MARK GERMINO – Midnight Carnival (Red Parlor)

Midnight CarnivalI first encountered North Carolina native Germino with the release of his impressive first two RCA albums, London Moon And Barnyard Remedies and Caught In The Act of Being Ourselves, in 86 and 87, respectively, although he’d already made a name for himself as a songwriter, co-penning ‘Lean on Jesus (Before He Leans on You)’  which was a country hit for Paul Craft in 1977, coming to prominence with ‘Rex Bob Lowenstein’, a track from that second album, about a DJ who rebelled against  station format, subsequently re-recorded for the 1990 Radartown album with his band The Sluggers and again, in acoustic form, on 1995’s Rank And File.

He disappeared then for over a decade, releasing Atomic Hand Grenade in 2006, which I confess passed me by, and has been off the radar ever since. Until now.  He’s back in fine fettle to underscore his prowess as both a singer and a storyteller, with this 14-track collection that kicks off with ‘Traveling Man (Season 1, Episode 10)’, Michael Webb on accordion for leg-slapping Texicali romp as Sonny Boy Hezikiah Cortez, a self-styled “strip of burning rubber”, recounts his journey across the states, by train, bus and a used Ducatti, working temporary jobs and temporary liaisons (“I met a pretty lady was the barroom kind/she could hold her liquor but she couldn’t hold mine”).

Keeping the rhythm moving but at a slower pace, the tumbling verses of ‘Ettress Rolls On’, with a kind of Steve Earle drawl delivery, tell of Sonny Ettress and his fiery wildcat other half Pamela Etchebarren (“a fraulein with a loose set of scruples”) who he  met relieving her marks of their wallets in a Heidleburg disco and brought home to Arizona, staying married but living in separate houses to avoid the combustibility.

Jangling guitars and Buddy Holly-like cascading chords characterise the semi-spoken unfolding of ‘Lighting Don’t Always Strike The Tallest Tree’, essentially a social commentary about how “the day we’re born we come out crying and they hand us a set of rules/Some ride on  a Cadillac fin, some on a  pack of mules” and not settling for what we’re given and be the “public servants of  some worthless falderal” when we have a voice we can use.

It returns to breezy accordion swing for ‘Peace Train (John Luther Jones)’, the name in parentheses, as I’m sure you’ll know, being “Casey” Jones, the American folk hero railroader who was killed when his passenger train collided with a stalled freight. He’s not the subject of the song, however, which pulls together two vignettes, a mean ole wife-abusing coot who got busted by the feds and emerged from prison born again and a corporate high flyer who couldn’t give a toss about the war in the Middle East until her daughter joined the corps and now rites Obama to bring her home. It also offers the wisdom that “a weak man fights when he has no choice/A good man will fix what he destroys, if he knows it ain’t coming back”, the track mentioning Raleigh and Danville, both sites of high profile Civil Rights protests.

Slowing things down to a walking beat rhythm, strummed acoustic and fiddle from Andy Leftwich, ‘Blessed Are The Ones’ which kind of reworks the Beatitudes, using references to Shakespeare, Rimbaud (“God’s own drunk”), Rembrandt and Judas to argue that being a fuck up doesn’t deny you access to grace. Following the similarly themed measured strum of being aware of ‘My Oh My’ (“Some walk with blinders on/This moon is such a beautiful sight”) of being aware of the beauty that surrounds us, Leftwich returns in fierier form for ‘Tennessee Trash Disclosure’, a playful barnyard stomp number about “a stomp down, cock sure field strip country boy…a new breed of hayseed” who lives life to the max  and “likes a woman full of gin with a bow to her fiddle and a fiddle to her chin”. But not one to be underestimated “|Or I’ll buy your farm, paint your barn and sell it back to you”. I could hear Doug Kershaw doing this.

Real life provides the inspiration for the twangy country waltzing ‘Koraleah’ as the narrator sings of a woman from a broken family, her folks “a hundred miles apart, which is where they belong so they don’t kill each other”, who takes a job in a gun factory so as to avoid poverty, detailing feelings of guilt, or anger, and blue and white collar criminals, in a wish to live in a world of Koraleahs.

What follows is another inspired story song, comparable with the best of Guy Clark who Germino channels, and my personal favourite, the fingerpicked, chiming quasi-autobiographical ‘The Greatest Song Ever Written’, sung in the voice of Nashville songwriter who can’t catch a break and a woman from the UK called Delia who pulls up a  seat next to him the bar and says she’s come there to write the song of all songs to fill those who hear it with inspiration. She never does, but she still becomes a star writer, until she cashes out “in a cloud of self-doubt” and he steals her words and story for his own song of the title – “she’ll get the credit, but I’ll get the bucks”.

A love letter to and memories of his home state “where the fiery ghosts of Stagville meets the devil’s stomping ground  on the Cherohala Skyway in a Rocket Olds V-8)”, the bouncy ‘Carolina In The Morning’ features some guest pedal steel from Poco’s Rusty Young, while memory is also at the heart of the slow walking, fiddle and piano coloured ‘Finest American Waltz’ which recalls him going to the Union Grove Music Festivals in Western North Carolina in the early 70s where a then largely still unknown Doc and Merle Watson were staple performers and of the “truly biblical lock  and load’, with “Asian opium and German hash” and splitting “the blanket in a black sedan with two chicks from Madison-Mayodan who were twin threats in the dead of night/Kama Sutra and the water pipe”.  After its reverie of this youthful vision of peace, love and dope, it ends with a social commentary swerve that speaks of climate change, poverty, and the Vietnam and American Civil War as he declares “I know freedom when it’s fake I know freedom when it’s real”.

It comes to close with, firstly, the slow waltzing ‘The Author Of My Journey’, which, with its list structure of lines opening “I’m…” stylistically harks back to ‘Blessed…’,  a confessional humbling before God as he sings “I’m doing the best I can/But I know as well as you do this is not my home/But in the shadow of your image/I’m the one who fights or peace…I’m the crown of your inventions made imperfect by your hands/And from your grand design I’ve learned in time I’m a perfect grain of sand”.

It’s followed by the chiming fingerpicked notes of the dusty Kristofferson-ish drawled ‘Muddy Spoon In A Sugar Bowl’, a wry take on the end of a relationship that burned bright and consumed itself in the process (“others have said we wrongly blew it/But I’m here to say we blew it right” with organ and gospel backing vocals. And, ending as it opens with a fiddle driven frolic, finally, comes the punningly titled ‘Until The Fat Man Swings’, basically Germino’s answer to Casey At The Bat that recounts the fictional story of Colter Wyatt, a farm boy in the baseball minor leagues who gets  called up and, in true underdog fashion, finally gets his moment of glory when another player’s injured, and, naturally, makes the winning hit, the ball clearing the fence and winding up on a coal train that takes it 800 miles. Germino knocks it out of the park too.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Author Of My Journey’:

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