What About Bob?
A homegrown music talent comes back from obscurity, with a little help from his friends
"You've stumbled onto the website of one of the most obscure songwriters on the face of the planet."
So says the front page of BobFranksongs.com, a site dedicated to a native Memphis musician whose story — that of a music-industry rising star who faded unexpectedly fast and then seemingly disappeared — is a familiar one.
A product of the Memphis coffeehouse scene of the '60s that also helped mold such local music fixtures as Jim Dickinson and Sid Selvidge, Frank impressed the scene with his original songs, earning the appellation "a Southern Bob Dylan" from appreciative fans. Frank spent the first couple of decades of his life in Memphis, migrated to Nashville for brief stints in college and as a contract songwriter at Tree House Publishing on Music Row, and spent time bouncing around the country like any good folk singer should, working as a ranch hand and on a gas pipeline, among other jobs. >>>
But, by 1972, Frank's music career finally seemed to be on track. Venerable folk label Vanguard signed him and released his debut album, a collection of original songs titled simply Bob Frank. A long career as a folkie singer-songwriter in the mold of a Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt, at least, seemed probable. The label organized a showcase concert at New York's storied Max's Kansas City venue, but a stubborn, unsteady Frank defied his benefactors by refusing to perform songs from his album at the event. He toured some in support of the album, but it didn't take off, label support dried up, and Frank abandoned the music business for Oakland, California, where he went to work for the city (working on irrigation systems) and started a family.
After his first shot torpedoed, Frank stopped recording music for nearly 30 years. He still wrote songs and sometimes played them around his Bay Area home, at open mic nights or union rallies. But he'd set aside any notion of a professional music career.
And then something unexpected happened along the way: That one missed opportunity from 1972 sprouted a minor Internet-era cult. Bob Frank became a
collector's item of sorts, fetching as much as $100 in online auctions, and far-flung Frank fans began finding each other and, soon, searching for Frank himself.
Inspired to hit the recording studio again, Frank called upon his old friend Dickinson, who had recorded a Frank song ("Wild Bill Jones") on his own obscure 1972 debut, Dixie Fried. Dickinson had become an acclaimed producer and sideman since those coffeehouse days, working with artists such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Big Star, and the Replacements, and had his own studio in northern Mississippi. Dickinson invited Frank out to record, resulting in Keep On Burning in 2002, the first Bob Frank album since 1972.
Keep on Burning was followed over the next few years by three other collections. Frank self-released these albums via his own "Bowstring" label and sold them online, creating a cottage industry to serve the fan base forged by his now-mysterious debut album.
Then, a couple of years ago, Frank's come-back got an unexpected second layer via a series of hometown connections. First, Jim Dickinson chose a Frank song, the working class anthem "Red Neck, Blue Collar," to lead off his 2006 album for the local Memphis International label, Jungle Jim & the Voodoo Tiger, an album that got widespread strong reviews and put Frank's name back on the lips of rock critics and casual fans. Next, Frank met another expatriate Memphian in California, the young John Murry, with whom he partnered for a collection of original murder ballads, World Without End, which sprouted a cult of its own, particularly overseas.
With Frank's reputation suddenly re-charged, Memphis International came calling. An independent label founded earlier in the decade by Memphis music-industry veteran David Less and Los Angeles-based music publicist Bob Merlis, Memphis International specializes, partly, in working with regional artists united by a diverse, iconoclastic vision of what American roots music means. In addition to Dickinson, who made a terrific Memphis International follow-up with last fall's Killers From Space, the label has released albums from West Tennessee-based alt-country pioneer Tracy Nelson, Memphis roots and blues virtuoso Alvin Youngblood Hart, young local musician Ron Franklin, and archival recordings from Stax soul star Carla Thomas and proto-rock-and-roll obscurity Harmonica Frank.
On February 19th, Bob Frank will join that list with his Memphis International Red Neck, Blue Collar, his first label-released, widely distributed album since his Vanguard debut more than 35 years ago.
The album culls original songs written over the course of Frank's life, including a new version of "Judas Iscariot," a jaunty talking blues track about events preceding the crucifixion of Jesus, aka Judas' "Gypsy sidekick," that first appeared on Bob Frank.
Frank leads the record off with the title track, a steady, resigned, matter-of-fact reading that contrasts with the angry, sardonic version Dickinson used as his opening salvo on Jungle Jim & the Voodoo Tiger.
Depressing in its seeming timelessness, the "Red Neck, Blue Collar" track targets widening income gaps and wars that aren't fought by the men who start them. "Put 'em on the front line/Let 'em take the hit/They're strong on heart and long on grit," Frank sings. "Tell 'em it's for Mama/It's all that is required/Let 'em be a dog/Walk straight into the fire."
It's a strong, unflinching song, but what really makes it work is that there's nothing condescending or presumptuous about Frank's "they" — Frank's class-based animus rooted in his own experience, something that comes through on Red Neck, Blue Collar.
"Monroe, Louisiana Pipeliner's Brawl" is an autobiographical story song that mines Frank's own stint working on a Mississippi gas pipeline. "One Big Family," which contains the refrain "Why does their ass ride first class while I'm barely staying afloat?," was written for an Oakland City Employees union rally.
But, for all his working-class anthems, Frank doesn't come across as a predictable modern liberal. On "Pledge of Allegiance," Frank baldly states, "If this is a Christian nation, we ought to heed the words of Christ" en route to the admonishment, "What good is it to put God in the Pledge of Allegiance when you don't have Jesus in your heart?"
Elsewhere on the album, Frank pays tribute to the Southern life he left roughly 40 years ago. "Canebrake," with Dickinson's sons Luther and Cody offering back-up, is a swampy tribute to Frank's West Tennessee upbringing. "Holy Ground" is a slice of hillbilly gospel. "Little Ol' Cabin Home" comes off as a tribute to rural Southern living.
Whether Red Neck, Blue Collar is the start to the next chapter in Frank's circuitous music "career" remains to be seen. But even as bookend to this onetime Memphis hopeful's aborted start, it's welcome. If nothing else, it may force a re-write on BobFranksongs.com: Frank's obscurity, at least, is about to take a dent. M