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Swamp Dogg's 'Blackgrass' is one of the best country albums of the year

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jerry Williams Jr. began his career in the 1960s, writing songs and producing acts such as Patti LaBelle and Gene Pitney. In 1970, he released an explosive, wildly unique album called "Total Destruction To Your Mind" and started performing under the name Swamp Dogg. Now, more than 20 albums later, at the age of 81, he's just released a country album called "Blackgrass." The title's a pointed joke about a Black artist recording bluegrass music. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that this is the work of an artist who knows no musical boundaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESS UNDER THAT DRESS")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) Let me tell you about a lady I know - they got a rumor going round she got something so doggone good, it'd make a fish walk on the ground. It's a mess up under that dress. It's a mess up under that dress. The ones that get it really are blessed, 'cause it's a mess up under that dress.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Swamp Dogg begins his new album with "Mess Under That Dress," a bluegrass rave-up showcasing banjo, fiddle and mandolin. The album is called "Blackgrass" and carries the subtitle "From West Virginia To 125th St" - that is, from the south to the north; from the country to the city, Swamp Dogg gets around. Arriving just a couple of months after Beyonce's "Cowboy Carter" reopened some territory for Black artists reclaiming country music, so does Swamp Dogg demonstrate that in his long career in R&B, soul and funk, country is another road he's traveled.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UGLY MAN'S WIFE")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) If you want to live the high life, become a ugly man's wife. They'll let you do what you want to do. They're so glad to be around you. Most of the time, they have two jobs, plus loaning money on the side - they be loan sharks. Take my advice. I ain't going to tell you twice - if you want to live the high life, become a ugly man's wife.

TUCKER: That's "Ugly Man's Wife," a funny country ramble that's all the more amusing if you also hear it as an answer record to Jimmy Soul's 1963 No. 1 hit, "If You Wanna Be Happy," with its chorus of, "get an ugly girl to marry you." Like "Mess Under That Dress," "Ugly Man's Wife" is so lively, you might not even notice the delightfully lewd double entendres sprinkled throughout the lyrics. Swamp Dogg has always been a raucous, bawdy artist, but one who's also capable of beautiful, sincere sadness, as he demonstrates here on "Songs To Sing.".

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONGS TO SING")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) If songs to sing I have a choice, oh, in the whole world will hear my voice. I'll sing about a people that want to be free. I'll sing about a generation that'll help it to be. I'll sing about a change that's just about to come. I'll sing about equality for everyone, oh.

TUCKER: "Songs To Sing" was written decades ago, partly as a civil rights anthem, and Jerry Williams' new recording of it only underscores its ongoing relevance. Subjected to racism in the recording industry but refusing to be a victim of it, Williams took on the identity of Swamp Dogg in an attempt to shake up industry expectations of what his music ought to sound like. As he said recently, this is my way of letting people know that I'm not just a soul singer or whatever they think I am. I'm so much more. Indeed, he is.

Here's his cover of a song by Floyd Tillman, one of the great honky-tonk songwriters of all time, author of classic tunes such as "Slippin' Around" and "Drivin' Nails In My Coffin." Swamp Dogg finds a kindred spirit in Tillman's "Gotta Have My Baby Back."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOTTA HAVE MY BABY BACK")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) Baby, baby, I miss you so very much, it hurts me. It just hurts me. I got to have my baby back. Can't sleep, can't eat because I've lost my sweet baby sweet. I just got to - I just got to - I got to have my baby back. Alone in a tavern, people all around...

TUCKER: There's a lot of range on this album, including a track called "Murder Ballad," a spoken word composition about a serial killer sung in the first person with chilling conviction. "Blackgrass" features the musicianship of bluegrass stars, such as Noam Pikelny on banjo and Sierra Hull on mandolin. Singers Margo Price and Jenny Lewis each sing on a couple of songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNT THE DAYS")

JENNY LEWIS: (Singing) If you don't believe I'm leaving, just count the days I'm gone.

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) One, two, three, four...

LEWIS: (Singing) Yeah.

SWAMP DOGG: ...(Singing) Five, six, seven.

LEWIS: (Singing) If you don't believe I'm leaving, just count the days I'm gone.

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) One, two, three, four...

LEWIS: (Singing) Yeah.

SWAMP DOGG: ...(Singing) Five, six, seven.

LEWIS: (Singing) I gave you my heart. You gave me hurt. I gave you sugar. You gave me dirt. You said that I wouldn't have the nerve to leave, and if I did, I'd be the one to grieve. If you don't...

TUCKER: This album is released on Oh Boy Records, founded by John Prine, a good friend of Jerry Williams and who appeared on Swamp Dogg's 2020 album, "Sorry You Couldn't Make It." In a different world, the 81-year-old Swamp Dogg would be getting lifetime achievement awards and going viral on TikTok videos, with people dancing to catchy snippets of his music. At the very least, let's now acknowledge that he's made one of the best country albums of the year.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Swamp Dogg's new album called "Blackgrass." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with Ronan Farrow about how his reporting on the #MeToo movement led to the criminal case against Donald Trump. Farrow unearthed details of the National Inquirer's practice of paying for damaging stories about Trump and then burying those stories. That gave prosecutors a felony case against Trump. I hope you'll join us. Our cohost is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UGLY MAN'S WIFE")

SWAMP DOGG: (Singing) Take my advice. I ain't going to tell you twice. If you want to live the high life, become an ugly man's wife. Don't mess with no man who thinks he's prettier than you and don't get caught up in no man's blues. 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. Play the thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE SHIMABUKURO'S "143 KELLY'S SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.