Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Stone Fox Chase

I got word on the line-up of the hip-hop scholarship panel at which I am presenting in March; it looks mighty great. I have been doing some messing around with my paper about Bubba Sparxxx over the past few weeks; maybe I will present some of the tangential musings occasioned by this research here at I Hear A New World.

Although I generally hate playing "find the sample," I have been intrigued by the history of the harmonica loop that undergirds Bubba Sparxxx's "Jimmy Mathis": a rave-up called "Stone Fox Chase" by the obscure 1960s instrumental group Area Code 615.

I discovered the geneaology of the "Jimmy Mathis" sample, strangely enough, while the Bubba Sparxxx project was completely on the back burner. Over the holidays I became obsessed with hearing Area Code 615 while catching up on some american studies-ish music history books that have been on my list for a while. At the top of that list was Peter Shapiro's Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. (By the way, this book is amazing. I encourage everybody, even folks who are not especially interested in disco, to read it. The other book I read [some of ] was Scott Saul's Freedom Is, Freedom Aint: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, which is also good, although the title made me hopeful it might be more about free music and less about hard bop.)

Shapiro reports that "Stone Fox Chase" was one of the staples of DJ sets in the pre-Saturday Night Fever years of gay New York disco. According to Shapiro, DJ Ray Yeates was fond of spinning the record at the Tenth Floor, a pioneering gay "clone club" of the pre-AIDS Gotham sexual underground. Shapiro provides a description of "Stone Fox Chase" that immediately made me bolt up and run to my computer to confirm via wikipedia that I had not accidentally overdosed on raw-sheep's-milk stilton or mescaline and dreamt it up: "an utterly bizarre record made by Nashville's most famous session musicians that sounded like the backwoods family in Deliverance jamming with the percussionists from the Last Poets records."

My researches confirmed that Area Code 615 did in fact exist. After I tracked down their collected works, I feel comfortable asserting that they had the best idea for a band ever: Nashville "A-Team" studio pros cut loose on laid-back, vaguely afro-cuban pyschedelic country instrumentals in the patchouli haze of late-1960s Music City. Ever fixated on hot pedal steel music, I was particularly moved to droolage by the fact that Connie Smith's amazing steel player, Weldon Myrick, held down the steel chair in the band.

The centerpiece of the band, however, was harmonica player Charlie McCoy. Normally I hate the harmonica, but Charlie McCoy is an exception-- his playing is gritty and aggressive and rooted in the ornamental language of southern fiddle music. The rest of the group--fiddle great Buddy Spicher; guitarists Wayne Moss and Mac Gayden; and drummer Kenny Buttrey, who played on Blonde on Blonde and Tonight's The Night-- are insanely great. The trade-off between bluesy, fuzz-laden southern rock guitar licks and squeaky clean country picking is consistently arresting... something like Grand Ole Opry cut-to-commercial cues as perfect minimalist/nostalgia furniture music.

Were we to not know the Nashville psychedelic studio experiment and disco heritage of "Stone Fox Chase" (which would be easy, since it is more famous as also the theme song to English rock variety show "The Old Grey Whistle Test"), our understanding of the meaning of Charlie McCoy's harmonica loop might be unduly straightforward. Likely, while creating the tracks for "Jimmy Mathis," producer Tim "Timbaland" Mosely sought an evocation of the reclaimed whiteness at the core of Sparxxx's weltanschauung. There certainly is much to recommend the "Stone Fox Chase" harmonica sample. Its appropriateness for the song derives from the racial semiotics of the harmonica: like so much of the material of popular music, a racial semiotics rooted in timbre, phrasing, and articulation.

Using an overtly twangy sample, such as a pedal steel guitar or fiddle, would signal too much a straightforward "caucasian"-ness that might seem retrograde or silly. Using samples too close to the materials of funk and soul music would defeat the purpose of forging a conciliatory and authentic "white" southern hip hop voice and sound-palette. The humble harmonica, connotative of nostalgic southern Americana (the wikipedia entry notes that Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp were all marine band tootlers...that's so American its almost, I dunno, Soviet) and long-linked with itinerant ramblers in national mythology, works to reinforce the rural proletarian valences of Sparxxx's persona.

At the same time, the style of overblown diatonic harmonica playing on "Stone Fox Chase" is a very African-American-coded sound. As I listen to it more, it occurs to me that McCoy's harmonica loop calls to mind most, at least in relation to my own musical memory, the 1960s white blues revivalists John Mayall and Paul Butterfield, and their models, Little Walter and Rice Miller. The prewar history of the harmonica had its own racial enigma: DeFord Bailey, an African-American harmonica player who played exciting train songs on George Hay's original Grand Ole Opry, often performing on the same bills as blackface minstrel acts.

In conclusion: something about tracing the migration of "Stone Fox Chase" from the mixing boards of a Vietnam-era Nashville music studio to the imaginary New South of Bubba Sparxxx via the Tom of Finland pleasure palaces of 1970s New York seems to powerfully undermine my reflexes to think about the coding of sounds as fixed and obvious. That's good!

That harmonica playing is amazing. And I never knew that the same guy played on BoB and TtN. That's the kind of info my brain likes to remember.

Very nice observations. Looking forward to more of this on IHANW.
That is a great post. One of the coolest things about Charlie McCoy is that he appeared on all those magnificent late 60s records that Bob Dylan recorded in Nashville while at the same time playing on tons of Elvis sessions. (I'm pretty sure he's heard on Presley's "US Male," "Too Much Monkey Business," and "Guitar Man," though don't quote me on that.)

Wow. I just looked McCoy up on AllMusic and it says his first session was Roy Orbison's "Candy Man" and that he was Hee Haw's musical director!!! That's news to me.

Where'd you track down the Area Code 615 cd?
Mike-- I know, there is something really weirdly gratifying about connecting the dots between session players on beloved rock albums. I wonder why?

Jonny Too Bad-- thanks for the info about Charline McCoy's Elvis and Roy Orbison connections... that sure adds an extra layer of strange meaning to the use of his music by both disco DJs and Timbaland... very cool. Unfortunately the Area Code 615 CD is way out of print. I am pretty sure that one will come up on amazon or ebay sooner or later, but were you to email me at epiphonejoefail@yahoo.com with coordinates, I would be happy to hook you up with a CD-R copy.

Thanks for reading and commenting!
Great post, if a little much for my mind to handle right now. Can second your big up for the Peter Shapiro book as being an eye-opener and compelling read no matter one's interest in disco. Another great connect-the-dots tome.

Meanwhile. the linking of studio musicians across all kinds of genres is a nifty way of collapsing all time and space. Thanks for that, too.
Here's a URL for a cool Richie Unterberger interview with McCoy:


It's interesting to think about Dylan going to Nashville to record. McCoy certainly thinks that he was out of place, at least during Blonde on Blonde. It's also fascinating, to me at least, to hear what he has to say about the economics of studio time and how fast everything was done in Nashville back then.
Some information regarding the recording of Stone Fox Chase...
Kenny Buttrey wrote all the drum and percussion parts filling up all but one track THEN he asked Charlie to play something on that last track. Charlie follows Kenny's rhythm to come up with his embellishment to Kenny's work. That's the way it was....

Our dear friend Charlie played The Lord's prayer beautifully on his harmonica at Kenny's funeral and again at his memorial.
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