Bob Frank - Many happy returns

Singer-songwriter Bob Frank's website characterizes him as "one of the most obscure songwriters on the face of the planet," a prime example of his self-deprecating humor. After releasing his self-titled debut album on Vanguard Records in 1972, Frank toured to promote the record but grew disillusioned with the music business and the album's lack of sales. A year later, he moved from his native Tennessee to El Sobrante, California, about 20 miles from San Francisco. Although he continued to write songs, music took a back seat in his life. He worked other jobs and raised a family of four children. Now 58, Frank has finally gotten the urge to record again, and is threatening to leave that obscurity behind with a pair of records on his own Bowstring label. Keep On Burning is a collection of ten original songs written over the past 40 years and produced by Frank's longtime friend Jim Dickinson. The album is a blend of country, folk and blues that showcases Frank's supple baritone. The second disc, A Little Guest Of Robin Hood, is a retelling of the Robin Hood legend featuring Frank on vocals and acoustic guitar. Frank, who once worked as a contract songwriter in Nashville, admits he had doubts about his future as a musician after the commercial failure of the first album. "I didn't know how to make a career out of it," says Frank, who now installs irrigation systems. Dickinson has been a champion of Frank's music since he first heard him perform in Memphis in 1963. The song that caught his ear was "With Sabers In Our Hands", a stirring Civil War ballad written from the viewpoint of four Confederate veterans. (Frank re-recorded it for Keep On Burning with a new arrangement.) "I love his use of language...and the sense of humor in his songs," says Dickinson, who showed his support back in 1972 by recording Frank's murder ballad "Wild Bill Jones" on his Atlantic Records album Dixie Fried. (He also included it on A Thousand Footprints In The Sand, his 1997 live CD.) Dickinson's forthcoming solo disc for Artemis, Free Beer Tomorrow, includes another Frank tune, "Last Night I Gave Up Smoking". Basic tracks for Keep On Burning were completed in less than a week at Dickinson's home studio using a combination of Memphis and Mississippi musicians, including Dickinson's sons, Luther and Cody, from the North Mississippi All Stars. Dickinson played keyboards himself and also recruited Sid Selvidge and Jimmy Crosthwait, fellow members of his band Mud Boy & the Neutrons, to contribute backing vocals and washboard, respectively. Also showing up in the credits, playing trombone, is Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. "The recording was much easier than last time," Frank says, adding with a chuckle: "For one thing I was sober." Keep On Burning ranges from the Dixieland-influenced "Since The Midway Came To Town", which recalls the Blue Yodels of Jimmie Rodgers, to the mariachi-flavored "Back To Ensenada". There's also a talking blues with a spiritual twist ("Judas Iscariot", inspired by da Vinci's portrait of The Last Supper), a cowboy song ("Out On The Prairie"), and a trucking song that could lead to a lot of depressed accelerators ("Old Truckers"). Frank says he and Dickinson have already talked about doing another record sometime soon. "I'm trying to collect my story songs and go back to Memphis to record," Frank says. Dickinson wants to record Frank with Sun Records guitarist Roland Janes at Sam Phillips' studio. Regardless of what happens, it's unlikely to be another 30-year wait between albums.