They're the beneficiaries of a rather unlikely tribute album and a primary inspiration and/or influence for numerous contemporary string bands, from the high-profile Carolina Chocolate Drops to Geoff Muldaur's one-off collaborators the Texas Sheiks. No doubt about it, the Mississippi Sheiks are happening these days. But then, they always have been — at least to the extent that's possible for musicians who thrived in the first half of the 1930s.
When they formed around Jackson, Mississippi, in the mid '20s as a guitar-fiddle outfit, the Sheiks were already something of a throwback to the pre-record-industry black rural strings bands — which sounded, in fact, pretty much the same as pre-record-industry white rural string bands. Group members came mostly from the Chatmon family of Bolton, Mississippi: guitarist/singer Armenter (better known as Bo Carter, the name under which he enjoyed an extensive solo career), fiddler Lonnie and guitarist Sam. They were joined by neighbor Walter Vinson, who played guitar and sang. Lonnie Chatmon and Vinson formed the core of the group for its entire recording history, from 1930-35, with Bo Carter and Sam Chatmon drifting in and out while concentrating on solo careers and Charlie McCoy eventually joining to pick up their slack. The music, though not quite as good-timey as jug-band, combined blues with pop, ragtime, dance, bawdy songs, hokum and country to create a buoyant sound pleasing to white and black ears alike; they often played to all-white audiences but remained strongest at the black jook joints and fish frys. They worked up into New York and Chicago but remained anchored in Mississippi.
The Sheiks were entertainers, but no less artists for being so. Lonnie used oddball cross-tunings to make his fiddle squeal like a pig or moan like a widower, and Vinson was a spare but emphatic guitarist; he was also an observant songwriter who came up with some striking imagery on the likes of the lusty "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You."
"Sittin' on Top of the World," the group's first recording and biggest hit, was cut in 1930, and has become one of the most enduring songs in American popular music; the stature and variety of artists who've revived it — for starters, Howlin' Wolf, Nat King Cole, Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead, Willie Nelson and Jack White — is astonishing. But there was plenty more where that came from, from trenchant philosophizing like "Bootlegger's Blues" and "The World Is Going Wrong" to the sardonic "He Calls That Religion" to the hair-raising graveyard hoodoo of "New Stop and Listen Blues," from slow blues like "Seen Better Days" to spry workouts like "The Jazz Fiddler." In all, the Mississippi Sheiks recorded some 70 sides under their own name and an indeterminate number more under different names or as accompanists to Texas Alexander and others. When they broke up in 1936, most of the members went back to a life of farming; Sam Chatmon and Vinson were both able to return to music via the early-'60s folk revival. In 1978 roughhousing British blues-rocker Rory Gallagher included his nostalgic "Mississippi Sheiks" on his Photo-Finish album.
But perhaps in the wake of the bluegrass and country string-band renaissance kick-started by O Brother Where Art Thou? , the Sheiks have recently attracted even greater attention. Things About Comin' My Way — A Tribute to the Music of the Mississippi Sheiks was produced and compiled last year by Vancouver guitarist Steve Dawson. It's an interesting tribute; rather than trying to echo the original sound of the group, Dawson seems to have gone out of his way to select artists who'd completely revamp and reinterpret the songs. And while some try a bit too hard to do so, when it works it's something else. The Mississippi All-Stars earn chuckles with their laconic reading of "It's Backfirin' Now," which laments a bout of impotence, and Van Dyke Parks provides a witty string arrangement for O Susanna's "Bootlegger's Blues." Banjo man Danny Barnes scats sunnily on "Too Long" and Bob Brozman goes sliding (and slipping, and stinging) through "Somebody's Gotta Help You."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who provide their slowed-down version of "Sittin' on Top of the World" to the tribute, are easily the buzz-band of the bunch, a trio of youthful African-Americans from Durham, North Carolina, who've whole-heartedly embraced the Piedmont version of the black string-band tradition even as they've worked to bring it into this millennium with their sharp originals. But Texas Sheiks, by veteran folkie Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks, is very much in the freewheeling spirit of the early string bands, too. After his friend Stephen Bruton began treatments for throat cancer, Muldaur put together an acoustic string band of mostly Texans to join him and Bruton in the studio. The idea was to take Bruton's mind off his woes by picking the music that had inspired him with some of his friends; when the Austin guitarist died in May of 2009, the finished sides became a tribute to him. And it's a dandy bunch of tunes, embracing blues and country and vaudeville and points between, with the band knitting the styles together as seamlessly as the Mississippi Sheiks once did, and yet still coming out of it with an infectious sound of their own rather than a sentimental rehashing of somebody else's. Just listen to Cindy Cashdollar's dobro behind Johnny Nicholas's reading of Robert Johnson's "Travelin' Riverside," or to the swinging sweetness of "Don't Sell It, Don't Give It Away," and see if the music doesn't leave you feeling like you're sittin' on top of the world.