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Signs of Life

A musical orphan finds his father figure in a crazy rural artist.



So wrote self-proclaimed "Outlaw" Jesse Howard (1885-1983), a self-taught artist who placed hundreds of intense, block-lettered signs on Sorehead Hill, his property in Fulton, Missouri, to broadcast his uncompromising, confrontational perspective. It takes time to reconcile Howard's work, now on display at the H&R Block Artspace, with irony-drenched postmodern gallery exhibits. When he refers to communists as "master minds of deceit" or lambastes a "crooked generation" that "doesn't know a Bible from a funny paper or an almanac," he's being damned serious. Like Johnny Cash, another crossover rural icon with some less-than-liberal views, Howard turns natural ideological enemies into admirers.

When Kansas City songwriter Mark Stevenson (formerly of the Snakebite Orphans) first saw Howard's work at an Artspace show in 2001, he admired the late artist's strong language and convictions. "There's a song in every sign," he says. The first Howard rant to become a Stevenson composition contained a perfect country-ballad plot. It read in part: "WOE UNTO YOU TAXICAB DRIVER'S THAT IS HAULING MY WIFE AFTER NIGHT AND I KNOW NOT WHO SHE IS WITH. ALL I CAN SAY IS SHE IS NOT AT HOME WITH ME."

The Artspace hired Stevenson, a paper conservator by trade, to organize its Howard holdings, including scrapbooks, newspaper clippings and a registry of visitors. His research of these items informed his just-released eight-song collection, Because Iniquity Shall Abound, on which Stevenson's borrowed lyrics sound lived-in. He avoided "writing in character," he says, and he did not attempt to use his voice to duplicate Howard's distinctive syntax, which included odd line breaks such as "uprigh-t" and "wonde-rs." But he really sounds like a "tough old man," the kind who calls out "greedy dogs" and asks with stubborn sincerity, "no flowers please after I'm gone."

"I share personality traits with Jesse," Stevenson admits. "When you take on a project like this, you want to have commonality with your subject. There were moments when I wondered if Jesse was up there guiding things."

Stevenson puts a distinct twist on old-time music, interjecting experimental strummings that recall early Meat Puppets albums. The most traditional track, the field holler "Courthouse Gang," looked like a call-and-response song when it was just paint-on-metal because of Howard's bluesy repetition of the phrase "How many pencils have you worn out raising my taxes year after year?"

"Jesse wasn't afraid to look a man in the eye and then stick his finger in it," Stevenson says.

This might be Howard's proudest legacy, one that Stevenson preserves by not diluting his words or telegraphing insincerity while bashing "brain-washing Communists." In one piece, Howard quotes a remark from his registry: "KEEP GIVING THEM HELL. THEY HAVE IT COMING." The old Outlaw would likely applaud any artistic appropriation that ensures his righteous voice will not be silenced.

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