Sometimes it helps to get things going by having a sippin’ glass of whiskey within your reach. You can think of many obsolescent forms of media and the memories you have of hitting the “play” button. And when someone asks about that rubber band wrapped around that hand-held cassette recorder, you can ignore them.
Or you can find comfort with the unanswered question if you wish. Or you can smile.
But only accept a slightly crooked outlaw smile (really more of a teasing smirk) as a response. Because I did and it fits nicely into my obscure life, or at least as it could be determined at Tri-County Mall or some other form of beautiful commercial structure. I’ll take it as an “answer.”
Billy Catfish (aka Lil’ Billy Catfish or, more recently, Billy Catfish Orchestra) hasn’t so much “re-made himself,” as he will tell you, but he just spends less time wondering if you care about his views of Fruitarians (or if his jeans are designer enough for you or if he is saying all the correct things to say) to really care.
“I’m a humble man,” Billy states.
He is sipping on a glass of cheap whiskey. I point out that he has no chaser with the whiskey. He smiles his patented smile again. It seems this gesture could either be a nervous automatic reaction on his part, or the thing he does when he is preparing to see what happens next.
It’s probably the latter. I am almost sure of it.
Billy Catfish has been a staple of the Greater Cincinnati music scene in one form or another since before many of you reading this discovered the “Alternative” music scene went deeper than that shotgun-eater guy or that vampire guy that smashed all those pumpkins. Billy has been on the front lines of the battle for musical identity for quite sometime. In fact, Billy is deep behind those front lines now, working guerrilla-type insurgent maneuvers against the cowboy machine and all it stands for.
But somewhere in there, there has been a change. Billy Catfish is Lil’ Billy Catfish no longer. Hell, he really isn’t even Bill Furbee, either. Many of us, you know, the fans of Billy’s who follow him (but refuse to blow him), have monitored his blogs and Web pages and paid attention to his live shows and perked up our ears at all those shared parties.
And we listened when we heard Billy talk. Billy Catfish has changed.
With ample quantities of the aforementioned whiskey, I pry the “real truth” out of Billy.
Shortly after a late-life decision to become circumcised, Billy found himself nursing a slight fever and alone and driving to “The Mountain Men’s Haphazard Flea Market Gathering and Shin-Diggy,” a bi-yearly gathering of musicians and craftsman in Jackson County, Ky. On his way, his 1987 Jeep Wrangler had a spill at the junction of KY State Route 1709 and Ledger Road. Billy had found himself stranded with just his acoustic guitar, a full bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey, a flashlight and a copy of Philip K. Dick’s famed novel, Radio Free Albemuth.
He walked for two days straight, denying himself any help from strangers he encountered before finally accepting a ride from a wagon-train of traditional Hessian pioneer re-enactors that were heading to the same destination. This is where Billy said he learned simplicity and originality and how to “take it easy from being easy.”
Billy said, in some ways, the whiskey, the pioneer re-enactors and his isolation with his acoustic guitar (that he calls “Shep”) affected him deeply enough to shine through in every facet of his life.
His music became more personal, deeper and full of honesty. It developed a serrated edge that tore at the very essences of all that “real” surrounding him. Billy’s performances changed too and, at first, many whispers at the parties and street corners were full with concerns for Billy. These concerns soon turned to praise. Billy became varied in every approach to his music and began a series of constant collaborations with those who surrounded him.
He helped form bands. He collaborated with friends and colleagues. He always has been an extremely active artist. But he upped the ante. He became what his most recent Tokyo Rose Records CD, Half A Jug Full = No Deal, documents.
On No Deal Billy assembles musicians/ friends to help out and exhibits songs that play like a lost document from Gram Parsons, Neil Young or Willie Nelson. It’s the perfect accompaniment to his live show that could be a channeling of those stated artists, but with the added flair of Andy Kaufman. This CD is what the watchers will take home and instantly connect to at their own pace. They will learn to pour gold whiskey into a glass, but let it breathe a bit and darken before sipping. Billy, he knew this.
I ask Billy more questions about his music and he gives me more cryptic, question-like answers.
“I sing the truth,” Billy says. “But this truth is relative. It’s dirty. It’s ugly. It’s embarrassing.”
He pauses to hand me his empty whiskey glass. He then conscripts my glass of whiskey as his own. I don’t “let him” have it. He takes it. He knows that I know that he knows that it’s really his. He deserves it.
He continues, “The many layers that have become the truth have been burned through by discarded cigarette butts that have taught us all a lesson or two, but still have yet more lessons to reveal. One day, ‘real’ will be real.”
I admit, to you now, humble CityBeat reader: I’m lost.
But I’m sure Billy has found me. Or rather found a place for me.
BILLY CATFISH (myspace.com/billycatfish) performs Saturday at the Herzog Studio/Hank Williams tribute and benefit at the Southgate House. Get event details here.