native son — Mance Lipscomb
By Steve Earle
Mance Lipscomb spent most of his life in
Navasota, a town in East Texas so small that it took Arhoolie Records founder
Chris Strachwitz less than three hours to find Lipscomb once he learned
of the musician's existence. Half of the sides in this collection
were recorded that very day in 1960 and became Arhoolie's first release;
the balance were cut at another session in Strachwitz's Berkeley, California,
home six years later. The bulk of this set is comprised of heretofore
unreleased performances from both sessions, including a talking blues (Mance's
Talking Blues) and a mesmerizing monologue about a racial confrontation
in a Navasota restaurant (Segregation Done Past).
For those who weren't lucky enough to see
Lipscomb perform (he died in 1976 at age 80), hearing Mance speak is a
revelation in itself. He sang just like he talked. Not to imply
that he wasn't a great singer, but his speaking voice, warm and resonant,
was as musical as the intricate bass patterns he played on his $49 Harmony
guitar. Mance's vocals sound a little tired on some of the unreleased
tracks, which is possibly why they didn't make the cut when they were originally
recorded, but there isn't a single track here that won't amaze any guitar
player who hears them.
Make no mistake — guitar playing is the
focus of this set. As a finger-style guitarist, Mance had few peers
(Mississippi John Hurt, Merle Watson and Chet Atkins are the only names
that come to mind), and any Lipscomb recording is a case study in how to
get folks up out of their seats armed with only a single guitar.
Mance was the guy that folks called to play dances and house parties
around Navasota when they couldn't afford a band. The truth was,
if you had Mance, you didn't need a band. He made one guitar do things
that confound ordinary guitar players to this day while serving simultaneously
as his rhythm section. In a perfect world, Lipscomb's level of musicianship
would at least be aspired to by all singer-songwriters.
The reissued tracks are some of Mance's
best, and they soar. Check out Long Tall Girl Got Stuck On Me
and I Want To Do Somethin' For You, and the instrumentals Mr.
Tom's Rag and Rag In G.
The liner notes, by Strachwitz, are themselves
something of a masterpiece and include a reprint of Pete Welding's original
notes from Mance's fourth Arhoolie LP. They give the reader a feeling
of having been there. You know, the kind of notes that people who
buy historic recordings like these have come to expect from Arhoolie.
These may be the last unreleased Mance
Lipscomb sides. I hope not. I've been listening to Mance as
long as I've been playing guitar. If they are, I'll still spend the
rest of my life coming back to this record and its predecessors whenever
I want to be amazed. If you've never heard Mance Lipscomb before,
this collection is as good a place as any to start.