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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006 06:33 am

The King of country

He could have been as big as Johnny Cash

art2731
Cast King Saw Mill Man (Locust Media)

Cast King
Saw Mill Man
(Locust Media)

If fate had dealt Cast King another hand, he might be as famous as the late Johnny Cash. Like his more celebrated contemporary, King toured extensively in the late ’40s and early ’50s and even cut some tracks with Sam Phillips at the legendary Sun Studios. But when his backing band, the Country Drifters, broke up, King relinquished his dreams of stardom and confined himself to an audience of family members and friends in his native Old Sand Mountain, Ala. He continued to write songs, however — according to his press kit, he’s accumulated about 500 in the past 65 years — and now, thanks to the help of guitarist and field-recording enthusiast Matt Downer, he has finally released his debut album, Saw Mill Man.
King will turn 80 next month, and you can hear his age in every phlegmy syllable and quaint locution. His shaky baritone has the spit-soaked sibilance that bespeaks several missing teeth, but it’s surprisingly resonant, with the gritty plangency of Hank Williams and the grave-ready gravitas of Cash in his later, Rick Rubin-produced years. Downer, using a four-track cassette deck and a minidisc player, recorded the album’s dozen tracks in a tin-roofed shack near King’s house and wisely kept the production frills to a minimum. A few basic electric-guitar licks and, on one song, a simple drum pattern are all that accompanies King’s vocals and acoustic guitar. The austere arrangements put the spotlight where it belongs: on his ruthlessly bleak country-folk compositions. The songs traffic in the usual topics — inconstant women, booze, drudgery, hardship, and death — and many of the melodies will sound suspiciously familiar to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the country-music canon, but such quibbles are misplaced. Where country is concerned, authenticity trumps originality every time. When King laments the hard-luck life of the laborer (“Saw Mill Man”) or the various privations of the committed drunk (“Wino” and “Numb”), he sounds like a man who speaks from experience. This quality of grim endurance imbues every track, culminating in the murder ballad “Under the Snow”: “They’ll put the hood on me, they’ll cut off my hair/They’ll execute me and give me the chair.”

Paula Frazer
Leave the Sad Things Behind
(Birdman)

On Leave the Sad Things Behind, her third solo release, Paula Frazer proves herself one of the finest singer/songwriters in the nebulous alt-country genre; whether anyone will notice, however, remains to be seen. Although the former Tarnation frontwoman has been recording under her own name since 2001, she doesn’t get a fraction of the press that’s lavished on many of her less-gifted peers. It’s too bad, because Frazer not only has a magnificent voice, with the delicate resilience of a young Emmylou Harris and the throaty soulfulness of Patsy Cline, but she also displays a real knack for combining her influences in extraordinary ways. Piano and pedal-steel turn the midtempo ballad “Always on My Mind” into a fitting showcase for her backwoods yodel, whereas “Watercolor Lines,” with its south-of-the-border pizzicato guitar and high-drama strings, pays homage to Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-Western soundtracks. Sassy horns, radiant harmonies, and reverb-kissed guitars make “No Other” seem like a long-lost collaboration between Love and the Mamas and the Papas, and the throwback organ hook and background ba-da-bas of “Funny Things” impart a similar ’60s-rock spirit. Fortunately, though, Frazer knows better than to leave the sad things entirely behind, as the title track paradoxically demonstrates. When Frazer sings, “You’ve been hurt, you said all that before/The crying’s all over now,” the ache in her voice belies the severity of her words.
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