Wild ride

The Fast Horse Hootenanny is a many-headed beast. And if it’s hard to sort out who’s who in this hoedown, you’re missing the point, suggests former Screaming Trees drummer — and eager Tuatara spokesman — Barrett Martin.

“I encourage everybody to come see Tuatara,” he says. “It’s a great band, and we’re playing a rippin’ show.”

Martin is deeply proud of his current project, the Fast Horse Hootenanny 2002 Tour, and it shows. With an eclectic line-up that includes bands like REM side project the Minus 5, Martin’s own groups — the Wayward Shamans and instrumental rock super-group Tuatara — and former Fat Possum blues guitarist CeDell Davis, it’s easy to see why Martin doesn’t shy away from hyping this show.

Martin is the co-founder of Fast Horse Recordings, a small record label boasting some big names on its roster — names like Peter Buck of REM, Justin Harwood (of Luna) and Grammy-award-winning percussionist — and Fast Horse co-founder — Joe Cripps (from Brave Combo).

The origin of The Fast Horse Hootenanny begins with the unusual formation of Tuatara: The band was never supposed to perform live at all.

“Tuatara formed in 1997,” explains Martin, “with myself, Peter Buck, Justin Harwood and Skerik, the sax player. We were working on a film soundtrack, just kind of some demos that we could send out to producers and directors to get some soundtrack work. It just really gelled in the studio, and we decided to just go ahead and make it an album. I played it for my A&R guy at Epic, and he loved it. He said, ‘Man, we’ve got to put this out.’ That was Breaking the Ethers [Sony/Epic]. We actually had so much material left over that we had a second album released within the following year, Trading with the Enemy [Sony/Epic].

“The funny thing is that we did end up going on to do film soundtracks, on an individual level, but Tuatara has only done a couple of [recordings] as a group for soundtracks. We evolved into an actual band, and the songs then got licensed for films. It’s still good, [because] the music makes it into films.”

Now, Tuatara is on tour to support its most recent recording, and its first on the Fast Horse label, Cinemathique.

Shortly after forming Tuatara, Martin agreed to visit Cuba as part of a diplomacy mission that sent American musicians to work with their Cuban counterparts. It was there that he met his future business partner, Joe Cripps.

“We literally met at the Havana Airport. He was the other American percussionist that they sent. He and I worked with a group of local Cuban percussionists for a couple of weeks. And then Joe and I decided to start a band, which became the Wayward Shamans. We talked a lot about starting a record label, but we never really got around to it until we got the Tuatara and Wayward Shamans records finished. At that point, it was like, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ We formed the company, and within a pretty short period of time we got our distribution deal with Ryko. We were pretty happy with that.”

The current Fast Horse tour — Tuatara’s first since its Magnificent Seven Tour with Mark Eitzel in 1997 — seems like a hefty undertaking for such a relatively new label. But Martin isn’t showing any strain yet.

“We’ve got the best players,” he boasts. “I mean, they are just amazing musicians. We’re having a great time.”

The touring group is sizable, some 12 performers, and everyone spends a good portion of the evening on stage working with various arrangements, turning things into a sort of Fast Horse jam session. It sounds exhausting, but Martin sees it in a different light.

“Being physically tired doesn’t really apply,” says Martin, “because once you start playing, you get into the groove. It’s a continuous night of music. Peter and Scott [McCaughey, REM’s newest member] and I … we’ve played together for years. We’ve all played on Minus 5 records, we’ve all played on Tuatara records, and we’ve all played on REM records. There’s a natural chemistry.

“There’s four different bands playing, but there are musicians from each band playing in every other band. We’ve kind of made the most economical use of all the musicians,” Martin goes on to explain. “[We start with] Wayward Shamans, which kind of goes with all these rhythms from West Africa, Cuba and Brazil. Then, we bring out the Minus 5, which is Peter and Scott’s side rock band from REM. Then, we bring out Tuatara. And then … ” says Martin with obvious relish, “we bring out CeDell [Davis].”

Echoing strains of the crafty collision that teamed the gruff, aging North Mississippi singer R.L. Burnside with hipsters Jon Spencer Blues Explosion some years back, the 75-year-old guitarist from Pine Bluff, Ark. has become the latest hard-luck bluesman to be prodded to the spotlight by admiring rock stars.

Unless you’re a blues purist, Davis may be the most obscure member of the Fast Horse Hootenanny tour, but within the Fast Horse camp, he’s got all the fans he needs.

“He’d been on Fat Possum as one of their blues-revival artists,” says Martin. “And then he met Joe [Cripps], who was interviewing him for this documentary for the Arkansas Governor’s Office. [Joe said], ‘Let’s make a record with CeDell.’ And so we used Tuatara as the back-up [band]. It’s actually got several spoken-word pieces where he’s talking about his life. It’s pretty shocking to hear it firsthand from somebody that had polio when he was young and had to pick cotton on crutches. It’s really a great record.”

Davis, in fact, gives new meaning to the term “alternate tuning” — since his youth, the guitarist has used a butter knife in his polio-stricken hand instead of a traditional slide. And a bar brawl in the ’50s crushed his already-damaged legs so badly he’s been confined to a wheelchair ever since.

“After making a record with him,” Martin concludes, “being on the road with him is a profound thing.”

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