Headin' Down to Henry's
First Appeared at The Music Box, November 2001, Volume 8, #11
Written by T.J. Simon
The soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? has been on the Billboard Magazine charts for more than 35 weeks. This is particularly astonishing because the album is a celebration of old-time bluegrass, folk, and gospel music in a time when the charts are primarily full of over-produced modern country music played by runway models and light-rock twerps in ten-gallon hats. Evidently, all it takes is George Clooney lip-synching for the world to discover the rich musical heritage of our rural American past.
The Wags is an Oregon-based band that was not part of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? project but nevertheless stands to benefit from this newfound interest in depression-era country music. The outfit is led by "Captain" James Cook, who handles all the songwriting, vocals, and lead instrumentation with a 1928 National Tenor Guitar. On the group's second album Headin' Down to Henry's, Cook is supported by a veritable bluegrass orchestra as his bandmates chime in with trombone, trumpet, piano, acoustic bass, a snare drum, and even spoons. The only thing missing is a hillbilly uncle blowing into a moonshine jug.
The album itself is a wonderful collection of country blues, ragtime, and acoustic swing that transports the listener back to simpler times when music could be heard on a neighbor's porch without a Ticketmaster service charge. Every song tells a fanciful story full of old-time rural charm. The Ballad of Johnny Carwash is a campfire yarn about a mysterious guitar picker living under a drawbridge; You Can't Kick the Dog is a whimsical bluegrass number remembering a mischievous childhood; and Skin Mop is a bawdy up-tempo gospel tune that won't be heard in any church regardless of the era.
Many of the songs on Headin' Down to Henry's are centered in a ragtime melody reminiscent of Leon Redbone, particularly on the jazzy A Little Bit Here. But unlike Redbone's mumbled vocals, Cook's voice is clear as a bell, at times sounding more like Jimmy Buffett. As a result, the listener never misses a clever turn-of-phrase. Likewise, The Wags occasionally takes a page from the lazy shuffle compositions of Randy Newman's period pieces (Relaxin' Fool) and turns in punchy country swing numbers that would have made Bob Wills — the father of the genre — very proud (Real Life).
In addition, the instrumentation throughout Headin' Down to Henry's is superb. From the muted horns to the clackity-clack driving percussion, not a note is missed by any of the band members. If any complaint is to be leveled against The Wags, it is that many of the songs sound the same both in tempo and orchestration, though they also fall within the simple, no frills style that suits them perfectly.
Listeners who have been fans of old-time country music for their entire lives as well as those who have recently re-discovered the genre will be very pleased with Headin' Down to Henry's. And, fans aching for more of the same will be well suited to check out Chicago's own Devil in a Woodpile. Both bands started as quirky tributes to a dying musical style, and suddenly have found themselves transported, albeit temporarily, into a pop-culture traditionalist revival. Enjoy it while it lasts. ½
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box