South Memphis String Band, Old Times There (Merless Records)

South Memphis String Band, Old Times There (Merless Records)

The latest record from the roots collective the South Memphis String Band has a relaxed, off-the-cuff feel. Then again, anyone who has seen Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers, Tri-State Coalition), Alvin Youngblood Hart (Muscle Theory), Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All Stars), and Justin Showah (Knockdown South, Hill Country Records) play together knows that they cut up as they throw down onstage.

These songs are in the style of jug band and string music of the rural South as made famous by the Mississippi Sheiks, Gus Cannon, and many others. The selections are made up of songs that come straight out of that tradition, such as Charlie Patton’s “Some of These Days” and standards like “Feather Bed” and “Good Old Rebel.”

There is an easy beauty to the band’s playing on those, but where this record really digs in and has some fun is the more hokum-type songs such as “Just Like a Monkey” (with its great chorus of “You’re gonna look just like a monkey / when you get old”) and the un-politically-correct sentiments of “Turnip Greens,” “B-L-A-C-K” (where both Dickinson and Hart proclaim their pride in their skin color) and “Can You Blame the Colored Man,” a story of Booker T. Washington going to dinner at the White House where he admires all the offerings with a chorus of “Can you blame the colored man / for making those goo-goo eyes?”

There is a light sweetness and a great humor in this record and that is its strength. The players are taking their music seriously, but their attitude toward the songs is not serious (as the title of this recording indicates). You can almost hear the smiles on the musicians’ faces when they play these songs, and there will be a smile on yours too.

Buy Old Times There by South Memphis String Band on iTunes