An interview with Lone Wolf One Man Band

Lone Wolf One Man Band

Bruno Esposito (Lone Wolf OMB)

From the humid, insect-ridden swamps of Florida, Bruno Esposito, also known by the moniker Lone Wolf, has stepped forth as a newcomer to the one-man band scene. With his vigorous banjo playing and gruff vocal delivery, he certainly plays a style of music one might associate with the swamps of the Southeastern United States. But just as his sound is made from the same stuff that made old-timey music great in its day, it also possesses that which makes modern music great. That is to say, it is raw and primitive, earthy and full-of-feeling, indeed the things that many obscure music enthusiasts have come to expect from such singer/songwriters. 

Within seconds of first listening to Lone Wolf’s debut self-titled release, it is clear that his sound is built on foot-stompin’ percussion, lightning-fast banjo pickin’, wailin’ harmonica bits, and rust bucket vocals. All thirteen songs are absorbing and well-written compositions, with thoughtful lyrics about the ol’ railroad tracks, women troubles, drinking heavily, the warm drowsy stupor of morphine, the story of a crow, and here and there glimpses into Esposito’s personal life.  Two of the songs he sings in Spanish – “El Canto Del Periquito” (which literally translates into “The Singing of the Parakeet”) and “Mala Crianza” (which more or less means “Bad Upbringing,” I think). But what else would one expect from a fella whose early years were spent in Peru and Italy, respectively, who was brought up on old Italian folk songs and such, and who later became involved in the 80s and 90s punk movement. That last was what Bruno did until, wanting to branch out a bit and hearing opportunity knock, he found himself playing double bass for a psychobilly band, which opened up new musical doors for him. The doors to roots music.    

In addition to the minimal drum setup he uses, which is little more than a kick drum, Lone Wolf plays his banjo in a rather percussive fashion, thumping his thumb repeatedly against the instrument’s body, sort of the way one would employ a snare for rhythmic punctuation. There are shakers, too, which he cups in his hand as he plays his banjo, and which sound almost like a small handful of buckshot rattling around at the bottom of a plastic cup. Uncommon in the one-man band scene, he has incorporated the use of spoons in his percussion, having fixed them to back of his banjo, between the dowel stick and the head. On his old, raggedy five-string banjo Lone Wolf shreds using the well-known clawhammer (or frailing) technique, sounding something like a punk rock Roscoe Holcomb without the full measure of Holcomb’s “high, lonesome sound,” coupled with Scruggs’ quick-fingered playing, perhaps after a few gulps of mason jar moonshine. 

One-man bands that do the whole banjo thing aren’t as rare as some might think. One-man bands who do the whole banjo thing exceptionally well are pretty rare, however, each of them standing out as a credit to the scene in his own way. Phillip Roebuck, The Dad Horse Experience, One Man Banjo, Thee Asthmatic Avenger, Royer’s One-Man Band, and Trainwreck Washington are a few those artists, and now so too is Lone Wolf One Man Band.    

Recently I had the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Bruno Esposito (Lone Wolf One Man Band). He turned out to be a pretty cool and interesting individual. And what follows is the content of that interview in its entirety.

As is usually the case, I would like to begin in an introductory fashion by asking you: Who is Bruno Esposito (aka Lone Wolf One-Man Band), not just as a singer/songwriter but as an individual, as a human being of this vast and crazy world in which we live?

I’ll begin with a brief family background. In the aftermath of WWII, my parents fled from war-torn Italy, as kids with their respective families, and immigrated to Peru, where they met in 1964.   They eventually married in 1969 and started a family soon after. I’m the last of four children.  Because of political and economic instability in Peru, my father decided to move us all to Miami, Florida in 1978. As with millions of other immigrants, my parents sought the “American Dream” in the good ol’ USA. I was two-years-old when we arrived. With the exception of a brief experience living in Naples, Italy for two years in the mid 1980s, I have lived in Miami for most of my life and consider it my hometown. 

What made you choose the one-man band route as opposed to the full band lineup direction?

There are lots of reasons why I chose this direction. For one, I tend to move around a lot. My whole life has been about moving around. If I move, I just take the act with me and there are no letdowns, no commitments.

There’s also more control over things like finances, decisions on gigs, songwriting. There’s no dealing with egos…no bullshit, just me and my music. And I’m free.

Don’t get me wrong, maybe one day the opportunity will come again to form a good band, and I’m not opposed to doing that at all, but at the moment, I couldn’t be happier doing what I’m doing.

As a newcomer to the one-man band scene, what has been your experience and overall impression of it so far?

Well, to be honest I haven’t really played out with a lot of OMBs, only my friend Uncle Scotchy out of Miami, and Joe Buck. May, Friday the 13th, I’ll be playing with Phillip Roebuck, which I’m looking forward to. But the experience so far has really been a positive and educational one. As a one-man band I’m always looking for ways to improve or add different sounds or elements to the act. I think, when I play out with guys who have been doing this for years, I really get inspired to get better and better.

With a sound that clearly has ingredients of country blues, ragtime, Appalachian folk, and bluegrass, surely you have some roots influences. And that brings up a point of curiosity: What do you personally think of today’s growing roots revival throughout the world, both in the one-man band scene and the full band scene?

I’ve always been a huge fan of old-timey music. Something about the way they played music back then just made it better. I really think that technology is great, but it has distracted us from really learning things that truly fill the soul with satisfaction, like learning an instrument. Nowadays, you barely see kids playing in the streets; they’re all inside watching TV or on the internet.

So, to see that kind of roots mentality coming back, in a big way, on a world level, is amazing and makes perfect sense to me.

What have been some of your most memorable gig or road moments so far as Lone Wolf One-Man Band?

James, to be honest with you I’ve had some great ones, but I really think the best ones are yet to come.

I’ve been playing lots of dive bars where the people dig what I’m doing, but the best reactions come from gigs I do within the scene. Like opening for Hellbound Glory and Six Time Loser at Will’s Pub in Orlando, which stands out as a good show. But the most memorable one would have to be the Hootenanny-Versary Hillbilly Hoedown at The Poorhouse in Ft. Lauderdale. Not only was it a really cool lineup of bands but also Scene Mom Productions (Deb and Joe’s) anniversary. They’ve been in the scene and helping out bands from all over the world here in Florida for more than thirty years.

I met a lot of people and got to see Uncle Scotchy, Joe Buck, Viva La Vox, The Sawyer Family, The Darling Sweets, The Loxahatchee Sinners Union, and Boise Bob.

All the Miami shows are not so memorable due to memory loss.

Having only just released your debut self-titled album a few weeks ago, what has been the general response to it so far? 

It has been very well received so far. Triggerman’s review from Saving Country Music was incredible and truly inspired me to continue doing this for as long as my body can handle it, and to grow and evolve as a musician and person. Reverend Nix out of Orlando, Florida really needs to be credited here for putting my name out there and really supporting what I’m doing. We have lots of plans for great releases in the future. For example, we have this idea of recording in this tin shack (here in the middle of our swamps) called the catfish hotel, which has this amazing sound in it. Also, doing split albums with other great artists, like Blues Beaten Redshaw, Uncle Scotchy, Husky Burnette and working with Hillgrass Bluebilly have been talked about.

What are your plans for Lone Wolf OMB in the coming weeks, months, etc? Anything of note, as far as shows, special projects and whatnot?

Lots going on. Everyday something comes up. The future looks bright for Lone Wolf OMB. I’ll be doing recordings with Chris Jay (sound engineer extraordinaire) out of Orlando soon. There are a few releases in the works. So, keep your eyes and ears peeled. Some out-of-state tours are being planned. I would also love to go to Europe for a while, as I haven’t been back to Italy since 1995 and it would be great returning to see my big family over there…and play some shows.

My schedule just gets busier and busier. I’ve had to hold back just a bit recently ’cause I got me a job at Gold Tone (instrument company) working as a stringed instrument assembler and repairman, though they are very supportive of me gigging and touring. It’s the perfect set up. My life nowadays sure beats working six or seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 12 a.m. in restaurants…being a slave to that system and all that.

Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover…or if there is anything you would like to express or discuss, by all means feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Lone Wolf.

I would just like to say, “Thank you, James,” for making this series of one-man band interviews.

“Thank you!” to all the writers and D.J.’s who write about and play good music. Dave Harris for documenting everything going on recently, and writing the book. And all the one-man bands and musicians out there keeping this music we love alive.

Oh, and come check me out at my shows!

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T-Model Ford & GravelRoad release “Taledragger” album

courtesy of Alive Naturalsound Records

James Lewis Carter Ford, also known by the moniker T-Model Ford, is the blues. That is to say, the blues isn’t just a way to describe his music but also his life – hard times and hard liquor, bad women and colorful friends, working class jobs and prison time, sweaty nights in the deep south and shakin’ smoky juke joint dives from ceiling to floor all night long with his extensive repertoire. Ford lived the life for nearly sixty years before even taking up the guitar and considering a career as a musician. He was a bluesman in real life before he was a bluesman on people’s stereos, before he was gracing stages of venues around the world, before he was a face on the sleeves of so many compact discs and pieces of vinyl. And that is undoubtedly what he will be until his dying day.    

At ninety years of age T-Model Ford is still going strong, and his latest release on Alive Naturalsound Records, “Taledragger,” proves just that. Together with backing band GravelRoad, T-Model Ford has laid down eight new tracks for “Taledragger,” his eighth album to date, and his second on Alive Naturalsound. It’s not a surprise that he no longer releases his albums on the Fat Possum label, where he spent much of his early music career, as they deal less and less with blues artists as the years go by. And so, for all intents and purposes, Ford has found a decidedly better home label with Alive Naturalsound. And while changing labels, he also switched gears a bit in the sound department for his new release.

Though T-Model Ford resides in the Delta, his style often leans more towards the hill country set, like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, along with traces of old Chicago blues, like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But if one were to get right down to it, one would admit that T-Model Ford has long since developed his own unique sound; a sound which melds the traditional with the modern in a way that would have most singer/songwriters falling flat on their faces, but not T-Model Ford, who welcomes the challenge with a sly grin and a practiced hand. And it’s a sound that has remained encouragingly consistent throughout the years, from his wild 1997 debut “Pee-Wee Get My Gun” up to the present with “Taledragger.” And though there is a lot to appreciate on the new “Taledragger” album, it is undeniable that some of T-Model Ford’s most chaotic and stripped-down material was on his early Fat Possum releases. The change in sound, however, is no doubt due to Ford moving on from just he and his drummer Spam to the full band arrangement. In short, it gives his sound a less raw and primal edge, making it slightly cleaner and more refined, for lack of a better way to put it. 

“Taledragger” is in and of itself a solid and praiseworthy collection of songs. Some of the standouts, however, are the opener “Same Old Train,” the eight-minute romp “Big Legged Woman,” the mellow and thoughtful “I Worn My Body for So Long,” and the blues standard closer “Little Red Rooster.” Much of what one hears on “Taledragger” are Ford’s interpretations of blues classics by other artists. But that’s one of the many great things about the blues: the songs have been swapped back and forth from artist to artist, so that there are several versions of them all.    

When mentioning T-Model Ford’s age I should have said “around ninety,” since he is unable to remember his exact date of birth. Be that as it may, it seems as if Ford is in it for the long haul. After suffering a dislocated hip, a heart attack, and a stroke, the persistent bluesman keeps recording and touring. At that is no doubt what he will be doing at the end

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Tom VandenAvond’s fifth full-length album “You Oughta Know Me By Now”

"You Oughta Know Me By Now"

courtesy of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records

It is no secret that country music has really gone downhill in recent years, both in the mainstream and underground alike. In fact, many of the late, great progenitors of the movement – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Woodie Guthrie, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard, to name a few – would undoubtedly roll over in their graves if only for a moment they were subjected to what passes as country music these days. Like a piece of depreciated real estate, no one wants to live anywhere within close proximity to modern country music anymore, save for a few brave souls scattered about the globe who have dedicated themselves to rescuing the genre.

One of those brave souls is singer/songwriter Tom VandenAvond, whose latest release on Hillgrass Bluebilly Records “You Oughta Know Me By Now” proves just how far he’s willing to go to do his part for country and other roots-related forms of music. This soft-spoken, cool-mannered, scruffy-faced Texan is all trucker caps and flannel shirts, and his songs somehow sound the way he looks.

At present, stepping forth from the vast shadows of the old country greats and into the light of today’s country, we have bands and singer/songwriters such as Austin Lucas, The Sixtyniners, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, Hank III (the very grandson of Hank Williams, Sr. himself), Possessed by Paul James, The Devil Makes Three, and of course Tom VandenAvond. Hell, even in the place of sub-categorical country artists whose styles strayed more into the realms of bluegrass, Appalachian folk and Americana, like Earl Scruggs and Dock Boggs, we now have Phillip Roebuck, One Man Banjo, Royer, and The Dad Horse Experience. As such, it is important that we celebrate these artists; after all, it is because of them that important, meaningful and worthwhile country music and other roots styles didn’t perish along with their originators. So, even more than an album review, that’s what this piece is: a celebration of Tom VandenAvond and his contribution to country and roots music so far.

Tom’s songs are as real and down-to-earth as the patrons that populate the dive bars he frequents. Indeed they are as potent as the shots of liquor he throws back, as bittersweet as the beer chasers that follow, and as muddy as the cups of coffee that no doubt serve as so many early morning remedies. His sound doesn’t just possess the spirit of VandenAvond himself but that of Texas as well. All such comparisons aside, it is quite simply a sound that is rustic and romantic, gritty and honest and raw, with a bit of alt-country twang and folky balladry. And between his smoky, mellow vocals and a little crooning, the stripped-down notes and chords of VandenAvond’s acoustic guitar and the combined instrumentation of the backing band, great songs such as “Rustbelt,” “The Landlady,” and “Dear Dirty Dublin” are born. Also worth a mention are the album’s opening track “Knights Ferry,” the title track “You Oughta Know Me By Now,” an upbeat Spanish number titled “Vacilando” (which literally translates into hesitating), and the closing track “Even the Olives are Bleedin’.”

In a way Tom VandenAvond’s songs are of the sort one might hear playing on a barroom jukebox at two o’ clock in the morning, last call having been announced, as the last few tendrils of cigarette smoke drift up into the dimly set light fixtures, a tired couple shuffles through the last few drunken steps of a slow dance out on the floor, and the remaining whiskey is sipped from tumblers and beer drained from bottles. They are also the sorts of songs one might hear on the drive home after leaving the bar at two-thirty in the morning, emanating from the old, battered speakers of an equally old and battered Chevy, while the early morning scenery goes by in a blur outside, and the country road goes on like a winding ribbon of asphalt to the horizon. ‘Course, he also writes and plays the occasional foot-tappin’, hand-clappin’ number, with the all energy and excitement of just starting out for the night, the winding down portion of it all a seemingly distant eventuality…more like bonfire shindigs with good pals, beautiful women, fiery gulps of Mason jar moonshine, and deep pulls on roll-your-own cigarettes than the former scenario.

“You Oughta Know Me By Now” is Tom VandenAvond’s fifth full-length album to date, after a self-titled release, “A Gambler’s Prayer,” “A Broken Home Companion,” and “The Right Time.” Truth of the matter is, the self-titled album, for which VandenAvond had The Weary Boys as a backing band, was his courageous first step out into the scene, and it remains a fan favorite to this day. “You Oughta Know Me By Now,” however, for which he had Larry & His Flask as a backing band, may just be Tom VandenAvond at his very best. Then again, he is also at his best on the two songs he contributed to Hillgrass Bluebilly’s two-disc tribute to Hank Williams and Leadbelly, “Hiram & Huddie.” And his accomplishments as a singer/songwriter don’t stop there, as he made an appearance in M.A. Littler’s film “The Folk Singer,” along with John Konrad Wert (Possessed by Paul James), Scott H. Biram, Ghostwriter, and Reverend Deadeye.

At present it is my understanding that a tour is being planned for Tom VandenAvond and singer/songwriter Soda. I for one will be checking the locations and dates in hopes that he will hit the East Coast and pass through Philadelphia in doing so.

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Music in Film, parts I & II

I. Music in Film


When artistic mediums collide for certain endeavors they can end up with either absolutely brilliant or altogether disastrous results. Of course, the combining of mediums isn’t a new concept by any means, though the way in which it is done has definitely changed with the times somewhat, at times for the better, and at other times for the worse. Truth of the matter is, the tools used to carry out such tasks are constantly becoming more and more advanced, not just making the job itself easier, but also widening the scope of possibilities to which we might assign any given project. Even so, it can still be done poorly. And if one is to succeed in one’s pursuit, it takes an abundance of vision and skill, not just the tools of the trade, so to speak.

Music in film is what this particular piece will focus on. Indeed, music and film, if combined properly, can do great things for one another. Probably goes without saying, it is preferable for the two mediums to coexist within the parameters of the project itself, where they end up playing off of one another to create a seamless mode of conveyance and expression, the landscape necessary to the soundscape, and the soundscape necessary to the landscape, ultimately creating a strong marriage of visual and auditory elements to evoke a significant inner response for those experiencing it. And that’s the sort of perspective to which I must assign this piece: that of one who has experienced such bodies of work and is now prepared to recount the lasting personal impacts thus visited upon him by them. A subjective task, to be sure, but art always is, whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not.

Since the dawn of marketed music, artwork has accompanied the recordings sold as covers and inserts and so forth. In the early ’80s music videos on television were all the rage, while in the ’90s it was not at all uncommon to have bands or singer/songwriters performing live for art showcases at galleries the world over, as well as at comic book stores and the like. And music has always had a part in filmmaking. In fact, I can think of a few different independent movies that have notable musicians and/or singer/songwriters who appear at some point throughout the story. Perry Ferrell, the frontman for Jane’s Addiction, had a brief appearance in the apocalyptic road movie “The Doom Generation,” while the one-man band legend Hasil Adkins showed up in the strange comedy horror B movie “Die You Zombie Bastards.” Back in his day, of course, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock’n’Roll himself, had leading roles in Hollywood films. More recently, the entire Las Vegas roots rock and rockabilly quartet Yeller Bellies appeared in the exploitation-style independent film “Killer Biker Chicks,” in which they also perform one of their songs, and throughout which Yeller Bellies vocalist Rob Bell shows off his ability to arrange an effective score.

In the case of this piece, however, I will be covering music as it pertains to independent filmmaking. You see, this past summer I discovered two filmmakers in particular whose work struck me as especially important, meaningful and worthwhile. Those two filmmakers are M.A. Littler of Germany and Adam Clitheroe of the United Kingdom. Each has his very own approach to filmmaking, just as each possesses his own idiosyncratic style and tightly held vision. And the work of each caught my attention in a big way, so much so in fact that I was compelled to e-mail each of them about possibly doing a piece about music in independent film in general and as it pertains to his work in specific. To my delight, they both proved willing participants, interested in working together and ready to dive headfirst into the endeavor. And thus the Music in Film idea was born.

II. M.A. Littler

courtesy of Slowboat Films

 

Some months back, while working on my ongoing press project called the One-Man Band Series, I was doing a piece on Swiss primitive rock’n’roll and blues trash singer/songwriter Reverend Beat-Man. At his record label’s website, Voodoo Rhythm Records, I happened upon the existence of the Germany-based independent film production company Slowboat Films.

Slowboat Films, established in 1999 and still going strong, is owned and operated by filmmaker M.A. Littler, whose diverse, uncompromising and painstakingly constructed pieces of what he refers to as “Maverick Cinema” have no doubt widened the eyes of numerous viewers throughout the years. Maverick Cinema is pretty much synonymous with Slowboat Films’ mission statement, the aim of which in his own words is to “become a self-sufficient film production company that could operate entirely independently and therefore create the basis for raw, unpolished and personal cinema. We do not follow trends, financial interests or audience expectations, and we ourselves in stark contrast to an age of watered-down and assimilated so-called independent cinema.” And in that mission, M.A. Littler and company have decidedly succeeded.

First thing I noticed about M.A. Littler’s work was that he oftentimes featured some of my favorite bands and singer/songwriters in both his films and music videos, such as John Konrad Wert of Possessed by Paul James, Reverend Beat-Man, The Dead Brothers, Delaney Davidson, King Automatic, Reverend Deadeye, Tom VandenAvond, Ghostwriter, Scott H. Biram, and so on. That really piqued my interest, to say the least. So I struck up a correspondence with Littler, first asking him for press copies of the two of his films that most intrigued me, “The Road to Nod” and “The Folk Singer.” He consented, providing me with the necessary materials. And after watching both films – one being very different from the other, mind you – I sat silent and thoughtful, certainly more impressed than I expected to be, and ready to write all about the experience of watching them.

Recently I caught up with M.A. Littler, at which time I suggested an interview. He agreed. And I have provided that interview here for you in its entirety.

As a writer whose main journalistic focus is the world of independent, underground and obscure music, this particular endeavor began as an exercise in exploring music in film – the marriage of visual arts and music, as it were. Now, even though it has become a bit more involved than that, the original focus remains. And I have dragged you aboard this leaky vessel adrift in a sea of madness, Mr. M.A. Littler, to discuss the part you have in all of this, specifically your films and the bands and singer/songwriters you work with for them. So…

Well, I reckon I’m a member of an ancient tribe – a tribe once referred to as outlaws, outcasts, misfits, pirates, rogues, etc. Mainstream society has very little appeal to me, and the same applies to mainstream music, literature, film and art. My work is simply an extension of my personality. The subject of my songs, poems and films is the world I know best, the subterranean world that exists on the margins of what most people refer to as the status quo. I never set out to make films specifically about music and I don’t really think I have ever made a film that deals specifically with music. They’re all about the human meat wheel and sometimes the protagonists happen to be musicians. They could also run junkyards or fix radios with a blowtorch – I’m interested in people who dance to their own beat.

To begin this interview, just to give the readers of this piece a better understanding of the artist with whom I am working, I would like to ask you to introduce yourself, and not strictly as a filmmaker, but also as an individual, a human being of this crazy world in which we live.

I’m a pirate, a jack of all outlawed trades and master of none. I was born in the old world, son of a cosmopolitan family, a kid encouraged to build tree houses and come home when he felt it is time. I grew up around junkyards, hotels, the racetrack, and restaurants of questionable reputation. It became apparent early on that I had very little talent to blend into mainstream society, so I tried to develop the skills necessary to live on the margins and to gather a tribe of kindred spirits with whom to live and work. The key focus of my work is a depiction of the subterranean world my peers and I inhabit. Now that the world seems to become more and more like a ship sailing across oceans of fire, a larger variety of people pay attention to the outlaw’s perspective. They know that there is something rotten in Denmark and that it may be time to extend your tentacles in search of alternatives.

When I first happened upon your project Slowboat Films and realized the sort of film ideas you were putting together, like “The Folk Singer” and “The Road to Nod,” I was immediately very excited to view them. After all, those two films, although very different both stylistically and conceptually, featured a small handful of my favorite bands and singer/songwriters. Possessed by Paul James, Alain Dead Croubalian, Delaney Davidson, Reverend Beat-Man, Ghostwriter, Reverend Deadeye, Tom VandenAvond, and Scott H. Biram. Having put all that on the table as a sort of preamble to the question at hand, I will now ask you: What influenced you to use musicians and singer/songwriters as actors in “The Road to Nod?” And in regard to “The Folk Singer,” what about John Konrad Wert (Possessed by Paul James) inspired you enough that you chose to follow him around Texas for a few weeks documenting his life and his music?

As I said, I make films that are set in the world I am familiar with and they feature people who inhabit that world. Robert Duvall was busy, so I had to find alternatives. I like to buy from my local butcher, and likewise I like to cast my peers. I don’t think “The Folksinger” solely depicts Konrad’s life. I was looking for themes that have universal merit. I merged fact and fiction, Konrad’s biography, and perhaps even a bit of my own. It was a mosaic.

Your current base of operations is in Germany, if I’m not mistaken. Has that always been the case? Or did you start out elsewhere?

I don’t really care where I set up headquarters. At present Germany is very suitable. Germany is odd, an acquired taste, but things work here. People are reliable. It’s not a have-a-nice-day nation; they’re serious people. I like that.

To date, you have done films centered on the Swiss primitive rock’n’roll and blues trash label Voodoo Rhythm Records, the Swiss funeral folk and death blues band The Dead Brothers, the German-born radical photographer and filmmaker and writer Miron Zownir, American bluesman and folk singer/songwriter John Konrad Wert, and a sort of alternative survivalist guide to the 21st Century. Now, you are clearly a very dedicated filmmaker, with an abundance of skill and vision, driven by a host of important, meaningful and worthwhile things. It probably goes without saying that these things mirror parts of your own life, whether internally or externally, deliberately or unintentionally, but…I guess I’m trying to ask you: What caused you to embrace the less trodden areas of filmmaking, the marginal or peripheral territories of thought and action, where the more radical and obscure people, places and things of the underground reside?

The margins chose me; I did not choose the margins. I’m not a journalist who lives on Park Avenue, getting paid to report on the fringes; I am from within the fringes. In my eyes, the inherent logic of our contemporary society is faulty. I seek a different logic and am interested in my own personal quest and the quest of others – so there you go, I reckon that is the fuel that runs the engine.

In your own words, what is it to be a Maverick Filmmaker?

The same as cattle: Some bulls don’t like to get branded or castrated.

How important is it to you to keep your work outside of the mainstream, to keep it, in your own words, “raw, unpolished and personal,” and to keep it an ongoing exercise in outlaw art? And why?

None of this is deliberate. You do things to the best of your ability and try to remain uncorrupted by the golden carrot. It’s like throwing all sorts of ingredients into a rusty blender – you never really know what the concoction you end up with will taste like. Some people seem to have taken a real liking to my flavor, while others prefer Starbucks.

In comparison to a good many of today’s artists in general and filmmakers in specific you are more than a little productive, with a body of work that dwarfs the efforts of many others, and with a high quality attached to each piece which speaks volumes about the standards you assign to your work. How are you able to do your film endeavor full-time the way you do? And what is your code in terms of the quality that each film can obviously claim on your behalf?

I make the films the best I can. And I don’t allow myself to surrender to the excuse of not having sufficient funds. Freedom increases proportionately to the decrease of one’s desire. If I have a million, I’ll spend a million. If I have a thousand, I’ll make it for a thousand. I have done dozens of projects for a variety of budgets. I see how much cash I can gather and then go out there with a pistol, a prayer and my crew. My crew is the key to everything. Our films are very aesthetic. Aesthetics usually cost an arm and a leg…unless you have a dedicated, professional and utterly demented crew. I owe it all to the people who have allowed me to seduce them onto this pirate vessel. They receive very little: a bit of salted herring, a bit of rum…and well, my eternal gratitude for whatever that is worth.

Are there any other artistic projects in the works going on right now or coming up in the near future, filmmaking or otherwise?

I got a novel on the boiler. I have a music project I call “The Redemption Family.” I wrote songs for the last Dead Brothers Record “The 5h Sin-Phonie.” A few poems here and there. And there are rumors going about that I’m supposed to write a circus/theatre play. They’re all a raggedy bunch of children, but they’re mine.

Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover, or if there’s anything you’d like to discuss or express, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Mr. Littler.

Raise the black flag.

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Hillgrass Bluebilly’s tribute to Hank Williams and Leadbelly — “Hiram & Huddie”

image courtesy of Hillgrass Bluebilly Records

Throughout the times and all the way up to the present the enduring repertoires of early country and blues artists have lived on. In many cases the songs are even more popular today than they were during the lifetimes of those long gone musicians and singer/songwriters, forever marking their rightful places in the history of music and creating legends for humankind to hold on to. That was no doubt the sort of thinking employed by those at Hillgrass Bluebilly Records when they came up with and carried out their two-disc tribute to Hank Williams and Leadbelly, the aptly titled “Hiram & Huddie,” which went on to be one of the winners of the 9th annual Independent Music Awards.

It’s not uncommon to see tribute albums these days, especially for such notable artists, but the main difference between those tribute albums and Hillgrass Bluebilly’s “Hiram & Huddie” tribute is the artists chosen to participate. Basically, this particular collection of Hank Williams and Leadbelly songs has been performed and recorded by the who’s who of today’s roots music crop, including the best blues, alt-country, roots rock, Americana, and folk punk bands and singer/songwriters. Some of those artists are Possessed by Paul James, C.W. Stoneking, Scott H. Biram, Bob Log III, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Tom VandenAvond, Soda, and Jawbone.

Why is the album titled “Hiram & Huddie”? Well, that’s quite simple, really. The proper name given to Hank Williams in its entirety was Hiram King Williams, while Leadbelly’s birth name was Huddie William Ledbetter. And though these two individuals came from very different social, ethnic and artistic backgrounds, they both became extremely valuable presences in music history, to say the least. It’s as the cover art of the “Hiram & Huddie” tribute album suggests — the artists existed on different sides of the tracks, as it were.

On the Hiram disc, designated as Vol. 1, the songs that stand out most are “Lost Highway” by Scott H. Biram, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” by C.W. Stoneking, “Ramblin’ Man” by Soda, and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” by Bob Log III. As far as the Huddie disc, Vol. 2, the standout songs are hands down “Rock Island Line” by Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, “The Gallows Pole” by William Elliot Whitmore, “Ha, Ha, This Way” by Tom VandenAvond, and “Bottle Up and Go” by Jawbone. But the two tracks that really steal the show on both discs are by the same artist, John Konrad Wert, otherwise known as Possessed by Paul James, whose versions of “On the Banks of the Old Pontchartrain” and “Bourgeois Blues.”

Born in a log cabin on September 17, 1923, Hiram King Williams (or Hank Williams, Sr.) spent the start of his life in Mount Olive, Alabama. After Williams’ father was hospitalized for paralysis caused by brain aneurysm, his mother raised he and his sister, supporting them as best she could throughout the Great Depression. As a teenager Williams was sent to live with relatives. His aunt taught him to play guitar, while his cousin secretly taught him to drink whiskey. Obviously he took to both. But he knew, even at a young age, that he wanted to be a singer/songwriter. So he played guitar and sang on the steps outside of the WSFA radio station, whose producers quickly noticed his talented and occasionally invited him inside to play on the air. Around that time, he started his band the Drifting Cowboys. In 1941, as America entered World War II struggle, most of Williams’ bandmates were drafted, leaving him to deal with a revolving door of replacement players. At that point he went the solo artist route, writing, playing and performing as Hank Williams, only working with the Drifting Cowboys on and off until they quit for good due to Williams’ worsening alcoholism, complaining that he drank more than the gigs paid. After two marriages, a couple of children, eleven number one hit songs, and a small handful of family members that followed in his footsteps, Hank Williams did more in his twenty-nine years than most do in an entire lifetime. He died January 1, 1953 in Oak Hill, West Virginia.

Even though his life was a short one, finding his grave at the early age of twenty-nine, and even though he couldn’t read or write music to any useful degree, Hank Williams, Sr. left behind some of the most important and memorable country classics of all. The Pulitzer Prize Board said it best when they awarded Williams a posthumous tribute, offering praise that told of his “…craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.” And had it not been for the birth defect that caused Williams the lifelong pain which led to his abuse of alcohol and drugs, ending his life so prematurely…well, we can only imagine how many more amazing things he may have done as a singer/songwriter and just how much further he might have taken country music.

Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly (or Lead Belly), was born sometime in January 1888 (some accounts claim it was January 23, 1889, however) on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. Though they had lived together for several years, Huddie’s parents, Sallie Brown and Wesley Ledbetter didn’t officially marry until about a month after his birth. At five years of age, the Ledbetter family relocated to Bowie County, Texas. As a teenager, probably at fifteen or sixteen, Leadbelly was already a talented musician and singer, often performing in St. Paul’s Bottoms of Shreveport, a seedy red-light district. But it wasn’t until he was exposed to the musical influences of Shreveport’s Fannin Street, a row of brothels and saloons, that he began to develop his own original style. Despite his talent with the guitar, Leadbelly’s first instrument was an accordion given to him by his uncle. Already married in his late teens, Leadbelly was well on his way toward living a normal workaday life; that is, until he left home in his early twenties to find work as a guitarist. More commonly, though, he worked as a laborer. And though he played around at different venues, sometimes sharing the stage with the likes of Blind Lemmon Jefferson, it wasn’t until his third prison sentence for attempted homicide (he knifed a white man in a fight) that his talents as a singer/songwriter were discovered by John Lomax. Wanting out of prison, Leadbelly pleaded to John Lomax that he record a song he had written and play it for the governor as an appeal. The song written as petition for his release was the other side of a record with one of his most popular songs later on “Goodnight Irene.” Soon after, he was released, though there is still some debate on whether or not the song sent to the governor had anything to do with it. It wasn’t the first time that music had helped him get released from prison, as he as incarcerated in Sugar Land near Houston, Texas, for killing a relative in a fight over a woman. While there he composed a song for the governor as a petition for his release, appealing to his strong religious beliefs. Despite write-ups in Time Magazine and other popular press rags, Leadbelly achieved a fair level of fame, but fortune, sadly, was not to follow. He struggled financially for almost all of his career, earning far more money from touring than from record sales. Leadbelly died December 6, 1949 in New York City.

Leadbelly has lived on through the years in his recordings, some of them through Library of Congress and Smithsonian Folkways, re-discovered by generation after generation, and appreciated as the masterful and innovative songsmith he truly was.

According to Keith at Hillgrass Bluebilly Records, the label is planning a Johnny Cash tribute for next year. That is one that I am very much looking forward to. I would venture a guess that many others would be excited about that as well. And all I can say to the folks at Hillgrass Bluebilly, otherwise referred to as the Dirtyfoot Family, is, “Bravo”…and, “keep up the good work.”

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Interview with Honkeyfinger

Honkeyfinger "Invocation of the Demon Other"

courtesy of Hoarse Records

When it comes to today’s one-man bands you won’t find anyone else out there quite like London’s Honkeyfinger, who has made it his business to further bend and twist the already curved-line formula of underground music…certainly more than most have dared to in recent years. With his signature sound of filthy as hell blues and hard as nails primitive rock’n’roll played on fuzz-driven lap steel, a partial drum kit, frantic harmonica, and slightly distorted vocals, this Doctor Frankenstein one-man band has given life to a musical patchwork monster of sorts. It’s an altogether experimental sound, Honkeyfinger’s music, gritty and frenzied, dirty and electric, primal and pounding and unhinged, as if he has bottleneck slide implements and picks for fingers, kick drums for feet, and a megaphone for a mouth. That is to say, he is his music. They are one and the same. All of his appendages work arduously, simultaneously, to make it what it is.

Honkeyfinger, otherwise known as Johnny Halifax, hasn’t any gimmicks in place to sell his music to the masses like so many other bands and singer/songwriters do. Instead, it all rests on his skill and creativity, his innovative sound of heavy slide and twang grooves, raw howling riffs, lunatic harmonica bits, and throat-searing vocal delivery, all tied into his standard-shattering compositional efforts. He doesn’t use props. He doesn’t wear any masks. Nor does he sport any type of getup aside from what he has on for his usual day-to-day comings and goings. With t-shirt and jeans, with dark shoulder-length hair falling from the sides of his battered trucker cap, and with an impossibly long beard that flows down to his chest in all of its full pubic glory…the sort of beard that is typically associated with poets, philosophers, hillbilly madmen, biker gangs, lumberjacks, wizards, and ZZ Top…he has opted to carry forth his music as himself rather than an oddball character designed to catch people’s attention. And if his music doesn’t catch your attention, I dare say that not much of anything in this world will.

As thick as the muddy sludge at the bottom of the Mississippi River, as fierce as an alley-dwelling mongrel guarding a scrap of meat, as distorted as a feedback-spitting bullhorn with a blown speaker, as percussive as a circle of tribesmen beating homemade tom-toms at a jungle ceremony, as bluesy as the Depression era Delta greats, as rockin’ as Sabbath, as full of layered grooves as a Beastie Boys album, and as powerful as a Hemi growling under a 1970 Plymouth Road Runner’s hood, Honkeyfinger has invented a signature sound that obscure music enthusiasts, record nerds and the underground music set will undoubtedly be listening to and talking about for years to come.           

“Invocation of the Demon Other,” Honkeyfinger’s first full-length release, hit the streets sometime in 2008. It was one of the first releases on Hoarse Records, a rather small London-based label rumored to have been birthed exclusively to put out recordings by one-man bands. Before releasing the “Invocation of the Demon Other” album, Hoarse Records put out a few Honkeyfinger singles on 7″ vinyl, in addition to releases by D-66 and Dead Elvis & His One Man Grave. “Invocation of the Demon Other,” however, consists of fifteen of Honkeyfinger’s best songs up to that point. My personal favorites on the album are “Honk n’ Skronkin,” “Got This Rage,” “Margarine Man, pt 1,” “True Believers,” “Burning Skull Blues,” and “Running on Empty.” Each of the songs deserves its own level of appreciation, though, as each song exists on a scale of artistic evolution — one man’s journey from the embryonic stages of his endeavor to its infancy, all the way to its maturity.  

Having played numerous shows since striking out on his own, Honkeyfinger has performed at the very important and amazing Deep Blues Festival in the United States, The Blues Rules Fest in Switzerland, the Offset Festival in a forested area outside of London, and the Bari Jazz Festival in Italy, just to name a few. Not only that, but he has shared the stage with loads of notable artists in today’s obscure and underground music sets. And he will no doubt continue to follow that path for as long as he can.

Recently I had the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Honkeyfinger. Included here for you are the contents of that interview it their entirety.

Over the years it has become customary in my interviews to begin in an introductory fashion, so as to give my readers a better understanding of the artist whose life and music I am covering. Having conveyed that, I would like to ask: Who is Honkeyfinger, not just as a musician and singer/songwriter but an individual, as a human being of this crazy world in which we live?

Raging spirit caged within this mortal skin. Busting at the seams of skin and bone. A 21st Century primitive making desperate sounds for desperate times, my friends.

Your sound is unlike that of any other band or singer/songwriter I’ve ever heard, including one-man bands. What inspired you to pick up the lap steel and make a distorted bottleneck blues-punk sound on it, while simultaneously pounding a kick drum and working the hi-hat…oh, and playing those wild harmonica bits?

You find your weapon of choice usually by chance – you know it’s the one when you can conjur the rawest, most fluid, spine-shaking sounds through the thing like it’s an anchor to the depths of your soul.  I’d honked harp since I was a boy desperate to do what Brian Jones was doing on  “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” — but it wasn’t until I found a beat-up 1940s Selmer lap steel resembling a piece of driftwood, hotwired it through my fuzz-driven bass amp stack, that I got Thee Sound. With a bit of stamping and clanking, it all made sense.

What made you want to go the one-man band route?

The frustration of being in a band mainly. I made a demo of this embryonic sound, with every intention of taking it to the rest of my band at the time, but realized there was actually nothing for them to play on it, as I’d sonically given it the lot and made the thickest, fuzziest, swampiest racket I’d ever hoped to make! Soon after that I called it Honkeyfinger after a film on camping and decided to do something with it.

Which artists in the history of music influenced you the most in developing your style?

Errrr. Rolling Stones, The Who, Small Faces, Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Captain Beefheart, MC5, Stooges, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Muddy, Jon Spencer, Royal Trux, Beastie Boys, Soldedad Brothers, PW Long, Mark Lanegan, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Motorhead, Orange Goblin, Nebula, Zen Guerilla…could go on forever.

A few months ago I saw Adam Clitheroe’s one-man band documentary “One Man in the Band.” To be perfectly frank, you were the artist that stuck out the most for me. Of course, Dennis Hopper Choppers and The Two Tears were great as well. What was it like working with Adam? And how do you feel about the finished version of the film?

I met Adam at my second ever show opening for Bob Log III. So I was just beginning the one-man band thing. It was not something I’d really road tested. I hadn’t started out thinking it would really survive long. What you see in that film is the infancy of Honkeyfinger. I’m pleased Adam caught me in a mood of optimism and enthusiasm. I think the film really touches on the darker side of one-man bands — the obsessiveness, the difficulty of relating to others creatively and personally. At that time I was just buzzing on having found a new and better way to rock harder. We’ve been to some fun film festivals off the back of it together. Adam’s become a good friend — we see each other fairly regularly. He’s seen most of my musical development as a one-man band and is always good for an honest opinion. He filmed the first Honkeyfinger three-piece band show for his DVD extras of the film, which should be out later in the year.

Keeping with the last question, how do you feel about the so-called one-man bands that employ synth, Casio keyboards, theremin, and various other electro music-making devices to create their spaced-out and noise infused sounds, as opposed to the guitar-wielding, drum kit pounding, singing lads and lasses of the scene? In other words, the mechanical side of it versus the more organic side?  

Good luck to ’em all. I love diversity and ingenuity and folks stretching the boundaries of what’s possible. What you like and don’t like comes down to taste, but for me the mis-use and abuse of technology is an important creative element. But I don’t think using backing tracks or pre-programmed stuff fits into the one-man band or DIY ethic. For me it’s about stretching yourself beyond what you can physically manage…kind of the thrill of riding a runaway train. From the mistakes, the chaos, comes true pure live creativity. I think audiences tend to really identify with you at gigs if it feels like it’s all gonna fall apart at any given moment. I think we naturally root for the underdog. Having said that, I do like using loopers, have done more or less from the beginning of Honkeyfinger, though I’m pretty imprecise with them and never use anything pre-recorded, so it’s different every show. I’ve got crappy timing and it helps spice up the racket. I’m a total pedal perv, too. I’m getting really into freaking out the sounds of traditional string, wind and percussion instruments with digital effects. Doing that, you get weird sonic artifacts which add another layer of magic to the sound. I’m a sucker for a bit of lo-fi sonic alchemy. But if it becomes too slick through the technology it just gets boring. All lines in the sand.

What other musical projects, if any, have you been involved in?

Oh, plenty of bands. Main one of note was SchwaB, where I tried playing bass like John Entwistle for about four years until they got fed up with me. Fat Midget was a great live project which was really the prototype for Honkeyfinger, with lap steel and effects and industrial drum loops — “Idiot Industrial Country &Western” we called it — largely inspired by Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” and the more Country & Western Buttholes stuff. Serious fun. Serious racket. Recently I’ve been doing some more instrumental stuff. Kind of “Paris Texas” era Ry Cooder on heavy downers sound. I’ll probably expand this in the future, but haven’t given it a name yet.

Being that I am from the States, I haven’t had the pleasure of actually experiencing the European scene in person, though I do know that the one-man band community is rather large and doing well over there…or so it seems. What has been your experience with the scene in London and the surrounding areas, not just in the one-man band community but the music scene in general?

London’s a decent place to see bands, and probably the best place to see American bands outside of America. So that’s your research and developement taken care of. But with playing out you run into the big city thing of fashion, cliques and scenes, which usually leads to an artistic bland-out. So it’s healthy to get out to the country when possible, as the audiences are more receptive and less jaded, or even vaguely bothered whether you’re part of the next big thing. I think Mainland Europe has a lot healthier music scene than the UK. Musicians are generally treated more as artists than commodities, so it follows they tend to be a lot more esoteric I think. Being in a one-man band means you can get out to a lot more places than a full band without having to be hugely successful.

How long have you been growing that kick-ass beard of yours?

It wouldn’t be Honkeyfinger without the beard. I think it came along when I stopped thinking of myself as a young man any longer, started letting go of conventional notions of what success is and started making plans to run for the hills. So I’ll let you figure out how long ago that was.  

What’s next for Honkeyfinger?

I’m starting to record and write a new record. It works that way round for me, and consequently can take a good while. I like doing it all myself — control-freakery, yes, most certainly. This time round I think it’ll be a pretty collage-like studio process. I stayed pretty close to the one-man band live sound with the first album — I don’t see much point in doing that again — so this time I’ll be going nuts with the effects and overdubs, probably end up sounding like Pink Floyd or Hawkwind. HA! It might feature other players this time, some of the folks I’ve had join me on and off over the past year. I’d like to make a soundtrack album, too. So anyone out there making a Psychedelicdesertroadtriphorrormovie, I’m your man. I hope too that the prolonged one-man band performing will eventually begin to show some physical as well as mental mutations to my homosapien form. What’s the point if not to evolve?

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Hillgrass Bluebilly re-releases Left Lane Cruiser’s debut “Gettin’ Down On It”

Left Lane Cruiser photo by Joel Faurote

When it comes to the vast and crazy wilderness that is today’s underground music scene, there occasionally comes along a band or singer/songwriter that turns out to be an entirely different breed of animal than we are accustomed to. Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Left Lane Cruiser (often stylized as LLC) are just such a band, with a big sound that can floor you as sure as a full-on punch at a bare-knuckle boxing match.

Speaking of Left Lane Cruiser’s sound, it’s definitely a raw, gritty, heavy and aggressive take on traditional country and blues, venturing into down n’ dirty roots rock and hell-raising swamp-punk territory. Fredrick “Joe” Evans IV plays bottleneck slide on electric guitar with distorted amplification, while delivering hoarse, frayed wire vocals like one who puffs two packs a day and drinks a bottle of hooch for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As Evans does his thing, Brenn “Sausage Paw” Beck mans the drum kit and junk percussion, pounding his way through the songs like a wild man. 

Over the years, the two-piece band formula has proved a difficult one to get right for most artists that attempt it. There have been exceptions to that rule, however, such as Two Gallants, The Black Keys, Restavrant, Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival, and of course Left Lane Cruiser. Each of those outfits has mastered the two-man band endeavor in their own way. And though I count myself among the fans of all four, Left Lane Cruiser has commanded more of my attention than the others lately, as I just can’t get enough of the recent re-release of their debut album “Gettin’ Down On It” from Hillgrass Bluebilly Records.  

Now, Left Lane Cruiser weren’t always part of Hillgrass Bluebilly’s Dirty Foot Family. Before the re-release of “Gettin’ Down On It” they were releasing albums exclusively on Alive Naturalsound Records beside such notable labelmates as Two Gallants (before they transferred over to Saddle Creek Records, anyway), The Turpentine Brothers, Trainwreck Riders, Black Diamond Heavies, and T-Model Ford. Of course, the Hillgrass Bluebilly roster is nothing to sneeze at either, with such artists as Possessed by Paul James, Ten Foot Polecats, and Tom VandenAvond. Hopefully LLC continues to work with both labels, since they are hands down two of the best of today’s independent record circuit.

Having been molding and shaping their sound for the better part of seven years now, and with two albums under their belts on Alive Naturalsound Records – 2008’s “Bring Yo’ Ass to the Table” and 2009’s “All You Can Eat!”– their debut “Gettin’ Down On It” remains a favorite of both press and fans alike. With great songs like “Big Mamma,” “Mountain Top,” “Truck Song,” and one of my personal favorites “Pork N’ Beans,” how could it not? And now, re-released four years later, it seems to have not only renewed the appreciation of the original’s fans but also captured the interest of a whole new audience of roots music enthusiasts and record collectors.

If you like your country and blues on the greasier, raunchier side, with the mighty movement of a freight train, the muddy depths of the Mississippi River, and the heavy goodness of a six-pack of cheap beer sloshing around in your guts, Left Lane Cruiser is probably the band for you. And the re-release of their first album “Gettin’ Down On It” is no doubt the place to start.  

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