Hank wouldn’t ‘a’ done it that way: Phish’s “Scent of a Mule”

“Authenticity” and I don’t much get along. The fistfight probably started back in junior high, when I was semi-regularly called a sellout or, worse, an Oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside) for not “talking black enough” or for my growing interest in “non-black” culture such as rock music, jazz, and comics. Ironically, the first two’s roots are very much steeped in black culture, and one of comics’ seminal figures—George Herriman and his wonderful Krazy Kat—was probably a certified African American and, in any case, Herriman certainly explored racial themes in his strips.

Anyway, I’ve grown used to being one of the only black persons at the local art exhibit opening, and getting the customary curious (but vaguely rattled) glances from white folks and nods of recognition from the few other black folks in attendance at the opera. Even my hip-hop tastes veer towards the underground and alternative rather than the typical: J-Live over Jay-Z. I’ve been accused of being insufficiently African American on enough occasions to know to ignore the Bronx cheers. Besides, I’ve got enough ex-cons and ex-baseheads in my family to cast a jaundiced eye over gangsta rap’s ideal of “keeping it real”—and I know enough from personal experience to realize how much of the hos-and-Caddys aesthetic is updated minstrelsy, rather than real blackness, anyway.

All of this is a longwinded way of saying that I’m distrustful of art that emphasizes how “authentic” it is, because “authenticity” tends to drown out the complicated nuances of life as it’s actually experienced, of people as they actually are. “Authenticity” is a reductive, rather than inclusive, force. I’ve felt that reduction firsthand, when I’ve been the only black person at a blues concert other than the man onstage. I love the post-punk of Talking Heads, the Mekons, and Hüsker Dü, which consciously fuses genres, but glance sideways at “real” punk like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones. (And don’t get me started on Fugazi and the Washington, D.C., “straight-edge” aesthetic. It’s as dogmatic and birdbrained as Dogme 95 was for cinema.) Folk music leaves me cold. With few exceptions, moldy-fig music leaves me bored. The idea of “independent film” makes my head hurt, not because of its resistance to corporate ideals, but because of its insistence on some half-baked idea of “pure” cinema. (Cinema, a collage and concatenation of various art forms, is the least pure art in existence. That’s why I love it so much.)

As a result of my battle with “authenticity,” I’ve reserved a special animosity for that musical genre that’s most concerned with the subject: country. Country’s got a lot in common with rap that way, in that both constantly need to be validated by purists as being non-elitist. Both forms are obsessed with “keeping it real” and glamorizing outlaws. But I love hip-hop because its starting point is the fusion of genres—i.e., sampling—and because it used the found materials of recording playback (turntables, tape players, vinyl records, speakers, microphones) as recording instruments. An egghead with time on his heads and too many records could figure out how to make the music. That’s the myth, anyway, and that myth is democratic, inclusive, and a hodgepodge at heart. The heterogeneous nature of hip-hop’s music and roots clashes endearingly with the purist principles of the lyrics, and that collision makes for great music.

For a long time, I couldn’t find a similar tension in country music. So I was left un-amused by the quest for the most authentic twang and the dull desire to keep things rough-hewn and working-class. There’s nothing wrong, mind you, with rawness or with keeping it simple. It’s frustrating, however, when that’s all there is, or at least all that’s acceptable as “country.” At the same time, the schlock of country radio was too slick, too processed, too much like mediocre pop that had been hickified.

I eventually discovered the western swing—big-band jazz smashing into country—of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys; and the oddball psychedelic country of the Grateful Dead and the Byrds; and the kitchen-sink, faux-old-timey brilliance of The Band; the ambient prairies and back porches conjured up by Bill Frisell; the Dallas cowpunk of the Old 97’s; and the delicate mix of rough and smooth in Lucinda Williams’s voice.

But all that would come later. This essay concerns, instead, the gateway drug that made a love of country even possible for this black city slicker.

Phish’s headlong fusion of genres, along with a strong absurdist bent and a cockeyed reluctance to sentimentality or straightforwardness, drew me to the band like flies to a bug zapper. Its roots are in the 1970s—prog rock, country-rock, new wave, synthesizers, Hobbits, and Frank Zappa’s heyday—but Phish’s concerns spoke, and continue to speak, to me. To this day, I can’t explain adequately why I’ve traveled hundreds of miles to see the band nine times, or why I’m so giddy at the possibility that it might re-form.

I was already a sucker for Phish—having heard and traded for bootlegs of live concerts—by the time I heard Hoist during my junior year of college. Now, it should be noted that the band rarely captured its onstage mix of improvisation, complex structures, and sheer silliness on a studio album. (Live, the band managed to be grandiose and mock grandiosity simultaneously.) 1993’s Rift and 1996’s Billy Breathes come close but it’s primarily the concert albums that I listen to these days. Still, Hoist is fun. Perhaps the band’s biggest radio hit, “Down with Disease,” comes from the album. It’s produced and mixed, respectively, by the team of Paul Fox and Ed Thacker, who had produced They Might Be Giants’ most successful album (Flood) in 1990, and broke 10,000 Maniacs to mainstream audiences with 1992’s Our Time in Eden. Fox and Thacker are known for a clean sound, the use of snazzy horns, and a strong sense of pop concision. Phish, looking for its first full-fledged hit album, turned to Fox and Thacker for Hoist.

Still, Phish is Phish, so the inner weirdness seeped out occasionally. It found its best form in the Mike Gordon-penned “Scent of a Mule,” which remains one of my favorite Phish songs. It’s a bluegrass tune on an album otherwise full of high-octane, multi-movement, progressive rock. Live, the song incorporates Russian folksong, but it’s strange enough on the album to qualify as a true oddball in its original form.

On paper, the notation must look like straight bluegrass. Hell, banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck nearly steals the show on this track. “Scent of a Mule,” however, is among the strangest four minutes of pop that I heard that year. It opens with a fast-tapping drumbeat on snares—so far, so normal—but the drums fade in. And there’s that organ that sounds like a train speeding past. It sounds like the band’s talking to itself behind all this. The guitar, bass, and banjo emerge into the mix, all initially with ambient textures, like something out of The Twilight Zone. It’s like the sound is slowly coming in from outer space.

This makes sense. Get a load of the opening lyrics:

Kitty Malone sat on a mule, was riding in style
When suddenly, like the sound of a buzzard’s breaking,
Kitty felt laser beams being fired at her head
She said, “I hate laser beams, and you never done see me askin’
For a UFO, for a UFO, for a UFO, in Tomahawk County

What the hell?! I asked myself. (Keep in mind that the “I hate laser beams” quote is sung by Gordon in a high-pitched mock-woman accent, like a boy play-acting.) But that’s just the beginning. The space aliens keep firing at this poor country woman, until she’s forced to defend herself by having her mule shit at the aliens as she (and, presumably, the mule) run and duck for cover. (That’s the chorus.) The second verse doesn’t normalize things at all:

She felt the fire against her neck
And it saddened her to feel it burn
When suddenly, like the sound of a breeding Holstein,
Kitty said, “Stop, we ain’t lookin’ for fightin’ in Tomahawk County
A little guy from the UFO
Came on out and said his name was Joe
She said, “Come on over for some lemonade
Just follow me now with the whole brigade.”

There’s so much to unpack. The idea that a 19th-century pioneer woman is “saddened”—as opposed to “surprised” or “shocked” or “alarmed”—to feel the burn of a laser beam is hilarious; sci-fi meets the Western, and both shrug at each other. The narrative moves briskly—in four minutes, we careen through a pioneer landscape, space aliens, a shoot-em-up, and a peaceful resolution—moves us along as quickly as the music. It’s worth mentioning that the musicianship is superb, with crack comic timing—Jon Fishman’s metallic percussion effects and strikes on bottles and wood blocks give off the correct dose of odd perfection. The breakneck pace is reflected into the plucked instruments and Page McConnell’s cascading keyboards. Through all the weirdness, “Scent of a Mule” maintains its country bonafides: The pickin’ is sublime, and Gordon even shouts out a classic Bob Wills “A-ha!” during the breakdown.

By the time the aliens “walked into her cabin shack” and proclaim it “a place of elegance/ Here we shower ourselves in lightness,” I was prepared for anything. Indeed, this bridge is soaring, with a calliope-like swirling bridge; it’s gospel as conceived by George Lucas. The whole thing could be called a parody of the country music tradition, but it clearly loves the tradition as well. “Scent of a Mule” is a collage of Phish’s nerdy interests, country, bluegrass, progressive rock, and Monty Python.

I would discover that it’s far from the band’s best song, but it’s one of its most representative. As Waylon Jennings might say, “Hank wouldn’t ‘a’ done it that way.” Hell, Willie Nelson wouldn’t have it done this way, and he’s recorded a reggae album. Phish introduced me to the idea of country as experimental. “Scent of a Mule” is strange, a collage of styles, and thoroughly unconcerned with authenticity. But it’s still somehow country and, finally, it was a tradition I could get into.

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About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Hank wouldn’t ‘a’ done it that way: Phish’s “Scent of a Mule”

  1. Wax Banks says:

    Well put – I had a weird, weird Phish-related dream so this hit the sweet spot. (I’m so excited about these rumours, damn.)
    There’s a thread of Mike Gordon tunes sprinkled throughout Phish’s catalog – ‘Mound'(!!), ‘Scent,’ ‘Contact,’ the ‘Mike’s Song’/’Weekapaug’ diptych, the gorgeous ‘Train Song’ – which are among the band’s most determinedly weird genre-benders. Have you heard his solo disc Inside In? He’s pretty extraordinary actually – I don’t normally think of him (or any of them) as ‘country’ in any deep sense, but he really is grounded in a sound of Americana/folk/country, and it just flows out of all his projects. The most obvious expression of this country urge is his Kottke/Gordon project, which I was so glad to hear when it emerged: it’s as strong in its way as Trey’s work with his big band, mixing his voice and Kottke’s so easily you’d think they were born joined at the head. Trey is the songwriting savant but Gordon takes just as many risks – more, the last few years.
    To me the most amazing thing about ‘Scent’ is the Mule Duel: all of a sudden it’s a goddamn klezmer song? The spirit of the tune imbues the collective improvisation in the middle with a strange boundary-crossing energy, and the ensuing solos are usually more loose-limbed than the band’s usual. In college I used to go to Logan Airport, sit in the terminal – pre-9/11 of course – and write in my notebook while listening to one particular Mule Duel over and over: 2/26/97, in which, after Page’s silly protoklezmer/protojazz/protofunk solo, Trey’s jazzy voice/guitar solo morphs into a swing tune, revealed to be ‘Magilla’ (yeah!), which the band works out for a while before returning at light speed to ‘Scent.’ The whole thing is 15-20 minutes I believe, pure insanity in a show that would not otherwise have been without insanity. It was one of my treasured tapes, sounding like it was recorded in my living room (like a lot of those freewheeling Spring/Summer 97 Europe shows), and that ‘Scent’ seemed to beam into the middle of it like something out of the band’s acid-dropping genrefucking past. Wonderful.

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