It was an early Christmas present last year when folk blues legend Spider John Koerner traveled to Madison on a blizzard-ridden Saturday night to play a show for the first time in many years. Koerner is returning to the Knuckle Down Saloon for a show on Saturday, April 23, and hopefully the weather will be much better this time around! Since that performance last winter, I've been revisiting Koerner's various recordings, and recently even had a chance to give a spin to an original copy of his debut LP as part of the trio Koerner, Ray and Glover.
Blues, Rags and Hollers initially was released on a label listing its address in Saukville, Wisconsin: Audiophile, a project of recording engineer Ewing Nunn, who operated the label from the late 1940s until his death in 1977. Nunn usually recorded jazz or classical artists, making Blues, Rags and Hollers a definite outlier in the Audiophile discography. The album ended up being licensed to Elektra in New York within a few months of its initial small-run issue, making the original version extremely rare today.
Considering the label name, and the fact that the goal stated right on the label was "record[s] designed especially for wide range play back equipment," it's somewhat ironic that the Audiophile version of Blues, Rags and Hollers has generally come to be derided for its sound quality over the years. The liner notes to a '90s CD reissue by the St. Paul-based Red House Records mention that the Elektra version included four less songs, as requested by engineers to shorten the playing time and increase the sonic dynamics on the record.
Recollections from harp man Tony Glover also mention that the final tracks on each side were pressed so close to the center that automatic changers would pick up before it was done, and that the "wide stereo spread" of the initial release was rejected by Elektra, who only released a mono version. As much as I hate to contradict as good a writer/musicologist as Glover, I can report that at least one of these remembrances isn't accurate. The "dead wax" at the end of the Audiphile record is a normal amount of space -- so if someone's turntable was rejecting, the problem wasn't with the record! Also, from everything I can find online, the Audiophile LP was only released in mono; it was most certainly recorded in stereo, though, as the Red House CD reveals.
Audiophile's use of translucent red vinyl seems to be a controversial subject, judging by some online record nerd forums, and the copy I tracked bears that complaint out. Though it clearly witnessed a lot of turntable time, it looked fairly well cared for, but still did have an unusually extreme amount of surface noise and crackle. The noise usually isn't of the type that would indicate extremely heavy play, as the sonics of the music for the most part still come through clearly -- it's just buried under a big pile of Rice Krispies. During quiet passages the noise nearly overwhelmed the music. It's impossible to know what an old record has experienced, but in this case I'd bet the pressing could be as much a part of the problem as the amount of plays it's received over the years.
The Elektra version is most certainly a sonic improvement, with more bottom end and oomph to the music beyond just being a louder listening experience. Even if they had left on the extra tracks, though, the total length would be only around 52 minutes. So, it probably still would have sounded okay, since the mid-'60s and older Elektra discs were made like tanks; in fact, one side of their second disc actually is around 25 minutes and sounds just fine. FYI: The four missing tracks on Blues, Rags and Hollers are the Koerner originals "Too Bad" and "Ted Mack Rag," as well as "Dust My Broom" and "Mumblin' Word." This final cut is ironic, since it's a highlight of the album and one of only two songs to feature all three players. "Ted Mack Rag" would eventually appear on their second long-player; the others are on the also-rare Good Old Koerner, Ray and Glover album from the early '70s, but I don't know if they're the same versions or not.
Beyond all these technical details, Koerner, Ray and Glover's music still sounds as fresh to me as it first did years ago when I found a copy of their second album Lots More Blues, Rags and Hollers in a thrift store in the mid-'80s. The high-contrast cover shot of the trio playing in a featureless void, surrounded by wafting smoke, was evocative of a mysterious world my small town farm kid self knew nothing of. And the music sounded like something from outer space when compared to the more commercial-sounding '60s folkies I had already encountered (Peter, Paul and Mary, Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell Trio, etc.). Back in those pre-Internet times, I had a hard time even finding out much of any information about the trio beyond brief mentions here and there, but always watched for more music. The '90s Red House CDs were a revelation, and I actually had copies of those before I ever found the vinyl versions of their other albums.
Part of what makes Koerner, Ray and Glover special is the fact that the trio actually had something to contribute to the country blues form beyond just being able to authentically re-create songs they'd learned from others. Even by the time of their first recording, Koerner had already synthesized a sort of laconically hip talking blues songwriting style to go along with his jumpy guitar playing, making a perfect complement on records to Dave Ray's deeper voice and more traditional sound. They just sound authentic and natural, which is not a quality very many of the white folk-bluesmen who emerged in the '60s were able to bring to the table.
The trio continued to perform and record together over the years in various combinations until Dave Ray's death in 2002; Glover and Koerner still often play shows together in the Minneapolis area, including a 10th anniversary show for Treehouse Records just this weekend that I'm sorry to be missing. Do yourself a favor and head out to the Knuckle Down on April 23 and catch Spider John Koerner in action. (Audiophile AP 78/Elektra EKL 240, 1963)