Danny Kroha's blues-punk odyssey comes full circle

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"One of the things I love about the Gories is that they really didn't start that band to be a huge working band," the Dirtbombs' longtime "fuzz bassist" Ko Melina says. "They did for the love of the music."

There were hardly any black people, or women, in garage bands in the 1980s. By the time the Gories had finally won local crowds over in the early '90s, after being name-checked by numerous newly famous grunge-rockers and British fans, O'Neill and Kroha had broken up, and the band was on its last legs. After a slightly disappointing third record and a tour to Europe where O'Neill and Kroha had both brought along their respective new flames, the Gories called it quits.

Kroha was despondent over the Gories split, but his new girlfriend Margaret Gomoll played him her own songs and told him they should start a band together, which was going to be called the Demolition Doll Rods. "Her songs were really original. I've never heard anything like them. It was really fun to just ride the Margaret train, to dress up crazy and just have fun for all those years."

"The Doll Rods were great live, but when I first saw them I had no idea what to expect at all," Buick says. "Seeing the Gories totally changed everything — one of the best bands I've ever seen — and I'd moved away to California so I didn't know that Danny was in a new band until the Doll Rods' third song, when I realized that the one chick up there was actually Danny from the Gories."

Kroha and Gomoll broke up after a few years but remained close and kept the band going another dozen years. "We'd sleep together in the van on tour but we never did anything," he says. "We toured constantly, and got pretty successful." Blackwell told Kroha that Jack White first really thought he hit it big when the White Stripes were opening for the Doll Rods.

"When the White Stripes first came out, Margaret and I liked them, and would go see them play, when there were like 10 people there," he says. "I first knew Jack as a fan of mine. It did really catch me off-guard when the White Stripes blew up and got huge. I was really put out. I didn't feel ripped off. Nothing I did was ever that original; I can't fault anyone for being influenced. But I was jealous, yes, when they broke big. I always liked Jack, but I was jealous of the success he had. It took a while to get over it, you know? It kind of discouraged me a bit. But I got over it. And now I have a record on his label."

Kroha's roommate, Todd Albright, a talented acoustic guitarist and recent transplant from Toledo, Ohio, is picking out lines that sound like Mississippi John Hurt in his own room next door. Kroha's pit bull Mimi gnaws at a heavy-duty piece of rawhide, when not begging for attention.

Garage rock dudes, the real ones anyway, have always carried themselves with swagger. You have to — it's part of the schtick.

Perhaps this is part of why, though this record was recorded several years ago, it's taken such a long time to see release. You see, at first, Kroha had little swagger as it relates to this new direction, to becoming Mr. Old-Timey Music Guy. An early stumbling block to finding his way into this material had been technical. "I'd been trying to play along with John Lee Hooker records and it never worked. I didn't know why."

Then Kroha learned about open tunings for the guitar from an interview with Keith Richards. "I started trying out that stuff, and then John Lee Hooker made sense," he explains. "That's that sound, that's Doctor Ross, that's John Lee Hooker." Then he learned that Hasil Adkins had always played in an open D. That was a huge revelation, and got him playing the blues the way it made sense for him.

His first stab at solo blues recording was in 2001, demos recorded with longtime fan, fellow musician, and producer Defever, just to see if he could do it. "I did those solo recordings and just put it away and kept doing the Doll Rods and then, when the Doll Rods stopped, I had started to listen to diddley bow players, and had heard One String Sam, and that blew my mind when I heard it," he says. A diddley bow is a piece of wire strung between two nails. The nails can be stuck to a plank of wood, or simply hung vertically on a front porch. It's often played with an old coffee can to get a slide effect. "I like stuff that's not considered 'real' music, instruments that aren't 'real' instruments — diddley bow, mouth bow, washtub bass, one-string fiddle."

He played this material live about town, but was not sure if it should be released. The recordings were initially made in the unfinished second floor of his house, on a portable four-track by Noah Morrison. "I just played upstairs in that flat with the nice wood floor and the plaster walls, nice 8-foot-tall ceilings, or 9-foot, whatever they are." Kroha was inspired by the simple, clear sound of early field recordings made by Mike Seeger and George Mitchell for labels like Folkways in the 1960s. After getting turned down by Mississippi Records in Portland, Ore., his first choice, he sat on it for months. Finally getting his nerve back, he shared it with Blackwell thinking perhaps it could come out on his small label, Cass. But Blackwell unexpectedly countered that perhaps White would want to issue it on Third Man, proper. This would, of course, mean thousands of more copies being pressed (and likely purchased, given the label's rabid fanbase). "I don't care if it sells five or five million copies; it just has to get released," Blackwell says.

After hearing all that, Kroha still sat on the material for another year, at which point he brought in Defever again. "I got cold feet 'cause I didn't know if this was good enough to get that big of an audience," Kroha says. "I called up Warren and said, 'I want to rework this album. I need you to listen to it. Tell me what you think.' So he listened and said, 'OK, it's good but a couple songs don't fit.' I told him how I wanted to record some new tracks and stitch 'em in, then, and I told him how I recorded it, and the sounds I was looking for."

"We made a checklist of ideas he had that he hadn't done yet; I have the piece of paper right here, and it reads 'bell, comb, high voice,'" Defever says. "Danny wanted to record a comb through a piece of paper to emulate a kazoo, and also sing in a high voice. And then Blind Mamie Forehand has that song where she sings along to a bell, so Danny wanted to do that, and he also brought a jug and a washboard over too."

"Warren set me up in his loft the same way, got the same kind of sound, recorded some more songs, fit them in with the other ones, and it sounds seamless to me," Kroha says. "It doesn't sound like it was recorded in two different years and two different places."

The celebrated reissue in 1998 of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, originally issued in 1952 on Folkways, introduced Kroha to a whole new realm of music that he could sing with confidence: weird, bluesy hillbillies from the 1920s and '30s. The gravel voices of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Buell Kazee, Dick Justice, and Dock Boggs were a revelation. "I started finding out that there's white guys in the '20s playing rhythm and blues. And I was like, 'Huh, that's interesting.' I felt like there's a history for white people in this too. I don't know if that sounds blunt, but it's true," he says.

"I got into those guys and I started getting into songsters, realizing that I was attracted to songster material, because it wasn't blues. Blues has been done to death. This songster stuff, I already liked it, I just didn't know that's what it was. A songster is more a folk song that has a melody, and it doesn't have the A-A-B pattern of blues. Lead Belly was a songster. Frank Stokes was a songster. They did old-folk songs, popular songs from the 1870s. They did stuff that would be considered country, even, or was also done by country singers because they were just folk songs, songs that were in the canon of blacks and whites. They were just popular songs that everybody did. So I decided to gravitate more toward that material. I'm not a blues man. I never will be a blues man. But, I can feel gospel. I was raised Catholic. I was raised in the church. I wasn't Pentecostal, and we had our little Catholic folky kind of '70s gospel songs that came out of the '60s folk music. But I could relate to and sing gospel songs, because felt it. I can't sing about picking cotton, I don't feel comfortable singing that. I feel confident singing John Henry because I feel the man versus machine thing in that song."

"He's very apprehensive about doing this music, a classic trait that goes through all the great white blues players," Blackwell says. "I was just watching the John Fahey documentary, and Fahey talks about having to create a fake persona, Blind Joe Death, in order to begin to approach roots music. And the White Stripes felt the exact same way, like, 'How can we be two white kids playing the blues? Let's add this strict black and red design element to it, in order to feel like we are even allowed to do this.'"

Another reason why Kroha was reluctant to be known as a folk musician, to have people hear his renditions of these hoary chestnuts, is largely due to the climate for the genre today. It's as if one has to either dress up in a silly vest and pre-distressed fedora like one of those beyond-hokey Mumford & Sons types, or swallow one's pride and go the gentle old-folk's route, appearing on Garrison Keillor so you can sing your song before swapping Dad jokes about duck calls.

"Whenever I think of myself as a folksinger, I always think of that album I've seen in a million different dollar bins, My Son, the Folk Singer by Allan Sherman. Because I feel like, 'How can I even do this? It's such a cliché.' But I'm not singing corny 'Americana' songs, so I feel pretty good about that," he says.

"It's more common now that people can play open-tune blues and folk stuff well. But back in the '80s, when I first started getting into this, nobody really did that. There was nobody playing open-tuning blues. It was like a lost art, a total mystery. It's not so much of a mystery anymore."

Danny Kroha plays a record release party at 8 p.m. on March 8 at the Old Town Tavern; 122 W. Liberty Street, Ann Arbor; 734-662-9291; oldtownaa.com. Todd Albright opens; no cover.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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