Rarely a week goes by when I’m not asked the question, “are you related to, or do you know, (insert first name here) Ledbetter?” The name pure and simply is an odd tag that not only has seemingly endless arrays of humorous variations, but is a name commonly picked when spinning a yarn, writing a song, a joke, or making films about the American experience and an odd-ball character, who is often on the other side of the law, is needed to shake things up. If you need a Country Store that doubles as a Juke Joint and home base for all the moonshine runners, call it Ledbetter’s Store like Robert Mitchum did in his classic 1958 film, Thunder Road. Ledbetter’s daughter, Roxanna Ledbetter, played by Sandra Knight, adds to the romantic subplot with her crush on Mitchum’s character, the whiskey-running macho man, Lucas Doolin, who is already having an affair with a nightclub singer.
When Hollywood needed a feisty, shotgun-toting woman on the hunt for the people who stole her dogs enter Tracy Ledbetter who comes into your living room off of the Ponderosa Ranch in the wildly popular 60s TV series, Bonanza. It’s just one of those names! In typical Hollywood fashion of the times, Tracy is glamorized as a lovable but honest nimwit intent on seeing justice prevail, even if she has to use her ever-present double-barrel shotgun. You may question Tracy’s style and she is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but her motives are good. In the end Tracy falls for the other lovable Rube, the Cartright’s cousin, Muley Jones, who purchased the hounds from Tracy’s Pa, Abner Ledbetter so Tracy could get back to her real job, taking care of him instead of spending all of her time with her prized hounds. Not the kind of folks the good Cartright family is used to hanging out with, but they sure keep things interesting. Ya’ll just be on your way now.
Seeing how I have a personal relationship with the name and have spent a huge part of my life fielding questions about someone named Ledbetter, I started taking mental notes of all the references to this name that grace, for lack of a better term, American Popular Culture. In a strictly Southern sense, the name Ledbetter is as common in tall tales and Southern Gothic as are grits and ham hocks. Spending another huge portion of my early years hearing people call me one of the endless variations on the name intended to signify the speaker’s inherent sense of humor while making everyone aware that there is one of Them Ledbetters present, I’ve learned to react quickly and understand that the real message is, better keep an eye on that one. If you inquire about a Ledbetter or use one of the seemingly humorous nick names, be prepared for some cynical retorts, that you will more than likely take for the truth rather than the twisted humor I’ve learned to embrace. Some of the most common monikers include, Ledbutt, Ledhead, Ledass, and my all-time favorite, Bedwetter. Just what you want at your party is someone who still wets the bed, but he shore is funny, yeah buddy, he’s a hoot!
Back in the 80s when I served in the Coast Guard, my buddies loved to cut out the Barney Google and Snuffy Smith comics that featured the shady, yet entertaining Ledbetters. Besides being card sharks, these Ledbetters had a huge clan of kids that kept everyone entertained by their sheer numbers!
Perhaps the most famous of all the Ledbetters are the ones from Mississippi that famed Southern Comic, Jerry Clower immortalized in his standup routines. Marcel Ledbetter and his McCollough chainsaw were well known around the beer joints and had a large family including his parents, Uncle Versie and Aunt Pat and siblings Ardel, Burnel, Raynel, W.L., Lanel, Odel, Newgene, Claude, and Clovis. Always be forewarned before a Ledbetter cranks up a chain saw or loads his shotgun, because you might want to move on to another place for a while.
My Ledbetter story begins in 1884 with the birth of my Great Granddaddy, Oscar Lee Ledbetter. Oscar raised six kids (two more died young) in the years leading up to one of the darkest periods of the great depression where common folks like him drove from town-to-town with the family and all of their belongings on a truck looking for work in the fields and orchards. Stay tuned for Part two and follow Oscar as he leads his band of Ledbetters out of the dark times into relative prosperity selling coon skins and dragging a net in the river to keep his family fed.
Mark Lanter of Black Jacket Symphony (BJS) fame launched a new production earlier this year called, the Maverick Lounge Series (MLS) where he recruits musicians to reproduce the music of famous artists who dedicated themselves to making quality music and maintaining an unprecedented level of originality and integrity into their craft. These were songwriters and composers who’s timeless songs define the sound of their generation and are staples in the era when radio still set the standard for good music and most everyone bought music on a regular basis. The Maverick artists they reproduce in these shows all have the common thread of simultaneously representing the outside, cutting edge of song craft while reshaping it into music that was wildly popular and sold millions of records. For the Steely Dan live rockumentary, Lanter’s long-time BJS partner, J. Willoughby reads a historical narrative with a slideshow of the artists before and during breaks in the performance, explaining the unique history of their evolution as recording artists and the albums they released. I had the fortune of seeing the BJS perform the Jimi Hendrix timeless Are You Experienced at Workplay and a few years later, I witnessed them blow my mind doing the Beatles White Album at the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, so I knew this show would be good. With Crosby Stills & Nash and Eric Clapton performances under their belt, Lanter and the MLS took on Steely Dan to a sold out Crowd at Birmingham’s favorite music room, Workplay.
In contemporary terminology, the band that showed up to play Steely Dan exemplifies all levels of badassery and they deliver this music flawlessly in an unrivaled fashion. These artists are the cream of the crop and they all bring lifetimes of performing and studying music to the stage. Not surprisingly, many of them are music teachers, including, drummer/vocalist/bandleader Lanter, guitarist, Tom Wolfe, saxophonist, Jon Noffsinger, and bassist, Chris Kozak, all of who teach Jazz Studies at The University of Alabama. Allen Barlow, founder of Homewood School of Music has been a guitar teacher for 25 years, and Will Cash teaches guitar at Bailey Brothers. Lanter and Kozak are like a well-oiled rhythm machine greased by soulful technique and world-class chops, pushing the band for all they have. Barlow, Cash, and Wolfe burn with amazing skill and dexterity to play the eccentric signature guitar parts that Becker and Fagan where able to capture in the studio with some of the world’s greatest guitarists like, Jeff Skunk Baxter, Denny Dias, Elliot Randall, and Larry Carlton. Wiley’s keyboard skills were equally impressive as he plays the melodies and solos of these magical songs with a master’s touch. Along with a superb horn section featuring, Rob Alley, Daniel Western, and Jon Noffsinger, Wiley’s wife, Jeni Simmons Wiley, Alice Bargeron, and Lanter provide background and harmony, vocals. As Lanter pointed out, the lead vocals of Tony Lucca made it all possible, as he channeled Fagen’s instantly recognizable voice with eerie precision. The multi-talented Lucca held his own playing keys and guitar on a few songs as well.
Although the rockumentary is a bit different format for a live performance, this show is all about the music and the commentary is brief. After a history of how Becker and Fagan met, formed the band, and recorded the first album, the platinum-selling Can’t Buy A Thrill, the MLS took the stage with their A game and fired off “Reeling in the Years,” a song that immediately electrified the sold-out room. The intensity progressed as the band and Willoughby led us through some of their best known songs from all of the famous studio albums, as well as some of the lesser-known gems like, “Fire in the Hole,” “Green Earrings, and “The Fez.” Most of the crowd was on their feet singing along and dancing. All of the players on stage who did not have a microphone were also singing along to melodies and lyrics so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that they might as well be part of our DNA. Add impeccable acoustics and sound in Birmingham’s legendary Workplay Theater, and it’s homegrown, laid back vibe from Tom Williams and his top-notch crew, his wife, Courtney Allison Williams, and their dog Cheetos and it doesn’t get any better.
Bunko Squad made a rare appearance last month at a haunt known for clandestine affairs held under the guise of pizza, pool tables, and beer. The Crestwood Tavern has long been an after-hours hangout for spies and other mysterious characters in our community and a place where they can mingle with all the civilians, get new intel, and knock down a burger and a few beers before heading off to Moscow or Bejing on their next mission. Taking cues from the Men in Black, Bunko Squad keeps everything covert and people guessing with their impeccable sense of fashion and their own brand of music that defies category,
These guys don’t mess around taking the crowd right into a 50s-era, Hollywood Noir film with a rendition of Henry Mancini’s, A Shot in the Dark, the title song from the 1964 movie featuring Peter Sellers in his second appearance as the famed bungling French inspector, Jacques Clouseau. The timeless surf guitar-riffs from Mark Kimbrell and Jerry Chapman wrapped around the infectious groove laid down by Birmingham’s hardest-working rhythm section, Lief Bondarenko and Eric Onimus draws you into this mysterious experience. By the time they finish the first song, you’re in!
Not waisting time with formalities or tidy vocals, the band moves harmoniously into Bebop on their journey through sonic territory that maintains a heavy jazz, rock, fusion interplay between Chapman and Kimbrell while Bondarenko’s drums and Onimus’ bass create a subtle, yet powerful force of nature for the guitars to fly on. No matter what tag you wish to put on this amazing sound, they keep the crowd smiling and grooving to their music non stop. Kimbrell sets off on a tonal journey to Bill Frisell territory and beyond with his flawless and unique interpretation of Frisell’s Strange Meeting that explores his vast musical landscape and guitar prowess. Kimbrell is a serious musician’s musician, a one-of-a kind player who stretches the boundaries in this musical environment. Champan is also a unique and gifted guitarist with a nice contrasting tone that is more subdued and tame than Kimbrell’s and keeps everything flowing gracefully. After interesting takes on some jazz standards, including Summertime, Chapman introduces a medley that only these guys could pull off called, I Shot The Real Jungle Immigrant For Ya, a joyous instrumental romp through Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, Kool and the Gang’s, Jungle Boogie, and Johnny Guitar Watson’s 70s funk masterpiece Real Mother For Ya, before winding up in Jamaica via Mars with some more spaced-out guitar gymnastics on Bob Marley’s, I Shot the Sheriff.
One thing you notice immediately about these guys is they are having fun! The next no-brainer is that they are all amazing musicians; a unique gathering of some of the finest talent in the world, and certainly the cream of the crop of the fledgling Birmingham music community. It would be interesting to tally the collective number of gigs these pros have played over the years, and the collective number of great bands they have played in to see the many styles and genres they have all perfected. This is the second time I’ve seen this band, the first being when they blew the roof off of Mathews Bar and Grill at Secret Stages in August. I can’t wait to see them again and would love to see an album from my new favorite Birmingham band.