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NewCityNet Black Country

Check out the African-American C&W.

By James Porter

APRIL 27, 1998:  If you're any kind of country fan, or have any interest in archival black music, you should scrape together your mattress change and get "From Where I Stand" (Warner Bros.), an incredible three-disc documentation of blacks in country-and-western music. All the bases are covered: soul singers with a C&W overtone (Arthur Alexander, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex), black country singers with no soul influence at all (Charley Pride), vocalists who could go either way (Dobie Gray, Big Al Downing), black string bands from more than fifty years ago who played the white houseparty circuit (most of disc one) and just about every black artist who flirted with the boot-scootin' market.

There was a time when every other soul singer had a C&W background, but the link was probably broken around the mid-seventies disco era--when MCA released their "Rhythm, Country & Blues" project (country and R&B artists pairing off for duets) not long ago, no current (i.e., post-hip hop) black artists were represented. But many early R&B vocalists have their "I-coulda-been-Charley-Pride" stories. At least one track on the Warners' set ("It Makes No Difference Now"), taken straight from the Supremes' 1965 "country" album, sounds more like a shallow attempt to "cash in on the country thang"--they could have substituted their great version of "Funny How Time Slips Away" (THE country-soul standard), but Joe Hinton appears elsewhere singing that number. You might disagree over one or two other songs, but this box adds up to an impressive whole.

For an interesting recent attempt at country by a black artist, you should hear Byther Smith's, "All Night Long" (Delmark). Smith (above), who years ago used to play upright bass with a country band in Arizona, likes to chant his lyrics like the words are just entering his cranium for the first time, with no regard to where these words fall rhythmically in the arrangement. That's good, because it makes you pay more attention to his surreal lyrics. On "Mother You Say You Don't Like the Black Colors" and "Is He White or Is He Black?" Smith decides to use stock country-and-western rhythm, and the results, though peculiar, would have been far more convincing on the black country box set than the Supremes' track. "White or Black" has that tinkly piano you hear on Patsy Cline records, and "Mother" even has a synth line running through it. They come dead close to sounding like parodies, but the songs hold up well in spite of themselves.

Last Ride: As Johnny Cash once sang, bad news travels like wildfire, but good news travels slow. There was nothing good about the death from natural causes of William Woodley, aka the Black Lone Ranger, but the local blues community has been relatively slow to react. He wasn't really taken seriously by most--he usually appeared as the "comic relief" on somebody else's show, never playing on his own--but when blues stage presence is limited to the guitarist screwing up his face during the "The Big Solo," right after he promises to "take you to the alley," the Ranger actually put on a show, keeping the simple concept of entertainment alive. To call it, he was a black guy in his mid-sixties dressed as the Lone Ranger, twirling pistols in the air, dancing with the ladies, and singing the only four songs that he knew (three of them by Muddy Waters).

But he was no mere minstrel act--a limited-edition vinyl 7" EP released in 1996 proved, without the visual component, that he had a fine singing voice. If it hadn't been for the sideshow aspect of his career--that is, if he'd traded in the Western regalia for a suit and a porkpie hat--the blues labels would have lined up six deep, waiting to record this Colorado transplant who'd hung out with Muddy Waters, Billy Branch, Fernando Jones and B.B. Odom, and we'd be listening to one of his CDs right now. But then he wouldn't have been the Black Lone Ranger we'd come to love. He didn't water down the Chicago blues for tourists--he just knew the value of an image. The Ranger, a former policeman, did not hang up the mask and the jumpsuit when he came home at night--he actually walked the streets in full Ranger garb, whether riding the 28 Stony Island bus or dining at the Queen of the Sea buffet restaurant. In recent years, he had dropped the "black" from his name and had started playing at the Empty Bottle, performing before a new audience of thrill-seeking indie-rockers. He was also immortalized in the hip-hop world when Crucial Conflict, a local rap group, featured him in one of its videos. At his funeral, they played a tape of his chilling a cappella song, "The End of the Rainbow." His appearance suggested a novelty artist, but when he opened his mouth, as the title of his EP said, it sounded like the "Truth Unmasked."


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