Fire On The Strings
Columbia / Legacy Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/27/2001
It might seem odd for me to suggest to all the Eddie Van Halen wanna-bes out there that they pick up an album that is over 40 years old -- and has its roots in country and bluegrass. "I don't listen to that chicken-pickin' music," the younger generation might say as they slap on their headphones and air guitar their way through "Eruption" again.
Now, watch as your faithful reviewer removes said headphones from their backwards-baseball-cap-clad heads and smacks them silly. You see, had it not been for someone like Joe Maphis, we might not have had the lightning-fast guitar gods of today. And while I hesitate to put the multi-instrumentalist in the same category, his 1957 disc Fire On The Strings (re-released by Columbia/Legacy with bonus tracks) suggests that herein lie the roots of Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani.
It might be country-pop, but Mathis's performances often live up to the title of this album. Blazing through licks on guitar, banjo and whatnot (I'm working from an advance copy, and misplaced the printed liner notes somewhere here in the Pierce Memorial Archives - how hard could they be to find amongst over 1,000 other bios?), Maphis keeps his performances clear enough to hear every note and exciting enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. Think of Maphis as a more rural Dick Dale, if you will.
Admittedly, these instrumentals tend to blend together, especially after repeated listens. But the talent is there, and whether it's "Twin Banjo Special" (yes, the title describes the instrumentation), "Tennessee Two Step," "Guitar Rock And Roll" or the title track, Maphis proves just how talent can be turned into something exciting to listen to.
This expanded edition includes seven tracks from other singles or albums Maphis recorded during his time with Columbia. "Marching To Pretoria" brought back memories of music class in the late '70s, taught by Atilla The Nun - and the scary thing is that I think I remembered all the lyrics we learned back then. (It's amazing what intimidation can do to a youngster.) The real gem here is "The Rockin' Gypsy," taken from a release with Larry Collins. If you walked into this disc cold and heard it, you might swear you were listening to Dick Dale.
So why isn't Maphis better-known these days? This, my friends, I don't have an answer for -- and while Maphis departed this vale of tears some years back, he might have taken comfort in the fact that Fire On The Strings is being made more accessible for today's listeners. And for our future guitar gods, take my advice and give this disc a listen, if only to hear the roots of fancy guitar playing. It will be 45 minutes well worth your time. Hey, who knows? You might find yourself enjoying that chicken-pickin' music.