i was loitering at work a couple of weeks ago, minding my own business, not hurting any small animals or assailing lonely widows with mitt romney mailers. was just surfing for meaning in the fathomless web, when the old rube finds this shameless plea soiling his e-mail queue:
Go to this link…http://cdbaby.com/cd/jeffersonpepper2 right now and buy as many cd’s as you can afford. If you can buy ten, awesome! If you can buy five, great! If you can buy three, cool! If you can buy one, I’ll take that too. If you can’t afford to buy one, you’re worse off than I am, so I’ll be happy to send you a copy for free. Then, if you wouldn’t mind, send this email to all your friends and folks on your mailing list. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I know you’ll come through and I really do appreciate it. …
a lot to ask? a lot to ask! he’s supposedly a friend, and he’s begging me to buy 10 of his cds? ten? check the link, you’ll see he’s not selling them from the remainder rack for $1.99 a crack.
before i venture an opinion as to whether you would be victim to a snake-oil pitch if you purchase even one copy of this american evolution disc, i must make a few things clear:
the rube’s no record reviewer, and he’s not without conflict of interest here. was gonna recuse myself on this one, but the damned e-mail got my dander up.
you see, i’ve known this jefferson pepper rogue for a few years. seen him wake up in the morning like a fallen angel and poke his head out of a sleeping bag full of potato-vodka vomit. also heard him cry like a little bitch while the rube humped his leg in a desperate effort to get him to move off my goddamn couch.
and i guess he worked like a dog on this project, which eventually will include three cds totaling 50 original songs. i know he’s been preoccupied, because he asked 48 times lately if i’ve seen “idiocracy,” which might be the number of times he’s viewed this shitbird film. never remembered my answer, even once.
alas, it turns out there’s more to jefferson pepper than i knew. i’ve been to his house many times and admired the rustic architecture and bucolic setting, but i never realized he lived in the mountains. i’m not the keenest observer, but still, that’s strange. nor have i witnessed one of those terrible blizzards that turn the place into a Currier & Ives postcard.
yep, while swilling some fancy schmancy liquor or other up at the bar in the beer can museum, the rube never had an inkling he was sitting on top of Walton Mountain. But that’s what i learned from jefferson pepper’s bio on cdbaby.
He spent the winters of 2006 and 2007 holed up in his cedar-sided home studio in the Conewago Mountains of southern Pennsylvania. As the snow piled up outside, he became more and more reclusive, sometimes going for several weeks at a time without leaving the house. For two years he worked feverishly on writing and recording the songs that would be included on his sophomore effort, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2005 post-industrial Americana debut album Christmas in Fallujah.
poor dickensian bastard. quintessential underdog fighting the losing battle against the soulless, overpowering powers that be. as a blizzard rages outside his mountain hovel, the creditors howl at his door and threaten to take away everything he owns.
you see, this is all part of the mythology he’s created in which to embed his songs. he’s even got his own record label. and he’s never been short on grand ambitions. the bigger, the better. he once spent an entire night regaling anyone who hadn’t tuned him out about his outlandish vision for an alternate version of capra’s “it’s a wonderful life,” one wherein george bailey really was never born and poor mary hatch ended up gyrating around a stripper pole, blowing mr. potter for table scraps and shooting heroin in Pottersville.
But that’s not what i wanted to say. i wanted to talk about jefferson pepper’s new album. and i regret to say, the little sob has done it this time. naturally, you think i’m just singing the praises of an old friend out of loyalty. or maybe i once banged his wife in a moment of drunken indiscretion and i have an unrequited need to atone for my sins? not so. not at all.
let me tell you this: i’m not pleased to discover that jefferson pepper has turned out a remarkable album that demands a fair hearing, an impressive project that deserves a place somewhere beyond the collection of true friends. really, i’m pissed. i am a man of immense jealousies, you see. schadenfreude is my code. nothing hurts me more than the success of others.
and warts aside, this is a triumph. it’s the work of a talented bastard surging in self-confidence, shedding pretensions piece by piece and gathering command of his vision. sure, i got quibbles, but what do you expect when the prolific fucker turns out 17 songs in what’s just the opening disc of a trilogy?
for one, the guy’s a dogmatic SOB. no way around that. just check out this excerpt from track no. 11, “dam in the river of life”:
survival is every animal’s goal/so man’s big brain invented a soul/to save him from his terrible fate/damn near everybody took the bait
you get the idea. no matter where you fall on the eschatological scale, if you’re anything less than a what-the-fuck-are-those-idiots-thinking atheist, you’re a dumbass. as an agnostic, i sympathize. atheism, that’s just the flip side of religious zealotry. but this album is a more than the sum of its imperfections. and you shouldn’t let a heavy-handed phrase here or an historical half-truth there ruin the experience.
let’s start at the finish, with “primates swingin'” a rollicking gem that oozes an irresistible rockabilly groove. it’s fun, it swings and it educates. and it is loaded with witty rhymes. To wit:
Six million years ago today, hominids were on the way/the first known by consensus was sahelanthropus tchadensis. Two million years ago they weren’t no fools/those hominids started making tools
you’re kidding me, right? no. and while you’re trying to decipher the latinate twists and turns the hominid chain has taken since god created man, from homo habilis (nobody’d ever seen a guy like this) to homo ergaster (who soon became the master) to homo erectus (who had a better prospectus), next thing you know, the bass line comes crashing in and you find yourself tapping your toes and dancing around like a deadhead on amphetamines. and the kids, they dig it, too.
track 12, “fine fine day,” is an infectious gem. it exudes an airy, old-timey ambiance that would make andy griffith smile. barney fife, too. caveat emptor: mr. pepper would have you believe he’s a luddite who thinks everything, besides war and discrimination and oppression, that happened long ago has to be better than this horseshit we’re dealing with now. but i’ve seen this guy drive 20 minutes out of his way to shop at wal-mart. he is one of us. don’t be fooled.
“fine fine day” is a sunny-day frolic that pokes at the soft underbelly of the miracle we call electricity. the foot-stomping, buoyant beat and carefree vocals provide ironic counterpoint to delightfully sardonic lyrics.
I knew a Texas undertaker who didn’t have a care/he went to meet his maker in an old electric chair/it’s a fine fine day, a fine fine day, a fine fine day, across the USA
as my colleague rookie wilson said, “I know this song is supposed to be about some serious shit, but I can’t help it, it makes me feel happy.”
and it does. alas, happiness is not mr. pepper’s stock in trade.
while “primates” makes for an optimistic sendoff (“when they took the census another branch was heidelbergensis/who evolved into homo sapiens and thus began the modern trend/if we’re smart while we’re in our prime/we’ll be around for a long, long time“), the album opens with the bleaker vision. in “can’t go home,” hope for a long, long time is long gone. a land blessed with majestic purple mountains and fecund fruited plains follows a tragic arc to post-apocalyptic wasteland.
the bridge delivers the gut punch. bird songs and blue skies give to the unromantic realities of post-nuclear survival mode:
now the hum of generators and artificial lights/you hear them switching off again as day turns into night/live the good old days in a dreamy haze till you wake and come around in your little concrete shelter seven stories underground
this opening salvo sets the tone for pepper’s sometimes vitriolic attack on the hypocrisies of the american experience. before it’s over, pepper takes aim at everything from the rapacious arrival of columbus on the shores of the new world to the ruthless rise of robber baron John D. Rockefeller to the 21st-century quagmire we’re facing in mesopotamia.
and if he takes a few liberties with the facts, his tuneful songcraft and grasp of overarching realities rescue him in the end. “rockefellers” might make take a questionable turn or two, but it’s hard to dispute the essential truth. unrestrained capitalism is an unmitigated disaster to all but the winners, a notion we ignore at our peril as we descend into a retro gilded age:
and he will say it’s child’s play to live the american dream/but if you begin in a hole my friend you won’t survive the game of monopoly
the music is where the day’s won, and pepper’s got a bent for genre-bending. alt-country sensibilities trade partners with power chords, rural blues go toe-to-toe with traditional string music. along the way, pepper enlists help from an array of able hands. fiddler/mandolin player joe allison and pedal steel maestro ray eicher give memorable performances throughout. their instrumental duet on the carpe diem anthem “can’t come back” is particularly pleasing, with allison’s lyrical fiddle dancing playfully with eicher’s soaring steel guitar.
two scotch-irish-infused instrumentals, “lewis and clark homecoming” and “appomatox,” provide welcome levity and give allison ample room to move. randy stewart’s loping banjo offers a jubilant accent to appomatox. you can envision union soldiers hurling hats skyward and cavorting in celebration as four years of bitter carnage comes to an end.
on track 10, the 12-bar “riverbank blues,” pepper turns in some tasty bottleneck work of his own against the backdrop of jon shain’s rock-steady acoustic guitar. somewhere along the line i felt the urge to shout, “go, jefferson, go. … elmore james got nothing on this baby!”
the musical antecedents are all over the map. with its layered rhymes and jaundiced tone, the tropical “only survivor” recalls the antiheroine of dylan’s seminal “like a rolling stone” (you got your coppertone on and you look so cool/by your in-ground pool and your thatched-bamboo cabana/but the voice in your head feels regret/you left me for dead in south bend, indiana). “dam in the river of life” echoes latter-day dylan with its caustic allusions to ambiguous icons, from tom sawyer to charles darwin to charlton heston and the planet of the apes.
with it’s socially troubled protagonists and undulating steel guitar, “paperback romance” offers a waltzing homage to john prine’s “donald and lydia.” only this time, in a decidedly unjeffersonian twist, there’s a happy ending.
speaking of endings, my assessment is bound to distress mr. pepper. because when he’s not declaring that organized sport inculcates man with an us-versus-them mentality, he’s telling me that music must do more than entertain, that there must be a moral to the story.
and while the arc of the storytelling is indeed grand, i’m continually beguiled by the music. sometimes the lyrics hit dead-on, and when they don’t, they are obscured in the unfolding tapestry of the music. that what it is, damned good music.
and on that note, there’s one other song that hangs in my head. it’s not a history lesson or a morality tale, not a folk-punk opera or a post-industrial progressive-country lament. “i don’t wanna be alone” is a winsome romance that lingers in the air like a sweet summer breeze and recalls harlan howard’s definition of country music (three chords and the truth).
cause home is where the heart is/it’s maudlin but it’s true/every lonesome highway that i travel/leads me back to you/i don’t wanna be alone/i don’t wanna be alone/cause it’s a mean old world without you girl, i don’t wanna be alone …
maudlin? maybe. but it’s true.