It’s Karate Time
I didn’t know what to expect when I met Travis Wammack. I had, at home, a stack of his records, each one separate and distinct from the next. A strange and unsettling roll call of Southern music: rock, funk, disco, country, pop; he’d played it all.
Our first talk, when I called him at his house outside Muscle Shoals, touched on a number of things; his new pick-up truck, the deer that he killed with a bow and arrow, the steaks and sausages he made from it’s carcass, the leather he tanned from it’s hide, the belts and hats he made from the leather, his disgust with much of modern Southern culture, his pleasure at being his own boss.
We didn’t mention music.
I remember buying a Travis Wammack record in Los Angeles. It was in a one dollar box. Not for the first time was I amazed by the blindness of record shop owners. On the walls of the shop were posters for Lenny Kravitz and Guns-n-Roses; these were not, I knew, my kind of people. I bought the Wammack record and ran.
Got back to where I was staying and learned something: Travis Wammack was weirder, was more eclectic, had more soul in his left hand than every other band in that crappy shop had in their whole pumped up bodies.
When we first met he showed us his collection of guitars, told us stories about playing at Fame Studios, backing everyone from Wilson Pickett to Clarence Carter to the Osmond Brothers, talked about Bobbie Gentry and Joe South, told us how it was to be the youngest member of the musicians union in America.
I asked him about one of my favourite of his records, Hold On To Your Hiney. Six minutes of pure hair raising southern disco written by Tony Joe White. “Hellava tune” he said. “Shoulda been a hit.”
How many times, I wondered, had he said that about his records.
“I remember once,” he told me, “Tony Joe’s wife called while me and Tony Joe was at the studio and said there was a rattle snake in the front yard. Said she couldn’t go outside and could we come home and get rid of it. So we went over there and sure nuff, it was a big ol snake, six foot long, sitting on her front door step, sunning himself. I hated to kill it but hell, Tony Joe’s wife was trapped inside her own house. So I killed it and skinned it and made it into a guitar strap for Tony Joe.”
As we drove around Muscle Shoals, two friends and I played a tape of Travis’s earliest recordings. His guitar rattled the car. We rolled down the windows and it rattled the passing trees and tractors. It was the hurtingest thing I’d ever heard. We turned it up and let it scream. These were recordings made when Travis was 16 years old. “I had an old tape recorder,” he said, “and I rigged it up to where I was getting a real distorted fuzz sound. I never had a fuzz pedal or anything. That was all my own home made sound. I just used to turn everything up and overload it till I got the sound I wanted.”
He was, and still is, his own boss.
One last thing. The following is a list, in no particular order, of the ten greatest guitar players/moments. It is correct and complete and not open to argument.
1. The opening sixteen bars of Thinking Of You by Sister Sledge.
2. The opening riff of It’s A Shame by The Detroit Spinners.
3. Travis Wammack playing Scratchy, Super Soul Beat or It’s Karate Time.
4. Viviane Albertine.
5. Eddie Hinton, especially I’ll Take You There.
6. Whichever Ramone it was that played guitar.
7. Lyn Tait
8. Tony Rice
9. Roy Nichols
10. Bobby Womack
You can catch Jeb and his band at the next Caught by the River Social Club, which takes place in London on 8 October. Tickets are on sale now.