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Album of the Week: 'Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th Street' by Swamp Dogg

A black and white album cover with a smaller box in the middle with a photo of Swamp Dogg, wearing all white, including a hat and sunglasses.
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Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th Street by Swamp Dogg is out now.

"Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th Street" by Swamp Dogg is KAXE's Album of the Week for July 1-7, 2024.

Considered a cult figure, Swamp Dogg has been making music since the 1950s.

Born Jerry Williams Jr., he has dabbled in country, soul, blues and R&B, often integrating the genres in unique and unpredictable ways. His new album Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th Street is primarily a bluegrass record, but not without surprises.

With a voice cracked with age and vulnerability, Swamp Dogg leans into reclaiming the influence and history of Black musicians in the bluegrass and country music genre. On his Bandcamp page, Swamp Dogg said, “Not a lot of people talk about the true origins of bluegrass music, but it came from Black people. The banjo, the washtub, all that stuff started with African Americans. We were playing it before it even had a name.”

On Blackgrass, Swamp Dogg worked with Minneapolis-based producer Ryan Olson, who has produced for him several times over the years. Olson is originally from Eau Claire, and a founding member of Polica and Marijuana Deathsquads. He has worked with artists like Bon Iver and Lizzo over the years.

Between his and Swamp Dogg’s varied backgrounds, the result is an album that moves between genres but remains rooted in bluegrass and bluegrass adjacent songs. That continuity is in part due to powerhouse bluegrass musicians Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull and Noam Pikelny who feature on the record. There are also guest lead vocals from Margo Price and Jenny Lewis, and an electric guitar spot by Vernon Reid (Living Colour).

The first two songs on the album are stylistically classic bluegrass with the raunch and wry humor of the blues. In "Ugly Man’s Wife," Swamp Dogg encourages women to marry an unattractive person because he will dote on you in ways you have never known. The song includes background vocals and harmonies from The Cactus Blossoms, coupled with crude lyrics like, “Don’t lose your composure, ‘cause he’s hung like a T-Bone, your man can lick his eyebrows and that’s enough to keep you home.”

Swamp Dogg gets political in "Songs to Sing," a tune he wrote more than 50 years ago. At the end of the song, there is a dedication to his late best friend, Charlie Whitehead, who originally recorded the song.

In "Count the Days," one of the highlights of the album, Swamp Dogg taps Lewis, who sings lead vocals. The song was written by his wife Yvonne Williams in the 1960s. Not as strongly cemented in bluegrass, it serves as a palate cleanser between the album's first and second half.

"Gotta Have My Baby Back" gives vintage 1940s country jazz, while "Murder Ballad" is exactly as the name states: a story-song making the tie into the classic death ballads of bluegrass.

One of the last songs on the album is "Rise Up," an upbeat classic bluegrass tune until a ripping guitar solo from Reid kicks in, which blows that whole genre out of the water for a moment.

Tune in to KAXE all week to hear more from Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th Street from Swamp Dogg.

Must listens

  • Curtains on the Window”
  • Count the Days (ft. Jenny Lewis)”
  • Gotta Have My Baby Back”
  • Rise Up (ft. Vernon Reid)” 

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The music director at KAXE since 2014, Kari (pronounced Car-ee) Hedlund reviews music on the daily. She also hosts New Music every Wednesday (2 and 10 p.m.) and Sunday (noon), along with the KAXE Morning Show on Thursdays.