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Postmodern Village
est. 1999
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Washing Down to the Gulf: A Review of Tennyson Ernie Ford's Ulysses Jones
By Shelly Purdy-Dish

Our manners are our ways, but our ways are not always our manners. In fact, manners rather rarely factor into it. And so, Tennyson Ernie Ford's latest album, Ulysses Jones, puts us in a frame of mind that postulates how barbarous the civilized can become, especially when they are outliers to that civilization, confined to the hollers of Appalachia and to the hoots of the local hootenanny.

The first track, “Circe the Man-Catcher” describes a Jackson-dwelling woman of the voracious sort. The fat chords and low-growling delivery conjure Mae West with vagina dentata, not a two-timer but a twenty-two timer, able to string men along “like catfish on a catch line.” In Ford's rendition, adventuring men feel as if their days of wandering the waters are over, but they're still swimming and going nowhere in the powerful pull of “this ol' woman's cave.” The idea is brought along by “Iron” E. Scrubb's heartfelt backing fretwork, bending his six string through the silhouette of Circe's ample curves. It's backwoods genius at its most simple and sincere.

I highlight this track, but all 20 on Ulysses Jones are pretty durn good. Take a listen to “Telly's Lament,” in which Uly Jones' grown son cries over the fact that his father seems never ready to settle down, even after his long-awaited retirement from driving a truck for Aggie Memnon's Greek Isles line. The images of “the old man watching his hearth-fire die” while he is “dreaming of the glories of the road” in his “road whale, that diesel rig” that sits rusting on the bank of the pond are both poignant and revealing. Telly's tales show an irony: the young man who values the settled life, the old man who lives in an itinerant long-distance past. Ford wails out Telly's sadness at his father's empty tales of the long rivalry between Greek Isles and the dreaded Troy line, of heroic runs over treacherous roads, of Ak Killes and his god-like ability to wrangle a rig. Telly is a settled sort, and is better able to wrangle a living out of the hardscrabble soil of the Appalachian hills than out of an 18-wheeler, and his sadness hides more than a hint of frustration. In the final verses, of “Telly's Lament,” Ford uses the voice of Uly's son to consider the fate of his long-suffering cougar of a mother, the seamstress of every local man's dreams.

The next track picks up that theme. Voiced by the inimitable Rosanne Crash, “Penny's Lonesome Blues” speaks for all the women left behind. Her beauty draws the eyes of many a planter and roustabout, a town father or two as well, but her loyalties are deeper than the sea and longer than a stretch of prairie interstate. Crash's mature voice is perfect for the song, one part sweet and two parts troubled, hinting at both the pain and the pride at the fights that Uly and Telly endured when her husband finally returned for good. The sweet is the long-awaited resumption of their love, and Tennyson Ernie Ford's banjo was never more fiery than it is here, suggesting that middle-aged passion need not be of a middling sort. But the one part sweet recognizes the nature of a truckin' man like Uly Jones, and Penny sees her man 's “forehead, rippling to be free” and the “free heart” it hides, the heart that, ironically, made her fall in love with him to begin with.

In “Homecoming,” Ford really lets the stops out. The tune combines “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” with the hot banjo breaks of Led Zeppelin's classic “Gallows Pole” to give a climax to a story of jealousy and revenge. Uly Jones, his son, Telly, and even his dog, Arg, fend off the town pretty boy who has been after Penny pretty hard while Uly was on the road and has raised a posse to appropriate what he views as his property by default. And a pretty handy rout of it our heroes make, as well: frantic guitar and banjo, bow-shredding fiddle, and cutting back-country hoots and yips turn programmatic in the best possible way: country brawl becomes epic combat. Justice is on the side of Uly Jones and his family, and the ability of folk music to reinforce lost values is never better displayed than here: a man has a right to defend his own, “and the Sheriff turned and walked away at the sight of the broken boys.”

But the climax is not the true heart of Ulysses Jones. That spot belongs to the penultimate track, a 12-minute meditation on the restive nature of post-adventure living; the arc of the album is logical, not emotional, and we see the foreshadowing from the first track on. This song, “The Thunder and Shine,” has Uly Jones considering the beauty of watching a storm ride across the land from the sleeper cab of his rig and notes that even in old age, “there ain't no shame in a little crazy toil.” Ford's voice cracks with the sadness of a life lost, with the discomfort of a comfortable life, with how “hope sparks off the rocks of the hills“ and how ”there's always a new world / each day on the road.”

As the last track, “The Finger Pickin' of Rosie Dawn” gains speed, so does the hope of Uly Jones. Tennyson Ernie Ford makes few apologies for where this takes our hero: away from family once again, into the sea of uncertainty on the road, but into the arms of the continually new. Only a few strong plucks from Scrubb's guitar suggest Penny's tears as Uly fires up the rig and powers it out from where it has sunk halfway into the pond. In the end, it is Uly's place “not to yield,” a play on signage that makes the listener think twice about the sacrifices of our family-values oriented culture. Sometime a man's heart is not at home, and sometimes that love is finest that is most rarefied indeed.

You'll love these tracks, the tracks they leave in the air and on your heart. Each tune speaks of some long-lost tale, a set of notions close to all we do but undercover, the lines of a book few open, a strip of DNA unexpressed but reaching back to the exotic matings a million predecessors since. Its setting is a rural America that is already lost to an already mythic past, one repackaged by politicians and deluded city-folk, a rural America that, Ford seems to argue, was never really there in the way that we think. Tennyson Ernie Ford's “real” America is far more in tune with roots deep in the human yearning for adventure, for self-fulfillment in its many-splendored forms than it is in the plastic particularities of partisan politics. I'll pour out my dandelion wine any day for those who died chasing that dream.