In a photo on the CD jacket, flames appear to lap at an upright bass that’s autographed by Willie Dixon. It’s ex-Bottle Rocket Tom Ray’s bass, and he learned from Willie how to slap it — to keep time like a snare and kick drum, and to be heard unamplified above a juke joint’s din or the traffic in the street.
On Rick “Cookin’” Sherry’s washboard, you can see the wood through a hole the size of a bluegill (too small to eat) worn through the corrugated metal. He’s particular about the corrugation, and washboards are expensive to replace from antique shops. He blows through harmonicas on a regular basis, too — just chugging to be heard.
Paul K. (not to be confused with the Kentuckian of the same name who leads the Weathermen) says he started playing a National Steel to be heard, so that his intricate fingerpicking and hard, sweat-breaking rhythm could carry their weight.
Together, as Devil In A Woodpile, the three musicians play music meant to be heard in loud places — house-rockin’, whiskey guzzlin’, barrel laughin’, girl-squeezin’, honky-tonk dancin’ loud — but traditionally played entirely acoustic, even without pickups.
How this approach would fare on the band’s series of opening dates for Son Volt in December was the least of their worries when they sat down for an interview a few weeks before that tour began. Their touring bass section, playing the tuba, is Son Volt sound technician Gary Scheper, a man known for making the most of sound and equipment.
But what might Son Volt fans make of this music? Odds are, they may not have heard anything like it. It’s at the very core of country music and rock ‘n’ roll, though, having inspired Bob Wills, Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, among many others. The sound is seminal Delta blues, radically raw compared to that of, say, David Matthews.
Devil In A Woodpile’s self-titled Bloodshot debut covers material by somewhat lesser-known bluesmen such as Robert Brown, Fulton Allen, Hudson Whittier and John Estes. Interspersed are Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman,” and Leon MacAuliffe’s “Steel Guitar Rag” as they might have been played on New Orleans streets. A handful of originals in the same vein includes an instrumental that Ray composed on ukulele.
Sherry bounces in his chair as he plays, and as he talks about the music. “We tend toward the uptempo-y kinda stomp-your-foot-y kinda stuff…makes people want to slap their knee or something.”
Band members refer reverentially to Delta bluesman Honey Boy Edwards, 83, as their “spiritual leader.” Edwards lives in Chicago and although he’s usually played solo, Devil In A Woodpile is his backing band when he needs one. “We’re pretty faithful to the original arrangements. The thing I try to pick up from these guys is the way they phrase,” says Sherry, adding, “it’s pretty hard music to play.” It’s especially hard to be heard.