The Possum Trot Orchestra,
The Possum Trot Orchestra
(Southern Can, 2005)

"I'm a deacon in a hard-shell church down near Possum Trot," sang Lowe Stokes in the hilarious mock-tragedy "Wish I Had Stayed in the Wagon Yard," recorded in 1929. At the conclusion of a disaster-ridden visit to town, the narrator -- known only as Old Hayseed -- expresses a rueful warning: "Don't monkey with them city ducks, you'll find them slick as lard."

John Minton, a folklorist and folksong scholar at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, has joined forces with fellow Fort Wayne musicians Rob and Susie Suraci to put forth an original sound that integrates, in proportions that vary from song to song, folk and pop approaches. Yes, they're city ducks, and they're slick, but unlike the ones who led poor Old Hayseed astray, they won't do you wrong.

Minton's immersion in deep-roots music inspired an interesting and unusual CD, Going Back to Vicksburg (2004), in which he reimagined and rewrote such folk songs as "Hell Bound Train," "The Wild Ox Moan" and others, creating what I characterized in my review here (30 July 2005 issue) as "traditional Southern ballads ... in an alternative universe." His own compositions on Possum Trot Orchestra continue in that vein (e.g., "Been on the Job Too Long," a line taken from the turn-of-the-last-century African-American murder ballad "Duncan and Brady"), alongside the Suracis' more pop-sheened work, perhaps influenced, though not irritatingly so, by 1970s California country-rock bands. The two musical and lyrical sensibilities manage a seamless meshing, something that only very good and attentive musicians could have pulled off.

The songs (all originals by Minton or Susie Suraci), played on an impressive variety of mostly acoustic instruments, are set inside soundscapes that recall, perhaps, the aura of twilight or late evening. The vocals and harmonies usually feel more breeze-borne than earth-bound. Little of this is, of course, much like Lowe Stokes' record, an old-time string-band number driven -- for purposes of the broadest of unsubtle satire -- as deep into the hills as Stokes & His North Georgians could run it. But in the gorgeous, atmospheric "Stephen C. Foster's Blues," written by Minton and sung in his characteristically whispery high tenor, a "hard-shell church" gets a passing mention, in a wink to the listener who's caught the homage in the band's name.

As an effort to fashion a kind of creative roots sound for the early 21st century, this CD succeeds almost against expectations. There's enough depth to it to repay many listenings -- a lyrics sheet would have helped here -- and it boasts a distinctive sound and a point of view that is appealingly its own.

by Jerome Clark
4 February 2006