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Our Man in Alabama

Erci GebhardtSome time ago, we received a CD sent by a guy called Eric 'Redmouth' Gebhardt from Florence, Alabama. 'Blues $1.49' turned out to be one of the best CD's we'd heard all year (read our review here) and what's more, following a few emails, he turned out to be a really nice chap too. It seems that playing the blues is just as tough a proposition in the U.S. as it is here and, recognising a fellow traveller, we thought it would be interesting to get him to send us an occasional 'Postcard from Florence' to find out how it goes over there. Here's his latest installment...

Episode 3: Eric chats with inspirational local character
Byron Wilkes... July 2007

February 10, 2007 at the Old Town Tavern in downtown Sheffield Alabama was a very special night.  It was the gathering of many local artists, songwriters and bands. Performing were Jason Isbell of the Drive By Truckers, local hippy rock legends The Fiddleworms, Max Russell's punk/blues extravaganza Soul Preacher, the first appearance of yours truely's Red Mouth Band, and Cody Gaisser and his Longships. In this town musicians rarely get to see other bands cause everyone's playing different venues on same nights.  So what brought all of these acts together at the same venue and on the same night?  One man, one legend, one superhero... one Byron Wilkes.

Byron has been a fixture on the local music scene for as long as this musician can remember. He is an eccentric, a painter, a poet and an individual. He is usually on his way to one gig or another with paintings and/or drawings, sometimes poetry and always a rant about local government. He is always ready and willing to explain to you about his artwork that he's dragged along with him, however, that does not mean that you'll be understanding Byron anytime soon. Now thinking about it, I don't think eccentric is a strong enough word. A man who seems to be obsessed with paint, pyramids, Captain Beefheart, cigarettes and B movies. Byron is an individual. In a world where homogenization has become the rule and the landscapes of culture are wiped from our minds like a CIA cover-up, Byron Wilkes stands like a defiant mountain. To the local artists, musicians and writers of the Shoals area he stands as a statue, our one beacon of self reliance and freedom. He is all of Kris Kristoffersons best lyrics rolled up into one artist. He has designed flyers, posters and album covers for countless local bands and the reason for this is that he is our superhero. No one, but God, could ever have created the likes of Byron Wilkes.

My first memories of Byron come from some twelve years ago or more. I would usually find him at a coffee shop in downtown Florence that was, at the time, the mecca for everyone from the slightly odd to the completely lost and mad of the Shoals area. He would be drawing and ranting about the city council meeting that week. He also use to have a store that sold all kinds of vintage and used odds and ends from posters of Farrah Fawcett to comics and toys to used records and cd's. This is where I got my first Iggy Pop album,'The Idiot', and the Damned's 'The Light at the End of the Tunnel'. However, this just isn't the right place for a store like that and now he does most of his selling and bartering on e-bay and pawning off pieces of himself to the entire world.

His home from the outside looks to be a typical small town southern house in your typical small town southern neighborhood. Just driving by one would never fathom that inside stomped the wondermental Byron. As you walk in through a door in the carport, you find yourself in a living room like area, described by a friend as "Byron's lair'. There sits a throne-like chair that is always reserved for Byron, and a couch, a couple other seats, and a TV. The rest of the room is nothing but stacks and mounds of paintings, movies and toys. There is even a guitar that a friend asked him to encapsulate in the paint from his paint brush and most often a Captain Beefheart record blasting from a back room. Cody Gaisser describes Byron's lair as a "time warp". You stop in for a moment to say hello at one in the afternoon then walk out and not only is it dark but the night is well tucked in around you.

The reason for the concert mentioned in the first paragraph is because a few months ago Byron had his second bypass surgery and coming to his aid were musicians and writers from the some what famous to the rarely seen hermit.  This concert had two goals, to help raise money for Byron's mounting medical bills and to show him that we in this area do love and care for our real life superhero. The preparation for this show made me realize that the life and influence of Byron needed to be documented. So I ventured to his lair and drilled him about his life, his art and Captain Beefheart.

Byron's rambling about the Easter Bunnybefore I finally interupt him...
Hey Byron, at what point did you realise you were different from ost of the people around you with your attraction to psychedelic art and music? Was there a defining monent?
I don't know. Well, I have actually been thinking about this and this one does kinda go back to my childhood, when that fucking Santana record, umm, i forget which one it is. I think it's just Santana. I don't think I currently own a copy of it. Its got the head on it, I know you know what i'm talking about, if you've ever seen the vinyl copy of it you know what i'm talking about. It's like a lion's head, but when you look in close its got all this other stuff going on. My cousin Jody, I was the youngest of all my cousins, and that's another reason I'm freakish cause I was the last one born on both sides of the family as far as grandchildren, everybody was older than me...(rambling, phone rings, rambling)... That Santana, my cousin Jody had a copy of that record and she was like a teenager and that was in, what, 1970. It was a relatively new record and I was about 9. I saw that album cover, that damn album cover, and I haven't thought about that in years but I flashed on that back about 6 or 8 months ago, because a lot of childhood shit has been kinda washing through because, well, I've been living in the valley of vicadin. Things get all muddled there, but yea that cover it had a real strange effect on me, of course it wasn't much longer after that that I discovered Robert Crumb and all these things that I shouldn't have been accessing in Florence Alabama. These were things in the mid 70's that weren't really vended here, you couldn't go to Bookland and get an underground comic you know. But occasionally they filtered through yard sales and the Red House Bookstore, the used book store where I started working when I was like 13 or 14. I found R. Crumb's carload-o-comics, at the time I think it was a $6.95 book and I think she'd put 3 dollars on the cover in magic marker. I was accessing this stuff and probably obsorbing it to young and it probably did just warp the hell outta me...I became more and more and more obsessed with low brow art as well as pop art and surrealism. These were about all the things I knew about art was low brow art. Which I didn't know you had to call it low brow art. I didn't know there was a difference, still don't think there's much. What's that old joke about the difference between a flutest and a floutest? About 20 grand a year.

Since this is for I gotta ask you about blues...
About blooooze.
Can you explain your fascination with Beefheart? How did you discover him? Why do you still listen to him?
Well I discovered Beefheart initially through reading and talking with the one other person here in town at the time that was sort of into the same sorta stuff that I was interested in. Well, it all started I discovered Zappa on Saturday Night Live around 1975 or 1976 that led me pretty much directly into Beefheart. I first saw Beefheart on television in the early 80's. I'd known about him probably, I guess I first got turned onto Beefheart around '76, something like that. I forget. Yeah because the last four or five records I bought when they came out new at the store...That 'Mirror Man' in particular. It's like hearing that record...'Trout Mask Replica' was one thing but 'Mirror Man' is just, umm, it's got so many layers and levels to it and that's what I like about Beefheart as far as blues go. It's just got too many levels, more than it should have, you know, but it still works, it's an overload. If you're paying attention it'll trigger epileptic seizures I'm sure in some people. 'Mirror Man' is my favorite record to paint to.
Has blues music had any effect on you and your art work as it did for musicians in the 50s and 60s?
I always liked Bo Diddley and I like Howlin' Wolf a lot. Of course it's real easy to see why I like Howlin' Wolf since I like Beefheart so much. As a matter of fact I don't know if you've ever heard Beefheart's cover of 'I'm a Man'. It was produced by Jack Nitche actually for the soundtrack of 'Blue Collar' which I got a copy of. It's real mechanical. It's like, the movie opens and they're putting cars together, the way they orchestrate it is like anvils and hammers and stuff hitting machinery, and Beefheart's doing this... it's good. And it sounds a lot like Howlin' Wolf, a whole lot like Howlin' Wolf. This was the first stuff I heard when I was a kid that I actually kinda liked alot. Now, I like R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders a hell of alot too, I really like them. Who else did I like? I first heard them when I was in college. "Baby I'm a fine artist, baby I deserve to be kissed" something like that. There's that one, that party record they did that's got that cut 'My Girl's Pussy' on it. I don't know if you've ever heard that, it's one of those double entondre songs, they're not neccessarily... they lead into thinking you're gonna hear one word, of course 'My Girl's Pussy' is a little more blatant. I don't know if you've ever heard songs like 'The Girl From Chicago' or 'Shaving Cream' released by Denny Dale in the 70's. These are farely obscure recordings now. 'Shaving Cream', I could recite the whole song but I won't. I won't put you through that. I can also recite 'I'm the Slime' but I won't put you through that either. I wrote it on a bathroom wall one time though. I was in college, I put the entire lyrics to 'I am the Slime' on the bathroom wall with a magic marker. Every line, I stood there for like a half hour writing. That was when I was at Auburn, I went in the men's restroom on the second floor and wrote all the lyrics to 'I am the Slime' on the bathroom wall.

How old were you?
About 21 maybe, 22. We got in the stall one night and was kinda fucked up, cause we'd been up there smoking dope on the roof or whatever and we crawled out the 3rd story window to the roof. Then we decided to go down there and spray paint the stalls in the bathroom. On one side of the stall we spray painted 'fuck the queen' and on the other side we spray painted just 'random vandalism'. Just spray painted the words 'random vandalism'. Had something to do with something Hunter Thompson had written that one of us had just read at the time... I don't know what made me think of that.
You've been a mainstay on the local music scene for as long as I can remember...
A hanger around.
...who have been some of your favourite bands around here and who have you done artwork for?
Ummm, well, the first local artist I think I ever actually did artwork for was... I can't even remember everyone in the band but J.J. Barlett was in the band and he's the one that asked me to do it and they played a show over here at the North Alabama Fairground back in 19... well it was the same night Frank Zappa hosted Saturday Night 1979. I remember that because I was over there and I didnt' hang around alot because that was before I got a hold of a VCR. I did a backdrop sign on a piece of plywood for them wich was basically just the name of their band which was Sleepy Hollow. So that was the first thing I think I ever did for anybody... (more rambling, we saw friend Tim Clarkson in the back yard and tried to get him to come tell stories about Byron but he had to eat dinner... more rambling... he gripes about commercials for a good 10 minutes)... well, I didn't do anything for several years after that until Paterson Hood used one of my old... well I did a painting called 'Memories of Snakehandlers' the original painting hangs in his house now but I originally gave him a copy of this print version of it I'd done. He put it on one of his early solo releases long out of print. I don't think I had any other artwork that I can think of up until... I'm probably leaving somebody out. Up until prior to 'Southern Rock Opera' (Drive-by-Truckers) being released and Paterson came over again and asked me to do the Wallace illustration and he also wanted me to do the holy trinity of Wallace, Van Zandt and Bear Bryant for the album. For like the last year and a half maybe two years I've produced more than a dozen flyers. Cody Gaisser's been talking to me about doing his album cover, and Howlin' Chris too. I'm probably leaving somebody out and it's probably a blaring obvious omission.
Do you have any rememberances of the benefit show you would like to share?
(rambling...rambling...rambling...rambling)...HAHAHA I was really quite shocked at the number of people... I figured I'd know more people that don't show up than do if I really got to thinking about it, I was kinda surprised at the number of people that did ultimately show up particularly for my worthless ass. HAHAHAHA it's not like I really did much with my life. I like to think of my life as Tennesse Williams on brown acid.

One sign of a humble man (which, arguably, Byron is) is his persistance to downplay his own abilities, creations, and contributions. Byron did something with his life you can be certain. If it was only to give countless locals a person to drink coffee and laugh with then that would have been enough. However, to us in the Shoals area, he's done a shit ton more than that. For some he's helped to light a path, one less traveled but every bit as honorable as the other choices. For most it is a very hard path, but Byron Wilkes shows us that it is possible, and he's helped save some lives along the way, as a superhero is suppose to do.
Thanks Byron,
Your Friend,
Red Mouth

More from Byron on myspace:

Byron's store on ebay:

Previously from Red:
Episode 2 - Eric hangs with local legend Max Russell

Episode 1 - Eric introduces himself and takes us on a tour of his home town