By Team Backbeat
By Amber Taufen
By Jon Solomon
By Tom Murphy
By Jesse Livingston
By Alejandra Loera
By Stephanie March
By Tom Murphy
When you hail from Oxford, Mississippi, and your band's handle is "Kudzu Kings," you'd better be damn good. The title is a volatile moniker given that kudzu -- an invasive vine that covers millions of acres of Southern land -- replaced cotton as the King of the South years ago. Since arriving on U.S. soil in 1876 as part of a Japanese gardening exhibition, the plant (a lush green vine that can grow up to a foot a day) has trashed more Dixie dirt than Sherman's March. Once considered a dream forage crop for livestock growers and the perfect ground cover for farmers (the U.S. Soil Conservation Service paid them to grow the stuff in the 1930s), kudzu has been deemed a menace to society since the '50s. It now covers -- literally -- buildings, utility lines, farmland and forests across the Southeast.
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But bearing in mind the rapid growth in popularity of the Kudzu Kings (vocalist/guitarist Tate Moore, lead guitarist George McConnell, pianist/ organist Robert Chaffe, multi-instrumentalist Tommy Bryan Ledford, bassist Dave Woolworth and drummer Jeff Colburn ), the name fits. Over the past five years, the Kings have established themselves in the very same plant-pillaged southeastern cities as their namesake. They've done so with an approach that blends bluegrass, folk, vintage country and hippie-shaking grooves into a sound that satisfies cowpokes, alt-twangers and earth children alike. This week the Kings are putting down Western roots with a performance at Red Rocks (where they'll open for fellow Southerners Widespread Panic), as well as spots at the Gothic and Fox theaters.
Yet to conclude that the Kudzu's affiliation with acts like Panic means that they're yet another jam band would be to make a false assumption -- a perception easily remedied by listening to Woolworth detail a few of the songs the band is traveling with.
"We do a version of Bob Marley's 'Trenchtown Rock,'" Woolworth says with a wicked chuckle, "but we do a country version and call it 'Texas Rock.' We've converted a bunch of reggae songs to country. Same words and same chords -- we just add 'whiskey' whenever we can. The people love it." The Kings also do a Toots and the Maytals tune, "Monkey Man" in a similar fashion. "We change it from 'I-yi-yi, I-yi-yi, smokin' up a big one tonight,'" Woolworth giggles, "to 'yippee-yi-yay, yippee-yi-yay, smoking up a big one tonight.' It's classic, man."
The band's recorded output reveals that the Kings have a few classics of their own. Their debut, a self-titled release from 1996, includes such lighthearted country anthems as "Rototiller," "Bar-B-Q Blues" and "I Love Beer," a great Roy Orbison-meets-Merle Haggard drinking ditty. Among these gems are a few folky numbers and keenly picked acoustic songs that explain the band's appeal to lovers of Southern-style jams. The Kings' new release, Y2Kow, continues the mix, with a tad more emphasis on the semi-funky things that please wrigglers and twirlers. "Mellie," "Tennessee" and "Sugar Daddy" are groovy numbers that call to mind the Grateful Dead on coffee and restraint instead of acid and indulgence. The disc's more countrified tunes are its highlights, classic-sounding roots rockers distinguished by Chaffe's tinkling piano and Hammond B-3 fills, plus ragged country guitar solos that melt into banjo and mandolin breaks.
These American-style standards call to mind the Band, or maybe John Prine. "Hangover Heart" is a tune Prine would be proud of, a broken heart's lament like no other: "I stumble through the bathroom looking for some aspirin," the singer moans, "an empty box of Kotex reminds me we're through." It's hilarious honky-tonk, as brainy as the band's lonely-musician anthems. In "Two Three Four," singer Tate Moore tells it like it is: "My band's been playin' away from home/All the money we made is gone." Not that he's ashamed of his status. "I don't care what your friends say," he continues crooning, "My boys are playin' six nights a week." "Bryan's Song," penned by Ledford, just might be the best woes-on-the-road musician number ever. The tune opens with Moore's weary voice mourning the state of things. "I'm amazed at all the crap that's on the radio," he pines. "Just when I think it couldn't get worse, it does." Over a glorious roadhouse romp, the singer questions his decision to give up on getting that law degree and ponders the merits of a job selling insurance when faced with one more night of playing to the bar staff. "There's a hole in my heart where the music comes from," Moore sings. "That's why I keep on playin', despite my mama's prayin'." Ledford's exceptional tune is autobiographical: "His mama prayed a couple bars right out of business in Louisiana," Woolworth says.
"We've pretty much lived everything on that record -- they're all true stories," says Moore. "We're writing about what we know. And the words mean everything." He cites the Band as a major influence and describes hisband with a term coined by Gram Parsons: Cosmic American. "It's George Jones playing in a rock-and-roll band," he says.
"If you look at what the term means -- rootsy American music -- that's really the backbone of everything we do," Chaffe adds. "And it can be used to describe traditional country music as well as back-porch music, and that's pretty much what we do, too. We start with the basics and take it from there."
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