The Pioneers of Country Music with R. Crumb and Yazoo Records
Imagine my delight during a recent U.S visit to be given a complete set of trading cards dedicated to the "Pioneers of Country Music". Then add the joy of discovering that they were drawn by the great counter-culture illustrator R. Crumb.
First, the cards. A bit of research (okay, Google) threw out that they were produced in 1985 by Yazoo Records, the famous roots label that is still going strong with releases of early jazz, blues, folk etc. There are 40 cards, each ilustrated by Crumb and each depicting generally not-very-famous country acts from the early days, some going back into the 19th century.
Each of the biographies is written by Rich Nevins, who founded reggae label Shanachie Records in 1975, which bought Yazoo a few years after the cards were released. Here is a taste from card No. 24 about Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers from early in the 20th century:
Their unique sound was the product of sweet, smooth Mississippi fiddling, taken to its furthest limits of laid-back mellowness, and a tightly knit rhythm section high-lighted by foot tapping.
The collection is joyously crammed with splendid names, including No. 12 Dr. Humphrey Bate & His Possum Hunters, No. 20 Ernest Stoneman and the Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, No. 25 Paul Miles and His Red Fox Chasers, No. 3 Da Costa Wooltz's Southern Broadcasters, and No. 4 Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers.
To be honest, about the only ones I had heard of were No. 7 Carter family, of which Nevins writes:
The almost 300 songs the Carter Family recorded form 1927 to 1941 comprise the most formidable body of traditional American balladry, and represent collectively (with the possible excepction of Jimmy Rogers) the most influential performances of the period.
Now to Crumb, one of the most accomplished illustrators of the 1960s onwards. For music fans, he may be best known for his album art on "Cheap Thrills" by Big Brother and the Holding Company. For others of a certain age, as they say, we have Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat and the iconic Keep on Truckin'.
The illustrations for these "Pioneers" cards are supremely clever. There is a kind of witticism to them that you would expect from Crumb with something as culturally offbeat as, say, Skillett Lickers. But each card is also presented as a posed photograph would have been at the time, so you get a real feeling of looking back at something special.
Crumb is alive and well and most recently contibuted a cartoon to France's Liberation newspaper as a tribute for the Charlie Hebdo shootings.
On a final note, I see from the cards that two corollary sets were released - "Heroes of the Blues" and "Early Jazz Greats." The hunt is on.