The portraits featured in My Roots Are Showing at Lexington Avenue’s dirt & Sky People Gallery are as varied as the people who rendered them.
Sure, all the paintings depict classic country and blues icons — Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Rev. Gary Davis, George Jones and Junior Wells among them — and most of the painters are, themselves, musicians.
But from Suzie Millions’ dead-on depiction of country queen Bobbie Gentry to Brian Haynes’ “King George” interpretation of one of the hell-raising George Jones’ album covers, the artists’ individual personalities shine through just fine.
They also obviously had fun with this project.
Not to mention that Millions, Haynes (co-owner of Almost Blue, and brother to Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes), Lance Wille, Tyler Ramsey and Jason Krekel (the latter two musicians are apprentices of sorts to Millions and Wille, and this is their first art exhibit) got the rare chance to immortalize their favorite musicians.
Wille, Ramsey and Krekel’s works are fruits of Asheville’s only hand-cranked letterpress, a painstaking method popularized in recent years by Knoxville’s Yee-Haw Productions. It involves carved wooden blocks, tweezers, heavy ink and a long drying time.
Xpress caught up with the artists (with the exception of Wille, who declined to talk) to get their opinions on all things rootsy.
• Mountain Xpress: “Where did you grow up, and how has that contributed to your affinity for roots music?”
Suzie Millions: “I grew up in southwestern Michigan. Lots of transplanted Appalachians there, with seasonal fieldwork in the fruit orchards. Lots of country-music fans, including my mother’s parents. I remember watching the WLS barn dance [Chicago's version of the Grand Ole Opry] on my grandma and grandpa’s huge, black-and-white console-TV/stereo/radio, with a big bunch of plastic roses and a bobble-head Detroit Tiger and Chicago Cub on top. Dolly Parton did a commercial on the Porter Wagoner show where she pulled a clean bath towel out of a Duz Detergent box. I remember thinking that must have been what she had stuffed down her shirt.”
Brian Haynes: “I grew up in Asheville. My dad listened to country. I didn’t hear blues until I was a teenager.”
Tyler Ramsey: “I moved around a lot growing up, a few years here and [a few years] there. It wasn’t until my longest stay, which has been in Asheville, that I really started to appreciate country blues. There were a lot of those folks, most of my musical heroes, that came through Asheville.”
Jason Krekel: “I grew up in Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., to a musical family. From early on, I was constantly exposed to the country and rock scene of Nashville from the ’70s and ’80s. My father [country/folk artist Tim Krekel] wrote songs for country stars, and I was fortunate to have seen the backstages of the Grand Ole Opry in full swing.”
• MX: “Name a defining moment when you realized your gut connection to country and/or Delta blues.”
SM: “I had planned a trip to the Mississippi Delta to collect dirt, shells and shards for memory jars I was making about Delta-blues artists. I had done research for months, learning where various artists had been born, lived, worked and played music, and where they were buried. … Driving through the Delta in a 1969 LTD, listening to Elmore James on the boom box, sitting on the wooden pews of a church Son House had preached in, seemed just about like heaven to me.”
BH: “I first heard blues through rocksters of the day, like The Rolling Stones and Cream.”
TR: “There are a lot of things that are wrong in the world, lots of things wrong in our day-to-day lives. When somebody writes it down in a song, you’re bound to feel a connection to it.”
JK: “Though I was exposed to this style from an early age, I tended to repel it — it was, after all, my parents’ music. But only in the last 10 years or so have I embraced it as my heritage and blood. I guess as a musician I realized how the style came naturally to me, and [that] has since influenced my art as well.”
• MX: “Describe an incident in your life that’s worthy of a country-western song.”
SM: “I got decked by Jesus once … punched in the face by a would-be mugger in Memphis with “JESUS” tattooed across his knuckles. On a lighter side, I wrassled Jesus at Mardi Gras. I was a devil in a blue dress, and as I passed a cross-carrying Jesus in the French Quarter, he put down his burden right then and there and the two of us had a throw-down on Royal Street — Jesus in the floor-length, white-cotton robe, me sporting the flashing-red devil horns and a strapless midnight-blue ’50s prom gown.”
BH: “My wedding.”
TR: “At band camp one time, I thought I had locked the keys in my mom’s Aerostar. It was so scary. It was terrible.”
JK: “Maybe you’ll have to wait for the song, because many of the incidents that lead to these tunes are too painful to talk about.”
• MX: “If a Delta-blues song were named after your life, what would it be called?”
SM: “‘I Know I Put It Somewhere but I Can’t Find It Now.’ I actually lost my car keys at a drive-in window at the bank once.”
BH: “‘The Life of Brian.’”
TR: “‘If You Do What You Want to Do I Hope You Can Pay Your Rent Blues.’”
JK: “‘Don’t Want None of That Right-Wing Politics in My Life.’”