Ollie McGee (spoon river demo) — a cappella & electric autographs
This twofer spoon river demo postcard kinda got away from me — it’s vast in its insular dimensions involving gospel music, secular literature & possible roadside fraud. Let’s just dive in & dog-paddle around:
When I gave Edgar Lee Masters’ poem Ollie McGee a melody, I was in the midst of a Ralph Stanley blackout. I’d been overdoing it with Ralph’s solo work, which he continued making after his brother Carter died in 1966. Particularly, I was gorging on his 1992 album Almost Home: an a cappella quartet gospel album — always played loud. To me, whether a believer in an afterlife or an agnostic terrestrial musicologist, every strain on Dr. Ralph Stanley’s Almost Home can raise the hair, head to toe, & take you to another spectrum. Listening to this one is collectively deep & raw — fundamentally human whatever anyone’s distinct spiritual twist.
I had this headshot signed around the release date of Almost Home at, I think(?), Freight & Salvage in Berkeley Calif. Ralph had his band setup around just a few mics. Stage left, meaning actually on the small stage, a merch table was setup with 8X10’s, albums, bumperstickers & even a signed banjo for sale. There was a local warmup act which I remember had a kinda new grass aesthetic — a midlife couple rocking a 1992 beachside church-casual panache. While they opened the show, the headlining doctor sat with his back toward them, a few feet away at the onstage merch table, resembling a chaperoning mercantile mystic, facing away from the duo mostly, but for a few times when he pivoted his seated upper torso stiffly left & slightly around like he was backing up a fifth wheel into a KOA campsite. His brief gazes at the couple during these moments weren’t far from the above autographed pic, but maybe less inviting, let’s say. His expression seemed to convey a tolerantly static what-the-fucking-christ. At the time, I was using disposable cardboard 3D cameras where you’d mail the whole camera somewhere & then be sent the snaps:
The only other promo shots autographed specifically to me are two that I got one night in Atlanta in 1990. Butch Hancock & Jimmie Dale Gilmore were playing at a small bar in my neighborhood.
This is four years before I formally met Butch at his gallery in Austin for an unofficial SXSW showcase. My manager had somehow secured a spot after rejected submissions to officially participate with the festival. That personal invitation from BH, based on a cassette of solo recordings we sent, allowed me to sign with an attending German label called Glitterhouse Records, a shady European branch of Subpop, which Butch was also on. I met Lloyd Maines for the first time that night, who’d soon produce my debut album Bloomed.
Back to that late evening in Atlanta: I had those BH & JDG 8X10’s signed after a songwriter-friend had invited me to go to their show. This person had briefly worked with Maines a few years before on a demo of his own & kept up with the West Texas scene. You know those friends you have that are kinda charming troublemakers, who you hang with but at the end of those hangs you feel lucky you got safely home without the police being involved at some point? Well, I was there with one of these buddies. He was a smooth-talker; a self-salesman; witty, confident & daring — the kind of character that, when you’re out with them, you stand away & just benignly watch what happens from across the room. We were the last to leave the show that evening as the bar was closing. My friend, actively positioned at the merch table, was trying to sell himself to them to the very end with thin personal/professional connections. I remember watching him chat ‘em up & them looking around like they were trapped, their eyes subtextualizing How & when can we get outta here? At any rate, they were nice to both of us, but, chances were, relieved when I finally got the guy out the door. I didn’t mention the incident years later to Butch at the gallery showcase & I wasn’t in the studio when he played harmonica on one of my songs on Bloomed. The only other time I was around him was when I opened a few of his dates in England after the album’s release. The Atlanta incident never came up. Thankfully, he probably didn’t even remember that earlier interaction — just another gig with drunks lingering after a show. Both Hancock & Gilmore still perform & record. My charming friend is dead.
The above Don Knotts/Barney Fife autographed pic was purchased at a Florida gas station for $4.95. It was sealed within a clear sheath in a circular stand with other tourist items. I knew it was strange that such a treasure would be in a place like that, but I bought it. I had to. You would’ve, too. Just look at that image. How could you/I not? Anyway, when I got to my motel later that day, I opened the plastic envelope & pulled out Don’s 8X10. When I did, another came out, stuck behind it:
007’s proxy signature appeared to be the same gold-ish metallic Sharpie & loopy scrawl as Knotts’. Sure, they were forgeries, but I did leave the gas station with not only an unintended BOGO, but also boiled peanuts from a crockpot which made the stop a quintessential Sunshine State double-header. Florida is one of those places where, the second I cross the state line, I feel it physically & sense it in the atmosphere while visually taking in its unique essence. Behind the wheel, the texture of the actual roadway beneath seems to change personality &, to me, the surroundings appear slightly hallucinant. It’s like when the world suddenly goes from sepia to technicolor in Wizard of Oz, except when I cross into Florida its nature instantaneously reanimates into a swampy Bob Ross composition, but done with neon crayon & pastel duct tape, & scored to a Gloria Estefan number. I never escape the region colorfully unscathed. Like those nights out with that now-dead friend, leaving Florida each time still feels like I’ve dodged a bullet, yet somehow haven’t. There’ll be a post in the future about another such FL exodus, but one involving a literal head wound that will always remain a mystery to me . . .
The above is a 3D snap of a walk-in closet I was renting in SF in 1998 when my album Since was semi-released. It looks sorta blurry as a scan, but holding the actual material print, like that Ralph Stanley stage shot as well, the images seem to pulsate. I wish you could see them in person . . . they’re alive! When you graze their plastic-y finish with a fingernail, they chirp a squeal as if tickled. At the time, I was, in fact, renting two hallway walk-in closets in the same flat: one, for sleeping on a single-size futon on the floor with a sleeping bag & another, for working. This pic shows a few items from the work-niche: — lower right corner, the brown smudge is a Univox tube amp with its logo plate strapped on with shipping tape. Its tone is scrappy like a teenager’s changing voice & has a killer tremolo. I still have it owing it’s not worth enough to sell — plus, it sounds tough & looks cool . . . — it’s next to a flight case I had custom-made in Edmonton AB to fit two specific electric guitars: Danelectro reissues — a baritone & standard six which I somehow still have — probably because I never flew with them. — upper right corner, a vihuela that I used for an instrumental called Kate Rose from my second album Devotion & Doubt. When I bought it in Ciudad Juárez in ‘95, it had fishing line knotted to approximate where the frets are meant to be positioned on the fretless neck, so I cut ‘em off & dotted with a Sharpie for a smoother wobbly slip-&-slide. Nearly thirty years later, it has the same near-clear nylon strings that came with it. — in front of the vihuela is a 50’s Ampeg Jet amp I got for cheap in Marysville Calif. It sounded incredible, but was undependable for touring so I sold it & got an identical 90’s reissue model which I also sold because it was dependable for touring but didn’t sound as 50’s-amazing. — below that amp is a square metal multi-purpose road case that I bought, pre-loved, in Seattle. I decorated it with a truck stop fish decal & put little wheels on, in theory, to make it easier to tour with, then didn’t tour-with & instead stored upside-down for stackability when it was empty. It’s in another closet now — right-side-up with nowhere to roll & half-full of stuff like old cables & such that I don’t use anymore. Ah, the contrarian paradigms of impulsive contentment . . . — on the floor, a white fake Telecaster I sold off with no remorse. — beyond it is my wonderful 70’s Guild acoustic that I do regret letting go of. — hanging in the upper left corner is, I think, my beloved 50’s Martin nylon string. I used it on the 1997 since cassette demos I’ve been releasing here lately & for the actual album Since in '98 on songs like Ariel Ramirez & Slept. That one was stolen from the back of my truck shortly thereafter while I parked for a few minutes in a junky Vancouver BC neighborhood to pick up a passenger whom I’d lost track of the night before after they’d been picked up by someone else. That theft still pinches — what a great guitar . . . perfect neck & intonation . . . Fuck. Incidentally, my passenger returned nearly intact. — in the 3D foreground, a mic stand left plugged & loaded in case of insurgent muses. — the rest of the small enclosure also contained a desk, stool, beer carcasses & not-discarded bags from La Corneta Taqueria which was located conveniently around the corner.
First off, the aforementioned a cappella & electric demos have no track sheets, but there probably never were any: two tracks for the a cappella performance (single mic’d voice & acoustic—overdubbed harmony vocal) & two for the electric rendition (two mics & one panned rough mix with a lot of bleed). Both were captured using a Shure SM58 through ART mic tube pre(s) into my Yamaha MD8 minidisc recorder. The final mix on the 2000 album The Hill of the song Ollie McGee is just a single voice (hollering) & guitar (chord-swiped) that was rerecorded at Wavelab Studio in Tucson in 1999. It was redone there because I sang a wrong word — “through” instead of “by” — in the demo that I’d brought with me. I opted to keep the re-do simple, without the harmony. In the same attic box that I found since cassette demos, there was an additional cassette with an unused other version of Fletcher McGee that finds me singing the poem in another song form. I’ll leave that one on the cassette for now. I thought about getting it digitized but decided not. It’s strangely upbeat with the tragic lyrics sung over what sounds like a poppy Monkees arrangement that, when I hear it, I imagine Davy Jones doing that kinda hunch-dance, hitting the tambo on a striped-pants’d hip near his off-center belt buckle tucking an eight-button bib shirt. The two poems, Ollie McGee & Fletcher McGee, were paired for their own reasons on The Hill. The final master of the album has Fletcher McGee represented by an instrumental. Here are the poems:
Here are the two versions of Ollie McGee:
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