Enigmatic roots musician Ron Franklin on Chuck Berry, early influences, and his latest album "City Lights."
So many young musicians who dabble in roots forms, like blues and country, tend to dote on the torment and gravity, like kids playing dress-up. Memphis musician Ron Franklin instead taps into the musicality of these forms. And in a city where a producer like Jim Dickinson (who plays on Franklin's latest album, City Lights) provides a tangible link to the playful sound of the jug-band era, Franklin — who jokes that he was "raised mostly in a U-Haul" during his rootless childhood — has found a home.
"It's where I've been the longest," says Franklin of Memphis, which has been his home base for several years despite frequent travels and extended stays in places such as Los Angeles and Europe. Franklin isn't certain how much Memphis merely fits his sensibility or how much the city has formed his music, but either way, this eclectic musician has found a home that gets him.
"I definitely got the sense in Memphis that there's a lot more cross-pollination," Franklin says. "You hear a lot of Sun blues stuff that sounds as country as the later rockabilly stuff. And there's so much access to other musicians here."
Franklin grew up on a diet of Chicago's Chess blues label, early rock-and-roll, and country music found in the record collections of older relatives, and he's absorbed those sounds and made something of his own from them. You can hear it on his new album, City Lights, where the original song "Little Suzie" blends Bo Diddley beats and railroad rhythms into a sugary rave-up, and his cover of Chuck Berry's "Thirty Days" sounds even more rambling than the original.
"[Chuck Berry's] 'Maybelline' was the first record I ever heard that made me want to start playing music," Franklin says. And that inspiration comes through even when he isn't covering Berry, though his music often evokes Berry's own cross-cultural roots approach and light musical touch.
"I hear a lot more depth to his music than he's given credit for," Franklin says. "He's definitely got a finesse to what he's doing, but I'd be hard-pressed to think of a heavier guitar sound than 'Maybelline.' Maybe [AC/DC's] Angus Young."
City Lights is Franklin's second album to be released this year (the other is Blue Shadows Falling) and one of more than half-a-dozen he's released over the past few years, either solo, with a rotating cast of collaborators he's dubbed the Ron Franklin Entertainers, or with his garage-rock band the Natural Kicks. But it's the first he's put out through an established record company — the locally based roots-music label Memphis International — rather than on his own. But he doesn't seem to expect that this will change the way he operates, which seems to be like an itinerant musician from a different time.
Franklin is in the midst of what he calls his "Unknown Tour," in which he travels from city to city, often by Greyhound, without a string of gigs scheduled beforehand. Armed with only his guitar, he seeks out appearances at house parties and record shops and sometimes at traditional music venues.
It's an urge Franklin traces back to his teenage years, when he and friends would travel up to Chicago from places such as East Texas and Louisiana and seek out — and find — opportunities to play in South Side blues clubs.
"In a way," he says of his "Unknown Tour," "I've always done this."
Black Snake Moan:
Music from the Motion Picture
This soundtrack album for local filmmaker Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan is, more than anything, an overdue coming-out party for Memphis producer/engineer/composer/band-leader Scott Bomar.
Bomar crafted a terrific, Stax-like score for Brewer's previous film, Hustle & Flow, but the only soundtrack CD to emerge didn't feature any of it. It was a collection of rap tracks, some featured prominently in the movie, some not.
But Bomar serves as soundtrack producer here, and the result includes three selections of his bluesy, atmospheric score (Ennio Morricone gone hill country is how the liner notes aptly describe it), which Bomar recorded locally at Ardent Studios with help from the Dickinson family (soundtrack-vet pop Jim and North Mississippi Allstar sons Luther and Cody) and harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite. It also includes all four blues performances Samuel L. Jackson gives in the movie, which were also produced by Bomar at Ardent, with a rotating cast of locals helping Jackson (Kenny Brown, Jason Freeman, Cedric Burnside, Luther Dickinson).
As in the movie, stomping live versions of Burnside's "Alice Mae" and the standard "Stackolee" trump the slow-burn blues of Burnside's "Just Like a Bird Without a Feather" and the Blind Lemon Jefferson classic that provides the film's title. On the "juke-joint" cuts, Jackson not only has Brown and Burnside house-rocking behind him, he's actually performing the songs.
The Bomar and Jackson cuts are the heart of this soundtrack (along with a couple of Son House sound bites that play a crucial role in the film), but the "filler" is pretty choice too.
The record ends the way the movie does, with the North Mississippi Allstars' evocative blues-scene reverie "Mean Ol' Wind Died Down." Cuts from Burnside himself ("Old Black Mattie") and hill-country matriarch Jessie Mae Hemphill ("Standing in My Doorway Crying") feel essential.