They Grow on You
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.
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 his band 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."
Thankfully, the band leavens its approach with humor and on-stage shtick, which has helped the group gain ground across the South. "We're like a damn comedy routine," Moore says. "We've developed this rapport on stage; we're like Laurel and Hardy between songs. I have so many people ask for bootlegs that say, 'Man, please don't take out the stuff between songs.' It's entertainment, and it goes a long way."
Despite this goofiness, Moore says the band has been lumped into the same camp as bands like critical darlings Wilco and Son Volt. He makes it clear he doesn't think he and his pals belong there.
"A lot of those bands take themselves too seriously," he says, "and everything is so depressing."
"We're not terribly serious, that's for sure," Woolworth says. "When you write songs, it's like an approach to life: You take the good with the bad, and hopefully, you can convey it all and still laugh about it in the end. The idea is to loosen it up."
That's something the Kings do nicely, and their sound is a welcome dose of greenery in the sometimes bland, browned-out genres they so adroitly straddle. That the band's catalogue is being welcomed across their homeland is making the group's name that much more appropriate.
"Let me put it to you this way," Woolworth says of his band's kudzu kinship. "If you look at where we started and where we spread to, it's a natural connection. We've been south and east, but not very far north, because it's not a very hospitable climate. But where it's hospitable for kudzu to grow, you can find the Kudzu Kings, too. The only thing unnatural about us," he notes, "is that we've crossed the Mississippi."
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