various artists,
Devil Music
(House of Mercy, 2016)

For its cover Devil Music borrows the goofy cardboard-cutout Old Scratch, complete with buck teeth, who adorns the cover of what may be the greatest country-gospel album ever, the Louvin Brothers' Satan is Real. Originally issued in 1960, it's remained in print in various formats ever since. The Brothers created the model themselves, and it's been the source, at least among those who aren't worried that they're putting their immortal souls at risk, of much jocularity over the decades. Even so, no one chuckles at the fierce, brilliant music on the disc itself. Nearly all of Satan's dozen songs have been covered repeatedly by country, gospel, bluegrass, folk and rock artists. Even the most casual listening can leave no doubt that Charlie and Ira Louvin, the products of Deep South evangelical Christianity, believed every word they sang.

This new CD from the St. Paul-based House of Mercy label takes a more relaxed approach. In its judgment Satan may or may not be real -- the brief liner notes attributed to the Rev. Russell Rathbun don't seem too wrought up over the question -- but he is undeniably a rhetorical source of humor, euphemism, sexual infidelity, self-loathing and excessive behavior. Still, two cuts that take the devil to be as described in the Bible and elsewhere turn out to be among the most hard-hitting, John Magnuson's "There's No Hiding Place Down Here," from the Carter Family, and Dana Thompson's plaintive interpretation of the traditional "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down."

More characteristic of the content, however, are spirited renditions of venerable comic folk songs such as "Chased Old Satan" (Roe Family Singers) and "Old Lady & the Devil" (Corpse Revivers). The latter, of course, is the ballad, dating to the 18th century or earlier, that Prof. Child called "The Farmer's Curst Wife" and numbered 278 in his collection. Charlie Parr, who is the most (relatively) prominent contributor, offers up the amusing talking-blues "Otis Meets the Devil," showing the influence of Spider John Koerner. The Daddy Squeeze Band's breezy, accordion-driven "The Devil Ain't Lazy" comes from the Bob Wills repertoire.

The musical settings draw on folk, folk-rock, and country forms. In the last category an original by Brett Larson puts a skeletal hillbilly arrangement to one of the most interesting songs here, "Fallen Angel, Lonesome Devil," which pursues an intriguingly elusive metaphor that carries the piece far from stock honkytonk sentiment. The accompanying notes have nothing to say about who the various performers are or where they come from, though as a Minnesotan I recognize some as fellow residents. In any event, Devil Music makes for an unusual, consistently entertaining perspective on history's biggest and baddest dude.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 March 2016

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new