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Mike West

Characters in West's story songs explore the ‘New South'

Times Picayune, Lagniappe 08/16/02

By Keith Spera
Music writer/The Times-Picayune

Mike West admits to a certain fascination with the "labyrinth of Southern politics." In the decade since he settled in New Orleans' 9th Ward, the native of Australia has navigated that socio-political labyrinth at its most grassroots level: By spending weeks on end traveling from one Deep South watering hole to the next, spinning a mix of folk and bluegrass, his own take on Americana.

The title track of West's eighth CD, "New South," postulates that the plantation owners and sharecroppers of the Old South have been replaced by casino owners and blue-collar slot machine junkies who squander their wages in a new form of feudalism.

Such a composition is much more strident on paper than on record or stage, where West delivers it with a sly smile, an easy attitude, fine banjo-, mandolin- and acoustic guitar-pickin' and sympathetic accompaniment from the likes of fiddler Gina Forsyth, tuba player Matt Perrine, National steel guitarist Marc Stone and banjoist Jeff Burke.

West further softens the blow by assuming the voice of a character rather than speaking directly as the artist.

"I never want a song to be opinionated, but the personality within a song can be opinionated," he said. "I've never wanted to be preachy; I'm not enamored with my own opinions on anything. I don't expect anybody to vote for Mike West -- I'm not a politician, I'm an entertainer. But I just love irony and contradiction."

Ample amounts of both are served up in "Dixie," the lead cut on "New South." The narrator is a barroom banjo player not unlike West himself. Just as the Preservation Hall Band levies a surcharge on requests for the oft-played "When the Saints Go Marching In," banjo players are bombarded with requests for "Rocky Top" and the traditional "Dixie." In West's "Dixie," the narrator refuses requests for the traditional "Dixie," and not just because it's overplayed.

West gives the narrator a "stubborn, proud, ostensibly Southern (attitude), but the inverse politics. It's a very Southern sort of song, but an anthem for all those kids in Mississippi who voted against the Rebel flag."

Similarly, "The Blue and the Gray" was inspired by a person West counts as "a dear friend of mine, an old bar singer who sings all these beautiful Confederate songs. He's my hero, completely and utterly. It's a weird contradiction, which is part of what I love down here."

As a naturalized Southerner, West finds himself taking up for his adopted region, fully subscribing to the idea that he can fight with his brother, but woe to anyone else who tries.

"I get pretty defensive when people are patronizing about Southern things, telling me about how racist we all are," he said. "I find that I'm constantly impressed by people down here. They defy stereotypes. It's an interesting, complex and intelligent place, and I'm only just beginning to fathom it.

"But then if you're playing in the South, it's fun to poke fun at yourself, because you're among your own and it's a little less high-handed."

Though he sometimes performs at the Neutral Ground Coffee House and similar folk clubs around the country, he mostly inhabits bars and nightclubs.

"I like it," he said. "I'm used to the initial battle of getting up there, getting them to pay attention, holding their attention and making sure they drink beer and tip the bartender. Then when I'm in front of a folk club audience where they're all super-attentive, it's almost disconcerting."

Only rarely has a listener taken issue with one of West's songs. "If they don't like it, they're going to come right back at you after the show and tell you so, which feels honest to me: ‘You know what? My grandfather served under General Lee, so f -- - you.' And that's fair enough. That keeps me honest, to some degree.

"Generally, even if they don't agree with you, they understand that they're not really opinionated songs. And there's a lot of diverse opinions when you look out over a bar. A bar can be a weirdly tolerant place. I try not to make assumptions about an audience. I just throw myself out there with the faith that whatever they think, they're going to be polite and have fun with it, and that's all that counts."

Not all of "New South" is pure fun. "Move Along" is West's eulogy to Les Jampole, a former manager of the Neutral Ground who was West's musical mentor. Jampole was working as a roofer last summer when he was killed in a fall.

Most of Myshkin's most recent CD, "Rosebud Bullets," was an achingly beautiful rumination on the end of her marriage to West. Not until "Love's Wake," the 16th track on "New South," does West address the subject of love lost, and even then he employs a clever anthropomorphism: "Love" is in the hospital, dying, and no one comes to visit.

As his songwriting has progressed, he's become less inclined to address personal affairs in his lyrics directly.

"I've become less and less comfortable with that," he said. "When I first started writing in pop groups, it was girlfriend songs, songs about yourself. Even though most of my songs now are first person and I'm there, it's not about me. I'm still dealing with stuff that's very personal, but dealing with it by expressing it or looking at it through other people's stories and perspectives."

West performs Sunday at d.b.a.

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