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Monday, February 19, 2007

Marathon Men: Robbie's Secret Country with the Campbell Brothers and Bobby Osborne

While I was away attempting to interpret the bioinformatic equivalent of entrails, M took it upon himself to get us tickets to the February, March, and April Robbie's Secret Country shows. We'd missed December, because everybody wanted to see exactly how it is, wherever Jimmie Dale Gilmore is, he's always driving by, and January (featuring Uncle Monk, which happens to feature Tommy Ramone) on account of Fraternal Zombie celebrations. The third Sunday of February happens to have been yesterday.


When we arrived for our classes, we noticed a sign indicating that the 7:30 PM show was canceled. This was a little perplexing to us, as we had tickets for 4 PM. I remain unclear on how the two shows work, given the interview, followed by performance format of the show, but both the March and April shows are scheduled at 4 and 7:30.

While M was at his concertina class, I was afoot in the cold and damp trying, for the love of ba'al, to find a cup of coffee and a warm place to sit and knit in Lincoln Square. Of a Sunday, this seems to be impossible. I wound up at the Grafton ordering a small amount of food that I did not want and coffee that I did (but that did not really satisfy) in an attempt to justify my hour's stay in front of their fireplace, which contained no fire but one hell of a cold draft.

The concert hall, likewise, was freezing, as it had been for the five hours I was there the night before. A gentle note to any facilities people who might be reading: If the combined force of 200 moshing teenagers has not warmed your space to a livable temperature, you might consider turning on the damned heat.

While the chap from WLUW was giving his usual, somewhat long-winded introduction, I spied Robbie in the stage left wing. Wearing a suit. I thought I might be hallucinating from the hypothermia. I have seen Robbie in all white and a pointy Peter Pan cap. I have seen Robbie in a wifebeater and very nearly out of his pants. I have never seen anything as disturbing and somehow wrong as Robbie in a suit. With a tie. I sort of understood the instinct when Bobby Osborne was introduced. He was sans hat, but the man does inspire a certain sartorial aspiration.

There was no introductory mock interview this time. Bobby was introduced first, and Robbie interviewed him solo for about 10 or 15 minutes, this time, I noticed, referring pretty frequently to some notes he had with him, in contrast to what seemed to be a completely off-the-cuff interview in November. (My memory is a little fuzzy, but I don't recall Kevin Gordon and Pat McLaughlin being introduced separately in this way.) Like many finely attired southern gentlemen, Bobby is a Talker.


He began with the strange tale of his own voice, which started out in the Ernest Tubb range when he was a boy and, against all laws of god, man, and hormones, crept well up into the tenor range as he grew into adulthood. Following the dictates of his voice, he listened to the Grand Ole Opry, faithfully pursuing his goal of singing just like Tubb. By happy accident, he caught a performance by Earl Scruggs on the Opry while awaiting Tubb and was inflamed with desire to know how one man did that to a banjo (he later confided that when he saw Scruggs perform, he comprehended this mystery in about a minute and a half). Later, when his voice changed, he modeled his singing style after that of Bill Monroe.

Listening to him talk was like taking a comprehensive historical tour of bluegrass. He was funny and self-deprecating, always speaking of himself as trying to imitate one well-known or another. Funniest of all was his assertion that he'd really, truly yearned to sing "Rawhide" like Bill Monroe until he actually saw Bill do it. After that, he decided, there wasn't a whole lot of point to anyone else trying his hand at it.

But Bobby's knowing and having imitated anyone who was anyone in bluegrass aside, he has also been a tremendous innovator in the genre, and Robbie got him to talk a bit about that, starting with when he first picked up the mandolin. His first instrument (other than voice) had been the fiddle, and he was pretty dismissive of how far he'd taken that. In terms of group playing, he'd started on guitar (doing a Lester Flatt imitation, according to him) with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers because that was the role that needed filling. Scruggs gave him a yearning for the banjo, but eventually he'd settled on mandolin (for which he is known best), investing in a $5 Gibson when he was 20.

Throughout his recording career, he'd been eager to get away with whatever innovations he could with each album. The Osborn brothers are credited with bringing drums into bluegrass, as well as mining the good stuff of western swing and country western and bringing pedal steel into the bluegrass equation. Bobby, in particular, is also seen as the originator of the trio harmony style of singing with the high tenor carrying the melody grounded by two harmony lines underneath.

When Robbie brought out Phil and Chuck Campbell, he commented that he liked the seating arrangement of Campbell, Osborne, Campbell, Robbie. I'll admit I wondered just how much whiplash might be suffered moving from old school bluegrass to Pentacostal Church music, but Chuck cleared up any concerns on that score right off.

The Campbell Brothers' music derives from (well, is, really) the music of the House of God Church, a Pentacostal Church established in 1903. Members of the Church are forbidden to take in a lot of popular culture. For the Campbell Brothers, this meant that music like the blues was strictly off limits. The Grand Ole Opry, in contrast, was completely fair game. Lap steel, the cornerstone of House of God Church music and the only truly nonnegotiable instrument in country thus becomes the natural and supernaturally charged crossroads between the two genres. Chuck talked about enduring hours of not just the Opry, but Hee Haw, for heaven's sake, all for the payoff of a 10-second lap steel solo.

Both brothers talked about both the roots of their music and the innovations that they've made. In their Church music, the success of the music overall hinges on the skill of the lap steel player, and that success is based on his ability to use his instrument to mimic the human voice. This and other pretty stringent requirements, paired with religious avoidance of other musical forms, have led to the music remaining relatively untouched by outside influences. Obviously that pristine existence outside of the sphere of commodified music is what had Robbie walking all over creation "desultory music fair" to discover the source of their sound.

Nonetheless, the music has changed, and the Campbells themselves have been driving force in what they consider the fourth generation of it. Chuck now plays pedal steel and had to prove to the congregation that it would work together with the traditional lap steel. Darick, the youngest brother, has moved from drums to lap steel, making way for Phil's son Carlton on the drums. Their cousin Denise (on whom Robbie admits to having a mad crush, and who can blame him?), who was once the singer in Phil's illicit R&B band, sings with them regularly. Their bassist Malcolm Kirby is the only nonrelative in the regular band, having joined both band and Church after he was asked to play the role of wedding band at the same wedding to which the Cambells were invited to play their music.

Not that anyone was complaining, but it seemed as if the interviews were taking longer than Robbie had intended. The Campbell brothers (with a local House of God bassist whose name I've sadly forgotten subbing for Malcolm, plus the addition of another female vocalist named Cinnamon) didn't start their set until about 4:45, opening with "Sign of the Judgement," followed by an instrumental version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." When I realized that it was going to be purely instrumental, I had a moment of "Uh . . . " because that song is so much about the lyrics for me. (Yes, it's true, I can be a Lyrics Bigot, although I do not hold a candle to my spouse, who banishes all instrumentals from his iPod.) However, I more than came around by the end, in large part because of the emphasis that Chuck had placed on the lap steel acting as the voice. With the words stripped away, it's staggering how much of Cooke's feeling remains to be teased out by the right player.

Although they ended up playing for more than an hour, they probably only got through about 5 or 6 songs, as each inevitably devolved (or evolved, I suppose) into jubilant improvisation. They did not seem to hold the overwhelming whiteness of most of the audience against us, as they urged us to clap, shout out, and get on our feet, which most did and were still doing when they (briefly) left the stage and Robbie called for an encore. Chuck was literally left holding his pedal steel, which he'd picked up preparatory to packing it, when they came back on to do "The Storm is Passing Over."

As promised, the skill of Darick and Chuck was such that it was often difficult to tell whether I was hearing a human voice (especially given the tendency of just about everyone to add their vocals at will). Underneath the vocals, both steel and human, was a solid foundation of skill and feeling emanating from the guitar, bass and drums. At the risk of revealing myself to be hopelessly white and godless, I felt a bit cold and technical in the way I experienced the music aurally (the Cooke being an exception), but watching the joy happening on stage (and in the audience) was pretty powerful.

There was a very long and very cold intermission beginning at about 6 PM. At 6:15, I commented that it was probably lucky they'd canceled the 7:15 show. If Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-Press made it on before 6:30, I'd be very surprised to hear it. (Please forgive me. I'd managed to approximate normal body temperature during the Campbell Brothers' performance by wrapping myself as tightly as possibly in my Cozy [which is easily 3x the size of that pictured], and that all went to hell when they opened the damned doors again.)

The Rocky Top X-Press comprises Dana Cupp (alias the Wee Ron Perlman) on banjo, Matt DeSpain (alias Knox Overstreet in David Byrne's big suit) on dobro, Daryl Moseley (hand crafted by bluegrass specialists) on upright bass, and Bobby Osborne, Jr, on rhythm guitar. Usually David Crow fiddles, but he was absent from our performance.

They opened with "9-lb Hammer" and two other folky standards I've forgotten. Only Bobby sang on these, and he barely waited for applause before launching into the next number as if it were merely a coda for the first. This reminded me of Junior Brown's No Chit-Chat approach. I wondered if Bobby had somehow talked himself out during the interview. I needed have worried, because after these three songs, which were clearly meant as a single opening number, he chatted about the songs, giving a little bit of history on the songwriters, most famous performers, and his own experiences with them.

He also introduced the band as he went along, starting with Matt DeSpain. It turns out that this charming young Kentucky lad made his very pretty dobro with his own lily-white hands, and still had time to learn how to play the hell out of it. Watching individual styles of dobro playing is endlessly fascinating. It seemed to me that Matt used only a thumb pick on the right hand (although M thought he had a hand full of finger picks) and a claw-like attack with the rest of his fingers. As is usual (and yet eternally amazing to me), it sounded as though his part was being played by no fewer than 15 men on 75 or so guitars.

Next, after some comic confusion about the difference between a dobro, a banjo, a guitar in general, and a hub cap, Bobby introduced Dana Cupp. Cupp has a sleepy-eyed look and a playing style that looks leisurely and sounds like it stole something. It also seemed as if he was playing with just a plastic thumb pick and otherwise nude fingers, but I've learned to distrust both my eyes and ears when people musicians are screwing with the laws of physics.

Daryl Mosely handed his bass over to Bobby, Jr., temporarily and played guitar as he sang a ballad so lovely that it's driven its own name right out of my head. My current struggles with Badtz have led me to be fascinated by bassists and bass lines alike. It was hard, however, to pick out the bass line here, not because it was unremarkable, but because I kept getting drawn into the whole of the music. (Also, basses being the undervalued instrument of all genres, my attention kept being drawn to the SHINY! qualities of lightning fast, incredibly sweet solos on dobro, banjo, and mandolin.)

After the initial numbers in which Bobby was the sole vocalist, most of the songs incorporated the harmony trio for which the Osbornes are famous. Daryl was a pretty constant fixture in these, and Dana and Matt switched off on the other slots. The combination of these voices with the style of microphone they were using (I don't know from mics, so don't even ask me) meant that, every single time, I was doomed to say to myself "There's a feller in there that'll pay you ten dollars if you sing into his can."

As Robbie said in introducing Bobby, the man's got intonation. He nails every single note to the nearest convenient surface and anchors every single line of melody. The harmonies come at it from every angle, giving the whole thing a sharp, full sound that just tingles your toes.

Like the Campbells they played for more than an hour (more or less, but you have to factor in Bobby turning a merchandise pitch into a long, funny story about Germany, Bill Monroe, a summer heat wave, and the man's spotless suit and hat) and returned for two encores. The second featured a banjo-driven version of "America the Beautiful" to soothe the soul, no matter how cynical and dead tired of jingoism that soul might be. The ultimate finale, though, was "Ruby" as is right and proper. I don't know if anyone else sings that song. If they do, I'm guessing they haven't seen (felt in the very marrow of their rawhide bones, more like) Bobby do it.

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