Ragged, But Right (Greenbriar Boys, etc.)

I’ve testified in a previous post about my love of the Greenbriar Boys, and in particular their album with this title track. It was one of the formative records of my early teens, in a large part because it was so much fun — kind of like the Kweskin Jug Band, though with more country flavor. This song in particular became one of my standbys, because it was a great way to introduce myself. I’d start my first set with something quiet and pretty — usually “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me” — and then, when the audience was lulled into thinking I was that kind of guy, I’d hit them with a burst of fast ragtime picking and launch into this:

I just came here to tell you people, I’m ragged, but I’m right,
A thief and I’m a gambler and I’m drunk every night…

Which was stretching the truth a bit, but I was in my early twenties and feeling hot — those were the days when I’d start out wearing a cowboy shirt, then strip down mid-set to a tight black t-shirt with a gaudy picture of Madonna on it. Take that, you folky purists and sensitive singer-songwriters…

The Greenbriars presumably got this from Riley Puckett’s 1934 recording, though I’d been doing it for years before I even knew who Puckett was. That was kind of odd, because he was one of the first major stars in old-time country music, already known throughout the South before Jimmie Rodgers entered a recording studio.

I think I missed him because by the time I came along the revivalist scene had segmented, with blues fans like me on one side and old-time fiddle and string-band folks on another. Since he made lots of records singing ragtime and blues-flavored material, there’s no reason aside from race why Puckett couldn’t have gotten filed on my side along with people like John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb… but race was a major demarcator, plus the fact that he was the guitarist for a fiddle band, Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers. That’s how I first heard him, and I assumed he was mostly a sideman, but Tony Russell quotes the Skillett Lickers’ virtuoso fiddler, Clayton McMichen, saying that in commercial terms Puckett was the star: “Riley proved the people wanted to hear singin’, and if he didn’t sing on the records, why, they didn’t sell much.”

“Ragged But Right” had previously been recorded by an African American group led by brothers Rufus and Ben Quillian, who like Puckett were from Georgia, but their version was sufficiently different that it presumably wasn’t his source. The song dates back at least to 1905, when Abbott and Seroff quote the Indianapolis Freeman describing a popular comedian “cleaning up with one of Bob Russell’s latest songs, ‘Ragged, but Right’.” There was a prominent black theatrical producer named Bob Russell in that period, and I assume this was him, but I have no other evidence that he wrote songs, so it may have been something he bought from the actual composer, and a reference from 1909 credits it to a performer known only as Shoe Strings. (Handily for this research, Abbott and Seroff titled their book Ragged but Right.)

As for the guitar twirl in the last verse, I got that from Andy Cohen, and it came in handy when I worked with Howard Armstrong, who liked me to do it in sync with his mandolin twirl.

Gimme A Ride To Heaven, Boy (Terry Allen)

When I was writing for the Boston Globe I would sometimes drop by Rounder Records to see what was new, and one afternoon I stopped by George Thomas’s desk and he handed me Bloodlines by Terry Allen and the Panhandle Mystery Band. I’d never heard of Allen, and  George was so horrified by my confession of ignorance that he also handed me Smokin’ the Dummy and Lubbock (On Everything). So he’s to blame for me becoming a stone Terry Allen fan, and I’m forever grateful.

To be honest, it took a while for me to understand what I was hearing. I got “Gimme a Ride…” immediately and started performing it, but it took another year or two before I recognized the transcendent genius of the Lubbock set and started doing “Wolfman of Del Rio,” which may still be my favorite evocation of what it is to be American, or at least some kind of American. (I’ll get that one up here in a while, but meanwhile I recommend picking up the whole album.)

For those who don’t know his work, Allen is a sculptor and multimedia installation artist, a playwright, a songwriter, a singer and a five- or six-finger pianist. He grew up in Lubbock, where he and his future wife Jo Harvey were the oldest of a high school musical rebel crew that  also included Jo Carol Pierce, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and a bit later Lloyd Maines, who ended up playing a lot of the instruments in Allen’s backing group, the Panhandle Mystery Band.

Allen’s father ran the Jamboree Hall, where all the top black acts played on Fridays and all the top country acts on Saturdays, and Buddy Holly played guitar for the local country band. Allen’s mother was a honky-tonk piano player and accordionist.

So, out of that, Allen ended up as kind of a prairie Randy Newman, if you had to compare him to anyone, except his music doesn’t sound much like Newman’s and his frames of reference are very different. The music is a lot more minimal, for one thing, maybe because he’s a pretty limited pianist but also because that’s clearly how he likes it. It’s sometimes dry and sometimes Brechtian, and sometimes conceptual like the visual art it sometimes accompanies, and sometimes straight-up country but with weird twists.

None of which is particularly helpful, but I owe him several debts — a later album, Human Remains, arrived just when I was going through a bad break-up and I listened to it over and over for several weeks, interspersed with early Ornette Coleman, which sounds like an odd combination, but it got me through.

And then there’s this song, which speaks for itself.