“… a stirring collection of recent songs and old favorites produced by Memphis shaman Jim Dickinson, with backing by members of the North Mississippi All-Stars and Mudboy & the Neutrons.” — J.R. Nashville Scene
This is, after all, where this rock and roll mess began: a human being and a guitar. Bob Frank stands naked on stage, baring his soul in a coffee house. Except for the fashion on the clothes (he’s not really naked), it could be any year, any time, any place.
In the early part of the 1960s, they called it a hootenanny. Jim Dickinson, whose career was moving in a decidedly theatrical direction, appreciated the power of folk music (he’d first retired from rock and roll in 1959). Dickinson had helped found the Market Theater in Memphis, a jook of a performance space, and was way off into the Sunday afternoon musical free-for-alls.
Dickinson didn’t know Bob Frank from Wild Bill Jones when Frank stepped to the stage with his guitar in hand. Bob Frank sang “With Sabers in Our Hands” and Dickinson damn sure set to finding out who he was. Frank had been thrown out of Vanderbilt University for playing his acoustic guitar too loud. A friendship was born.
Bob got to make a record for Vanguard way back when, Dickinson cut Frank’s “Wild Bill Jones” on his legendary 1972 solo album, and Bob moved out west, finding his way mostly out of the music biz, though he never strayed too far from the guitar.
Bob Frank’s songs are the proscenium between the personal and the universal. I was a kid in Memphis when the Cotton Carnival used to be on the riverfront. I immediately conjured that image, and all the conflicted emotions, the excitement and the emptiness that follows, when I listened to “Since the Midway Came to Town” on this album. I believe anyone would feel the same thing, hearing lyrics about a midway, fireworks, and the “good gal” that “packed her grip and gone across the Mississipp.” Frank is unflinching, letting it all wash so impersonally down the mighty river.
This disc includes a trucker’s song (I’ll never pass a Peterbilt on the highway without thinking of “Old Truckers”), a hippie-era ballad (“Journey to Myself”), even a gospel song about a different kind of revelation (Vanguard made him censor it; it’s here in its original form). But most fascinating is the Civil War ballad, “With Sabers in Our Hands,” which sounds like it came marauding off an 1864 battlefield letter writ in blood. But Bob Frank wrote that one too.
I just went back to check a song lyric and was shocked to hear the other instruments on the track. I’d remembered the performance as just Frank and his guitar. Now that’s perfect accompaniment (provided by the Dickinson family); it fleshes out the solo artist’s feel without diluting his strength.
It’s been three decades since Bob Frank’s first album, the obscure LP on Vanguard (I’d like to buy yours if it’s just collecting dust). This collection mixes older material with the new, and there’s no distinction. He locked into his songwriting mode back then, and it’s worked ever since; he’s had no reason to get a new Peterbilt. He’s been this good for that long. Listen to how the words are phrased, how the lines are broken and assembled to the performance.
These songs, this record, Bob Frank: time just ain’t a factor. — Robert Gordon, author of It Came from Memphis.
Sample: “Since the Midway Came to Town”
Keep on Burning