Artist: The Grahams
Album: Rattle the Hocks
Label: Three Sirens Music Group
Release Date: 07/09/2016
I didn’t know what I was signing up for when I agreed to review a film by Cody Dickinson. I am a big fan of the Dickinsons’ music, but maybe the film would turn out to be a political screed or an ill-advised indulgence better left on the shelf. I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of the Grahams, husband and wife Doug and Alyssa. I had no idea whether they were real or fictional, musicians or actors, but from the opening scene of this 30-minute documentary I was drawn into their real-life journey on the American rails in search of musical authenticity. As with Dave Grohl’s Sonic Highways, Rattle the Hocks is about making music in places where giants have walked.
Doug and Alyssa have known each other since grade school. They are musical soul mates, but Alyssa enjoyed success on her own with albums such as What Love Is and Echo before transitioning from light jazz to making American roots music with her husband. Although they grew up in and around New York, the Grahams have embraced Americana as if they were born into the folk, bluegrass, gospel, and blues traditions. In search of inspiration for their first album, they traveled the Great River Road that parallels the Mississippi River. The result was Riverman’s Daughter, an impressive debut recorded with Cody and Luther Dickinson and members of the North Mississippi Allstars.
Building on that songwriting methodology for their next effort, the Grahams decided to ride the rails that are at the core of the music they seek to emulate. “There’s a special connection between the railroads and American folk music,” Alyssa’s voiceover tells us as old-time black and white images melt into modern-day landscapes. “The Royal Road,” Doug calls it, “traveled by the kings and queens of American music. We would be fools not to listen to their echoes.”
On board trains with names like the Sunset Limited, Heartland Flyer and Southwest Chief, the Grahams worked up songs for their second album, Glory Road, released in 2015. Rattle the Hocks chronicles a portion of that journey, from the Mississippi Hill Country through Memphis to New Orleans. Along the way the Grahams join up with Dickinson and friends as well as local musicians to play and record. Arriving at the Dickinsons’ studio, Alyssa and Doug sit in with Duwayne Burnside, Sharde Thomas, Lester Snell, and other Mississippi musicians to record “Promised Land.” It is a lively, down-home jam, with Alyssa’s powerful vocals out front, Cody driving the bus on drums and Doug trading licks with Luther.
The story is superbly told through Bryan McCann’s narrative and the scenes are artfully shot, but it is the music that captivates. Inside Sun Studios “the echoes” Doug spoke of early on help to create the film’s most memorable performance. “Sing this one so your Mom can hear you,” Alyssa tells Doug, looking up to the heavens. “All right, Mom,” Doug says. “I know you’ve heard this before, but this one’s in Sun Studios.” Alyssa’s voice soars and Doug’s playing takes on a new urgency as they deliver a deeply felt Gospel tribute called “Mama.” You can feel their shivers as the last note hangs in the air.
No film about great railroad songs would be complete without Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” Named for the train that traveled between New Orleans and Chicago and brought American blacks from the rural South to the industrialized North, the railroad line and the song occupy special places in the history of American migration and music. The couple rehearses on the train before joining up with local tuba, trombone and banjo players in New Orleans to give their version a NOLA feel.
Rattle the Hocks is a wonderful half-hour primer for getting to know the Grahams. In addition to the DVD, there is a soundtrack, but neither is a substitute for exploring the Grahams’ music in greater depth. Check out Riverman’s Daughter and Glory Bound and add the Grahams to your watch list of must-see live performers when their train pulls into a town near you.