Of all the fan letters received by Cary Hudson, singer and guitarist for the Oxford, Mississippi, trio Blue Mountain, one towers above the rest--and it's easy to figure out why. You see, this particular note was written by Jimmy Carter and delivered to the band at an Atlanta bar by the former president's personal courier. The missive read in part, "I regret that my schedule won't allow me to catch any of your performances, but I wanted you to know how much I have enjoyed your CD Dog Days--especially the song about the peanut farmer."
Given that the tune referred to is named "Jimmy Carter" and can fairly be described as a sincere salute to the title figure, it's not entirely shocking that Carter enjoyed it. Nevertheless, Hudson was thrilled to hear directly from the composition's subject. "We just completely flipped out," he confesses. "Not so much because it was a president, but because it was from somebody I really admired."
Carter is hardly the only person who's enthusiastic about the music Hudson makes with singer/bassist Laurie Stirratt, to whom he is married, and drummer Frank Coutch. Dog Days, issued in 1995, and this year's Homegrown have been well-received by journalists and fans alike. Blue Mountain is far from the best-known adherent of the country-rock style known as No Depression, but it's certainly one of the most interesting.
A Mississippi native, Hudson displays genteel Southern manners and a becoming modesty. He says that he took up music "for lack of interest in anything else, I guess" and credits his creative approach to the influence of "some old country guys who I learned from." When he came of age, he formed his own label, Black Dog Records, and released a platter by the Gimme Caps, a group that featured John Stirratt, Laurie's twin brother. Shortly thereafter, Hudson and Stirratt formed the Hilltops--and when the act's original bassist was handed his walking papers, Laurie came aboard. Romance soon flowered. "We started playing together in the Hilltops before we were involved," Hudson points out. "Before we even started fooling around."
That two Stirratts wound up in the Hilltops is typical of life in No Depression circles; although one hesitates to use the term "incestuous" when discussing Mississippians, the close-knit nature of the scene is impossible to deny. After the Hilltops broke up, for example, John Stirratt became a member of Wilco, arguably the most popular of the neo-country-rock bands (see "Roger Wilco," May 17, 1995). In the meantime, newlyweds Hudson and Laurie Stirratt tried to make a go of things on the West Coast, but the experiment didn't last long. "Me and Laurie went out to Los Angeles and tried to play some out there," Hudson notes. "But the cost of living was so high that we just ended up working all the time--mostly waiting tables. And we knew we could come back to Oxford and make a living there playing music.
"I want to be the kind of guy that doesn't work for the Man," he continues. "That's what it boils down to. I just want to be the good ol' guy who goes out and plays his guitar and makes a living at it."
For the most part, Hudson succeeded; aside from a few odd jobs--"mowing a couple of lawns, maybe"--he became a full-time musician. But Blue Mountain didn't take off until he and Laurie secured the services of Coutch. "We did go through a series of drummers," Hudson concedes. "But Frank had been coming out to our gigs in Mississippi when he was in another local band there. I could just tell from talking to him that I liked him. We ended up hearing him play drums, and I said, 'Wow, this might be the guy.' We basically had nothing to lose, because we'd gone through seven drummers before that." He remains baffled by most of these departures. "They're all still alive, I think," he says of his former bandmates. "Maybe they couldn't handle the stress of going on the road. And we also tour with our dog, Willie. Come to think of it, maybe that's what they couldn't handle."
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As for Coutch, his addition was the final piece in the Blue Mountain puzzle. Dog Days, which sports a photo of Willie on its cover, is a captivating concoction highlighted by sparse sketches of rural life, a ragged yet melodic sound, and harmonies by Hudson and Stirratt that help the group stick out in what remains a male-dominated genre. Among the highlights are "Blue Canoe" and "Jimmy Carter," which Hudson intended as a defense of a misunderstood man. "When I wrote that song, it was before he kind of had a second wave of popularity," he recalls. "But just sitting around and listening to one more person badmouth him, I thought, 'You know, he's the only president we've had in years who even had a personality.'"
Insights like these won Dog Days considerable acclaim, including a spot on the top-ten-albums list published in 1995 by Pulse magazine. The band's sophomore effort, Homegrown, may do even better. "Bloody 98" is suitably Dylanesque, "Last Words of Midnight Clyde" and "It Ain't Easy to Love a Liar" are haunting, and "Myrna Lee" (written by John Stirratt, who also guests) overflows with the attributes that made Dog Days such a treat. In fact, the only thing that's missing from Homegrown is a track about a president. But although there's another Southern Democrat in the White House right now, Hudson has no plans to laud him in song. "No, I'm not too impressed with the guy," he says about Bill Clinton. He'd rather pay tribute to Willie--and on the new cut "Black Dog," he does.
Which is a political statement in and of itself.
Big Jim Slade, with Blue Mountain. 9:00 p.m. Thursday, November 13, Herman's Hideaway, 1578 South Broadway, $3, 777-5840.