O Brother, Where Art Thou? star George Clooney may have made it seem like any old gang of comedic convicts shackled at the ankles could step up to the mike and produce a bona fide American roots hit, but it isn't quite that easy. Just ask Jeff Kazor -- founder, songwriter, and guitarist of the San Francisco old-time band Crooked Jades. His reverence for pre-bluegrass country/folk music has both helped and hurt his band's reputation in the old-time musical community, which views his music as inauthentic. For instance, there was the time about three years ago that the Crooked Jades attended Seattle's Fiddle Tunes clinic, led by the late fiddle player John Hartford (famous for his role as the MC in Down from the Mountain, a documentary of a concert featuring O Brother performers). "John Hartford just tore the Crooked Jades apart," says Kazor with an amazed laugh, leaning into his cup of tea in the window seat of Higher Grounds cafe in Glen Park. "He said, 'Okay, you're playing on top of the banjo player and the fiddle player is playing too much on the vocalist and you guys ought to stop that' ... He was taking us one by one and deconstructing us." This preoccupation with musical authenticity and the concern for historical preservation are some of the pitfalls of the well-informed cult following for Kazor's chosen genre of pre-radio Appalachian music, and it seems like someone is always ready to offer a bit of unbridled criticism.
Actually, Kazor welcomed the constructive analysis. He's spent years studying old-time music, a passion that goes back to the days when he and his former bandmate Richard Buckner would play bluegrass for their punk/folk friends in late-'80s San Francisco. Nowadays, Kazor is more apt to play at festivals and events across the country such as the San Francisco Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival, the International Bluegrass Music Association Official Showcase in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Strawberry Music Festival at Yosemite. He can also be found at the monthly old-time music jams at the cafe Higher Grounds, a spot where the staffers know him by name. There the 37-year-old musician stands out like a beacon of seamless retro wholesomeness with his '50s-style quiff and mint-green '50s sports shirt, looking something like a fresh-faced schoolboy Chris Isaak. Behind this pleasant facade, though, Kazor is as fried as the soccer moms packing their kids into the SUVs that squeeze between the double-parked cars on Chenery Street. He's been very busy concentrating on the Crooked Jades' next record, writing songs and attempting to book the band's LA and European tour dates next year. He does all this while holding down his day job as a house painter and putting on the occasional performance. That's where the coffee comes in.
Once the mid-morning rush for caffeine dies down at Grounds on this day, Kazor settles in. Beneath the ceiling draped with appropriately rustic burlap sacks, he pulls out a children's book called Saddles and Sails. The volume's sepia pages are filled with loose, sketchy images and sardonic poems about the West, the Gold Rush, and San Francisco, and he uses it to illustrate the concept of his upcoming album. "I've been spending a lot of time studying the Gold Rush, and I've been making a parallel between the '49ers and the '99ers," he says, referring to the dot-com boom. For Kazor, many of his old haunts have disappeared, such as Radio Valencia. Friends like Buckner have also moved away because of the skyrocketing rents. Kazor has been thinking about these themes for the last two years, combining them with leftovers from last year's album The Unfortunate Rake: Volume One to form the forthcoming Volume Two.
The process is anything but simple, considering the meticulous time and care that Kazor puts into everything from his research to his liner notes. His almost compulsively detailed notes came about, he says, out of consideration for both the music and the listener. "I respect the music immensely," he says. "I want them to know everything, even down to the tuning of the banjos and fiddles." Last year's soundtrack for the Patrick Donohew documentary Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait proves his point: A listener can read that the band played the Kentucky banjo player Roscoe Holcomb's "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again" in the key of D; they can read the chord progressions and the fret position of banjo player Bill Foss' capo, as well as the model and era of his 1930s Bart Reiter Whyte Laydie banjo.
The soundtrack to the documentary is the embodiment of "good old-time music," basically the oldest form of American country music recorded. The form is a rural amalgam of British folk melodies, Spanish guitar influences, and African banjo rhythm, all played on stringed instruments, dobro, bass, and washboards. The genre held steady through the 19th century, adding blues and vaudeville influences. True to form, Kazor recorded Seven Sisters live and as true to its sources as possible. The album combines the songs that the sisters grew up singing in '30s and '40s rural Kentucky with Kazor's more obscure selections. It was gorgeously recorded and beautifully performed. Favorites such as "Cumberland Gap" get a bracing, sweet workout with lead guitar, vocals, and the occasional yip by Kazor, while older, less familiar tunes such as "I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again" shimmer with fleet-fingered banjo picking by Foss and evocative aching vocals by guest Martha Hawthorne.
Old-time musical issues and lyrical themes of contamination versus "purity" or authenticity came to the fore in The Unfortunate Rake: Volume One, which Kazor concedes is the bane of old-time traditionalists. The Kazor- and Buckner-produced CD includes turn-of-the-century old-time songs such as the Eno Canyon Wildcats' fiddle-propelled "Old Blue Sow," George and Andrew Carter's tender, downbeat "Liza Jane," and Frank Blevins and his Tar Heel Rattlers' frenetic "Fly Around (My Pretty Little Miss)." It also contains Kazor's countrified originals and unorthodox arrangements that might pair E-bow and baritone ukulele, or Casio, Moog, and guitar.
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