Saw Mill Man
he Cast King story sounds like the story of a Fat Possum artist if you substitute country music for blues. Field recorder Matt Downer stumbled around Sand Mountain, Alabama, in the late '90s, heard about this old picker who once recorded for Sun Records before disappearing into the hills, and set off on an Odyssean journey to meet up with him. The twist: rather than standing back with his recording equipment, Downer joined in, playing with King for two years, and even having King help with the technical side of recording. While we might question the effects of Downer's participation on Saw Mill Man, he stays unnoticeable on the background, serving only as an impetus, it seems, to get King playing, and once he's playing, it's as if Downer had turned his patched-together recorders to the past.
King doesn't sound like a descendent of a tradition, because he hasn't changed his style since he was in the middle of the tradition, taking a Johnny Cash-like approach to stamping a personality on spare folk and country songs. That personality comes exposed, but revealed along the accepted codes: alcohol feels good but wreaks havoc, women break your heart, and the working man's life is hard. The risk with this release is that it will fall only in the archival category, worthwhile for folk scholars to dig out 50 years from now; and if that's the case, it serves only as an anomaly, reflecting not the period of time in which it was recorded, but the period in which it should have been recorded.
The reward is in the performances. The music might be straightforward, maybe even regressive, but it's affecting. King delivers his tunes not with authenticity, which can only be culturally determined, but with honesty, which starts, to the Romantic, within the self (and, to the contemporary Romantic, can be faked—as long as it sounds real, it is real). When King sings, "I can pitch a cheap drunk any ol' time," he does so convincingly, not arguing that he's spent much of the last 50 years unremembering, but that the song's narrator has. An album like this one needs to create and sustain its world in order to be successful. No amount of liner notes or backstory can do that, but a skillful performance can, and even having spent the largest chunk of his nearly 80 years out of sight, King understands how to speak truth, regardless of fact.
On the other hand, the dusty Appalachia of King's music needs more than cheap liquor and loose women—it needs to be mythologized (of course, what truth is there without myth?). King closes his album with the big myth songs. "Under the Snow" tells the tale of a murder waiting to be discovered as soon as the melting snow reveals his victim's body. King blurs the line between what he's seeing and what he's foreseeing as his killer plans a troubling escape from the electric chair.
"Outlaw" nods to Willie Nelson's Red Headed Stranger, but with a black-haired outlaw. Unfortunately the song—the album's longest—drags and offers nothing except a Western retread. Rather than nailing the disc's summation, it merely fills out the disc to full-length status. After almost 30 minutes of quality old-fashioned country, it's a shame King can't hold on to one more track. His shift into spoken narrative marks a change of pace, but doesn't salvage the slowly-rolling epic.
Even so, King's debut does its job. It might be half a century late, but for everyone who got into Johnny Cash only when he covered Nine Inch Nails, it's coming at just the right time for a retrospective of the Sun Records period, and it'll feel more authentic than Walk the Line.