Ronny Elliott

Tampa's Ronny Elliott has progressed from a rock and roller who once backed Chuck Berry to an acid rocker who once opened for Jimi Hendrix to a country rocker who was briefly a member of the Outlaws in 1969 to one of the earliest practitioners of insurgent country. Crusty as an overbaked baguette, the sardonic post-Kerouac twangster was alt-country before country even knew it had been altered, yet he's been passed over by labels like Bloodshot and Checkered Past ("not alternative enough") and Hightone, who told him with a straight face he was "too commercial." No wonder Elliott has little patience with the music business and makes it plain with lines like "Maybe music and business are terms that just don't jibe / All I've got is three chords and the will to survive."

Since the early '90s, Elliott has released seven albums, and each has received serious critical notice, particularly in the European press -- and sold squat, zilch, nada. Except among deep insiders, the irascible Elliott remains virtually anonymous.

Knife-to-the-throat, dark-night-of-the-soul, simple-twist-of-fate narratives are Elliott's stock-in-trade. Eternally contrary, Elliott often comes across like a singing Paul Harvey; his songs are full of unexpected factual twists that tell the rest of the story. The seedy "Elvis Presley Didn't Like Tampa" certainly won't win him any friends at Graceland, and his ode to the famous '50s wrestler "Gorgeous George" is a typical screw-your-middle-class-ideals Elliott track that celebrates the odd, flamboyant and deviant. "Jack's St. Pete Blues," with its documentary quality of an unedited reel of black-and-white eight-millimeter film, demythologizes the beat icon.

There always seems to be one track on each Elliott album that has the power to make the hair stand up on your neck, and this time it's "Slim Harpo's Heartbeat." This is Elliott at his lyrical best, reaching deep into the beat literary tradition and mashing it all together with blues and biography. "Take this bone, mark that spot, look back over your shoulder / Chalk that stick, pray to some god you live to be another day older / I heard Brando say Leadbelly's name was written on the stars / Powder your nose, fasten your seatbelt, lock up all the guitars / What's that sound? / I thought I heard Slim Harpo's heartbeat." It all gets very dark and terminal when Elliott ends with "Turn the radio down, gather the musicians around, load up the station wagon / Get my maker on the phone, leave the schoolgirls alone, book two tickets for Armageddon."

Hep extends Ronny Elliott's body of excellent work. It's a shame that, like many of our most iconoclastic and free-spirited performers, he finds himself and his recordings more in demand in Europe than in his home country.

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William Michael Smith