Music Review: Watermelon Slim - Escape From The Chicken Coop
People are always surprised to hear that I like country music. I'm not sure what a country music fan is supposed to look like, but whatever it is I'd hazard a guess that I don't fit the image. On the other hand the country music I tend to like isn't the stuff one hears on the radio on a regular basis, so maybe that explains a good deal of people's confusion. For as far as I'm concerned the stuff that gets passed off as country music on the radio these days is just so much sentimental twaddle which shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as music written by Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Graham Parsons, and Emmylou Harris.
I don't seem to the only one dissatisfied with the rhinestone and Stetson crowd either as in recent years there's been a resurgence of interest in, for lack of a better word, traditional country music. Whether it's people rediscovering the joys of an old Hank Williams tune, or new performers recording songs that harken back to the older sound, it appears people are finally getting sick of the plastic heart that beats at the centre of mainstream country. Oh they've created all sorts of new categories within which to slot this new stuff; Americana, alt-country, or even roots music; so they can keep calling the shlock on the radio country, but when you hear an album like Watermelon Slim's new release, Escape From The Chicken Coop, on the Northern Blues label, there's no disguising who or what it really is.
Now most of you probably know Watermelon Slim as a blues artist, one of the most well respected and awarded blues artists in recent memory as he's won almost every award offered to a contemporary blues performer at the Blues Music Awards for the last three years. However Bill Homans had a life before he became Watermelon Slim that included serving a stint in Viet Nam, being the only veteran of the Viet Nam war to release an album of protest music against the war, driving eighteen wheelers, picking watermelons (hence the stage name) and even some petty larceny for a while. It was the truck driving though that sounds like it was the worst and meanest of all those jobs at least in terms of the wear and tear it took on Slim.
Now looking back at his history the real surprise is that he hasn't recorded a country album before this. It may sound like a bit of cliche, but there's not many other genres that lend themselves to stories about the lonely life of an eighteen wheeler driver than country music. The problem is of course how much of a joke the country song about a trucker has become. However I'm betting that ninety per cent of the songs that fed the joke weren't written by guys who ever sat behind the wheel of one of those behemoths, let alone drove loads of industrial waste for crooked bosses like Slim did.
Those of you who have heard Watermelon Slim before knows his music comes from his heart and he's not one to gloss over real emotions with sentimentality or pretty words, and this disc isn't any different from his other recordings in that regard. In fact there's really not much difference between this disc and any of his previous ones. For when you come right down to it good country music sings the blues as well as any blues song ever has. Anyway, Slim is still the same compassionate and honest person he was before, so the lyrics, and the stories they tell, of his new material is as real and sincere as ever.
There's a couple of songs on Chicken Coop whose titles might make you wonder a little bit, and if it were anyone else songs like "American Wives" and "Should Have Done More" might have ended up being maudlin tear jerkers. However Slim is able to take the subject matter of how difficult it is for the wife of a long distance trucker to make ends meet and the regret felt by somebody for not being willing to help out a panhandler and create songs that touch you in a real way. Part of that is his ability to bring a scene to life with his words so you can see what he's talking about in your mind's eye as he's singing. You see the harried and worried woman in her kitchen and can imagine the cracked tile flooring and her furrowed brow as she tries to work out how she's going to feed her kids, pay the rent, and the bills with the little money her husband was able to leave her with while he's out on the road.
There's nothing romantic about that image anymore than there is anything romantic about the image he creates of the man feeling remorse over refusing to give someone a handout. These are both real people whose thought processes we can identify with even if we may not have been in their exact circumstances. Like a good story teller Slim brings situations and circumstances to life so anybody listening can find a way to relate to them even if they've never actually experienced it themselves. I have the feeling it wouldn't matter what genre of music he was singing and he could still write a song that everybody could take to their hearts.
Slim isn't a complicated guy, he's not out to change the world with his music or anything silly like that. Yet what he does with his music is nothing short of miraculous. Everybody talks about the little guy, the average American out there slaving away to try and make ends meet, but the reality is that hardly anyone ever gives these people a second thought or cares enough to tell their stories. Slim hasn't forgotten what it's like to have a thankless job whose only reward is to keep the devil at bay by providing shelter and food for the family. There's no glamour or glory in this life and what dreams there might have been have long since flown away. Where others might make some sentimental palaver about these folk being the backbone of America, Slim doesn't try and disguise the hardships and difficulties that's their daily bread.
Escape From The Chicken Coop proves that not only is Watermelon Slim a great blues artist, but he's a great song writer. There hasn't been a songwriter whose been able to capture the lives of Americans in quite the same way Slim does since Woody Guthrie stopped writing. While others may try and write these types of songs they just don't have the understanding or the life experience to do them justice. Like Woody before him, Slim has been down the same roads as the people he sings about, and he sings about them honestly and sincerely. Call this disc what you like, country, folk, or blues, but in the end its a collection of great songs and that's what really matters.