By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
The river of American music twists and turns in new directions every day, but that river has another current that’s deeper and never changes. The core strains of American music — Tin Pan Alley, bluegrass, jazz, gospel, country, ragtime, blues, folk — are indestructible, and traces of them can be found in everything else that’s followed. Scratch the surface of the rowdiest rap song and you’ll hear the echo of one of these native styles. Just how durable this music is became evident in 2000, when the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, was a massive commercial hit. Over the years this music has had various champions, too, including Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Ry Cooder, among others.
Add to that list Geoff Muldaur, a musician’s musician who’s been swinging in the shadows for decades. Emerging as part of the East Coast folk revival of the early ’60s, Muldaur has been in and out of several notable bands, recorded 22 albums, and learned American music from the ground up. Muldaur makes old songs new with the persuasive power of his voice, a clear, sweet instrument inflected with a distinctive, plaintive quaver. His voice is the engine that drives the recently released Texas Sheiks, an acoustic blues album that was recorded last year in Austin. The songwriting credit on half of the tunes says “traditional,” which means the song is so old nobody knows who wrote it, and the Sheiks also cover tunes by Skip James, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson. They have their bona fides in order, and have the skill to make this simple music swing the way it should.
The Sheiks had been fooling around with music in various living rooms for years, but when group member Stephen Bruton was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, they got serious about making a record. A guitarist with Kris Kristofferson’s band for 40 years, Bruton, who died in May, was a highly regarded session player and close friend of Muldaur’s for four decades. In a sense, Texas Sheiks is a tribute to Bruton.
Born in 1943, and raised in a privileged suburb of Manhattan, Muldaur was the youngest in a family of three children, and his introduction to music came via his older brother, who turned him on to jazz when he was 5. He took the guitar up at 16, and formed his first group, the Goombay Rhythm Kings, while he was at prep school in Connecticut. During that period Muldaur met lifelong friend Joe Boyd, who went on to found Hannibal Records, and together they fell in love with American music. They shared a fascination with musician Lonnie Johnson, who’s often credited with having invented the guitar solo. In 1959 the pair tracked him down in a Philadelphia hotel, where he was washing dishes. They picked Johnson up, and took him to a party at the Princeton home of Murray Kempton. (Imagine being able to find Leadbelly or Howlin’ Wolf and bring them to a party at your house; Muldaur’s was the last generation for whom such a thing was possible.)
In 1961 Muldaur moved to Boston, then in the throes of the East Coast folk revival, and after immersing himself in the music for a few months, he moved to New Orleans. “I heard all this great music, and spent many nights sitting at the feet of George Lewis,” recalls Muldaur of the jazz clarinetist who is regarded as one of the chief architects of the pure jazz that flourished in New Orleans early in the 20th century.
Muldaur returned to Boston in 1962, and early the following year he met guitarist Jim Kweskin, then assembling a jug band. The lynchpin of the original lineup was John “Fritz” Richmond, whom Kweskin spotted playing washtub bass in the folk group the Hoppers, and by the fall of that year the Jug Band was rehearsing regularly. “We weren’t interested in copying traditional American music,” says Muldaur of the group’s guiding principle. “Rather, we were doing impressionistic views and reinterpretations of traditional music.”
By the end of the year the Jug Band had released their first album, and were gigging in New York; it was there Muldaur met vocalist Maria D’Amato, who joined the band, then married Muldaur in 1964. That same year, the group embarked upon a national tour, and appeared regularly on TV variety shows hosted by Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, among others. “We were considered a novelty act because we had a jug player,” explains Muldaur, who remembers spotting Duke Ellington and Spike Jones in Jug Band audiences.
By the time the group’s second album was released, in 1965, the social revolution of the ’60s was kicking into gear. The Jug Band had a surrealistic edge that allowed them to adapt nicely to the new Zeitgeist, and they became regulars at psychedelic watering holes like the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. Albert Grossman, über-manager of the day, began representing them, and everyone was making a good living, so it came as a surprise when Kweskin abruptly disbanded the group in 1968.