Making an allowance for a slight oversimplification, Southern boys, it would seem, come in one of two distinct strains. There are brilliant cats like Jerry Lee Lewis, full of braggadocio, who are the greatest, the wildest, the heppest in the land, graced with the fastest fingers and the biggest balls (usually on fire). Then you have fellas like Elvis Presley, Gregg Allman, Levon Helm, who when they spoke, could scarcely say a good thing about themselves, and if they did in one sentence, they took it back in the next. They were polite, warm, funny and self-deprecating to a fault. And acted as if the spotlight somehow found them when they were unloading the gear. Rust Dust, a brilliantly-talented blues-folk-rocker is one of the latter. He’s as much fun to talk to as it probably was to chew the fat with Mark Twain. But get him to say something showoff-y about himself? You’d have a better chance of finding a store that takes Confederate money. It’s just not this young South Carolinian’s style. He either really thinks he’s just okay, or his background tattooed him with a simple fact: touting himself would just be plain bad manners.
So, I guess it’s up to a noisy northerner like me, then. Rust Dust (given name Ardell Jason Shealy Stutts) , is one of the most exciting new acts of the year. And his debut, Diviners and Shivs (Omad Records) is a raw, rootsy, rusted, twisted treat.
As for that modesty and sense of humor? Well, when I ask this wicked National Resonator guitarist (and songwriter) how long he’s been picking, his response makes me laugh out loud: “I’ve been playing too long,” he says, “to be as bad as I am.”
Untrue, but that makes it no less funny.
Like a lot of southerners, it started for Rust Dust because of Jesus.
“I went to a small Lutheran church,” says the man who now dwells in Brooklyn. “Like at a lot of churches they had a children’s choir. When I started singin’, I felt good. Simple as that. I didn’t really question it, I just sort of went with it. I listened to all kinds of music growing up (he references The Ramones and NWA during our conversation, so he isn’t kidding), but when I got to be about 16 I heard Hound Dog Taylor. His slide playing totally knocked me out. It was so raw and crazy, I’d probably have to categorize it as Punk Rock.”
It was around this time that our young curious pilgrim began to write his own songs.
“I started out on electric guitar. And since I didn’t know how to play that much yet and couldn’t really cover other people’s songs, it just seemed natural to slam out some power chords and make up my own sounds while I did it. Goofy sounds turned into lyrics and I really liked that. Again, it was all about having fun. Very often in Rock, you have a line that makes no literal sense, but it’s profound anyway. And everyone who hears it interprets it a different way. I love that.”
Clearly, this was a winning strategy. What with lines like “Sometimes I feel just like a dog left on the side of the road” (on “Side Of The Road Blues”) or “Strange cake, why you chasing rabbits you can’t catch?” (“Strange Cake”), stream-of-consciousness has clearly become a winning way for Rust Dust. Add an unforced, but clearly southern sort of voice, propulsive guitar, some great instrumentals and you have an album that any Chris Whitley or Ry Cooder fan could fall for. All sung by a kid with hair so long and a beard so woolly and voluminous, he makes ZZ Top look like your local census takers.
Particularly stunning is the production.
“I work at a New York store called Matt Umanov Guitar and I struck up a friendship with this guy John DiNicola, who writes great songs and produces artists. He liked some of the stuff I played him, so he suggested I come up to his studio in upstate New York and we make a record live, in a short amount of time, so we could capture the vibe of what I do when I play gigs,” says Rust Dust.
It was an inspired idea. Cut in two days, live to two-track tape, mixed (if that’s the word) while the sounds were coming from the artist’s mouth and guitar, it’s just the sort of record to listen to in the midst of this State-Of-The-Art-Dance-Record-Nightmare-Age we’re currently living through.
“We sort of did it on the fly, following our instincts. I would say to John, ‘I want this part to be close-up and this part to be far away. He completely understood and was running around opening and closing mikes to sort of capture that. I wanted Diviners and Shivs to sound like it was coming out of your mind, with some stuff real distorted and some really clean. I think we pretty much achieved that with the record.”
As for promoting the album, which drops on September 22nd, young Stutts, aka Rust Dust, has a typically laid-back, whatever happens happens approach to getting his roots, bluesy, tormented tunes out to the public.
“I guess I’ve already sort of started promoting it, if that’s the right word,” says this distinctly non-careerist-sounding boy. “I played The Jalopy Theatre, in Brooklyn recently, and so far I have gigs booked at a place called Betty’s Back Room and The American Folklore Museum. I’m sure there will be more jobs as the summer rolls on. But right now, I’m just pleased that the record sounds like I wanted it to, and people seem to like it when they hear it. As far as the future, I guess we’ll just let it take care of itself.”
Diviners and Shivs will be released on September 22.