INSTRUMENTAL ASYLUM

A-pickin' and a-grinnin' over a new musical discovery

"Bluegrass has its standards, so there's a certain excitement in taking all the great songs out there and doing them in a quirky bluegrass style," offers Haerle. "And I'm certain among Bruce fans there are some bluegrass fans too." Amazing yet true -- no marketing research was behind this decision to bottle Bruce in a corn jug! Just a hunch on Haerle's part, a hunch that I'm convinced will pay off in spades and hoes. Who'd have figured Haerle would not only define a niche market for instrumental music but actually find a way to improve on the originals? Really, I'm forever cured of wanting to hear Bruce any other way!

Let's say you've always dug early Springsteen but detested those slick, citified Saturday Night Live sax solos Bruce stuck in to give the Big Man something to do. Or say you tired of the Boss's codependency on words like "darkness," "nights" and "streets." Well, CMH's pickin' party eliminates all that. And if you conscientiously objected to Bruce's going off to kill the yellow man -- Charlie's outta there! This hoe-down version of "Born in the U.S.A." is about as far from Vietnam as Hazzard County!

My fave supreme, though, has got to be "Born to Run," wherein Bruce decides to ditch Wendy to give Granny and Ellie Mae a ride. Forget the runaway American dream -- next stop, Hooterville! Trade in those wings for some wheels, preferably attached to a stinky ol' truck, I say. That's what the Bruce of Nebraska and Tom Joad would do. OK, well, maybe not Nebraska -- which the cover art of Pickin' mimics but the song selection ignores. Good thing, too, because nothing spoils a hot time in the ol' town like bodies turning up in a shallow grave. And in case you had your Tom Hank-a-chief at the ready, even the AIDS-aware "Streets of Philadelphia" sounds just a shade or two away from being chipper!

Pickin' on Springsteen: Forget the runaway American dream  --  next stop, Hooterville! Trade in those wings for some wheels, preferably attached to a stinky ol' truck.
Pickin' on Springsteen: Forget the runaway American dream -- next stop, Hooterville! Trade in those wings for some wheels, preferably attached to a stinky ol' truck.

Color me tickled pink because there are already a half-dozen titles available in CMH's "Pickin' On" series. There's Pickin' on the Beatles (plenty o' Ringo, I'll bet), Pickin' on the Eagles, Pickin' on the Grateful Dead (a big seller because Jerry's kids know he started out playing bluegrass), Pickin' on Dylan and -- Whoa! What's this? Pickin' on Hendrix? I tell Haerle I've got to have this sent immediately.

A day later, Pickin' on Hendrix arrives with its flaming-banjo art and a "File This Release in the Jimi Hendrix Bin" sticker carefully affixed. I'm kind of disappointed that there's no banjo feedback à la the Monks here, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" is pretty much just your standard bluegrass national anthem that could've squatted comfortably on a Homer & Jethro record. But that's jes nit-pickin', 'cause "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" sounds like it's time to start the Family Fe-uuud. Biggest bit of fun is playing Name That Tune with "Are You Experienced." Just proves what I've always said: A song that was originally recorded backward and played forward can be made to sound like bluegrass! And I'm guessin' it's the banjos, but from here on out, I'll think of Catherine Bach whenever I hear "Foxy Lady."

You don't have to cattle-prod Haerle to find out what's next in the series (ZZ Top -- a good choice, although I suspect we may have to wait for platinum status before Pickin' on Flaming Lips becomes a reality). I tell Haerle he should seriously consider releasing Pickin' on the Police for the incendiary title alone. "I'll put it on our ideas list," Haerle agrees. It's that kind of derange-do that has made America great.

Bluegrassed out for the time being, I'm ready to go to Swingin' to Sting & the Police and trace the lineage between "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da." Fans of new swing sets like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies will have a hard time dancing the Lindy hop to much of this; it's more of a listening album, equal parts Les Brown, Glenn Miller and Doc Severinsen. Producer/arranger Jim McMillen insists he's no Big Daddy bandwagon jumper while admitting, "CMH asked me to do a series of tribute albums in the swing idiom, because it's very popular these days." Playing trombone in big bands for years has given McMillen a far broader definition of swing than your average hepcat with a Louis Jordan fixation. "For me, swing encompasses everything from late Dixieland in the 1920s through the modern big-band sound of today," he says. Shows how much I know. I didn't even know there was an early Dixieland.

But there's more to "Sting" and "swing" than an obvious rhyming scheme -- otherwise the Promise Ring, Evelyn "Champagne" King or Blink 182 would've gotten the nod. "There's a lot of sophisticated harmonies in Sting's writing that translated well into the swing idiom," McMillen remarks. "I did an informal survey among my friends about what artist they thought would be a likely candidate to launch the series. But when Swingin' to Sting came up and one gal said, "Man, I'd buy that record twice' -- that was the clincher."

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