Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
She played the crosscut saw with an old fiddle bow
She was the purtiest thing I think I ever saw
Amazin' Grace from a long time ago
She ripped my heart into with a crosscut saw
– “Crosscut Saw” by Uncle Dave Griffin and Sean Clark
In 2003, my son, Justin Johnson, was employed as the manager of Waycross, Georgia's movie theater complex, the Mall Cinema. The theaters were owned by local cable TV impresario, John Harrison; and, as part of Justin's employment package, we received a box that hooked up to our living room television, housing
all the available channels Waycross Cable Company had to offer.
So, I did a good bit of couch-surfing in the evenings, remote in hand, carefully perusing the premium movie channels at my disposal. I came across an interesting title on Sundance one evening—Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus—a documentary about country music and religion in the American South.
The film—written by Steve Haisman and directed by Andrew Douglas, a couple of British lads—was produced and distributed by the BBC. Narrated by Americana singer-songwriter, Jim White, it includes the hard-scrabble backwoods music of little-known, but brilliant, musicians and authors—like Bacon Countian Harry Crews, Johnny Dowd, David Eugene Edwards, Brett and Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family, Rev. Gary Howington, former New York Dolls singer, David Johansen, Lee Sexton, The Singing Hall Sisters, and Melissa Swingle.
It blew me away.
From the opening musical background to images of Jim White renting a friend's 1970 Chevrolet Impala, with fresh primer scattered across the top and sides, heading out across the highways of the Florida panhandle into Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, then up into the Appalachian Mountain counties of Kentucky and Virginia, I was thoroughly and happily mesmerized.
The film explores the hardships of small town, rural Southern America, where many of its inhabitants wind up either in the prisons or in the churches. Set against an inspiring musical backdrop of Pentecostal choirs, singing hairdressers, Americana husband and wife duos, motel room folk singers, and a fiddle-bowed, crosscut saw-playing mountain chanteuse, it is a stirring, sometimes unsettling, Gothic journey through the South.
Harry Crews, born in Bacon County, right next door to my home county of Ware, was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist. His first published novel, The Gospel Singer, appeared in 1968; and, he wrote regularly for Esquire and Playboy magazines. The University of Georgia acquired all of his papers in August 2006. Crews passed away March 28, 2012.
The stark, unobtrusive vocals of Johnny Dowd lend comparisons to Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Captain Beefheart. David Eugene Edwards is the former lead singer of early-Nineties band, 16 Horsepower, whose lyrics reflected religious imagery based on Edwards's Christian upbringing.
The Handsome Family, made up of husband and wife, Brett and Rennie Sparks, plays a musical blend of traditional country, bluegrass, and murder ballads. Former member of post-punk band, The New York Dolls, David Johansen has reinvented himself musically through the decades. Some may remember him as Buster Poindexter, late-80s video mugger with the MTV hit, “Hot, Hot, Hot”, featuring The Uptown Horns.
Lee Sexton, born in 1928 in Letcher County, Kentucky, field hand and miner-turned-banjo picker, bought his first banjo for one dollar at the young age of eight. Four of his recordings appear on the Smithsonian Folkways album, Mountain Music of Kentucky.
One of the most intimate moments of the movie came at the hands of Melissa Swingle, a beautiful Appalachian girl, with a world-weary offering of “Amazing Grace”, played sadly on a crosscut saw with a fiddle bow in a remote mountain gorge.
I ordered the movie and accompanying CD, The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus! By Jim White, and proceeded to convert all the local Waycross and area musicians who would listen. Bacon Countian slide guitar player, Reed Bennett, was so enthralled that he went out and bought some of Harry Crews's books, along with the movie and CD.
I had the pleasure of booking Mr. White at the 13th Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival back in 2010. He was as captivating live as he is on film and records—and a genuinely nice guy with a big heart.
The kind of heart that holds dearly the love of the South, its eccentricities, its music, and its people.
American Spirit: Uncle Dave and The Younguns
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Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin
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