An outstanding work – well written, well played, well sung – in relation to an area of America that’s had more than its share of chroniclers, often of varying quality.
It seems Jefferson Ross is new to these pages, so it’s something of a pleasure to write what seems to be his first review despite half a dozen or so releases since 2008. Ross is based in Atlanta Georgia and is described as a ‘southern folk artist’ which feels like a carefully worded description. In fact, he has many talents to go with his songwriting, singing and playing. If you visit his website you will find some eye-catching stylised portraits of various historical musical figures – mostly old bluesmen. He is a photographer (I suppose being realistic we can all lay claim to that?) and one of his images is the cover of this CD. In reading about Ross you get the impression he lives and breathes the South – though not in the brash chauvinistic way that some display. Ross lived in Nashville for some years playing for a number of recording artists including Canada’s Terri Clark and sharing the stage with country music greats such as George Strait, Toby Keith, and Vince Gill. He worked as a staff writer for a number of publishers on Music Row including Curb Music. In 2010 Ross returned to live in Georgia with his family.
‘Southern Currency’, is a delightfully low key collection that has a dash of bluegrass, a soupçon of Cajun and more than a hint of the blues. Musically the dominant sound is that of mandolin and violin. The songs may carry a soft tone when performed but have plenty of edge when you check out the lyrics, as Ross travels through 11 states with a song for each. He begins uncompromisingly with, ‘Alabama is a Winding Road’, and relates some of the shameful episodes in the state’s history in a very honest way. His journey takes him through tales ranging from the Civil War to goodtime Cajun influenced fun conjuring up the ghost of Dr John.
The wordplay is delightful such as in, ‘Down in Macon, Georgia’: “She’s got a cat named Scarlett and a dog named Rhett / A single-wide trailer with a kitchenette / She’s got a queen-sized waterbed all to herself / And an old turntable on a plywood shelf / She’s got Duane on slide and Dickey on lead / What more in the world could a po’ girl need? / When she’s down in Macon, Georgia, getting over me. “
Elsewhere Ross considers the sunset of life, fidelity and infidelity, throws in a murder ballad, anti-slavery in, ‘Southern Currency‘, and a country blues in, ‘King of Mississippi‘, a song that is pure hokum as he describes a man for whom enough is never enough. A standout is, ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’, which celebrates North Carolina’s most famous literary figure, Thomas Wolfe – not the dandified writer of, ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities, but the rather forgotten giant of early 20th-century literature that William Faulkner thought ‘Might have been the greatest talent of their generation for aiming higher than any other writer’.
It’s nice to see an artist promoting an author other than the customary and inevitable Kerouac and, ‘On the Road’, (although Kerouac was a fan of Wolfe’s and owed him much in his own work). Ross demonstrates that his learning and knowledge about the South is much more than skin deep, and the feel of this whole collection and Ross himself is one of depth. For those familiar with Wolfe these lines, you will agree, sum him up well, and it is true that his words did, literally, number in the millions: “In the midnight streets of Brooklyn his howl could be heard / And he sang a thousand anthems and he wrote a million words / He always took the hard path and he never took a wife / He guzzled down experience and stayed real drunk on life.”
Ross offers his own thoughts on, ‘Southern Currency’, “The idea for the Southern Currency album came about when I (was) telling someone that South is not just one culture but a collection of many cultures, accents, food traditions, world-views, etc. I thought it might be cool to write a song for each state and let that idea speak for itself. Each song has a different mood as each southern state has a different mood, a different vibe. I wanted to tell the whole story, warts and all, not just moonlight and magnolias, but, also the sins and harsh struggles and battles between those of us who live here. It’s a land of contradictions. Pride and shame. Penance and celebration. Wisdom and ignorance. Judgement and mercy. The South is my family. But, like family, the wounds go deep as do the joys. Families are complicated. I hope that whoever listens to Southern Currency will get an honest feel of my home, maybe put a face with an idea. Maybe a sound or a taste will humanize a preconceived perception of this place. It’s a place I love.”
Ross, on guitar and lead vocals is aided by long time colleague Thomm Jutz, guitars and harmony; Mike Compton, mandolin; Mark Fain, upright bass; Tammy Rogers-King, fiddle and harmony; Lynn Williams, drums and percussion. This is a top-notch album, much more than just a collection of songs more an appreciation, warts and all, of an area sometimes lost in its own mythology. It’s well and winningly sung and although it has become something of a critical cliché it does bring that sense of timelessness so often ascribed to The Band.