Saturday, October 12, 2013

Found Sounds 17: Rev. Billy C. Wirtz

I dunno how I missed Rev. Billy C.Wirtz until a few weeks ago. Well, part of the reason is that I left the South before Billy began his musical career, and he's definitely a Southern musician (even though he sometimes makes it as far west as Santa Cruz, which he calls "the land that time forgot").

He is, I suppose, a novelty act, although like some other Southern novelty acts (notably Ray Stevens), once you stop listening for the jokes and pay attention to the music, it turns out he can really cook.

The recipe is not easy to describe -- I have seen it called variously barrelhouse, blues, R&B, boogie woogie. A lot of it is pastiche, and I love musicians who mine all the veins of American music. I wish he would put out an album of straight piano blues.

As it is, he has chosen to parody Southern rednecks. His ear is perfect. Unless you grew up within a couple hundred miles of Rev. Billy's hometown of Aiken, South Carolina, you will not get the full blast of his wit, but even at half-blast he's awfully funny.

This despite the impossibility of parodying Southern folk religion. No matter how wild and uninhibited your imagination, the real thing is wilder and less uninhibited than you. But Rev. Billy is as uninhibited as anybody I can think of, except maybe Robert Crumb.

But the thing that lifts Rev. Billy up is his deep sympathy for rednecks. He is a complete master of that Southern specialty, the ghostly ballad of doom. Not even Ralph Stanley ever did it better than "The Visitor" (on "Unchained Maladies" which unusually has a full backup band, the Polyester Prophets). Elvis and a perfectly balanced serving of schmaltz; who could resist?

"Room 309" (on "A Turn for the Wirtz--Confessions of a Hillbilly Love-God") is nearly as good, although Rev. Billy cannot resist roughhousing here, as also in one of his best-known songs, "Waffle House Fire" (on "Backsliders Tractor Pull").

If all there was to Rev. Billy was full-tilt jeering, he'd be hard to take, although as he likes to say, one man's sushi is another man's bait.

But then he presents "Uncle Cupcake's Got the Blues" (on "Songs of Faith and Inflammation"), and you think, this is what Harry Chapin was trying to do and never quite achieved.


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