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May 12, 2005



Photo and headline -- Delta Nationals (feet)

THE PARTY AT THE BAYSIDE GRANGE ON A RECENT SATURDAY night was hot and steamy. Swingers young and old packed the dance floor jitterbugging and doing the boogie-woogie, then getting close on the slow dance numbers.

It was a far cry from the debut of The Delta Nationals at the down-and-dirty Crown Pub back in November 2000, an event attended by a handful of friends, family and a few startled regulars.

I was at that gig with camera in hand and cemented a position as unofficial band photographer by shooting an oft-published group portrait posed around a pool table (the only place in the establishment with decent light).

The Delta Nationals show at the Grange was one of a series of gigs where the band is rolling out their first CD, Get Out!, a live affair that demonstrates the range of music they pull together. Saturday, May 14, the band plays another "CD release" gig, this time at Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville.

In advance of the Grange gig, I spoke with Delta Nationals founders Paul DeMark and Ross Rowley. Rowley followed up with an e-mail touching on "traditional" music, expanding on a question I had asked.

"I've been reading a book about the advent of the bluesman," he began. "In reality, the `bluesman' is a creation by the record companies in the 1920s and 1930s. Players like Charley Patton and Tampa Red and that generation actually played all kinds of music. Because they had to work playing dances for all manner of folks, they also joined up with white players to be able to play gigs. They played country tunes, reels, polkas -- whatever it took for dancing.

"The segregation of music actually came from the record producers who felt they couldn't sell a Black country player. Many of the bluesmen played fiddle and mandolin, but that [style] was being sold as a white hillbilly genre.

"The depiction of the downtrodden black man singing `the blues' was greatly that -- a depiction. Big Bill Broonzy played many, many styles -- but was only really recorded playing blues. The record companies were sticking with tried and true artists they could depend on to show up to a session and promote themselves and play for money-making audiences," and whom they later could rip off.

Rowley figures the Delta Nationals are a traditional band in that they play a mix of music -- blues, country and rock `n' roll -- all of it tailored for dancing.

"Playing many styles of music for dancers in a dance hall is a very traditional rural American pastime," he noted before moving on to discussion of the origins of the various threads that weave together creating the sound of American music.

"Where does a `sound' begin? Did Chuck Berry invent that? Did Bob Wills invent that? Did Louis Armstrong invent that? Did Bill Monroe invent that? Did The Sugar Hill Gang invent that? No. Did Sound Tribe Sector Nine invent that? No, that was the Whammo Hula Hoop company," he concluded, somewhat inscrutably.

"Always expect the unexpected from Ross," Paul DeMark commented in a RE: e-mail, describing Rowley as "a true musicologist." DeMark went on to explain that an exploration of various strains of American music was at the root of The Delta Nationals conception five years ago.

"I happened to stop by Fox-29 to drop off a TV ad for CR," recalled DeMark, whose day job is overseeing public relations for the College of the Redwoods. "I started talking with [Fox-29 producer/cameraman] Ross, who I barely knew. We asked each other what we were up to musically. He was in The Roadmasters and I was between full-time bands and doing different gigs, like playing with and promoting local concerts with [bluesmen] Steve Freund and John Sinclair.

"I told him about my concept for a band -- play music from a variety of classic American music genres. He began rattling off the names of all the studio session players from Muscle Shoals, the Fame and Stax labels, etc. -- we were just shooting names out back and forth. I had no idea he was so deep into American roots music.

"I asked him if he wanted to do a jam with some people that very day and see if we could put something together. He said yes. By the fall we had a band and were gigging

"The first gig was at Bob Ornelas' Hoptoberfest, but we were the Roots Evangelists at that gig -- the first and only gig were we played under that name. You'll notice on the CD that the name of our `record company' is Root Evangelist Records; Steve Irwin suggested it as a tip of the hat to our beginnings."

Of course, the Delta Nationals are not evangelists in the traditional sense, they are out there spreading the gospel of rhythm and blues, of deep country and, yes my brother, the gospel of classic all-American rock `n' roll. And they do it well.

The Delta Nationals extend the celebration of the release of their debut CD, Get Out!, at Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville on Saturday, May 14, playing from 9 p.m. until midnight. Admission is $5. CDs will be available at the merchandise table.

The book Rowley was reading: Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, by Elijah Ward

Bob Doran


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