Jim White, South Memphis String Band meet at crossroads

by Ryan Snyder

Jim White and South Memphis String Band play before a packed McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium. (photos by Ryan Snyder)

True to the nature of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s fledgling Crossroads series, there was indeed an intersection between the South Memphis String Band and alt-country songwriter Jim White, the two acts who kicked off what SECCA intends to be a consistently booked live music series. The divergence, however, is largely in the emotional sense. Whereas the South Memphis String Band were droll and uplifting in their reverence for old-time music, White is a bit of a wet blanket as a pioneer in altcountry’s sad-core scene of the mid ’90s, though in the friendliest and most consenting sense.

Flip-flopping from their show the night before at Duke University, the South Memphis String Band opened to a packed room at the recently renovated McChesney Scott Dunn Auditorium. Luther Dickinson (Black Crowes, North Mississippi Allstars), Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers) and Grammy-winner Alvin Youngblood Hart tossed in a few originals among the hodgepodge of gospel, blues and country obscurities, though who wrote what was of no concern to anyone. The trio’s general air of flippancy made every song feel like the dust was being blown off of it after decades in repose. Mathus, looking wild- eyed and countrified, opened on vocals with “The Ballad of Jesse James,” a song originally recorded by Bascum Lunsford 87 years ago, but imbued with the breeziness of three friends sit- ting on a porch. Mathus followed it with an orig- inal penned only a few years ago called “Worry ‘bout Your Own Backyard” that compelled the listener to “stop worrying about the world” and by the way, echoed the group’s attitude toward just about everything else.

As the songs changed, so did the arrangements. In fact, the arsenals to the right of Dickinson and the left of Hart were sufficient to ensure that every offering had a sound all its own. Dickinson would pass the mandolin to Mathus and grab a banjo, while Hart would trade his dreadnought for a small-bodied guitar. Other times, it might have been Dickinson on an archtop, Mathus picking banjo and Hart leading a bit of Western swing on lap steel. Mathus, aware that they looked like they were sitting in the middle of a junk sale, even referred to the odd looking pickup sitting in front of him as “the thing that slew the Philistines.” The only consistency to the group was bassist Justin Showah tucked away in the back, though even he stepped off the root and fifths to walk or slap along as Dickinson took off on the set’s few extravagant solos. Mathus asked Dickinson to favor the audi- ence with a religious number as he accom- panied him on “gospel kazoo,” hinting at the cheek that passes for religion within the unit. It took a minute before the crowd was in on the joke, as “Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” at first passes for the genuine article, but the payoff came with the line “shakin’ that thang.” Dickinson led the group into the old Cisco Houston tune “Old Blue” in the key of E as Dickinson nodded his head and said he’d just follow along. No corner of their collective catalog was safe, however, as the band offered up their take on Charley Patton, the Mississippi Sheiks, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Sid Hemphill.

The rush of endorphins produced by the occasionally gut-busting South Memphis String Band wasn’t long for White, who has worn his heart on his sleeves for years, spinning tales of woe from his darkest places and airing them unashamedly. In a sense, his show was funny in its own way in that it takes a special kind of person to tell the stories the way that White does, being with a wink, a nod and a crack four-piece backing band.

“I am your heroin, though very few of you will become addicted to me,” White said unprompted at the conclusion of “Jailbird,” a song about escapism from the confines of his own mind.

He’s like a modern day sadfaced jester in the way he stops mid-set to relay “newsflashes,” spoken word segments where he and his band read stone-faced from some of the most odd and depressing headlines from in and around his native Pensacola, Fla. Stories of a man getting his throat cut at a church meeting in South Carolina, and later someone who dialed 911 just to find out if the moon was a half or quarter, somehow seemed to draw nervous laughter from the two thirds of the audience who stuck around for his 90 minute show. That was White’s MO, however, as he stood there unironically in a white mesh trucker hat advertising a Ford dealership in Crawford, Ga., singing songs about the rash of Jesus impersonators in his hometown and the broken-hearted story of the oldest regular at the beach full of strippers and prostitutes he life-guarded during his religiously fanatical youth. He’s the kind of guy who’d go through a divorce just for the creative spar, and then tell stories about it to a roomful of strangers as therapy. Fortunately for White, he had a room of people primed to receive it.