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Karling Abbeygate / Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers - Karling Abbeygate / North of Bakersfield

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Artist: Karling Abbeygate / Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers

Album: Karling Abbeygate / North of Bakersfield

Label: Dionysus

Review date: Oct. 26, 2006

The classic tropes of early-'60s southern California honky tonk and rockabilly are alive and well, the flame nurtured in the real world by a number of hard-working west coast bands. Two recent discs from Burbank-based retro label Dionysus offer somewhat different takes on the scene.

Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers work out of Seattle. Their nicely-titled album North Of Bakersfield gives evidence of a tight, high-octane band that rips it up with a hard blend of rockabilly sass and supercharged Buck Owens-style twang and treble. Placed front-and-center in the mix, Ruby Dee Philippa is a fine songwriter and singer, blending, oddly enough, some Dolly Parton sweetness and warble into her Wanda Jackson growl. Beneath her, the rhythm section keeps things shuffling and danceable. Meanwhile, steel player Grant Johnson and guitarist Jorge Harada tear things up all around with Bakersfield-approved hot licks that grab attention without ever getting in the way of the songs. Although this is a studio recording, its pacing and sound-staging feel satisfyingly live. This band obviously kills in the clubs.

Karling Abbeygate’s self-titled disc comes at things from a different angle, with the focus on channeling the sound and vibe of old records. Like Ruby Dee’s, Abbeygate’s voice remains distinctive while offering shades of vintage singers - in her case, Rose Maddox and Kay Adams, maybe a little bit of the young Loretta Lynn. And while the upbeat tunes can occasionally seem a tad faux-hillbilly, Abbeygate’s sob-and-gulp vocals are quite effective on the sad, slow songs. ( “Put Yourself in My Place” is a fine example, with its Floyd Cramer-ish “Last Date” piano and billowing pedal steel enhancing the end-of-the-party mood.) The production, by guitar player and LA retro-lounge sound maestro Joey Altruda and engineer Donnie Whitbeck, is the co-star of this record: With an almost fetishistic attention to period style and sonic detail, the disc conjures up images of a faded kinescope from some long-lost Hollywood Hillbilly Dance Ranch TV program: long gingham dresses, spangled cowboy duds, flashy guitars.

One might well ask if records like these are necessary, when so much great old music is out there and available on disc now. I’d argue that the answer lies in the value of keeping these vintage sounds fresh and in the public sphere. Whether it’s in the road-tested hard rocking of Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers, or in the making of a lovingly-crafted - and somewhat spooky - period recreation like Karling Abbeygate’s, here’s proof that there is room for new voices within old styles.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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