Fred Wickham has clearly absorbed the spirit of the Hadacol Caravan.
Back in the early ‘50s, the Caravan, named for an alcohol-laden “medicine” designed to ease good country people through dry county weekends, needed as many as train cars to tour the country. Originally hosted by Hank Williams, the Caravan featured performers as varied as Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Milton Berle and Judy Garland.
This Friday, Wickham has organized a show that’s part Caravan, part “This Is Your Life.” For starters, it’s a record release party for his new CD, "Mariosa Delta," produced by a legend, the late Lou Whitney of Springfield. Guitarist D. Clinton (Donnie) Thompson, who played with Whitney in the Morells and the Skeletons (and also on "Mariosa") will be on stage.
The show is also a relatively rare chance to catch a reunion of the alt-country Hadacol (Wickham's band with his brother Greg Wickham, bassist Richard Burgess and drummer Matt Brahl), which helped put Kansas City on the map as a roots town in the 1990s. For a little variety, two local groups, The Country Duo, with Marco Pascolini and Kasey Rausch (with whom Wickham plays in The Naughty Pines) and Lawrence’s Broken Arrows almost round out the bill.
Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City himself, will even sing a few songs. Really. (Wickham’s wife works in his office.)
“It’s a lot of moving pieces,” Wickham admits with a laugh.
"Mariosa Delta" is Wickham’s first release since Hadacol split up.
“The record sat for a long time,” Wickham says, with a touch of regret. “Even though everybody had a great time making the record, a whole lot of life went down during that time period.”
Including Whitney’s passing in 2014.
Even though the record has had time to steep, its delayed release wasn’t caused by any problems with the songs.
“We recorded enough songs that we were really able to pick the cream of the crop,” Wickham emphasizes. “I’m really happy with all of the songs.”
The centerpiece is “Mariosa Delta, 1940,” a staggering, ‘30s-style blues ballad that recounts a family tragedy: the murder of Wickham’s great-uncle Jim, who, according to the lyrics, is shot down in cold blood by a jealous husband who “put down his pistol and ordered a brew.” Jim dies in the arms of his sister-in-law (Wickham’s grandmother), and the witnesses to murder lie about what happened because, Wickham sings, “You could almost hear them saying ‘I’d have done it, too.’”
It’s a story from a saltier part of Missouri history.
“The Mariosa Delta is where the Maries River and the Osage River come together near Jefferson City,” Wickham explains. “It almost looks like a huge lake, with vacation homes and a larger building my grandparents owned that was a nightclub of sorts, clearly a happening nightspot at one point.”
Oddly for Wickham, he didn’t hear about the murder until he was older.
“My grandmother was pregnant with my mom at the time, in 1940. I didn’t hear about it till I was in my thirties; my mom didn’t hear about it till she was in her thirties. Part of what made it so bizarre to hear about was that my grandma was just … the perfectly dressed grandmother, the last person you’d ever think would be involved in a murder.”
It’s the most factual song he’s ever written.
“Most songs you take liberties,” he says. “Even if you have a personal involvement, you’re going to use creative license to make the song work. That song, though, is pretty close. There’s one line that says, ‘Nine dirt farmers set Arthur Lyons free.’ Actually, it was eight dirt farmers and a banker. Other than that, I tried to keep as close as I could to the actual facts of the story.”
Friday night’s show is a chance to hear nearly all of the songs from the new record. The backing band, not coincidentally known as the Hadacol Caravan, features original Hadacol bassist Burgess, Sam Platt on drums, Marco Pascolini on guitar and pedal steel, Bart Colliver on keyboards, and Wickham’s son, also Fred Wickham (“We call him Junior,” Wickham explains), on mandolin.
“That’s the band that will back the mayor,” says Wickham. “He’s really good — I mean really good. He can sing.”
And with Thompson coming into town, Wickham promises a couple of Morells and Skeletons songs.
“He’s my favorite guitar player ever,” Wickham says.
With all those pieces in place, the revue will be a constantly rotating, often overlapping, rollicking stream of some of the best roots musicians in town.
“It’s a big family thing,” he says. “Almost.”
"Mariosa Delta" Record Release Party and Hadacol Reunion with Mayor Sly James, the Country Duo, D. Clinton Thompson and Broken Arrows, 8 p.m., Friday, September 29, at Knuckleheads Saloon, 2715 Rochester, Kansas City, Missouri, 64120; 816-483-1456.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.