The Leon Redbone Suite for Guitar and Genius in B-Flat. Part I
Perhaps the most telling incident in young Redbone's forgotten years was one moonlit night when he found himself at a dusty crossroads in Mississippi, guitar in hand. Shortly, the Devil appeared and asked him if he had come to sell his soul in exchange for the ability to play that guitar. Redbone replied that he had not, and was getting along just fine on his own. When the Prince of Lies took the rejection personally, a quick-thinking Redbone offered to trade him his Swiss Army knife in exchange for the ability to immediately discern fresh-squeezed orange juice from made-from-concentrate. Old Scratch, grateful to save face, took the deal and threw in several back issues of Reader's Digest and the ability to play the ocarina.
We come now to the pivotal Mariposa Folk Festival, where Redbone catches the attention of folk-music superstar (oxymoron alert!) Bob Dylan. In a Rolling Stone interview, Dylan later said that if he was to ever start a record label, Redbone would be the first performer he would record. Warner Brothers beat him to it, releasing Redbone's On the Track in 1975. A spurned Dylan vowed never again to utter an intelligible word.
Soon thereafter, Redbone turned up on Saturday Night Live, where his unusual style blended in perfectly with the fresh and eclectic entertainment offered by SNL in those days before they descended into cranking out hackneyed catch-phrases and running any bit that was even slightly amusing so deep into the ground that coal miners are the last ones to get sick of them.
But I digress.
From Redbone's appearance on the national stage, he soon became a favorite on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as well as lending his distinctive voice to everything from the aforementioned commercials to the theme song for the eighties sitcom Mr. Belvedere. Those who accuse him of selling out (you know who you are, Steve) plainly fail to see the genius behind such commercial ventures, building an audience for his inimitable style by taking it to the masses however he could. As an artist (?) with a peculiar and unique style myself I can appreciate his position, which is why I have been trolling for a corporate sponsorship for very nearly two years here at AAJ. And while I'm on the subject, how about the Pew Charitable Trusts or the McArthur Foundation getting off their asses and ponying up some dough so that I don't have sell consumer electronics in order to support my important and groundbreaking drinking. Or writing. Whatever.
Through ten albums in twenty-five years, Redbone has been true to his passions and resistant to the passing whims of the age. Defiantly drawing his inspiration partly from the minstrel tradition, particularly the work of the lately reconsidered Emmett Miller, Redbone managed to fly under the radar of the 90's politically correct movement who was too busy rooting out gender-biased language in Bazooka Joe comics to notice that he was playing songs influenced by a man who performed in blackface (no, not Michael Jackson). Though Miller's contribution to American music is undeniable, particularly his impact on country music, his rather troubling career had kept him from getting the notice he deserved until artists like Redbone brought a fresh eye to his underlying genius. If you'd like to know more about Miller, read Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches. If you'd like to know less about Miller, forget everything you've read so far.
As this movement draws to a coda, let us pause for an instant to gather ourselves for the next leg of the journey. Feel free to go get a beverage, and let's meet back here shortly.
On to Part II of "Suite for Guitar and Genius in B-Flat"