From my first steps in bluegrass and country, I have learned that no one who ever found themselves unexpectedly in Mississippi was remotely pleased by the fact.
In the suitably swampy Handcuffed To A Fence In Mississippi, the alt-country/Americana star Jim White sees ‘flying squirrels and nightmares of stigmata’. ‘I'm calling for the owner of the motel,’ he sings, ‘then noticing the bloodstain on the door.’
Late one night behind corn whiskey I fell asleep with a guitar in my hand I dreamed about the ghosts of Mississippi And the blues came walkin’ in like a man Oh Lord, why have you forsaken me Got me down in Mississippi where I don't want to be
This essay is actually about another song by the SteelDrivers, the band Stapleton left in 2010, which lifts off from the first line of the other: Good Corn Liquor. Such a circuitous path is fitting. I found Good Corn Liquor by accident, while distracting myself from tedious failure to write about a Nick Cave B-side. Readying for a trip to Washington to interview a man about Abraham Lincoln, idly flicking about in Apple Music, I clicked. Ghosts rose up to meet me.
What I get most from bluegrass and certain kinds of country is a frisson of American history, 19th-century mostly, if not from the SteelDrivers then from William Elliott Whitmore digging his grave in the cold Iowa dirt or from Chris Thile and Michael Daves picking through Richmond Is A Hard Road To Travel, a history lesson about failed civil war campaigns.
The SteelDrivers also sing about the civil war, of course they do, but in Good Corn Liqor the scene is not specified. It could be civil war Mississippi, it could not be. The band are from Nashville, Tennessee. The song could be set in any time between 1776 and now. But it is of a piece with the events of 1861-65. It’s carved from disputed territory, at the edge of the law, a miniature tragedy, a white man’s blues picked out on guitars, bass, banjo and fiddle in a sort of foreboding hop, all its parts spinning out and up then clicking back together, an addictive, spindle-shanked procession all the way to something very bad in a lonely country hollow.
Stapleton sings his chorus first…
Well the sun don't shine On a moonshine still Copper line hiding in the side of a hill
I’ll take him at his word that it don’t. I took Bob Dylan at his when I heard and loved Moonshiner. I got to bluegrass and country via Dylan, particularly the bootleg version of Self Portrait, which contains sad old tunes like Copper Kettle (another whiskey song), Little Sadie (a murder ballad) and Pretty Saro, a yearning knockout. But Stapleton is hurrying me up…
It’ll get you there It’ll get you there quicker Fruit jar full of that good corn liquor
No doubt this is also true. Like the liquor, Stapleton’s tale gets you, quicker, to what’s there, which turns out to be a dark tale in the vein of Tom Waits, my guide from the gothic side who sings in Don’t Go Into That Barn of ‘Everett Lee broke loose again… high on potato and tulip wine’.
Stapleton drives on…
Now when I was young About five or six Daddy lost a job and my mama took sick And the times got tough And mama got sicker Daddy started running that good corn liquor
The chorus returns on the rickety, remorseless tune, with the dread certainty that this – like the Waits song, like in fact the Nick Cave-penned, Virginia-set bootlegging drama Lawless – is not going to end well. It doesn’t…
I remember that night It was a blood red moon And daddy was doing what he had to do When a shot rang out And the sheriff pulled the trigger And daddy stopped running that good corn liquor
And thereby, with another chorus and more of that addictive chopped rhythm, ends the tale. It lingers, though, on the tongue, in the brain, coiled round the heart. Like good corn liquor.
As I write this, Washington trip completed, the SteelDrivers are playing Confederate sites and citadels. Gettysburg, PA; Richmond, Virginia the night after. But I’m a union man, adopted. I’m steaming north, back to my rock on the Hudson.
I’m new here, where bluegrass and country meet. I don’t claim knowledge – just an intense and surprising love. Lincoln was born in Kentucky, the bluegrass state. I have my Lincoln interview to write up. My head’s in the right place. Which isn’t Mississippi.