With Tuba Skinny, Maria Muldaur Celebrates The Joy of Discovery

Columns My Back Pages Reviews

On the small stage at Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Hall in Mandeville, Louisiana outside New New Orleans, Maria Muldaur came to celebrate. She began her show with an admonition. The name of her new album is Let’s Get Happy Together (Stony Plain Records) so that’s exactly what she asked the livestream audience to do. “So what do you say we get happy together? What do you think?”  

It didn’t take long to get an answer. Muldaur, the inveterate roots singer, was fronting the band Tuba Skinny, the eight-piece New Orleans-based band that draws on a wide array of influences from spirituals to depression era blues, ragtime and traditional jazz. The joyous sounds of an audience filtering through a livestream made you feel like you were in the room and said everything about what’s been missing during the pandemic–and was perhaps a harbinger of the live music to come in the coming weeks as the country starts to reopen. 

Playing with Tuba Skinny was as much a celebration of traditional New Orleans sounds as a ritual of research and Muldaur following a familiar path of culling and interpreting roots music from the last 100 plus years. For her new album Muldaur got production credits but might get a Grammy for the rich liner notes that bring you along in her discovery and tribute to the women of early New Orleans blues and jazz.

Two years ago on the hallowed stage of The Roman Auditorium, Muldaur stood before her peers to receive the Americana Music Association’s Trailblazer Award.  Muldaur was grateful and emotional but pointed out a finer point about the award.

“I think of myself not so much as a trailblazer as a trail follower,” she said, “a student or a disciple—even a devotee if you will—of all the amazing pioneers who originated this rich treasure trove we now call Americana music.” Later on a visit on The Buddy & Jim Show on Sirius XM Outlaw Country, she rattled off a list of roots originators that have influenced her including blues queens Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie and Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. 

“All of the people who invented this music,” she reflected, “I’m still following their trail.”

If Americana is the tent with the big welcome sign, Muldaur has the pedigree and over forty albums to prove she belongs. 

Muldaur’s origins growing up in New York City’s Greenwich Village informed her lifelong quest to interpret roots music. During the early Sixties, Muldaur would head over to the sandal shop owned by Alan Block for sing-alongs that would start when he closed the shop at 4:00.  Muldaur went to a show in her old elementary school auditorium featuring Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley. When she turned around and noticed that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie were sitting  behind her. Later, attending a party at blues scholar Alan Lomax’s apartment, she met Gaither Carlton Watson’s father-in-law. That led to a pilgrimage down South where Watson took her and her boyfriend into his home and Carlton taught her how to play fiddle. She was just a young girl trying to soak up everything she could about Appalachian music. 

The origins of Let’s Get Happy Together started in another New York town in Woodstock, NY. That’s the same town where she first met Bonnie Raitt when the blues guitarist was making her second album. Muldaur was shopping not too long ago and asked the store owner what vintage jazz was playing on the radio.  Informed it was Tuba Skinny, she went out and got their CDs before making an approach to do a record.

Muldaur’s endorsement of Tuba Skinny is apparent in the liner notes. When describing her reverence for “Delta Bound,” a song originally made by Ivy Anderson & The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Muldaur states that she’s glad she had the opportunity to play it with the right band, Tuba Skinny Let’s Get Together marks a return for Tuba Skinny which, like many bands, were sidelined during the pandemic and pulled together tracks on Bandcamp known as The Quarantine Album–Unreleased B-Sides

On the new record Muldaur has made a strong statement, selecting songs from largely female performers and songwriters of the last century. 

For example there is Lil Hardin, the wife of Louis Armstrong whose song is the title track. And then there is a nod  to her own lineage. When Muldaur was an aspiring singer, she met Victoria Speavy whom she claimed discovered her and  took her under her wing, and mentored the young singer. She used to play old scratchy ‘78s trying to find songs that would be suitable for her voice.  On the new record. Muldaur chose the closing track “Road of Stone ” by her sister Sweet Pea Spivey, first performed in the 1920’s.

Muldaur also introduces us to ” I Go For That” by New Orleans native Dorothy LaMour and “Big City Blues” by radio star (and later Hollywood star) Annette Henshaw. If Muldaur seemed surprised through her research, it was a satisfying quest. Of native Dorothy Lamour whose “I Go For That” she covers, she writes how delighted she was by the discovery.

For “Swing You Sinners,” she introduces us to Valaida Snow who was known as “Little Louis” and “Queen of The Trumpet.” In the liner notes Muldaur reveals Snow was referred to by Louis Armstrong as the “second best trumpet player in the world.”

“How could I have studied this music for so long and never heard of her?” Muldaur asks in a revelatory note accompanying “Swing You Sinners.” 

Muldaur is clearly reinvigorated by Tuba Skinny. The singer, who once harmonized with Hoagey Carmichael, fits like a glove and is now like one of the band, giving coronet player Shaye Cohn that she is no longer the only woman onstage. Another indication of Muldaur’s enthusiasm discovering Tuba Skinny is the number of exclamation points she uses in her prose, dashing them off like a millennial.

“That’s the beauty of our rich musical legacy,” Muldaur concludes of the discoveries of her research, perhaps unlocking the secret to the fountain of youth. “The more you delve into it the more there is to discover and enjoy!”

 

Remembering Tom Stevens: Sid Griffin, the front man for The Long Ryders and renown musical archivist who wrote a track by track book of Bob Dylan’s complete Basement Tapes, is the occasional podcast host he dubs Calling All Coal Porters, named after a now defunct side project. But where Griffin drops in a few times a year to spin tunes with a random theme, his latest episode is on he’d never thought he’d be doing. Earlier this year, the band’s longtime bassist Tom Stevens and archivist died in his sleep while at home. On the heartfelt Episode 31, A Tribute To Tom Stevens.  Griffin and friends bear the heavy emotional weight of saying goodbye to a friend of more than thirty years.

Drummer Greg Sowders, Stevens’ partner “down in the engine room,” remembers his old friend knowing: “I won’t be able to look to that side of the stage without thinking of him.” Griffin takes us through Stevens’ solo albums which are revelatory for how much they show how Stevens influenced the Long Ryders sound. “He had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what every song needed,” says daughter Sarah who played violin on his song “Home,” written in tribute to his home town of Elkhart, Indiana. In the weeks following Stevens’ death, Griffin reveals having several dreams. “Tom, I don’t know how we’re going to carry on,” he describes of one where Stevens is a few feet away. “It’ll be fine,” his forever friend shoots back. “It was really a Tom Stevens thing to say,” Griffin shares. “Whenever there was a problem in The Long Ryders, he was a calming influence to say the least.” (Listen here.)

 

Leave a Reply!