Tarheel Boogie? That sounds like a provocative title. Let’s see, Tar Heel music legends…Doc Watson…John Coltrane…Nappy Brown…Kay Kaiser…Earl Scruggs…James Taylor…the list could go on. But there seem to be no antecedents for Jimmy Nations in that list.
Wait — there is one more: Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith, who made his home and career in Charlotte. In the ’40s and ’50s Smith formed two groups — a Dixieland act called The Crackerjacks and the gospel-based Crossroads Quartet — that were both mainstays on WBT in Charlotte. Their fame spread up and down the East Coast on the clear, 100,000-watt nighttime signal. The televised Arthur Smith Show, sponsored by Bunker Hill Beef Stew, was a regionally-syndicated hodge-podge of musical tastes, ranging from country to bluegrass to pop. Smith is best remembered for his song “Feudin’ Banjos”, which was retitled “Duelin’ Banjos” for the film Deliverance. But decades earlier the former textile worker sold nearly three million copies of his “Guitar Boogie,” a spirited romp anticipating the eruption of rock ‘n’ roll.
A handsome North Carolinian transplanted to NYC, Jimmy Nations performs his engaging music in a similar vein to Arthur Smith. His style is a seamless blend of rockabilly, swing, Bakersfield, and big band that has won over an enthusiastic following in the Big Apple. Flawlessly executed, Tarheel Boogie takes its place alongside Hot Club of Cowtown’s Dev’lish Mary as the tastiest slice of Americana served this year.
As a guitarist Nations is every bit Brian Setzer’s equal. He plays with tasteful restraint on most of the tracks on this album, content to engage in mellow interplay with Skip Krevens’ steel guitar. Occasionally, though, Nations cuts loose with a surprising flurry, almost ascending to the right hand of hollow-body heaven (a place presently occupied by Cowtown’s Whit Smith, the master of tonal ecstasy). Vocally, Nations falls somewhere between Setzer and Stonewall Jackson, though infinitely more pleasing to the ear than the latter.
Kudos are due to producer Byron McCay who painstakingly fits every nuance into Tarheel Boogie (recorded down-home in Raleigh) with taunt consistency. For example, on “I’ll Never Feel That Way Again,” Krevens swaps his steel for a brown-dirt Dobro while Ken Fradley adds convincing mariachi-style trumpets — just ask the Mexican-Americans who heard the song blaring from my speakers at a stoplight recently. Listeners can prepare to jitterbug to the instrumental “Hayride to Hong Kong”, the pearl of this album with its Krupa-inspired beat and jazzy texture. And surely Porter Wagoner will wipe the tears from his eyes when he hears Nation’s version of “Wishful Thinking,” adorned by Kim McPhatter’s ghostly background vocal and Bob Mastro’s bluesy fiddle.
The Jimmy Nations Combo rolls through this record without a hint of a stumble. Now, if only Nations could find a 100,000 watt radio station, or start his own TV show sponsored by some food product. In the meantime, ah…isn’t the post-rock era wonderful?