As so-called New Country crests its second decade of mainstream dominance, the genre is suddenly giving up the Funk. Drums may've been verboten at the Opry during country's initial mid-20th century heyday, but Nashville's own Bonepony skipped the memo. As the trio's September opening slot for Shooter Jennings in Charlotte showed, the young members of Bonepony are not afraid to boogie or -- for all their old-timey prowess -- mix some "Night of the Thumpasaurus Peoples" and West African polyrhythms with the twang.
Bonepony's most recent album, Jubilee (SuperDuper; 3 Stars) makes the band's dedication to a well-rounded Southeastern sound plain on the track "Golden Riverside," a not-so-oblique nod to Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." Ironically, such attention to twang's blues shadow mostly doesn't emanate from the ballyhooed alt-country crowd -- Bonepony finds its counterpart across the divide in such young, black string-band revivalists as Sankofa Strings, who have strong ties to revered NC fiddler Joe Thompson. On Sankofa's new Live at Flagstaff (Sankofa Strings; 3 Stars), the trio enshrines long-faded frolic repertoire that arose from the African and Appalachian culture clash.
It's unlikely that much of Sankofa Strings' music will be rewarded beyond the cloister of bluegrass and folk festivals. This is why Big & Rich's funky "fuck you" to Nashvegas is so vital. Big Kenny and John Rich -- for all the pair's long struggle on the margins of Music Row's songwriting scene -- at least superficially resemble the stereotypical country audience. The duo's new CD, Comin' To Your City (Warner Bros; 3 Stars), still pushes boundaries, though: barbershop manifesto "The Freak Parade"; "Soul Shaker," which Rich describes as "the Black Crowes on speed"; the midtempo ballad "Never Mind Me," intentionally meant to invoke Bill Withers; the block-rockin' beats of "Jalapeño" and a cameo by original outlaw Kris Kristofferson. No sophomore slump here.
The multi-platinum success of B&R and their MuzikMafia pal Gretchen Wilson signifies that the upheavals of the New South since the dawn of the 1970s have somehow fashioned space for a generation that can as easily tolerate George Jones as George Clinton. Even Nelly and jam-band superstar Robert Randolph occasionally pop up in CMT visuals. Yet the ultimate triumph will come when black country acts can boogie down Music Row and not be dismissed as inauthentic.
Meanwhile, don't label country-soul man Brady Seals and his Hot Apple Pie (Dreamworks Nashville; HHH) as mere novelty. That band is effortlessly riding the current Redneck Revolution, but hit single "Hillbillies" and all the Daisy Dukes-n-hay-bales imagery doesn't obscure the group's love of R&B. "Easy Does It" pays homage to the country crossover of Alabama's Commodores. During the Pie's recent Coyote Joe's appearance, the quartet (like Bonepony) also bravely flummoxed the crowd with a great funky arrangement of "Shakey Ground" and a magnificent newgrass-meets-swamprock take on "The Shape I'm In."
Speaking of which ... Robbie Robertson, who penned "The Shape I'm In" for his late Band-mate Richard Manuel, has again reframed the storied past of his legendary combo with a new box set: The Band: A Musical History (Capitol; 4 Stars). Comprehensive and chronological, History documents The Band's career from 1963 to 1976, reminding us that these five men (four Canadians and one rebel drummer from Arkansas) produced one of the most peerless repertoires in American history. And the songs' strength lies in the rich mesh of the blues and mountain music. Perhaps, as with their friend Neil Young, The Band's exogamous status imbued them with a certain freedom to mix and match sounds as they saw fit. Disc One finds Manuel gamely aping Ray Charles on "Honky Tonk," but the quartet also stretches out on 60s organ jazz ("Robbie's Blues") and dips into black string-band standards with "Go Go Liza Jane." Despite The Band's outsider longing, masterpieces like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (sung, of course, by Helm), feel as indelible to this region as they did to the Gulf of Guinea, where I grew up spinning this music on my Ghanaian verandah. The Band's unerring hybrid ear is evident from the earliest track, backing Ronnie Hawkins on R&B rave-up "Who Do You Love?" And it continues as a leitmotif through later collaborations with New Orleans master musician Allen Toussaint; on the immortal Last Waltz version of "The Weight," with the Staples Singers; and on Manuel's finest stand -- the harrowing yet funky blues of "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)." The Band remains highly influential amongst the Americana set, to be sure. But they also ought to be lionized for expanding the vocabulary of soul at a crucial, transitional point in popular music. Dixie roots rockers the Drive-By Truckers, who performed "Danko/Manuel" at Tremont a couple of weeks ago in honor of The Band's deceased mavericks, would surely second that emotion.