The American Explorer Series -- Five forgotten veterans of the musical fringe, including Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Vernard Johnson, are the heroes of a series of new recordings
The American Explorer Series
Elektra Nonesuch Records is a famous class act, and so you’d expect its American Explorer series-major-label debuts by homegrown cult figures Boozoo Chavis (Boozoo Chavis), Charlie Feathers (Charlie Feathers), Jimmie Dale Gilmore (”After Awhile,”), Johnnie Johnson (Johnnie B. Bad), and Vernard Johnson (I’m Alive) — to be tastefully done. It would be churlish to deny the intrinsic worthiness of the series — although gospel saxophonist Vernard Johnson maintains his flashy wardrobe by backing Billy Graham, the other four have suffered for their art, three of them for nearly 40 years. Nevertheless, the sanctity surrounding the project does smell slightly of tasteful, worthy horse dooky.
Essentially, Nonesuch claims that the new series enlarges upon its long-standing commitment to the native musics of Bulgaria, Indonesia, and other foreign lands — that America’s regional and subcultural styles are as deserving as, say, Balinese gamelan. But exposing Americans to American music is at once more obvious and trickier than importing exotica — more obvious because such dialects as blues and gospel are easier for the average American to get a handle on, trickier because such masters as bluesman Albert Collins have already found their market niche. So unlike the best other Nonesuch Explorer artists, these five are neither generically exemplary nor aesthetically top of the line. Not to mince words, they’re weirdos, and there’s no reason to feel culturally deprived if you steer clear of them.
Boozoo Chavis’ shuffling snare drum is a mark of an authentic (even exemplary) excursion into zydeco, but unlike piano-based New Orleans rock & roll, zydeco isn’t exactly one of pop’s most universal styles. Vernard Johnson earned his weirdo credentials playing lounge saxophone in gospel settings where believers didn’t think it belonged — correctly, on this unctuous evidence. As for Johnnie Johnson, well, his trip-hammer piano played an essential role in Chuck Berry’s early records. But here he’s the latest ace sideman to cut a solo album you could swear you’ve heard many times before.
Which leaves us two fine minor records from nowhere. Although Jimmie Dale Gilmore represents country music in Elektra’s schema, his lonesome Texas tremolo is way too spaced-out for Nashville, and he’s a bigger hippie than even Willie Nelson. Fans of oddball singer-songwriters will relate to his almost completely self-written entry, the most consistent (though not the most exciting) of the four albums he’s released since 1988. The not-quite-legendary Charlie Feathers, meanwhile, represents rockabilly — which most sources report bit the dust around 1958 but which a stubborn cult of unreconstructed juvenile delinquents has made their grail ever since. Unlike other heroes of the rockabilly underground, however, he’s not afraid to sound his age, a hard-lived 59. The result sounds eerily displaced, and will teach you a lot more about Charlie Feathers than about American music. Worthy recordings are often like that, which is one reason this series is just slightly misconceived.
”After Awhile”: B+
Johnnie B. Bad: B-
I’m Alive: C-