Even when the baritone honk of his vocals is at its most elegant, or his acoustic guitar work at its most fleet-fingered, Leon Redbone always seems to be playfully saying, "Who, me?" He's always cloaked in sunglasses, fedora and mustache, but the disguise never intrudes on the knowledgeable warmth of his approach to classic blues, folk and ragtime.
Indeed, the fact that Redbone's a bit of a character has only served, over time, to make his preservation and interpretation of those sounds more adaptable and portable. Rare is the musician who can perform on ALF's Hit Talk Show and still seem to have coolly disembarked from a steamboat or a speakeasy, not to mention maintain dignity. ("I was waiting for that invitation," the often media-shy Redbone told his aardvark-puppet host during that 2004 episode.)
Not that he's a stranger to grace in the presence of anthropomorphic creatures. His first album, 1975's On the Track, has Looney Tunes' Michigan J. Frog on the cover, a playful gesture that'd make anyone underestimate the almost offhand excellence of the actual music.
It's okay to say that Redbone's music flirts with corniness. It's just that he's got some strange, inexplicable class that lets him walk that line without wearing it into a rut. (Besides, isn't there something timeless about corniness, if we're honest?) No matter how elusive he is, a man must have a commendable sense of humor about himself to pull off Jimmie Rodgers' "Desert Blues (Big Chief Buffalo Nickel)," a song that involves both yodeling and pre-PC white folks singing about Indians (which doesn't always go well - ever cringed your way through Charlie Louvin's "Sittin' Bull"?).
Speaking of elusive, Redbone's moves always come off as both sneaky and self-effacing. His current tour routes him through bigger cities but goes heavy on places like Calumet in the Upper Peninsula, and his website recently noted that a Chicago-area show would be moved to a venue in a hotel near O'Hare Airport. Of course, at the Opera House in little old Stoughton - a venue as cozy and humble as it is ornate - Redbone's sly and contradictory nature won't seem out of place at all.