When people talk about Mississippi being a whole other part of the world, they're talking about places like the Sardis Motel. That's where The Moaners stayed while they recorded their new album, Blackwing Yalobusha. They weren't alone in the Sardis. There in those Mississippi lands, The Moaners—singer-guitarist Melissa Swingle and drummer Laura King—were living with real, live reptiles.
"There's this alligator in the lobby. It's in a big aquarium, right there in the lobby; not only that, but there are a bunch of little kittens running around," says Swingle, who was born in Mississippi. "I'm like, 'Keep the kittens away from the alligator.' Or is that what they feed the alligator?"
Swingle wasn't always so intrigued by her Mississippi surroundings. As a child, her father loved the blues, but she didn't embrace the regional sound when it was spinning on his turntable.
"Maybe because I associated that with old people's music because my dad listened to it," Swingle says with a dry, flat twang. But time and distance brought her back to the delta sound. "I'm like, 'I remember this music.' It touches something inside in me that's hard to explain. And when I heard Mississippi Fred McDowell play the slide, I was just mesmerized. I had to figure out how to play it myself."
Swingle quickly realized she wasn't going to be Bonnie Raitt, but she soon found her own way, trying alternate tunings and realizing—with the right set-up—she could slide whole chords instead of notes. Suddenly, she was tapping into a whole new stream of songwriting.
"'Monkey Tongue' [uses] a funky D ending with a top note in F which has a real creepy sound, then I have another tuning that I use for 'Brainwash.' It's a low, low C tuning, probably about as low as a guitar can handle," she says. "The only guitar I've found that's been able to keep that chord is a little el-cheapo Flying V."
Interesting, especially since the same great blues ghost of Mississippi Fred McDowell that led Swingle back to blues guitar and trying out Flying Vs was the reason she was stuck in the alligator-inhabited Sardis in the first place. She was waiting on Jimbo Mathus, the former Squirrel Nut Zipper who now runs a studio in Como, Miss., the longtime home of Mississippi Fred. The electrical system in his studio broke just before they arrived, so they ended up waiting for him to arrive with a master plan at the Sardis. When he came, that's exactly what he had.
"He steps out of his van wearing a fedora hat with a feather in it, cowboy boots and a western shirt. And you know he's got that gold tooth up front," says Swingle. Yep Roc founder Tor Hansen was along for the trip. "Tor says, 'Jimbo, so, what's the plan?' And Jimbo looked at me, kind of winked and said, 'I believe we're going to cut a record.'"
They ended up recording at the old Money Shot (now called Blackwing) studios, where many of Swingle's Fat Possum heroes like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough once recorded.
Finally, Swingle and her Mississippi past had come full circle. And she had the alligator sighting to prove it.