nothing with which to counter them.

Fat Possum has arrived to blow the

bullshit away, from the music right down to the imagery. For the antithesis to

the beer commercial facade, look no further than the disturbing cover of

T-Model Ford's new album, which features the singer and guitarist's six year

old son wielding a pistol at the camera.

In the liner notes to Pee-Wee

Get My Gun, Fat Possum label owner Matthew Johnson, 28, writes, "When asked

how many time he'd been to jail, T-Model responded, 'I don't know. How many?'

He seemed to think it might be a trick question. Upon realizing it wasn't, he

answered to the best of his ability. "Every Saturday night there for a

while.'

"As disheartening as this is, it's also a refreshing reminder of

how ridiculous the present image of a bluesman is," writes Johnson. "Nothing

could be more twisted than the romanticized and picturesque standard: an old

black man devoid of anger and rage happily strumming an acoustic guitar on the

back porch of his shack 'in that evening sun.' "

Make no mistake, Johnson

is not positing the blues equivalent of the misguided gangsta rap plea to "keep

it real." The fact that Ford and his labelmate R.L. Burnside have served time

for murder makes them no more authentic as blues musicians. What Johnson is

asserting is that beer companies and their ilk are transforming a raw, painful,

and vital form into a happy-go-lucky, palatable, and empty image. The "old

black man devoid of anger and rage" is the yuppie's version of carefree,

smiling mammy. Both images suggest that any past wrongs have been sufficiently

righted--or worse, that such wrongs were really never so bad to begin with--and

now we can all just go about our business and love one another. "Aren't those

blues cute, honey?"

There is nothing cute or slick about Pee-Wee Get My

Gun. "It sounds disgusting," Johnson told me a while back. "It's very

violent sounding."

Hell, it's just plain violent at times, and there are

parts of the album that I find objectionable. But it's also honest. Now, let's

be clear here: T-Model Ford and Fat Possum have no compulsion about selling me

something. Johnson would love to make money for the artists and the label, and

his new distribution deal with Epitaph should help generate some cash. But Ford

and Johnson aren't hawking beer. They're selling the real sounds that fill real

lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

And what incredible sounds they are, at times

sweet and at others frightening. Pee-Wee Get My Gun is by no means a

hodgepodge of styles--nothing but straight up blues and boogie here. Yet I can

certainly envision hip-hop aficionados bouncing along with Ford's swagger on

"I'm Insane." Techno heads in search of a trance will find hypnotic riffs

throughout the album. And T-Model and his drummer Spam offer enough punk grit

and traditional groove on their "Theme Song" to win over today's Sleater-Kinney

fans.

We're some of the people that I suspect Matthew Johnson is looking to

rope. He'll probably never eradicate the beer commercials, and I'm not even

sure that's a tangential goal of his. But if he, Ford, Burnside, and others

convince more folks my age to both put on their bullshit detectors and

appreciate the real blues around us, well then, mission accomplished.