Caught by the River

Songs Left Outside

Cally Callomon | 26th October 2021

Recent Bob Stanley / Martin Green for Ace Records compilation ‘Choctaw Ridge’ and Stick in the Wheel mixtape ‘Tonebeds for Poetry’ drift pleasingly away from the mainstream together, writes Cally Callomon.

Fairport Convention never got funky. 
Caucasian Folk Song seemed to resist the lure of the backbeat.
Cecil Sharp never dropped the beats. 
Polly (on the shore) never put the P in funk

Yet here we have the finest collection of overlooked US country folk that openly welcomed the bass, the groove and found Country-Got-Soul. Unlike those fabulous compilations of that very name, these folk were storytellers, unfettered by Tradition, with one eye on the pop charts, the other on Nashville yet strangers at both tables. It’s these outsiders who seemed to glean from each other, telling stories as dark as any English Northern Murder Ballad but using stories and words first, the song came later. 

In Choctaw Ridge you will not find a better introduction to this dark smoky world, nothing sounds corny, traditional, dated, all of it is widescreen cinematic mystery. No wonder they made a film out of the lyrics to ‘Ode To Billy Joe’. It’s another voyage into the vast collection of Bob Stanley and chums, with the obvious left back on the shelf.

In the late 1970s my friend Phil and I made a series of cassettes we called Cosmic Cowboys (Volumes 1 – 46), probably the most unfashionable music of the time, but as vital and rewarding as the late 1960s psychedelia we knocked out over a series of Rubble compilations. ‘Country And Western’ albums were two-a-penny in junk shops but the real gold was found on remote albums by a series of American songwriters and singers rejected by the Country Police. 

Trips to the USA left my American hip cousins agog that my suitcase filled with single dollar albums by Mickey Newbury, Tom Rush and their ilk (not featured here sadly). They asked how come they sat alongside Pere Ubu and I suggested the gap was wafer-thin. You want a taste of a tyre factory in Cleveland? Ubu was there. You want a taste of Beaumont Texas? Look no further than Billie Jo Spears. They both taste different, that’s all: they are all folk, be not afraid.

Some musicians love to claim they are ‘pushing boundaries’ without stopping to explain what the boundaries are and who put them there. We’ve always enjoyed overlap in music and though US Country and UK Folk often strictly obey their respective musical ‘traditions’, it is those miscreants that don’t adhere to the norm who stand alone and aside from the commercial affray. Though visits to the US chart were as rare as ‘All Around My Hat’ was in the UK during the jurisdiction of Lieutenant Pigeon, this is only to these song’s benefits. These are death songs, murder ballads and character sketches. The American charts loved a segregation, but if this was ‘soul’ it would be Bill Withers, a man who also knew a word or two.

Here are those moments when you know that this was where Scott Walker was headed towards the end of his first outburst of Europhile madness. Some scorned him for what even he called ‘whoring’ but if we just shift the context then Tony Joe White replaces Jacques Brel admirably.

Choctaw is as mysterious as the song from which it comes. These are no clever Nashville songtricks; many of the stories sit uncomfortably unexplained, all with the most immense accomplished performances sitting behind them, so many of them about their place of origin. The music is as dark as it is Black.

Back home in the 1980s it didn’t take long before Britain’s own taste broadened to us having young enthusiastic cowpunk bands like The Rockingbirds, Montrose Avenue and The Boothill Foot-Tappers and, as we find here, they found a home in London’s East End and it is here where my story stumbles in an attempt at describing this music’s complicated venn diagram. 

For long I argued that one wouldn’t hear a better rendition of London folksong than Scanner or Burial, story portraits of the nightbus home, McDonalds, homeless and dog shelters. Few of the Folk orthodox ever agree, preferring maidens gathering nuts (before being brutally murdered) Then the inevitable happened and XL recording artists, the confusingly named Various started to release a series of dark contemporary folk productions – and member Ian Carter went on to team up with Nicola Kearey to give us Stick in the Wheel. 

They started to field-record many a folk traditionalist on their From Here compilations, embracing the heritage then stalked off, making their own, leaving what was not needed, taking it somewhere new, and that new place was still London.

The new Stick in the Wheel album Tonebeds for Poetry is every bit as noncomformist as the aforementioned US counterparts were and still very much their own thing. It draws on history without relying on it one bit. This is contemporary music: music of our times, less the past informing today, more the present becoming the future: a new link in an old chain. 

The first time I heard ‘The Cuckoo’ it was by the US Kaleidoscope. No traditional version of this ancient paen to pain and loss ever sounded as good, no matter if the version was earlier. Now we have a fresher take on it all here, probably as welcome in the folk nest as the culprit’s eggs, and this is my new favourite version. 

Fine tuning is not needed, so auto-tune becomes their own instrument, misused akin to Jamaicans who saw echo as an instrument in itself, not so much an aid but a complete thing. The album stems from London, not the current faux African hip gang slang, but almost a Dickensian street cry. Kearey is unafraid of her voice of her accent, one which is already becoming a thing of the past. The album reaches back as far as those other knights of the folk crusade; This Heat (‘Long The Day’) stopping off at passages of pure interference (‘Carter’s Peal’) Burial landscape (‘PRSN’) ending up with some West Midland black country folk metal non grunge-able Tolkein (‘Weirds Broke It’). All hell is to be found here; the video depicts how we may all feel when confronted by these modern times:

Easily compilation and album of the year, two awkward bed-partners left drifting far away from the mainstream, you’ll find these circling in the eddy of a backwater. Outside is where it’s at.


‘Choctaw Ridge – New Fables of The American South 1968-1973’ is out now and available here.

Stick in the Wheel’s ‘Tonebeds for Poetry’, also out now, is available here.