Paul Dandy looks a little out of his element. It's a few minutes before 6:00 p.m. at the Uptown Bar, and the usual group of youngish semi-bohemians has gathered for drinks. A burly guy whose red lumberjack flannel shirt and navy blue railroad engineer's cap betray not a thread of hipster irony, Dandy orders a merlot with ice and a chocolate milk. For ID, he presents a Tennessee driver's license, and it takes about four seconds before our server realizes that the name on the laminated card reads "Presley, Elvis." Dandy shrugs and presents proper identification, and the barely amused waitress leaves. After lighting a slightly bent Lucky Strike, Dandy mutters, "Sometimes it actually works."
You can almost believe him. After all, Dandy and his friend Ben Weaver know how to hustle. Sharing a record label, Unit 3, that consists of little more than a few boxes of CDs and a Web page, they've discovered a loyal following among music fans and fellow musicians whose flirtations with their parents' folk collections led to a lingering romance with the form.
Two-thirds vaudeville huckster, one-third weary traveler, Dandy is the owner of a warble that is at once charming enough to lure a gaggle of easy marks behind a carnival curtain, and seemingly earnest enough to wrench a tear (and maybe a few bucks) from a stranger on the bus. The St. Charles, Minnesota, musician unearths ditties and dirges planted deep within the American roots tradition, mixing what record sleeves refer to in shorthand as "trad arr." with some spot-on self-penned facsimiles, like "1925 Charleston." That second track of last year's Wizard Oil is an original about the times "back when Grandma was a gal," that could pass for a 78 recording of the era.
A jazzy riot that draws more from reconstituted ragtime than any retro-trend, Oil nearly bursts at the seams with homemade finger-clackers, empty whiskey bottles, and discarded mule jawbones. But Dandy's voice, raggedy enough to belie his 21 years, keeps the joyous jumble sewn together. His style, steeped in history yet not wheezingly antiquated, recalls the days when the word whoopee was considered ribald and bluesmen were just as likely to earn a living plucking chicken feathers as they were plucking banjo strings.
"It's not all some old-time vaudeville joke," Dandy insists. "I don't want people to assume it's a novelty act because I'm scratching an Al Jolson sample into my record on a Victrola instead of some Seventies disco single on a turntable."
Dandy's new album, White Dog Hunch, departs from Wizard Oil's slick production. Recorded in six hours, three of those in a chicken coop, three others in the loft of a working hog barn, Hunch evokes the spirits of anthologist Alan Lomax's weary troubadours.
"Producers in the studio these days take buckets of soap and water to the music and scrub it clean of any soul," Dandy complains. "It's like they're trying to eliminate exactly what I'm trying to create."
Quiet and introspective, Ben Weaver (also age 21) has gamely played the straight man to Dandy's slickster since the pair met up in the state's Arts High School in Golden Valley. Weaver's songs chronicle long nights of empty wine bottles and AM radios, and they are possessed of an underlying calm drawn from Weaver's professed love of solitude in nature. Currently logging in northern Minnesota, he's truly in his element. "I don't think of it as work, but as a research project," he says via telephone. "What I want to write about is the simple stuff, not barrooms and whiskey, but the real people in the working class and what they do to get by."
Case in point: The title track off last year's El Camino Blues--a moody jaunt that peers into the troubles of its narrator by chronicling the last days of his rusty car--could fit on one of Steve Earle's records. Or take "I Cried All Night," where an otherwise standard indie ballad is given an empathetic folk treatment: "Well, perhaps it is you/Well, maybe it's me/But together we've got something to say."
Weaver has attracted a number of modern folk notables to his side--the first being Greg Brown--simply by sending them demo tapes. El Camino Blues featured Brown (with a nasal moan eerily reminiscent of Mr. Ed) dueting with Weaver on the Jimmie Rodgers standard "Peach Picking Down in Georgia." Elsewhere, Peter Ostroushko did turns on fiddle, and Dean Magraw lent his talents on guitar. Weaver's forthcoming album will feature a pair of acclaimed Iowans, Red House Records songwriter Dave Moore and guitarist Bo Ramsey.
Still, Weaver takes care to avoid being pigeonholed by a public that is quick to categorize. "I met Greg four years ago, before I was really seriously doing music," he says. "When I asked him to do my album, and he agreed, I thought millions of people would buy my record just because he was on it. I got compared to him a lot because I'm a big guy with a beard, but I didn't really want to be compared to anyone else, because I'm doing my own thing. Greg helped me find out exactly what that was, only because it wasn't exactly his thing."
Encouragement from other musicians hasn't been hard to come by for either Weaver or Dandy, thanks to their (seemingly endless) supply of demo tapes sent out (seemingly uncannily) at just the right times. One of the tapes landed them at the dinner table of Janine Van Zandt, widow of Townes Van Zandt. Another fell into the hands of Tom Waits, who left a birthday message on Dandy and Weaver's Unit 3 record-label answering machine.
"He was laughing the whole time, saying how great he thought our stuff was," Dandy recalled. "He couldn't have known it was my birthday. Whenever some club owner screws us out of money for a show, I replay that message, and it gives me a little boost."