Snake Handlin' Man
by Kevin McCarthy
The music field, like most creative spheres, is revealing in that it offers the listener an opportunity to effortlessly travel backwards in time in order to experience the earlier musical endeavors of burgeoning artists. In doing so, one shines an unremitting spotlight on the evolution of an artist's talent. This is particularly effective when one's first and only exposure to a performer has been his latest work.
Such is the case with Dave Carter. After being mesmerized by his (and Tracy Grammer's) dazzling breakout release, When I Go,"the occasion to turn back the clock and engage his first production is time well spent. While not as consistently brilliant overall as When I Go, Carter's genesis production, Snake Handlin' Man, still rewards the listener with his mystical meanderings and elegant, enchanting lyricism.
The evidence begins on his opening cut, Cowboy Singer. Carter takes the familiar territory of an older singer providing the nod to a naive supplicant to enter the cowboy singer fraternity, raising the bar at least a few notches with his writing:
|Seventeen years she has been in this world |
wide-eyed and wistful, pretty little Mormon girl
and she don't know that I'm wicked, and she don't know I'm old
sweet Jesus forgive me but she gets in my soul...
And her voice is shinin' with the moon and the stars
Alone in my room when she leaves me again
In a fine, high country where the best songs are sung
The abstruse Red (Elegy) is Carter at his most elliptical. Containing a marvelously moving chorus that changes in its last two lines each time, it goes:
|My love is like a red, red rose, snake on her shoulder and a ring in her nose Sleepin' it off in her swaddlin' clothes--innocent as she lies And I don't know where she comes from, hangin' with dealers and slick-back scum Dreamin' of a summer that never comes, waitin' for me to die... |
Ophelia's drowned in the cold, cold flood, a thorn by any other name draws blood Deep red drops on a scarlet bud, Daddy we comin' home And we don't know where home lies now, but we'll turn up there some damn how Drawn to the barn and the busted plow and the graves all overgrown...
The last chorus is:
|...'Cause we are the children of the Joshua tree |
Longtime losers and O.G. wannabees Mama's in the corn and the field's been trampled
You can't reason with a soul in shambles.
Replicating the mixture of anger and rebelliousness of Bruce Springsteen's song of the same name, Carter takes that volatile combination out of New Jersey and plunks it down out West in The Promised Land. He sings:
|Brother and sister, mamma and pa, livin' in a trailer in Arkansas |
When you comin' home son, well, I don't know--still got a couple of wild oats to sow
I'm just doing what I do best: livin' out the legend of the Golden West
Flyin' like an eagle, walkin' like a man, chasin' my angel through the promised land
Friday evening when the sun goes down it's a five-star party in a one-bar town Dawn comes early but that's all right--we can get a headstart on Saturday night 'Cause I'm just doin' what I do best: runnin' with the devil and the dispossessed Waitin' on a mission, tryin' to make a plan, chasin' my angel through the promised land
People say, "son you gonna come to harm, better fly right, better stay down on the farm" but there ain't no farm here to stay down on, and all my reasons for stayin' are gone...
One fine morning when my ship comes in gonna pack my fortune, take it home again Stack my sorrows like stones until I have built me a mansion on a high, high hill 'Cause I'm just doin' what I do best: settin' up my table in the wilderness Swimmin' in the river, dancin' in the sand, chasin' my angel through the promised land.
Texas Underground is Carter's charmingly humorous take on his home state of Texas, albeit one with a bite towards the end. He sings:
|One Sunday morning I was sleepin' on the sofa, had me a crazy dream |
I met the devil in broad daylight just outa Abilene
But he took me down a hole where the lost souls go, looked around and what did I see
But millionaires and prickly pears--this is what he said to me:
Welcome to Texas Underground; we got a barbecue all year' round smokin' little band with a country sound, we like to have a little fun so pull up a chair, you can chew on the fat, gets a mite dry but we like it like that Dance with the lady in the Stetson hat, welcome to Texas, son..."
His next to last verse adds the punch:
|...Down come a shipment of used car salesmen smilin' like rattlesnakes |
Every politiican in the whole blame country, claimin' there was some Mistake
Lawyers and thieves and state police, gentlemen of the press cons and flunkies, slackers, junkies, agents of the I.R.S...
Gun-Metal Eyes is a touching ballad offering yet another of Carter's inimitable choruses. Depicting the life of a young American Indian, Carter sings:
|His mamma was a Cherokee princess, or so it was said |
His daddy was a Seminole rebel with a price on his head
And the other kids teased him but I never did see him to cry
Man, there was some kind of righteous in the steel of his gun-metal eyes
He grew up in the washes and the rushes and the rain and the wind
And the creatures of the forest and field were his only real friends
And the lily of the valley and the nettle of the plains taught him well
And the new moon shone on him as he wandered through the gully and the dell...
The chorus goes: "...Run with the wolf, fly like the dove, mother below, father above weep with the earth, sing to the sky in the steel of your gun-metal eyes..."
Faced with the destruction of his habitat in the name of development and progress, the young Indian takes a stand: "...and the boss man knew better, but he had an empire to raise and one lone man stood before him with a rifle and doom on his face." It's not clear what happens after that but the song closes with:
|"...Now some say he died in the fightin' and was buried that day |
Some say he raged like an angel, and he chased 'em away
But the green hills stand silent and nobody goes there no more
Just the ghosts, and the memories, and the shadows of the dark forest floor..."
The hauntingly bittersweet Sarah Turn 'Round closes out the release. A love song as only few can pen, it goes:
|Miss Sarah's a dancer, and she steps quick and light |
When she spins through my dreams like a thistle each night
And she touches my shoulder, and she smiles in my face
And she don't guess the power in her grace
She was barefoot and pigtails in the silk April dawn
I'm a coward for leavin', I'm a fool if I stay
They will tell you it's gospel, but they won't tell you why
|...Sarah turn 'round, you're a fine young goddess, it's a sweet morning in May |
Sarah turn 'round, it's my Indian summer and the last light of my day
Sarah turn 'round and I've grown older, Sarah turn 'round and I've gone gray
Then you're standin' by my grave and the sun sets down, Sarah turn 'round.
Whew, please pass the tissue.
Carter also performs a rendition here of "The River, Where She Sleeps," as he does on his latest release.
Quite simply, Carter is a remarkable talent - the evidence quite prescient even on this initial release. For those captivated by the written word, he will elevate the spirit, rewarding the listener with inventive, heartwarming and bewitching sacraments drawn from his mystical, private universe.
Carter, on vocals, guitar and banjo is backed by Dana Denton on vocals and percussion; Arlene Hale on bass and vocals; Carolyn Laster on accordian and vocals; Susan Martin on vocals; Eric Park on harmonica; and Nancy Young-Mathisen on vocals and keys.
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Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz
Kevin McCarthy has a web site of CD reviews at http://www.surfnetusa.com/celtic-folk/index.html.