Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Swamp-Psych Gardening: The Organic Strangeness Of Plant And See

Plant And See: Forris Fulford(left),
 Willie Lowery (2nd left)
Plant and See, a Southern swamp-rock group with psychedelic fringes, were never going to be easy to categorise. They were led by Willie French Lowery, a Lumbee Indian from Robeson County, North Carolina, who devoted his life to his people’s culture. Previously, he worked in a carnival, and as bandleader for Clyde McPhatter (of the Drifters). He wrote a deodorant commercial, and fronted the psychedelic also-rans Corporate Image.
Plant And See offered an escape, though the group’s line-up was remarkable enough in the still segregated South. African-American New Yorker Forris Fulford played drums, and was joined by Latino bassist Ronald Seiger and Scottish-Irish singer Carol Fitzgerald. “All of us had history of playing with soul groups,” recalls Fulford. “It was pretty popular in that area at the time, and Willie knew Carol, she was into Janis Joplin and stuff like that. We had good chemistry. I was really laid back, and Willie was laid back; even though we were in the South in the Sixties, and actually it was kinda rough around there. When they said ‘living across the tracks’, they really meant that. When I went to do the soul gigs, I would play across the tracks, at Big Joe’s Plantation or something like that.
“Our music pulled everything together. In the South, it was really separated. We used to do the college circuit, and there would be a lot of tension with the rednecks. We were a mixed group. The cats had long hair, and I had a ’fro. And we had this white redhead as a singer. We’d go into some places after the gig and we’d get some really hard stares!”
Though the group’s background was in soul, their ambitions lay in jazz. “We would try,” says Fulford, “but when you start playing you can’t play jazz, you just think you’re playing jazz! I really came from a jazz-influenced background and started playing soul, and I always liked the rock groups, especially Led Zeppelin and Hendrix. As a group we went to see Grand Funk Railroad live at Chapel Hill in North Carolina, and we saw Edgar Winter, then the Allman Brothers came to town and we were the warm-up group, so we got to know them pretty well – the original group with Duane Allman and Berry Oakley.”
Musically, Plant and See were diverse. Personally, they were unassuming. “Willie was very talented, but very laid back,” recalls drummer Forris Fulford. “He’d go into a place, and you wouldn’t even know he was there. He wasn’t the one to get up front and go ‘see me’. Actually, nobody in the group was – we were a shy band!”
Their only record came out in 1969 on the foundering White Whale label (home of Jim Ford and The Turtles). “Willie knew these agents in North Carolina. There was two of them – one, he was a crook, a Costa Rican. And there was another guy who was like the local agent, so they got together, and so when we came over with our material, they said ‘Well, let’s see if we can get you guys into the mix’. So we had an audition to go to New York and play for this firm – we were just glad to go and play. They liked the group, they bought us equipment, and they sent us to California to record with White Whale Records. We had a chance to work with some big producers like Al Schmitt who did a whole lot of Elvis Presley recordings [and engineered Moon River]. We stayed out there long enough to record and then we headed back to the East Coast.”
The album suffered because it was impossible to pigeonhole, though that is its strength too. The sound is built on Lowery’s swampy guitar, but flits between the sultry rock stylings of “Put Out My Fire” (like a jittery Hendrix, channelling tribal rhythms) and the sweet soul of “Henrietta”, with Lowery’s pained vocal floating over lush harmonies.
“In those days everything was psychedelic,” says Fulford. “The way you dressed, and kaleidoscopes, and incense, and tie-dye. The parents of the children coming to the gigs were more rigid than the kids going to college, even in the South, so when we played the colleges, they didn’t have any problems with race – it was just outside the college, dealing with the folks in town. Willie understood what it was like growing up like that – I understood – even though I grew up in New York, just travelling to the South my parents.”
Plant and See evolved into Lumbee, recording another album, before Lowery retreated into community-oriented songwriting. He died in May, just missing the change to see his music being re-issued and appreciated afresh. MC Taylor of Paradise of Bachelors label-mates Hiss Golden Messenger offers this tribute.
“Willie Lowery ran the gauntlet of the music industry for nearly 50 years and never played a dishonest note, in the process becoming an inspiration for, and hero to, the native Lumbee community, as well as South-Eastern red dirt musicians who decide to tell the truth, consigning themselves to the long road. He was the real thing.”
Fulford, who now plays residencies in a Tokyo hotel, is happy that Plant and See are being given another outing. “Racial tension was pretty heavy, but we were able to get by because of our music. I think we did some playing that was fresh and raw and spontaneous.”
Buy Plant And See on limited edition virgin vinyl from Paradise of Bachelors