The Best of Local Records: Kicking Mule and Rollin’ Rock Records

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Small record labels help keep folk music alive for future generations to enjoy.

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So, how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That’s what this column is all about. Down-home music that you can make and the instruments (which, in some cases, you can also make) to play that music on.

Although this column is usually devoted to topics that relate to “make it and play it yourself” music, I occasionally like to pass on information of interest to the hummers and toe-tappers in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS family who enjoy just listening to homegrown music. Generally, such columns take the form of record reviews, and focus on the releases of one or more small companies offering recorded bluegrass, folk, blues, or ethnic tunes. My hope, in presenting such roundups, is that after folks clamp their ears onto some actual good-time, down-home music, they’ll feel the rhythm building up inside until they have to let it out themselves. And a whole new crop of homegrown musicians will sprout!
This time around, I’d like to tell you about Kicking Mule Records, a California enterprise that was started almost a decade ago by Stefan Grossman and Ed Denson. Stefan (a former student of Rev. Gary Davis, the legendary ragtime bluesman) had already published a couple of books on guitar finger-picking styles at that time, and was planning to start a publishing firm that would produce music books with accompanying records. Ed, on the other hand, had experience in the business end of the music scene, through his work with groups such as Country Joe and the Fish. After the pair began to work together, Stefan’s original idea more or less reversed itself. Now he and Ed run a record enterprize that produces disks with accompanying instruction books!
Through its unusual record-and-book combination packages, Kicking Mule manages to satisfy both the “I’m just an audience” types and the “How do you play that?” enthusiasts. Although the KMR label originally emphasized guitar music and instruction, the list of offerings has since expanded to include both vocal and instrumental recordings backed by banjo and piano . . . as well as a whole series of dulcimer albums.

The Musical Style of Kicking Mules Records

The blues — which are an integral part of Grossman’s own musical background — provide the focal point of Kicking Mule’s catalog . . . and that section is highlighted by two albums of George Gritzbach, who just happens to be another Gary Davis protege. Gritzbach, who resides out on Cape Cod and makes his living playing blues in that area, has produced two records of lively party music, as well as some soulful songs penned by the artist himself. (And, I might add, his original tunes stand right proud next to the classics by Gary Davis, Robert Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and Papa John Miller!)
The first album — entitled Had Your Gritz Today? — is an intimate work, with most cuts featuring just the singer and his guitar in the country blues idiom. Gritzbach’s second effort, called Sweeper, builds on the first with some fuller arrangements and more of the fast good-time blues that seem to be George’s strongest suit. Guitar songbooks are available for both of these albums, and I highly recommend them to all fans of country blues.
I first met Bob Brozman at the 1980 Festival of the Saws in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he was playing Hawaiian lap-style guitar in a jam session featuring his group (the Cheap Suit Serenaders) and Jerry and the Lei Makers, an island folk ensemble. In the course of that encounter, I heard three players on National Triolian tri-cone resonator guitars: one on dobro, another on tub bass, one on washboard, a couple of ukulele players and, of course, a few sawyers. As a result of that memorable experience, I waited eagerly to hear Bob’s first solo album, and it’s now out on the Kicking Mule label.
BlueHula Stomp (as it’s called) includes a number of traditional Hawaiian tunes, some old-time ditties, and a lot of native-flavored blues that are all performed in a style formerly found only on obscure 7-RPM records. The album focuses on Bob’s slide-guitar work . . . and several cuts (thanks to the magic of modern multitrack recording equipment) feature him as his own accompanist on rhythm and duet guitars, ukulele, saxophone, and vocals. If you’ve never heard the early style of Hawaiian slide guitar — a precursor both to the musical saw in dance bands of the 1920s and to the electric steel guitar found in more modern music — you ought to check this one out.

Bluegrass Music From Kicking Mule Records

Folks whose musical tastes run more toward Mississippi Delta-style slide guitar or ragtime blues will also find a lot to like in the Kicking Mule lineup. In particular, the recently released Sparkling Ragtimeand Hard-bitten Blues might be right up your alley. This album — a collection of guitar instrumentals and vocal numbers from a variety of traditional molds — features guitarists Nick Katzman and Ray Goldstein, as well as vocalist Ruby Green. (This same trio produced an earlier KMR disk — offered with an instruction book–called How to Play Delta Blues Guitar. ) A tablature book for the new release is on the way, too.
Of course, many down-home music fans prefer flat-picked guitar above all other styles. Those individuals should give a listen to Flatpicking Guitar, an album featuring Dan Crary, Dick Fegy, Eric Thompson, Barry Solomon and Steve Kaufman. Performing both in solo arrangements and as backup for each other, the musicians cover almost all the bases in this genre, from a Woody Guthrie song to jigs and reels, fiddle tunes, and a little swing. There’s also a tab book to accompany the album, in case you’re inspired to try a bit of flat-picking on your own.
Old-time jazz, arranged for finger-picked guitar, is popular with many people, too . . . and that’s the specialty of Duck Baker, on his Kicking Mule releases. The King of Bongo Bong is an especially delightful album on which swing is definitely king! Some tunes offer the violin of Mike Piggott, while a couple of others include Stefan Grossman on lead guitar. Two of Duck’s earlier KMR albums — Something for Everyone and When You Wore a Tulip — are sold with tab books for those who’d like to practice this fingering style.

Banjo Music From Kicking Mule

Banjo aficionados, whether they prefer bluegrass or the old-timey claw-hammer and mountain techniques, will also find several titles of interest in the Kicking Mule catalog. As some folks already know, the banjo held a very prominent position in American music before the invention of the electric guitar. In fact, classic-style banjo flourished in both the U.S. and Britain between the Civil War and World War I. (Some cities could even boast — as Seattle still does — entire orchestras made up of banjos! )
I haven’t yet found a source for albums of that vintage music, but Kicking Mule does have the distinction of offering one disk consisting of new versions of classic five-string banjo pieces. The record — entitled Banjo Gems — features solos, duets, and trios by Clark Buehling, Steve Moore, and Henry Sapoznik. (Sapoznik also appears on KMR’s Melodic Clawhammer Banjo and Rivers of Babylon to the Land of Jazz.) The music on Banjo Gems is real escapist material: It tends to propel the listener back to a simpler era before the hurried age of automobiles and electricity.
Although banjo music may have enjoyed its heyday more than 50 years ago, I’d like to mention that I think the instrument still offers new frontiers to be explored. For instance, I’m hoping that someone (perhaps the folks at Kicking Mule) can convince Billy Faier — a true pioneer of the five-string music-maker to record another album. In any case, Ed and Stefan are doing a good job of documenting the musical ground that’s already been covered . . . and if titles like the upcoming Bluegrass Banjo Inventions are any indication, they plan to move into experimental trends in banjo music as well.

Sweet News for Dulcimer Listeners

Whenever I discuss dulcimers, I make a point of mentioning a couple of fine Kicking Mule productions . . . and now the outfit has expanded its line to include a whole series of dulcimer albums! Besides the original two disks by the authors of In Search of the Wild Dulcimer, KMR has added works by Mark Nelson (Fiddle Tunes for Dulcimer).
Neal Hellman (Appalachian Dulcimer Duets), Bonnie Carol (Fingerdances for Dulcimer), and Michael Rugg (Ruggs; Celtic Collection for Dulcimer) are the three best.Neal Hellman’s album is organized around the concept of a living room duet: It pairs off the Appalachian dulcimer with several other traditional instruments such as the banjo, jaw harp, harmonica, fiddle, autoharp, mandolin, musical saw and hammered dulcimer. In addition to showing off the mountain instrument’s versatility, Neal’s record makes for just plain good listening. The same goes for Bonnie Carol’s disk, a collection of pleasing tunes from an expert dulcimer maker, player and teacher.
One of the most popular recent trends in folk circles has been the growing interest in the music of the British Isles — so it’s not surprising that someone has put out an album of Celtic tunes featuring the dulcimer. Michael Rugg’s nicely crafted record features a variety of somewhat unusual accompanying instruments (including harp, mandola, tin whistle, psaltery, hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer, and bodhran), as well as the sparing use of guitar and fiddle, all of which sound extremely agreeable to the ear.

Rollin’ Rock Records

You know, with the “replace it every two years” philosophy that’s come to dominate consumer spending habits in this country, it’s pretty danged difficult to maintain any continuity in our musical traditions because cultural trends tend to come and go as quickly as car models. Perhaps that helps explain why rock-and-roll, with its strong roots in the blues and country genres, is already being considered “traditional” by many folks, in spite of its being a relative newcomer on the American music scene.
At any rate, I was pleased to find an independent music company producing records of original, pure rock or “rockabilly,” as it’s often called. Rollin’ Rock Records is devoted to early rock-and-roll (before the era of fuzz-tone devices and outsized amplifiers), with its fresh, raw energy and sense of joy. One particularly good release from these folks is Rockabilly Fools by the Magnetics, a disk of good, clean, irresistible dancing music.

Support Your Local Record Dealer

Small record companies — such as Kicking Mule and Rollin’ Rock — are often forced to sell primarily by mail, because the large-scale distributors aren’t generally willing to take any risks on what they consider to be “unvarnished” music with limited appeal. For that very reason, it’s important that we — the traditional music fans — support those “little guys” to improve their chances of survival in the cutthroat business of recording.