Sparklingly Forlorn
Cast King - Saw Mill Man (Locust Music)  

Recently headhunted by an Alabama community musician as one of the remaining group of renowned Old Sand Mountain musicians who count in their ranks the likes of fiddler Jess Moore, Sacred Harp singer Noah Lacy and Stanley “Preacher” Baker, Cast King appears like some real life effigy from a bygone era. Speaking of this, his first recording since a Sun Records demo in the 1950s, he has the kind of straight-forward and authoritative air that makes the Locust Music release a modern artistic treasure. “You’ll never hear anything like it ­ it’ll have arrangements and tunes on there that I’ve been working on for twenty years,” he tells us. And boy do we listen, with inevitable awe. King’s authentic attitude and demeanour leave us no room to doubt him anyway, but these recordings genuinely abound with a cast-iron quality and the kind of starkly poignant mountain sensibility that’s seen the modern artistic world increasingly cock its hat to the old American South.

The one request that King made when Matt Downer finally tracked him down to his bona fide Alabama shack was that Downer be able to play lead ­ “Most of the guys I've played with are dead. I'm one of only a handful still living,” eventually taking Downer under his personal wing to teach him. The resulting musicianship, similar to early Johnny Cash recordings, provides a charmingly shaky ship for the troubadour’s swelling stories and traditional laments. Fit to announce a comeback from a fifty-year public hiatus, the title-track 'Saw Mill Man' is a broad and brooding paean to hard times. On first listen it’s striking how similar King’s old man’s voice is to that of Cash on his last 'Unchained' recordings ­ what can only be described as an awesome, omnipotent croak. With the other tracks though King reveals a more personal, teary, and alternatively amusing introversion. Little odes to lost loves like 'Long Time Now' and 'Faded Rose' are sparklingly forlorn nuggets, the bluesy 'Peggy' interjecting a smiling rhythm to their downbeat style of reminiscence.

Women seem to have been a recurring problem for King, and his experience is expressed in the classic folk tradition ­ heart-warming and funny. The apple of his eye in 'Low Low Blues', marvellously, had “…lips like cherry wine, hills in front like a Cadillac car, a Tennessee mule behind/But she had the heart of a man eating shark, and the nature of a grisly bear”. With both 'Low Low Blues' and 'Cheap Motel', a live-recorded lament of a divorcee who’s ex’s boyfriend has adopted his former affections, King embraces his problems with a self-awareness and gravitas reminiscent of jazz/blues genius Mose Allison, and if he’s to be categorised at seventy-nine years old, it’d be no insult to be in the unique and brilliant position between Allison and Cash. Like Cash’s outsider stories and convict ballads, 'Wino' is emoted by a powerful sense of penance, and a kindred expression ghosts by again in 'Outlaw' which closes with the kind of manfully spoken passage that Cash pioneered. King obviously has the same empathy as a writer for the downtrodden as the great man, along with a similarly robust, fiercely individualistic gravity and song-respectability with only a hundredth the legend. Immaculately timed to tie in with the Hollywood treatment of Cash’s story, Saw Mill Man provides a charming boost of artistic reality.

© 2006 Neil Jones