As soon as the song begins, the guitar wheezes and winks, the crackle of distortion smeared on top of the quick and cackling riff like butter. Dave Wright smiles and looks up—he knows this one.
"This is one of my favorite Countdown Quartet songs," he says, grinning at the memory of the loose and light-hearted Raleigh jazz band he helped anchor for more than a decade. This is "Joseph," the pièce de résistance of their 2002 album Sadlack's Stomp. "Let me show you something."
Wright shuffles to a nearby window, a coffee cup of orange juice and whiskey in his right hand, and pulls down a small amplifier, covered in beige cloth. It's only slightly darker than the tallow-colored walls of his spare downtown Raleigh apartment, where he moved in January after separating from his wife. "This is the amplifier I played on 'Joseph'," he says, spinning the small 1962 Gibson amp. "It belonged to my grandmother."
Wright puts the amplifier down on a small coffee table and reaches into its open back. He pulls out not its vacuum-tube innards but instead yellowing sheets of folded paper. He shakes them free from years of pet dander and household dust and peels them apart, reading words from each. They were written decades ago in his grandmother's tight and slanted script—Chuck Berry lyrics, Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe," a rhyming original about a broken heart.
"I don't remember that one," he says of the sad tune after reading a few of its couplets aloud. "That is pretty cool. I should do something with this stuff, at least get the dog hair off of it."
Wright is familiar with the concept of doing something with a musical inheritance: In The Countdown Quartet and his new freewheeling Boneslinger, Wright revitalized musical relics, treating the vintage forms and sounds of early New Orleans jazz and primitive rock 'n' roll with gusto and glee. The approach has often made Wright's music irrepressible and fascinating, just as steeped in the sounds of the past as it is propelled by the potential for partying in the present.
Wright—a keyboardist, trombonist, singer and enthusiastic listener—sat in his apartment for nearly two hours, offering his opinions on early jazz jubilation and free jazz exploration, string-band tunes and aggressive R&B.
[A two-minute burst of piano-and-saxophone R&B gusto, this was an early '60s hit for Kenner, a Louisiana soulman.]
I played in jazz band, but I didn't get into New Orleans R&B until I was in The Countdown Quartet—really starting to get into like Professor Longhair, even trying to learn Ray Charles tunes. I was out on tour with The Tonebenders in 1998. We would go out on 10-day runs with Southern Culture on the Skids, and we went to New Orleans. We went out on a night off to this place called Vaughan's and heard Kermit Ruffins and The Barbeque Swingers, and I thought, "Now that's something I want to learn how to do."
The first two tunes we learned were Kermit Ruffins songs, "If You're a Viper" and "Light Up." Both were weed songs. We didn't smoke pot, but we just liked the songs. He was covering them, too. "If You're a Viper" was a Stuff Smith tune from the '20s, so we were doing later versions of someone covering '20s music.
From there, we branched out—brass-band stuff, Bill Haley-based, simple three-chord stuff, Booker T. & The MGs, Preservation Hall. We started learning some standards, but it wasn't like these guys that go to college and have to learn these songbook tunes. We were getting our repertoire from songs we liked, pulled from different areas. If you heard it, and you just wanted to play it, we'd do it.
I'm still figuring it out. I sit here and listen to stuff over and over again. When I say I've learned a Ray Charles tune, that's funny: I have a handle on it. You can recognize it. But I'm not Ray Charles. It's my version of what I can accomplish.
[A jumpy little instrumental from the trombone-playing sideman and bandleader, Ory cut this tune after World War II.]
I didn't know Kid Ory until I started looking at Louis Armstrong stuff. I transcribed "Royal Garden Blues" when I was in The Countdown Quartet. When you start with Louis, you go back and get all the 1929 stuff, the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. That's probably when I ran into Kid Ory.
What attracted you to it?
The chord changes in that period of music seem simpler to me. Think about "All The Things You Are," which has all the chords in it. These other tunes might have three chords or six chords. It's more like early rock 'n' roll and country music. It's more accessible. It's not more melody, it's just easier melody. Everything is really singable. "Eh! La-Bas!" is a great Kid Ory tune. It has a great melody, easy chords, sounds great, feels great. People have a great time listening to it.
Is that what you wanted Boneslinger to be able to provide?
I wanted Boneslinger to be the kind of band you have for a Mardi Gras party. It's a good time. It's not the goal, but it's not heavy like going to see a Marsalis. With some of the players in the group, though, their solos are very complicated and interesting. You can show what they've studied in music, showcased over the simple platforms that are the tunes I pick. You hear that on Professor Longhair records. He's playing I-IV-V progressions, early rock 'n' roll, and the sax player is playing modern lines across it. It's not 1950s for him. It's not Boots Randolph.
[For a tale of Biblical plague, this Dave Wright number—with its shout-along choruses and gnarling guitar—remains one of the most ebullient moments of his career and local music.]
This is one of my favorite Countdown Quartet songs.
It's a whole story from beginning to end. It is a storytelling song. It has an emotion to it that climbs. There is a climax to it—for the next seven years, it's not going to rain.
Why did that band end? What's different for you with this group?
It's really not a whole lot different. All the same influences were there. I wanted to move out and see other people. With Boneslinger, I have five songs on the record, and there are five covers I arranged. With Countdown, I had three or four songs on a record. Steve Grothmann, the bass player, had three or four songs. But I always liked bringing stuff to Steve and seeing what The Countdown would do to my tunes.
[Arrested for public inebriation, Ma Rainey sells this 1924 lament with woeful charisma, her voice stretched to suggest both the drunkenness and the desperation of the withdrawal that comes in the jailhouse.]
Booze is a depressant. It's very natural for the blues. I'm not sure if they cause one another, but they sure go together.
Are you surprised to be the lead singer in a band?
I'm not a singer singer, but I love to sing. There was a summer where I had a Fishbone tape stuck in my car. I was 16. I sang along to "Freddie's Dead." I liked The Violent Femmes a lot, too, and I started playing guitar around that time. Most of those songs were three or four chords. If you can pick up a guitar and you can play G, C, D and E minor, you can play that whole album. I liked singing along to that. I liked R.E.M. a lot, and I learned Peter Buck's stuff on guitar. I would sing harmony if I could figure out what the words were. I liked the Indigo Girls.
When I was a kid, I would try to sing along to that stuff in the car with my friends, and they'd say, "Man, you shouldn't sing!" But I still liked to do it. Countdown was really when I started singing. I didn't have any remote kind of success at all until Countdown. You see all this? [Points at his apartment's bare walls, the disarray on the kitchen table.] Huge success.
[Little is known about the reggae singer Neville Grant, but his wonderfully thumping cover of another Chris Kenner hit adds squealing, dissonant sax to the island groove.]
It's like 1950s in Jamaica now. It's the same chord changes from Little Richard or Bill Haley, put in a different setting. This is like the version of "Ring of Fire" that Boneslinger does. We put it to the New Orleans rumba, moved it over to a different genre, added some things. When you take a hit that everyone knows, you're still being creative by doing something different. When you sit there and play everything like it is on the record, you're just a cover band. I want to do more of that, where you take someone else's tune and interpolate or reinterpret it. Everyone knows the tune, so it's accessible.
What's the boldest you've ever allowed yourself to be with that kind of interpretation?
I didn't really start doing that until Boneslinger. With Countdown, we were true to the original. It would be our own version, sort of, but we wouldn't move it from one genre to the other. If we played an early jazz tune, it still sounded like early jazz. We were trying to emulate what we'd already heard. If you want to be creative, you have to take what you want to hear and do something different with it.
If people want to hear Ray Charles play "What'd I Say," there is already a great version of that. If Boneslinger covers that, I've got all the horn parts written out, and I'm trying to do most of the licks he does. We're verbatim trying to reproduce the song. That's not creative. That's bad. We do it very true to how it is on the record.
Why do it?
We're just using that as a tune to take up part of the four hours you have when you play in a bar. It's a tune that everyone knows, and I haven't taken the time to do something different with it. You could.
[Rhiannon Giddens leads this traipsing banjo-and-whistle tune from the string band reviver's album Leaving Eden.]
Carolina Chocolate Drops try to revive old music for new audiences, putting songs in different contexts. You've done something similar in The Countdown Quartet and now Boneslinger. Do you ever worry it's just historically anachronous?
That's the kind of stuff I listen to when I'm home or in the car. I write in the vein of what I like. Style-wise, I'm trying to write and combine styles or take something I've heard and put it in the genre of what I like the best. And lyrically, I still want to write a story.
So the most important part of making music, for you, is it's something you'd like to hear?
"Little Sips" is something I'd like to hear if I walk into a bar, instead of the country I hear on QDR. I work construction, so I hear that stuff. It's too personal to be on the radio. What are you doing? I don't need to know your life story. Nashville songwriters get into some really detailed stories that are past a soap opera. Have a good melody and something nice, please.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A good melody, something nice"