Buttermilk and Rifles – Kev Russel’s Junker
Sugar Hill Records 1069
If you travel south from San Antonio on the I-35, you will eventually reach
the United States/Mexico border towns Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. As might be
expected, where two disparate cultures collide, a state of kinesthesia
arises. The traveler is offered a small respite from the confinement of the
car in a vaguely familiar environment. For the undemanding, Neuvo Laredo has
become a dominion for dreary youth.
As infamous as the border towns became, for bordellos and an overall surfeit
existence, they presented prodigious musical inspiration for Doug Sahm.
Driving through Texas one could hear, live from Ciudad Acuna, the notorious
Wolfman Jack howling. "Let the music get yer soul and mind; unwind baby!" as
he would growl before spinning blues and other "despised" musical genres.
Given the lack of broadcast restrictions in Mexico, most stations regularly
created aura borealis effects with their signals' strength, often reaching
New York, Russia and Japan; thus garnering instant fame for oft-neglected
The stations' power drew numerous performers to the Mexican border. Woody
Guthrie habitually ventured to Tijuana for the broadcast opportunities.
Others did too, desiring to sell everything from snake oil to bibles. Rumors
abound about Gabriel Garcia Lorca's attempts to disseminate communism
through such a method, with "Workers of the World Unite" travelling through
the stratosphere. Combine these insurgent radio stations with the already
primeval genres (such as ranchero and norteno) and one can
comprehend the musical surplus undulating between one imaginary political
With the Sir Douglas Quintet, Doug Sahm performed flacid versions of Mexican
inspired tracks ("Mendicino" or, of course, "Nuevo Laredo"); soul ("Wasted
Days and Wasted Nights"); blues ("At the Crossroads"); and country ("Texas
Me"). Lyrically, the borderlands offered an obscure, almost comical
existence which was unequivocally stirred up in Sahm's literary
constructions. Sahm's songs are marked by obtuse, almost postmodern
contemplation on rather banal human sentiments. Yet in the end, even the
strange metaphors still embodied his sorrow. A track such as "Give Back the
Key to My Heart" discussed the fissure of a relationship due to various
chemical excesses, all via the symbol of a heart as a palpable object, much
like a door. Weeping throughout, the listener sympathizes with the lead
voice, despite the lyrics' vague qualities.
All of Sahm's concepts – of sprawling desert, an empty bottle of JD at the
border, and sarcastic, briocollage lyricism – has been bequeathed to Kevin
Russell for use on Buttermilk and Rifles. Whether performing New
Orleans shuffles, as on "Virgin of the Cobra," or full blown Buck Owens
honky tonk on "Buttermilk and Tears," Russell has patently studied Mr.
Sahm's multifarious heritage.
However, Russell should not be considered merely a burlesque of Sahm, as he
often aims for some paradigmatic shifts. Songs like "I'm a Robot," – with a
Kurt Vonnegut-like feel -reveal Russell's individuality within the Texas
idiom. Where Sahm would proclaim on love through strange anthropomorphisms,
Russell appreciates the lyricism of the Flaming Lips and American Analog Set
with conspicuously inane lyrics which bequeath aphorisms through absurdity.
At times, the cathartic qualities of Russell's honky tonk or Cajun
compositions are mired in the humor. However, given Texas's propensity for
existing in a dichotomy, maybe Russell has simply taken a more oblique means
for reaching Sahm's musical fusion.
A portent of this occurs in Russell's album title: Buttermilk and
Rifles. Both entities have entirely disparate denotations and public
opinions; one benign, the other a lightning rod for activism. However, when
buttermilk sours, and a rifle sits rusted in a field, the fissure becomes
apparently miniscule. Eventually, Russell's success relies on the creation
of inscrutable interstices for the listener in achieving his postmodern
Americana. As Russell recapitulates, he might just be a "robot [that] sang
about how Jesus was gone so long / and all the other robots loved that
song." Damn straight.