Graded on a Curve:
Jim Stafford,
Jim Stafford

The list of famous country novelty songs is a long one. There have been hundreds–probably thousands–of them. Just off the top of my head: Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” Loretta Lynn’s “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly,” Mark Chesnutt’s “Bubba Shot the Jukebox,” and my dad’s all-time favorite (he sang it all the time), Mac Davis’ “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” Any half-decent country fan could reel off dozens more.

But when it comes to country novelty tune artists, Jim Stafford could just be the king. I grew up listening to “Spiders & Snakes,” “Wildwood Weed,” and “I Got Stoned and I Missed It,” and while I’d never kissed a girl or smoked a joint in my life, I loved the obvious spirit of fun behind all of ‘em.

Stafford has released only three albums, and since 1990 he’s dedicated his energy to operating and performing at the Jim Stafford Theatre in Branson, Missouri (no vanity there, and by the way: should you find yourself in Branson, be sure to stop by Dolly Partons’ Stampede!). Don’t know if he’s plain lazy or doesn’t need the money, but Stafford hasn’t released an LP since 1993. (He has done some acting; he played the role of Buford in 1984’s immortal Bloodsucker from Outer Space.)

Jim Stafford spawned four Top 40 hits, and if there’s one word to describe the LP it’s versatility. You get some swamp rock, a faux-lounge number, a couple of good ole’ country numbers, a blues parody, a rockabilly pastiche, and a couple of songs that pack what can only be described as a hard rock punch. And that “variety” also extends to Stafford’s knack for creating personae; he’s a shapeshifter who is, by turn, a sly hayseed, an aging rockabilly fan, a very confused courter, a Louisiana oracle, and so on.

“Wildwood Weed” is the best of ‘em; the tale of a country boy who accidentally discovers the joys of marijuana (“Didn’t know what happened/But I knew it beat the hell out of sniffin’ burlap”) growing wild on the farm, turns on his brother (he finally catches up with him “‘bout six the next morning/Naked and swinging on the windmill”) and ends up having the last laugh on some disapproving Washington type who has their whole crop dug up and burned (“Then they drove away/We just smiled and waved/Sittin’ there on our sack of seeds”). You have to hand it to the guy; he sent a blatantly pro-marijuana song to No. 7 on the Billboard charts, and he did it on the strength of sheer subversive underdog charm.

On “Spiders and Snakes”–which packs a wallop thanks to the electric guitar of crack sessions guy Richard Bennett–Stafford’s a naive country boy whose up-for-some-hanky-panky girl ends up frustrated as hell by his idea of foreplay, which consists solely of slipping icky creatures down her dress. The happy-go-lucky joke-number “My Girl Bill” works (or doesn’t) on the strength of a missing comma; Bill isn’t his girlfriend, Bill wants his girlfriend, and you finally figure out he’s really saying, “She’s my girl, Bill.”

“Swamp Witch” and “The Last Chant” are a pair of Cajun stompers; the former is a tale about “Black water Hattie,” a much-feared figure who “lived back in the swamp.” When a plague comes to nearby Okeechobee she gets blamed, and there’s talk about a hanging. But one day “a big black round/vat of gurgling brew” appears and cures the plague, and the desperate townspeople (“There ain’t much pride when you’re trapped inside/A slowly sinkin’ ship”) drink it and are cured. So they dare the dark swamp to thank Hattie, only to find a “parchment note… tacked to a stump” that says “Don’t come lookin’ again.”

On “The Last Chant” he channels the deep-throated voice of a local bearing witness to the destruction of swamp culture by developers and the like; a friend explains his alligator hunting with the words “I never met a handbag I didn’t like,” and Stafford damns progress with the words, “Highways, byways, souvenir stands/Eat here! Gas up! Campin’ vans/We got ten thousand new attractions planned/With mechanical animals and mechanical friends.” He ends the song with a defiant challenge to those who would put an end to his way of life (“Sometimes I wonder what you’d do/If the swamp moved in on you?”).

“I Ain’t Sharin’ Sharon” sees Stafford mimicking a 1920’s ragtime singer–you get the horns, you get the female backing singers, you get the rollicking 88s–and the joke lies in the distance from Stafford’s dandified vocals and the explicit threats of violence (“I’ll break your back, your neck, your nose, your tooth/Your toe and your arm”) he issues to anybody who tries to move in on his gal.

“A Real Good Time” tells the story of lonely guy who calls a number scrawled inside a telephone booth; he’s particularly entranced by a long list of her “skills,” so he calls her and says, “About this list/Which I began to read with particular emphasis/ My favorite numbers 1, 5, 11 14, 22, 33, and 41 through 59.” Unfortunately he’s mistaken for a “phantom obscene phone caller/Master of crime” and ends up in prison, where he calls her again and says, “I was wondering in oh maybe/About ten years or so when I get out of here if you’d/Mind if I gave you a call.” Some folks never learn.

“16 Little Red Noses and a Horse That Sweats” has to be one of the most bizarre blues number ever written. I don’t know what inspired this baby but it’d do even Shel Silverstein or Randy Newman proud. After Stafford’s girl runs off with the garbage man, and he catches her with a fella who explains he’s “a nudist/Who came in to use the phone,” Jimbo utters a threat that’s worth quoting in its entirety: “I’m gonna take you to a secret place/Where I got a vat full of dippity doo/Sixteen little red noses and a horse that sweats/Gonna dip you in that deputy doo/Tie a rubber band around my fanny/And run around you screamin’ like I’m an airplane/And make me take off”). You can’t make shit like that up, people, except he just did!

As for “L.A. Momma,” it’s a modernistic, sophisticated country rocker with a synthesizer and everything, and is pretty straight up for Stafford; bottom line is he needs his “blue jeans sequin see-through mama” to chase his blues away. “Yeahuuuuh,” he moans at the end, before letting out a lascivious Jerry Lee cackle.

A couple of the numbers don’t quite come off; his “Mr. Bojangles” cover dies a maudlin death when he slips into the voice of Bojangles himself (it’s enough to make your skin crawl) and the rockabilly-flavored “Nifty Fifty Blues” suffers a similar fate when Stafford switches gears from an uncanny Jerry Lee Lewis imitation to an aging rock ’n’ roller looking back at the good old days. Stafford should leave the old duffer shtick alone. He doesn’t wear it very well.

Jim Stafford is one of the funniest country LPs ever recorded, Stafford is one of the most likable country artists under the Nashville–make that Branford, Missouri–sun. Swap out “Mr. Bojangles” with “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and Jim Stafford would be well-nigh perfect. I don’t know if Mr. Stafford will ever record again and I don’t much care–Jim Stafford stands as a great legacy all by its lonesome.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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