The Lonesome Death (and Life) of Souled American

Dank, dark, and sad with Chicago's weird country band

"Country" and "lonely" go together like "iced" and "tea." The cumulative space on Souled American records -- really the absence of music -- reaffirms a loneliness that's implied, associative, and, according to Adducci, real. "The last one took two years," says Adducci. "Some of that desperation, how hard it is to record, what your song matter is about, and how your life is going -- there is just more time for all of that to rise to the surface. ... I don't want to say that they are lonely albums, but they are definitely lonelier."

"Folk music is the only music where it isn't simple. It's never been simple. It's weird."

-- Bob Dylan, quoted in Greil Marcus'Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes

Old American music, laced with creepy disease, devastating poverty, and gruesome morality tales, is, like Dylan says, weird, complex music. Listening to the Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers, or pretty much any of the recordings rereleased this year on Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music or Rounder Records' first set of discs by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax is an eerie experience for anyone who grew up thinking that all country is glitz and sap perpetuated by Nashville or that all folk is nothing more than drippy protest songs written by white hippies. Instead, the songs of sin and temptation are jarringly frank; the sound of the recordings is distant, scratchy, and, at times, unearthly. Weird.

Souled American's two principals understand their influences well enough to transcend them. Sonny is a bizarre record not only for knowing song choices (three traditional cuts plus a Merle Travis and the Louvin Brothers), but with the way the group hears them. On Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon," bass notes drop one or four at a time and an electric guitar hums in the background; the vocalist sings, "Like a fiend with his dope, and a drunkard his wine/ A man will have lust for the lure of the mine." Like so much great old music, the song -- and Souled American's treatment -- raises more questions than it answers. Why exactly would a man lust for a place "dark as a dungeon, damp as the dew"? Moreover, beneath the dirge, why do Souled American let a field of metallic locusts swoop in and out of the mix seemingly without regard to the structure of the song? Confusing, eerie, weird? You bet.

Both Adducci and Grigoroff grew up in Charleston, a small college town of 20,000 in central Illinois. Adducci says the radio dial was glued to country stations and his mother wrote and sang country throughout his childhood. ("Hank Williams was Number 1 in my house.") Despite a penchant for technical rockers Rush, during high school Adducci played Rickenbacker with a group of oldsters who performed country in VFWs. Grigoroff was even more immersed, blowing harmonica with a group of virtuosos who played old-time string music at bluegrass festivals.

"When we met up, it was a great thing because I didn't know too many people that were really into [old music]. We really shared that love. Playing music now, we cultivate that between us. That's where a lot of the country side came from, growing up with it, embracing it."

But that embrace is measured by distance. Adducci says when Grigoroff brings old songs to Souled American, the rest of the band don't listen to the original song. Instead, they try to make it their own, applying their essential creep factor. "I think consciously trying to be weird, definitely from day one, is something that we've all tried to work on," says Adducci. "We're trying to play something different and personalized."

Who killed Souled American/ Why, who'd do such a thing?!
-- Make Me Laugh, Make Me Cry

Rough Trade's flop created a cult of Souled American fans who cluster around the obscurity that the label wrought. SA's first two records now float through cutout bins and a few Bay Area record stores; Aquarius Records in the Mission claims to be the only store in the United States that stocks the last two. Around the Horn and Sonny are near impossible finds.

Geeky rock fans -- like fine art collectors -- love failure, inaccessibility. In biographies of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, the fact that he appeared in only two photographs usually is mentioned long before his impossible guitar playing. Nick Drake seems more precious and sad because he had to die for anyone to listen to his records. So too with Souled American.

For people who really care about music, smaller, rarer bands are often the most endearing. Out-of-print records gain additional value in keeping with the pervasive economic rule of scarcity, which (predictably) forces its way into music.

In San Francisco, Souled American are one of the most significant of the insignificants; the city may be the center of Souled Americana. Twanger/songwriter Richard Buckner is a reverent fan who's said that he'd love to work with the band. (Adducci says the adoration is reciprocal: "We just think he's fantastic. I mean, he is just awesome.") U.S. Saucer, the adjunct band formed by members of Thinking Fellers, offered special thanks in the liner notes of their debut. Live, plaintive rockers Fuck play "Soldier's Joy," a traditional cut off Fe, but say they'd never release their own version; Souled American already perfected it.

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