Jon Langford’s Four Lost Souls
Jon Langford isn’t a guy who likes down time. When he’s not working with the Mekons, he’s painting. When he’s not painting, he’s leading the Waco Brothers, or Skull Orchard, or the Men of Gwent. His latest creative outlet is Four Lost Souls, a band he put together with Chicago compatriots, John Szymanski and singers Bethany Thomas and Tawny Newsom. The week that Donald Trump won the Presidency, this Welshman took his latest band to the heart of Dixie to record with members of the legendary Swampers in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
There are so many ideas swirling around this album and through the lyrics, that trying to write about it has flummoxed me. Lyrically and symbolically, Four Lost Souls confront ghosts of the South. The legacy celebrated here is reflected in the make up of the band, two white guys and two African American women, who could be seen as symbolic of the mixed race sessions that produced classic soul, country and rock tunes in Memphis, New Orleans and Muscle Shoals. Pedal steel guitar and soulful harmonies belie that Country and Blues share common roots. William Faulkner and civil rights pioneer James Meredith rub shoulders with forgotten country singers and drifters looking for escape. As Bethany Thomas sings on the stand-out track, “In Oxford Mississippi”, “All will be explained when the Civil War ends finally.”
Jon gives us a guided tour down the back roads of the Natchez Trace. He introduces drifters running from responsibilities passing phantom First Nations folks on the trail of tears. The stories of class and race keep repeating in different forms, with different characters. Some of them, like the creative fusion that happened in recording studios are inspiring while others and just fucking tragic.
Bethany Thomas takes the lead on the emotionally devastating, “I Thought He Was Dead.” The country tune tells of an all but forgotten country singer making the rounds of small time gigs for little pay. The song reminds me of the old timers who open for the Grand Ole Opry show. They were singers who traded gigs in their prime for the security of gigs in their old age. It also reminds me of the blues legends who were driving tow trucks while college kids were going crazy for their old discs.
Another stand out track is “What’s My Name”. The raging rocker recounts the life of Mohammed Ali (fka Cassius Clay). The song focuses on his trials around the time he converted to Islam and opposed the Viet Nam war. It’s easy to forget what a controversial figure Ali was then. Jon and the Four Lost Souls won’t let us forget.
When Bethany sings the opening verse of “Mystery”, “you did yourself harm, and you caused yourself pain. I used to believe everything could be explained. But you are a mystery,” she’s singing about a person, but could just as easily be singing about America in the age of Trump. Why do we make horrible decisions? Why do we do incredibly stupid things? It’s a mystery to me.
I could go on about every track on this disc, but I’d best leave something for you to discover on your own. I do want to mention that original Swamper and Elvis Presley’s bass player, Norbert Putman, produced Four Lost Souls. Other original Muscle Shoals rhythm section player David Hood (the dad of Drive-By Truckers leader, Patterson Hood) and Randy McCormick also played on the sessions. The spirits of Muscle Shoals, the old blues men, the hillbilly singers and soul shouters who made history in this small Alabama town were smiling on this Welshman and band of Chicagoans. While other people are arguing about statues and flags, the Four Lost Souls are living a different, more inclusive and more positive aspect of Southern Culture.