Less than two years ago, I retired from my day job in Texas, packed my guitars and coffee-stained song lyrics sheets, and headed home–back to the muddy, swampy roots of my music and writings–back to the Mississippi River–back to Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s “white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer morning.” One of the first things I did once I got settled was to pay a visit to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum to see Curator Henry Sweets, an old high school friend of mine, and meet Executive Director Dr. Cindy Lovell. Much to my pleasant surprise, the Museum was hosting a Smithsonian exhibit on Americana music at the time, and I was delighted to discover the Museum was sponsoring a summer series of popular music concerts downtown.
I was even more thrilled to find out a CD tribute to Mark Twain was in the works–to be produced by Nashville’s Grammy Award-winning producer, singer/songwriter, and musician, Carl Jackson. Dr. Lovell had recruited Jackson for the project to mark the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death and to raise badly needed funds for the non-profit Museum. Although she hadn’t been in touch with Jackson for thirty years, they’d been friends since 1968, when they met at a show where he was playing banjo for Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys. In 2003, Jackson had also produced a Grammy Award-winning country tribute to Ira and Charlie Louvin–Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin’ Brothers.
What a wonderful way to bring together popular music, the academic world, and all those who appreciate the literary, cultural, and political legacies of Mark Twain, I thought. This would be no easy task, to be sure. At first, I must confess, I was a bit skeptical about how a Nashville country/bluegrass producer, even one with such a sterling reputation, would treat America’s quintessential author who also happened to play the piano and guitar. How would Jackson express through music the many sides of Twain–the restless world traveler, the trickster (Tom Sawyer), and failed entrepreneur who on the one hand sought wealth but who on the other was a social critic with a big heart, conscience, and humanitarian spirit (Huckleberry Finn)?
Twain was anything but “politically correct” by today’s standards or by the standards of his own day. He drank too much, smoked too many cigars, and was too cynical about politics and religion to suit many. In ways he might be called an OUTLAW who didn’t let protocol and conventional literary boundaries stifle creative expression. He lived his dreams, broke a lot of rules, and often thumbed his nose at form and style. Though he was highly popular and successful, his coarse language and use of dialect shocked some of his more genteel contemporaries. His use of racial dialect and irony to criticize the racism that saturated the era has even led to recent attempts to ban Huckleberry Finn from classrooms and libraries, and, sadly in my opinion, to the publication of a new sanitized edition. A master of satire in an age dominated by Robber Barons and those who did their bidding in Washington, D.C., Twain used humor brilliantly and “a pen warmed up in hell” to lay bare the hypocrisy of those in positions of power, whether in corporate boardrooms or the United States government.
Somewhere tonight Twain must be lighting up an Old Fisherman cigar, strumming his guitar, and throwing back a shot of Old Crow, tickled to death about the release of Mark Twain: Words & Music. Accompanied by a forty-page booklet, this double CD uses a spoken word/song format reminiscent of Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway (Music Road Records, 2007), a recent CD tribute to Woody Guthrie produced by singer/songwriter Jimmy LaFave and featuring a number of Texas’s finest songwriters and musicians. The creative brilliance of Carl Jackson resonates throughout the tribute to Twain. First, Jackson tapped his Nashville connections to assemble some of the industry’s most successful singer/songwriters to perform the thirteen songs on the CD–Emmylou Harris, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Rhonda Vincent, Bradley Walker, The Church Sisters, Sheryl Crow, Brad Paisley, Marty Raybon, Val Storey, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Ricky Skaggs, as well as Jackson, himself. Jackson either wrote or co-wrote six of the songs, some of which were written for the CD. Sheryl Crow sings a fabulous A cappella version of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” the only song from Twain’s era on the tribute.
Each song follows a segment of Dr. Lovell’s (co-executive producer) skillfully crafted narrative and voices from Mark Twain’s life and writings. The voices feature star-studded talent: Jimmy Buffett (Huck Finn), Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor (Narrator), actor Clint Eastwood (Mark Twain), and Angela Lovell (Susy Clemens). Buffet, Eastwood, and Lovell give moving deliveries of the voices they represent, and Garrison Keillor does an outstanding job of narrating in his vintage down-home, folksy storytelling way. For Buffet, who has acknowledged Twain’s influence on his music, the voice of Huck seems a particularly good fit–a role he seems to relish and is well-suited for, given his life of songwriting, travel and adventure, and love of the sea. Like Twain’s writings, Buffett’s songs can be mischievous and fun loving yet also introspective, sensitive, and deeply philosophical.
As someone who spent a good deal of time in my younger days running lines on the Mississippi River at night, camping on the sandbars, or coon hunting on some of the river’s darkest islands in the Hannibal area, I especially like the way the CD captures the Mississippi. Set up by Buffett’s breathtaking narration of a steamboat’s collision with Huck and Jim on the raft one dark night, Rhonda Vincent’s “Run Mississippi,” written by Priscilla Houliston and Carl Jackson, gets the blood pumping as fast as the swift cut of the river’s current. Likewise, Buffett’s playful description of Huck sneaking out to the river late at night with Tom Sawyer for mischief, dreams, and deviltry sets the table nicely for Brad Paisley’s “Huck Finn Blues,” written by Emily Hayes, Carl Jackson, and Danny Wilson.
The Civil War cut short Twain’s steamboat pilot days on the Mississippi, but the experiences whetted his appetite for travel. He believed travel strikes a blow against bigotry and narrow minded prejudices. To set a good feel for Twain’s frontier adventures out west, where he tried his hand at prospecting for gold and silver, worked as a newspaper reporter, and met outlaw Jack Slade, the CD includes Bradley Walker’s “Cowboy in His Soul,” a country song written by Bryan Kennedy and Jim Rushing. Carl Jackson’s moving “Safe Water,” which he co-wrote with Jerry Salley, captures the connections between Twain’s steamboat days and the restlessness that made him a world traveler and lecturer. Likewise, Marty Raybon’s “Indian Crow” (my favorite song on the CD), written by Carl Jackson and Jerry Salley, uses the Indian Crow as a metaphor for Twain’s vagabond life lived to its fullest.
Two of my other favorite songs on the CD are built around the fact that Mark Twain came in (1835) and went out (1910) with Halley’s Comet. Emmylou Harris sings Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “When Halley Came to Jackson,” and Ricky Skaggs, “Comet Ride,” an up-tempo bluegrass song Carl Jackson wrote specifically for the CD. “Ink,” a very cleverly penned song performed by Joe Diffie and written by Carl Jackson, Don Poythress, and Tony Wood, captures the lasting impact of Twain’s early experiences as a printer’s devil. Val Storey’s beautiful vocal interpretation of Tish Hinojosa’s “Love Is On Our Side” provides haunting musical comfort for the feelings of deep pain and sorrow Twain felt upon the death of his daughter, Susy.
As a matter of personal taste, I’d like to have seen included a song rooted in the swampy, darker blues legacy of the Mississippi River and more reflective of Twain’s biting social satire, but that aside, this is a superb CD from start to finish. The instrumentation features some of Nashville’s outstanding musicians: Rob Ickes (dobro, weisenborn), Carl Jackson (banjo, acoustic and gut string guitar), Andy Leftwich (fiddle), Tony Creasman (drums, percussion), Kevin Grantt (bass), Catherine Marx (piano), Johnny Ralls (banjo), Adam Steffey (mandolin), Josh Swift (dobro), Doyle Lawson (mandolin), Dale Perry (banjo), Mike Johnson (steel), and Brad Paisley (acoustic guitar). In particular, Ickes’s highly acclaimed work on the dobro and weisenborn puts such a distinctive edge on many of the songs.
For Carl Jackson and Dr. Lovell, it’s clear this project was a labor of love. In my opinion, the CD adds an even richer layer of frosting on Jackson’s musical cake. A big tip of the Texas hat to him for selflessly volunteering to take on such a creative but demanding project as a fundraiser for the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. Twainiacs, music lovers, and the people of Hannibal (not to mention the world) owe him and Dr. Lovell a huge debt.
Thanks to the excellent interplay between the narrative and songs, the CD gives listeners a fascinating introduction to Mark Twain. I keep a copy in the car and play it a lot on road trips between Missouri and Texas to play gigs with the Mudcats. Buffett has released the CD on his own Mailboat Records, and the artists have donated their share of proceeds to the Museum to help ensure future generations will continue to appreciate Twain’s legacy and the important cultural role Hannibal played in his thought and writings.
So, go ahead, Mark, wherever you are tonight, light one up and throw one back–“you’re a cagey bird ol’ Indian Crow!”
To purchase a CD directly from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, click on the link: http://www.marktwainmuseum.org/shop/proddetail.php?prod=MarkTwainCD
~Doctor G (Gregg Andrews)
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Doctor G (otherwise known as Dr. Gregg Andrews) is a multitalented Singer/Songwriter/Storyteller. He’s an accomplished labor historian and the author of Nationally Awarded books like City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer and Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town. But he’s most comfortable delivering his Swampytonk music in his Mississippi-mudded snakeskin boots.
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