Wayne Bledsoe: Ex-Rambler Mike Craver mixes Tom Lehrer with the Carter Family

North Carolina's Mike Craver presents songs from his peculiar musicals on the new album "Bosh & Moonshine."

North Carolina's Mike Craver presents songs from his peculiar musicals on the new album "Bosh & Moonshine."

"Bosh & Moonshine," Mike Craver (Sapsucker)

Mike Craver dwells in an odd place in American music. Since his days with the legendary string band The Red Clay Ramblers (with which he regularly played piano) in the 1970s and '80s, Craver has created characters that seemed to dwell in mini-folk operas.

After leaving that group, he, indeed, began creating regional musicals filled with fascinating characters and songs that were catchy, clever and altogether lovable.

A few of the numbers created for those musicals found their way onto Craver's albums "Wagoner's Lad" (one of the best discs of the '90s) and 2002's lovably eclectic "Shining Down."

The new release "Bosh & Moonshine" is entirely made up of songs from Craver's musicals "Bosh & Moonshine," "The Belle of the Wabash," "Sarah Bernhardt In Texas" and "Oklahoma Hale & Damnation."

While there may be similarities, Craver's creations don't sound like Broadway musicals. He's a guy who cut his teeth on the songs of the Carter Family and absorbed those songs' simple poetry. Cross that with the dark wit and piano chops of Tom Lehrer and you might get the idea of Craver's odd charm.

A good example is a Craver character's enthusiastic endorsement of human taxidermy in the song "Stuffed People":

"I'd point out my fav'rites like dear Uncle Paul /And there's my sweet grandmother's head on the wall/ I wish that I could have got all of her back/But she got drunk one night and fell asleep on the track ... Stuffed porkchops, stuffed peppers, stuffed people ..."

His killer "Mysterious Dave Mather" is appreciated as "the undertaker's friend" because of his talent for killing without disfiguring his victims.

Many of the songs are inspired by real historical characters, including the subject of the haunting and beautiful song "The Girl in the Gem Saloon." The character Mary Bright was a worker in the famous Deadwood saloon and brothel.

An air of old-fashioned sentimentality. tragedy and sweetness underlies nearly all of Craver's work, even his laugh-out-loud funny numbers, and much of it sounds as if it could've originated in the late 1800s era that his musicals depict.

Craver understands the little nuances of history — a time when Laudanum was a common addiction. And his gorgeous song "Summerville, Colorado," picks up on the unsavory practice of representing worthless properties as urban paradises to unwitting dreamers.

"... And its court house shines in the morning sun like a marbled temple of old /And its streets spread out in elegant spokes that glimmer with the glints of gold ..."

"Bosh & Moonshine" is not as complete an album experience as "Wagoner's Lad." In that album, each song stood on its own and its stories seemed self-contained.

"Bosh & Moonshine," though, makes you want to hear all of the songs in the context of the musicals they were created for. In fact, considering that some of the characters show up in all three of Craver's solo albums, it's tempting to digitally re-edit the song sequence of all the albums to recreate the plays' narratives.

Regardless, "Bosh & Moonshine" is filled with songs that will surprise the uninitiated and longtime fans will love.

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