‘Mississippi: River Of Song’ Spawns Eclectic Music

Bottle Rockets, Soul Asylum and Babes In Toyland are among artists featured in varied soundtrack to PBS-TV series.

For Brian Henneman, frontman of the alt-country act the Bottle Rockets, contributing a song to the soundtrack for the Smithsonian Productions TV series “The Mississippi: River of Song” project made perfect sense. Especially since the song “Get Down River” (RealAudio excerpt) was all about the Mississippi anyhow.

“It was right on, perfect for it. It was the only song we had that was about the river,” Henneman said. “You can walk to it from where I grew up. From my mom and dad’s house we used to walk to the railroad tracks and river about a half a mile away. There’s something about it that’ll make a little kid do it ever day he can get away with it.”

The four-part PBS series, due to be broadcast Wednesdays in January, is a documentary about musicians who live near the Mississippi River.

From the headwaters of the Mississippi and the sounds of the Ojibwe powwow in northern Minnesota down through the Mississippi Delta into New Orleans, producer John Junkerman interviewed a richly varied range of performers. They include such well-known acts as Soul Asylum and Babes In Toyland, as well as more obscure outfits, such as German polka act Karl Hartwich and the Country Dutchman, the jazz act Manny Lopez Quintet and bluesman Johnny Billington.

Writer Elijah Wald — who is also the world and roots music critic for the Boston Globe — picked tracks by the bands for the double-disc compilation.

Finding his outfit on the same 36-track collection as the Skal Club Spelmanslag and their traditional Scandinavian dance music on “Red-Headed Swede” (RealAudio excerpt) seemed plenty natural to Henneman, who said he wished there were more opportunities for vastly different styles of music to be played alongside one another.

“I think that’s awesome. I’m glad that people will get to see it. You never get a radio station doing that, or if you do, it’s a public radio show and it’s separated into little shows, so it’s like watching TV,” Henneman said. ” ‘Salsa show at 10, polka show at 5.’ A musician is a musician. It’s the marketing people and radio stations that like to keep ‘em separated.”

Wald found that the most difficult aspect of assembling the album was creating a disc that flowed well, given the widely divergent styles of music present on the compilation.

“That’s what I loved about this project. An Ojibwe drummer straight into Babes In Toyland. Lori Barbero [drummer for Babes In Toyland] says that’s where she got her drumming style. She sees those two as belonging next to each other,” Wald said. “Genre has nothing to do with music; it has to do with selling music. Soul Asylum into the Memphis Horns is not much of a stretch, frankly; that’s what I like about it.”

Complete track listing:

Disc 1

Chippewa Nation (“Powwow Song”), Babes in Toyland (“22 Ladies”), John Koerner (“Sail Away Ladies”), Soul Asylum (“I Did My Best”), the Skal Club Spelmanslag (“Red-Headed Swede”), Wang Chang Lor (“The Singing Leaf”), Sounds of Blackness (“I’ll Open My Mouth to the Lord/I’ll Be Ready”), Karl Hartwich (“Kim Marie”), the Manny Lopez Quintet (“Jazz Me Blues”), La Otra Mitad (“La Unica Estrella”), Greg Brown (“Flat Stuff”), John Hartford (“Miss Ferris”), the Bob Lewis Family (“Born to Be With You”), Eugene Redmond and Sylvester “Sunshine” Lee (“Milestone”), Fontella and Martha Bass (“I’m So Grateful”), Oliver Sain (“Stop Breaking Down”), the Bottle Rockets (“Get Down, River”), the Ste. Genevieve Guignolee Singers (“La Guignolee”).

Disc 2

The Boundless Love Quartet (“The Sweetest Song I Know”), Sonny Burgess (“T for Texas [Blue Yodel #1]“), the Memphis Horns and Ann Peebles (“St. Louis Blues”), Levon Helm and James Cotton (“Going Back to Memphis”), Robert Lockwood Jr. (“Take a Little Walk With Me”), Big Jack Johnson (“Catfish”), Big Jack Johnson and the Jelly Roll Kings (“Shake Your Money Maker”), Little Milton (“Grits Ain’t Groceries [All Around the World]“), the Mississippi Mass Choir (“We Praise Your Holy Name”), Kenny Bill Stinson (“Taters and Gravy and Chicken-Fried Steak”), D.L. Menard (“La Porte d’en Arriere”), Geno Delafose (“Bon Chien”) David and Roselyn (“Marie Lavaux”), Henry Butler (“Basin Street”), Irma Thomas (“Time Is On My Side”), Eddie Bo with Henry Butler (“Check Your Bucket”), Soul Rebels (“Let Your Mind Be Free”), Irvan Perez (“La Vida de un Jaibero”).