Skunk River Medicine Show Releases New CD | Honoring the Piedmont Musician Masters

Tom Morgan and George Foster are the Skunk River Medicine Show.

The recent debut CD from Skunk River Medicine Show reveals the deep talents of Fairfield musicians Tom Morgan (acoustic guitar, banjo, vocals) and George Foster (bass guitar, bones, vocals). Both come from rich musical backgrounds that complement each other’s technical strengths.

On first hearing Reverend Gary Davis’s “Slow Drag,” Tom Morgan promptly sold his Fender Telecaster electric guitar and purchased an old Martin acoustic guitar, thus beginning his lifelong passion for blues and ragtime. George Foster was originally inspired by the aggressive blues approach of Jack Bruce (Cream) and moved forward to explore a variety of genres, including pop, jazz, funk, rock, folk, reggae, Latin, R&B, psychedelic, and country, but he always remained connected to his blues roots. He also plays  with Bambu, a favorite Iowa City band.

Skunk River’s 17-track CD stands tall as a tribute to the masters of traditional Piedmont style (white and black influences with ragtime rhythms) and Delta blues (derived from African roots and early U.S. black history), including Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Skip James, and Blind Blake. As the CD liner notes reflect, “These pioneers poured into music their hopes, joys, loves, losses, passions, frustrations—and   . . . tales of ramblin’ ways and broken hearts, worn-out lovers, and kind-hearted, double-crossing women.”

I know of no other CD that offers such authentic yet contemporary-flavored renditions of the work from these legendary musicians.

Robert Johnson. Known as “the grandfather of rock ’n’ roll,” Johnson departed this world at age 27 due to poisoning at the hands of a jealous husband. You’ll easily recognize Johnson’s first recording, “Kind Hearted Woman” (1936), which has been  covered by Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Keb Mo’. On this version, Morgan deftly wraps his vocals around his confident acoustic guitar and Foster’s consistently enriching bass lines. Johnson would certainly have been proud of the Skunk River interpretations of his classics. On “Walkin’ Blues,” Foster takes the lead with Leo-Kottke-like vocals slicing and dicing around Morgan’s edgy, brass-bottleneck slide guitar.

Reverend Gary Davis. At age 15, Tom Morgan sat at the feet of Reverend Gary Davis, taking care of the blind guitarist before he went on stage and learning ragtime and blues improvisations like those expressed on “Twelve Sticks” and “Slow Drag.” On the smart and sassy “Hesitation Blues,” the duo pulls from more than 100 years of improvised verses and instrumentals. As one verse laments, “Well, I’ve got them hesitation stockings and I’ve got hesitation shoes, and I’ve got a hesitatin’ woman who’s singin’ me the hesitation blues.” 

Blind Blake. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Blind Blake became known for his mastery of finger-style ragtime guitar during his short recording career (1926-32). Foster’s frisky electric bass and bone rhythms rise up to support Morgan’s strong acoustic guitar on “West Coast Blues” and “That’ll Never Happen No More.” One might imagine Foster to be the author of the latter song’s lyrics, as they resonate so delightfully with his wry sense of humor.

Skip James. Born in Mississippi in 1902, Nehemiah “Skip” James wrote haunting, otherworldly blues in E-minor tuning. The guys capture his swampy, moody, impressionistic flavor on “Cypress Grove Blues,” featuring Morgan’s ghostly six-string banjo and Foster’s inspired bass runs. This “unrehearsed” recording features the duo during their second time playing it together, and the first time using banjo instead of the standard guitar treatment. As such, the purely instrumental track could be aptly retitled “Cypress Groove Yard.”

Mississippi John Hurt. Skunk River’s familiar “Candy Man” takes us back to Hurt’s strong run in the 1960s and ’70s.  Less familiar, but perhaps more magical, “Sliding Delta” tells the story of the trains that traversed the Delta region in the early 1900s. The guys slow down the pace and mix in audio recordings of distant train sounds. Both effects make this an interesting Skunk River signature piece. At the end, the echoing, fading train whistle provides a fitting conclusion to this historic CD.

The remaining tracks include music from Doc Watson, John Fahey, John Henry, Tommy Johnson, Porter Steel, and Henry Thomas. Anyone who wishes to explore the roots of contemporary music should listen to this outstanding CD performed by master artists Tom Morgan and George Foster.                                          

To learn more, visit Skunk River Medicine Show. Individual tracks will be available soon through iTunes and other online music sources.

Hear Fringe Toast every Wednesday, 8-10 p.m., CST, on KRUU FM 100.1 in Fairfield, Iowa.

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