Dallas Moore with Mama Madgelee Hanes Moore
Old Time Family Jam
This whole concept of what makes an artist (as opposed to an entertainer – and the difference there is beyond profound) relevant always makes for lively, uh, discussions, when there’s a properly libated assortment of friends and acquaintances gathered ‘round. And while the ultimate answer may be subjective, perhaps musical beauty is in the ear of the listener and nothing more, for me it’s become something a bit deeper. What I listen for – and I’m not saying here that anyone else is wrong if they listen for something different – is something true and authentic. Genre doesn’t matter much to me; what’s important is whether the artist singing can make me believe, or feel, or see as they do. Some have the power to weave that magic on the strength of their imaginations alone, just as great novelists do. They make stuff up, and then they make it real. I love that. But others write primarily from experiences, from real life observations, from moments that pass by in the slipstream of time but leave an indelible mark as they go. The good moments, the horrific ones, and all the little ones in between that so many of us in the workaday world miss day by day. For us, far too often, time is a river rushing past and while we may at times recognize its beauty and power, we just can’t see the water itself. In the metaphor the water and the moments are the same, you see, and far too many of them pass us by. But to the artist, whose spirit and mind generally are geared a bit differently and whose life makes the whole world a museum on display, the moments aren’t missed. The eddies and ripples around the rocks and at the edges of the river’s banks are where the story’s found. Those smallish things that the rest of us miss, but where the beauty of time’s inexorable majesty can be witnessed in fine detail. Those are the artists whose music I personally like best.
Dallas Moore’s catalog has always had an edge to it, a raggedness around the perimeter that can’t cover up the bareknuckle honesty that’s at the core of the songs. That’s a primary reason Moore’s music was a happy find when it made its way to my CD player, and the more I’ve listened the more a deep appreciation has grown. This guy from the land of Donald Eugene Lytle, Chrissie Hynde and Phil Keaggy seems at times to span the grit, heartache, passion, and powerful beliefs of all three of those. So from a distance – Texas is a long way, after all, from Ohio – it’s been intriguing to watch Dallas’ career grow and his music spread. On the back porch late in the evening, his music always resonates. Always brings a sense of the real. And while that’s exactly the sort of thing I deeply appreciate, I also always wind up wondering where the roots take hold and where the heartworn honesty comes from. With someone like Jackson Taylor, I know the answer. He’ll tell anyone anytime that his songs come from his life, that they are his therapy. And I’ll tell you, his life story reads like an open book as you work your way through his discography. But I don’t know Dallas the way I know Jack, and so the question has remained for me. Until this album we’re talking about here answered it in definitive fashion.
For starters, who records a new album with their Mama these days? And if they do, who decides the way to go about it is to strip the songs down to bare instrumentation and let harmonies do the heavy lifting? Apparently, the answer to that is Dallas Moore. He and Mama Madgelee sat down around the kitchen table, as generations before us have done but as less and less seem to do these days, and got after it. They went down memory lane, exploring both traditional tunes and somewhat more recent work (Prine’s “Paradise,” for example) all centered on the vast, varied, textured, lovely yet often dark and violent history of Appalachia. That region is, in many ways, where America first tested her mettle. It’s unquestionably the cradle of a monstrous amount of the music we now call roots but was once simply the soundtrack of hardscrabble lives replete with big dreams and crushing realities. So what you and I, the listeners, are left with where Old Time Family Jam is concerned is a look into the history and traditions and values which helped forge the guy we know today as Dallas Moore. And in the renditions of these songs lie the haunted echoes of all of us. It’s wonderful stuff, from top to bottom. Been an awful long time since you’ve heard music played on dulcimer or autoharp. Some of you may not even know which is which. Not your fault necessarily if that’s true for you; really just more of a reminder that the ways music was once made continue to recede into the soulless vacuum of computerized studios and prefabricated tones. Yet here, as Mama Moore plays softly, lending harmonies at just the right times and in a manner reminiscent of the Carter Family, Dallas sings like the guy you’d expect at a tent revival. There’s a ragged rightness to his vocal, and a rawness perfectly suited for the subject matter of songs like “Banks of the Ohio.” One gets the sense that the unknown writer(s) in the 1800s behind this composition were not simply making stuff up. Dallas and Mama Madgelee wring every last bit of humanity and pathos out of this particular rendition. So many ways the tale could be interpreted, so many plot aspects left for the listener to consider, so many questions left unanswered. Of course such was life on the frontier, and as anyone who’s done their homework knows full well, even the heroes among the pioneers weren’t quite just perfectly unsullied. Much less so the rank and file, one would presume. And here, in this quiet and powerful reimagining of an ancient song, the timeless stories of human frailty and tragedy spring fully formed to life. It is absolutely engrossing. Song’s been done by everyone from Doc Watson and Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton and Olivia Newton-John. But something about it’s different here. It’s almost… alive.
Therein lies the truest testament to what Dallas and Mama Madgelee have delivered with Old Time Family Jam. These songs, for them, are their stories. And they make them real. But it’s not just a snapshot of Appalachia and those who today carry on the lessons forged in her fires. It’s the story of all of us in America. The songs and stories here evoke for me memories of my grandparents’ tattered farmhouse in the pastures and oil fields of south Arkansas. The Ozarks and the Appalachians might be different on a map, but in some ways they’re very much the same. The old rickety country churches whose warped hardwood floors and whitewashed walls once rang with voices singing hymns? They’re all across this land. And every one you’ve ever seen or been fortunate enough to visit springs to life in vivid detail when the Moores explode into “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” The hardships and struggles and trials and triumphs of Appalachia were relived and replayed everywhere along the American frontier as Manifest Destiny pushed westward an inexorable tide of what we now consider to be civilization. Whether one’s roots are planted near the Cumberland Gap or in the heart of old Comancheria, these songs resonate just the same. Because everywhere across this land, there was a time when families gathered around the table to talk and to share and even to sing. In those family units, the deepest possible roots found purchase. Some of them spawned the worst among us, but others – many others – gave rise to our best. Of the latter are the Moores. Write that down. More importantly, go listen as they sing the songs their family has always sung together and illustrate for us all, once again, just what it was Merle meant when he sang that the roots of his raising ran deep. Time was, no one needed help understanding that concept. Time now is, sadly, quite different. But hope remains as long as any of us continue to remember and base our foundations on the roots. Dallas and Mama Madgelee Hanes Moore have that down pat.
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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