The Sorry Muthas,
Greatest Hits Vol. 3
(1971; Wampus Cat, 2007)

There were, of course, no "greatest hits," and certainly no two previous volumes. But if you lived in Minnesota in 1971 and loved folk music even after -- so rock writers were sternly instructing us -- it was no longer cool to do so, and possibly even counter-revolutionary, you owned this. It would be, sorry to say, the one and only Sorry Muthas album to take up residence on this planet, possibly explaining the world's present state.

My own copy of the LP disappeared under suspicious circumstances a year or so after its release. Hearing it now for the first time in more than (shudder) 35 years, though, I am surprised -- not a lot but a little -- at how much of it has stayed with me. Some day, some musicologist will resurrect it and pronounce it the most splendid specimen of hippie folk music there could ever be. By which, I feel compelled to add, I don't mean what's called these days "freak folk," which as far as I can tell -- from admittedly modest listening -- is just acid-rock music played on acoustic instruments. The Muthas were well schooled in old-time folk, country blues, bluegrass, honkytonk and rooted singer-songwriters. The band's psychedelic moments, while real enough and indulged with the frequency appropriate to time and place, did not spill over onto stage and vinyl. Even so, a carefree, good-timey vibe came courtesy, in part at least, of the counterculture at its sunniest.

Originally a duo consisting of Papa John Kolstad (12-string guitar) and Bob Stelnicki (washtub bass), by the time of this release the Muthas were six Twin Cities veterans of the folk scene. In its heyday that scene, set in coffeehouses and bars in a Minneapolis neighborhood bordering the University of Minnesota campus, had produced, most famously, Bob Dylan as well as Koerner, Ray & Glover, the raggy folk/blues trio that recorded some classic, fondly remembered albums for Elektra in the 1960s (reissued a few years ago on Red House and well worth seeking out), influencing everybody from the Doors to Bonnie Raitt. Greatest Hits Vol. 3 covers the late Dave Ray's "Freeze to Me, Mama." Another Twin Cities-folk alumnus, who appeared slightly later, is the guitar genius Leo Kottke.

The Muthas didn't play, let me be clear, only in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in Minnesota. They toured all across the country, opening for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Dillards and others. They counted among their fans and friends the likes of Garrison Keillor and Loudon Wainwright III (whose sarcastic putdown of a hippie Jesus freak, "Glad to See You Got Religion," appears here). Harmonica/jug-blower Soupy Milton Schindler died a few years ago, but the other five remain active. Stelnicki relocated to Chicago's folknik precincts long since. The others, still in the neighborhood, include Bill Hinkley (assorted stringed instruments, vocals), Judy Larson (same) and Cal Hand (dobro, pedal steel). Hinkley and Larson were then a couple, now a married couple, then and now a musical duo, a beloved presence and positive influence on just about everyone and everything that's crossed their path. Kolstad divides his time between music (in both the playing and business senses) and leftwing activism. He ran for Minnesota Attorney General on the Green Party ticket in 2006. Wampus Cat is his own label.

You don't have to know any of the above to fall under this album's many charms, its good nature, good humor and good songs. These are capable but unflashy, mellow musicians having fun and taking care -- or, more likely, managing it just by being themselves -- not to take things too seriously. There are jokey songs (Hinkley's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex," Utah Phillips/Andy Cohen's "Talking Wolverine 14") and a few (relatively) serious ones (my favorite, in 1971 and again in 2007, being Judy's engagingly, if deceptively, casual reading of Memphis Minnie's "Ain't Nothin' in Ramblin'"). There's bluegrass (prominently, a spirited arrangement of "Mobile Line" from the African-American songster tradition), blues, some jug-band touches and an array of asides and wisecracks. It's enough to make you lament the nonexistence of Greatest Hits Vols. 1 and 2, and of 4 and 5, too.

review by
Jerome Clark

1 March 2008

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