Trash’s ‘Sweet Bama’ makes self right at home among good blues
By Ben Windham
When The Red Mountain White Trash was introduced at City Stages on Sunday in Birmingham, parts of the audience broke loose with a chorus of rowdy whoops and rebel yells. They seemed to think they were about to hear the reincarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Must be something about the name.
If some people came expecting a redneck rock show, they would have to wait for The Drive-By Truckers. This band — The Trash, they like to call themselves for short — is a group of folklorists, scholars, record collectors and regular folks. They can get wild and crazy, but they live in a world apart from Skynyrd.
When they started the band in 1985, in fact, they all lived in a historic neighborhood on Birmingham’s Red Mountain that was undergoing a yuppie gentrification. Band members weren’t renovating their homes, so they wondered on occasion if some of the yuppies considered them the neighborhood’s white trash.
In that neighborhood, the term meant "BMW’s upon blocks and obsolete espresso machines on the front porch," according to The Trash‘s frontwoman, Joyce Cauthen.
If the band had its tongue planted firmly in its cheek over the name, it had its feet planted firmly in the 1920s and ’30s, when some wild and wooly music indeed was being made in Alabama and the rural South.
The Trash’s songbag is filled with old-time ballads about God and the Devil, drinking songs, sinfully joyous fiddle music, and mean white blues.
They’ve played all over the country, earning accolades everywhere for fire and flare. Maybe that’s what had some of the audience whooping.
The fact that Michael Doucet, leader of the famed Cajun band BeauSoleil, was an enthusiastic member of that audience is no fluke. The Trash’s new CD, "Sweet Bama," the band’s third release, makes the case that this is one of the country’s best traditional groups.
Rambling from Lookout Mountain fiddle breakdowns to blues from Uncle Dave Macon, the recording is certainly the strongest in the band’s 17-year history.
With the surge of popularity of this kind of music in the wake of the runaway best-selling soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou," the band is poised to gain new fans. But be forewarned — Cauthen finds much of the "O Brother" selections to be slick, Hollywood creations. The Trash’s music is the real thing, with all the warts, splotches and calluses of good traditional music.
Songs on the new CD come from all over the place, but as you may suspect, given the title, there is a strong Alabama flavor.
"Sweet Bama" is a bright tune that Cauthen and her husband Jim, who fiddles for The Trash, heard from a traditional musician living near Nashville, Ga.
"Lost Child" comes from closer to home; it’s a tune that Lamar County fiddle genius Charlie Stripling learned from his Uncle Plez Carroll, who was born in 1850. It’s a remarkable reading, all the more so for the fact that Robert Stripling, Charlie’s son, plays guitar along with Joyce Cauthen on the track.
And it’s not the only Charlie Stripling tune that gets a strong rendition from The Trash. The album opens with his "Coal Valley," a tune that he called a "ragtime breakdown" that he played at dances in the Walker County community that gave the tune its name.
The rollicking "Boat’s Up the River" has the chorus, "Alabammy bound, boys, Alabammy bound! I believe to my soul I’m Alabammy bound." Carole Griffin takes the lead vocal on this one. It’s a treat to hear and even better to see her do it in concert.
"Mean Old Birmingham Blues" is an absolutely marvelous reading of Curley Kinsey’s tune from the 1940s. Kinsey was an original member of the Oak Ridge Quartet and a friend of Hank Williams; Martin learned it from Kinsey’s son, Ken.
As good as those songs are, the album’s most powerful piece is one with only tenuous Alabama connections, "Oh Death." It was recorded by Alan Lomax when he canvassed the state during the 1950s but The Trash draw on Dock Boggs’ recording from the 1920s, arranging the song as a dialogue between Death and a person about to die. It’s chilling stuff.
A much brighter note is the CD’s cover, depicting a musician with a red guitar, painted by Fayette folk artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Any band hip enough to use one of Sudduth’s dirt-and-mud masterpieces — and this is the second Sudduth cover for The Trash — gets my vote for exceeding good taste in Alabamiana. The music bears out this judgment.
There’s a party in Birmingham tonight at 8 at WorkPlay (www.workplay.com) to celebrate the release of "Sweet Bama." Like the music from this state that The Trash perform with such verve and passion, the new album is really something to celebrate.May 24, 2002