A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I went to Hill Country in Penn Quarter. Our purpose wasn’t so much to eat dinner, although we did — delicious moist brisket, juicy Kreuz Market sausage, too many sides to name and a couple of desserts — but to hear, again, a teenaged fiddle-playing phenom by the name of Ruby Jane .
We had first encountered Ruby Jane a year or so ago at Madam’s Organ. She performed with an Austin-based writers’ band called Who Do, which includes John Burnett, an NPR reporter who plays harmonica, and Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker writer on keyboards. We saw her again at Hill Country’s opening last spring when she sat in with former CBS anchor Bob Schieffer’s band, Honky Tonk Confidential. (Yes, Schieffer is from Texas. Yes, all Texans play music.)
The first time out, Jane simply astounded. She stole the show with her fiery chops, made all the more amazing by her tender age of 15. The second occasion, she was more restrained, kept on a short leash while Honky Tonk Confidential (complete with a Miss Texas backup singer) ran through its sorta-serious but mostly-jokey routine.
This time, now all of 16 years old, she was on her own. Her band. Her night. And she did not disappoint. The Dallas-born, Mississippi-bred Austinite’s alternately sweet and scorching turns on everything from one of Townes Van Zandt ’s country poems to Herbie Hancock’s uber-funky “Chameleon” (pause for a second and think about that: a young Southern female fiddle player working out “Chameleon”!?) revealed a woman-child who knows no boundaries. Oh, yeah, she also performed originals.
The night reminded me of the inextricable link between barbecue and music. In the early- and mid-20th century, juke joints and house parties throughout the segregated South were places where the demarcated color line blurred. Adventurous whites joined blacks to eat smoked meats and listen to feverishly hot jazz and blues.
An excellent collection of songs from that era are represented on the recently released, “Barbecue Any Old Time: Blues from the Pit – 1927-1942.” Several of the 24 songs use the term “barbecue” as a code word for “sex,” revealing the sensual nature of a primal food eaten with one’s hands and a music that tells it like it is.
The song titles alone clue you in: “Pepper Sauce Mama,” for example, includes the lyric, “Pepper Sauce Mama, you make my meat red hot.” Also: “I Crave My Pig Meat” and Who Did You Give My Barbecue To?” Other songs, though, are just about a love of the slow-smoked meat.
“[T]hese are boating songs, similar in a way to modern hip-hop music,” the liner notes explain. “Barbecue was a part of an urban lifestyle, not unlike the flashy luxury goods flaunted by today’s rappers. On these old records, barbecue stands in for all that is good: money in your pocket, someone eager for your sexual charms. Oh, and lots of fine food whenever you want it.”
The legendary guitarist Les Paul makes his first recorded appearance on Georgia White’s “Pigmeat Blues.” The legendary Memphis Minnie sings and plays guitar on “Pig Meat on the Line.” But most of the songs are by obscure artists whose names, while not known to even avid music fans, stand as a testament to a remarkable, fervid time in American history.
The compilation is put out by Old Hat Records, which was established in 1997 to reissue vintage American music. Past anthologies include medicine-show music and African-American fiddle tunes. Longtime music writer and roots-music aficionado John Morthland pronounces the barbecue collection “exquisitely packaged” and “a romping good time.”
One of the things you hear in “Any Old Time” is the steady reinvention of popular music, from various blues stylings to jazz and combinations of both. That same experimentation is what you hear when you settle in behind a plate of barbecue and listen to Ruby Jane. She embodies a spirit that has long lived in Barbecue Country and that is amply rewarded by fans of vintage American music on “Barbecue Any Old Time.”