October 2004

Stan Ridgway - Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs
Redfly Records 84812
Released: 2004

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Stan Ridgway, a student of unusual behavior, includes a photo of Appalachian snake handlers in the CD booklet for his new disc, Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs. Snake handlers are rural Pentecostal Christians who take literally the passage in the Bible from Mark 16:17-18, "And these signs will accompany those who believe…They will pick up snakes with their hands…." The detail that caught my eye was at the back of the photo: A member of the worship band, a late middle-aged man calmly watching the snake handlers in the foreground, is holding a Fender Precision Bass. Ridgway could probably write a song about that guy and his P-Bass and where they’ve been.

Snakebite is Ridgway’s first disc on his own label, Redfly Records, and his first disc of new material since 1999’s Anatomy. As with his other discs, Holiday in Dirt and Black Diamond, Snakebite is filled with complex stories that deepen with each listen. Ridgway works the way a short-story writer does, allowing small details to reveal what’s most important about his characters. The narrator in "Afghan/Forklift" is "Movin’ crates for exportation…Two were marked Top Secret, headed for Afghanistan." He asks later, "What’s a man to do with all the trouble ‘round today?" In "Talkin’ Wall of Voodoo Blues Pt. 1," Ridgway even brings his sharp eye to his own experiences: "A big manager for Sting/Said ‘sign here, boys, you’ll all be stars.’"

Things, of course, didn’t work out that way, but Ridgway has taken more chances musically than fame might have allowed. Snakebite is a work of remarkable depth and variety, completely accessible but too smart for radio. Ridgway’s choice of subject matter and instrumentation is unusual and he doesn’t tie himself down to a particular style. "My Rose Marie (A Soldier’s Tale)," for instance, sounds like an old Appalachian ballad, while other tunes show the influence of surf music, Bo Diddley, and '60s movie soundtracks. As I’ve noted in other SoundStage! reviews of Ridgway’s work, his discs are beautifully recorded -- spacious and lovingly detailed. Snakebite: Blacktop Ballads & Fugitive Songs is full of surprises. It’s the sound of an already essential American artist creating his masterpiece.