More than a Roots Man

StagedThe fantastic talents of Bobby Horton.

By Phillip Ratliff 


Roots music enthusiasts and film buffs alike know Bobby Horton for his work with documentarian Ken Burns. My first venture with Horton was a bit more abstract. Some four years ago, I’d established contact with the Arnett family of Atlanta and they agreed to lend me several pieces from their extensive folk art collection. Wouldn’t it be fun to ask Horton to assemble a concert of music inspired by selections from the Arnett collection? It was just the sort of high concept I found myself drawn to during that period of my life. Horton, I would soon discover, is also drawn to my brand of high-flown topic.

The artists in question, like Horton, were drawn from the ranks of Alabama’s major leagues. Jimmie Lee Sudduth contributed a mud-daubed primitivist portrait of Grand Ole Opry legend Minnie Pearl. Bessemer’s own Thornton Dial contributed a wall-size assemblage, Strange Fruit. Dial’s sons were represented in the exhibit, too, Richard by a floor-standing sculpture of Chuck Berry and Thornton Jr. by a lovely depiction of Ray Charles.

The musical theme in those paintings was by design. Horton’s tribute to the painters was, more precisely, directed toward the artists’ subjects. Musical content was boundless and Horton, more known for bluegrass and historic tunes from the 19th and early 20th centuries, boundary-less. Horton’s performance of Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” was surely a revelation to most in the audience.

For our second project together, Horton drew on his musicological gifts. Wouldn’t it be cool to figure out what happened to the blues in Alabama after musicians migrated from Black Belt farms to Birmingham? We had to dig; the early blues recording industry didn’t give Alabama the attention it directed to the Mississippi Delta. But there were solid secondary sources, thanks to fieldwork by the Alabama State Council on the Arts and others. Piggybacking off their work, we assembled a concert of music by guitarist Big Daddy Stovepipe, blues woman Lucille Bogan, and Florence, Alabama, legend W.C. Handy. Arguably the biggest crowd pleaser was a winsome little ditty about a hungry Black Belt traveler, “I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop.”

Six months ago, Horton and I had another great idea. Isn’t it time to look at sacred music in Alabama the same way we’d looked at the blues? We wanted to trace its development as it moved from the Alabama countryside into the heart of Birmingham. It was here that black gospel quartet performance transformed sacred music into a new genre, a virtuosic, harmonically adventurous sort of showcase of ability more suited to the stage than the church.

How would Horton interpret this music instrumentally? We decided that in some cases, he wouldn’t. Instead, we’d have to go to another source, the Birmingham Sunlights. I discovered the Sunlights while covering City Stages several years ago. Bobby had shared the stage with them as Alabama State Council on the Arts-sponsored cultural ambassadors. Bobby and the Sunlights (my makeshift name for the collaboration) toured Italy a few years back, performing next to one another, but not together.

This concert, to be mounted at Vulcan Park and Museum, we decided, must change that. Over lunch at Sweet Tea, Horton, along with James and Barry Taylor from the Birmingham Sunlights, cooked up another program.

In a concert, a good one, there is a moment toward which everything else points. It’s not always at the end of a concert, nor is it necessarily the loudest, or the fastest, or even the most memorable moment in the program. It is, however, the concert’s fruitful moment, when talent, strategy, arrangement, and song choice coalesce.

To my ear, that fruitful moment came during a song titled “Angels Meet Me at the Crossroads.” I’d never before heard this Google-defying song. Vocally, the Sunlights were a powerful force. (Sunlights sound engineer Dan Gainey stresses that they are a rock band, impelled by the thumping bass line supplied by Barry Taylor, a.k.a. “Papa Pump.”) Horton’s banjo work was, for the performance, one of those elements that send reviewers to the thesaurus in search of non-hackneyed adjectives. I’ll go with one critics haul out when they’re feeling particularly giddy: transcendent. Bobby and the Sunlights created something new and genre-defying. Discontinuity of this sort is the mark of originality, of genius, of prophecy even. As a title, “Angels Meet Me at the Crossroads” was just about right.

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