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Vinyl Cave: The Good Old-Fashioned Way by Hamper McBee

Chicago indie label Drag City has explored many musical side roads over the years, from scuzz-rock to electronic to the some of the strangest singer-songwriter records ever. Over the past year, the label has been exploring another path, reissuing hard-to-find albums from the past several decades. Among the releases are the '60s sound of Illinois psych band Spur; '70s discs from British guitar slinger Bert Jansch; LP-only reissues in conjunction with Yoga Records of '80s private press albums by Jeff Eubank (A Street Called Straight, reissued using original LP jackets!) and Matthew Young; and, '90s albums courtesy of a Royal Trux reissue program.

I've had a chance to hear the mp3 versions of a few of these reissues. The smooth album oriented rock style of Eubank's lone LP would have had more a chance to find listeners had it been released a decade or so earlier. The Spur album, also a vinyl/mp3-only reissue, is a pretty cool slice of Midwestern obscurity along the lines of the Pisces album, and I'm hoping to find a copy before the small print run disappears.

In addition to their collaborative releases with Yoga, Drag City has also been issuing albums with the Twos & Fews label, the most recent of which is my favorite of the reissues so far, and the only one I've seen appear in local bins: The Good Old-Fashioned Way by Hamper McBee.

McBee was a Tennessee mountain man, born in Emory Gap and living in Monteagle at the time these recordings were made. After serving a hitch in the Army in the '50s, he returned to a life in Tennessee working various jobs, the most picaresque being brewing moonshine and working in carnivals -- stories of which enliven The Good Old-Fashioned Way.

The recording itself, created in someone's living room on a small tape deck by filmmaker Sol Korine and music scholar/author Charles Wolfe, is about as basic as it gets: unaccompanied singing and storytelling. This may sound like it could be a dry proposition, and indeed is likely to be rough sledding for those who don't have previous experience with field recordings, old Folkways albums or even much traditional music in general.

These recording sessions definitely weren't dry, according to the liner notes from 1978's Raw Mash -- the original Rounder release of a little more than half of these tracks -- and McBee indeed sounds fired up at times along about the middle of side two. In the selection of old folk ballads, drinking and/or loving songs and stories, he comes across as one heck of a character, at times sentimental, at times profane, and always an original spirit.

For listeners who can roll with it, this album is a chance to join in on that long-gone day of down home singing, stories and drinking. It's a portrait of an America that's been buried under our hectic, electronic society, a half-shadowed world of illegal stills, carnival barking, back roads and hard living. It makes me want to gather some friends, some guitars and a whole lot of beer, and head for the woods somewhere. If this album sounds like your can of brew, grab this reissue while it's still around. (Drag City, 2010)

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