King James and the Special Men
“New Orleans is so good, even the clichés are all right,” says Jimmy Horn. And we better hope that’s true, because it’s damn near impossible to talk about a show like the one he puts on without devolving into the standard tropes. A ramshackle, smoke-hole bar where the walls shake ‘til the a.m. A packed floor hazy with the sweat of a hundred dancers. You can’t talk about Monday nights with the Special Men without sounding like a hundred other attempts to talk about juke joints and all-night dance halls across the country. But that’s part of what makes the show — and the music you hear — so special. It’s all the sentiments you’ve heard a hundred thousand times before made raw and made new.
Jimmy “King James” Horn knows this, and the strength of his weekly performances at the front of the Special Men speak to a lifetime of musical training being boiled down to something so simple and universal it has to be nailed just right to sound like its own thing.
“I dare you to just say ‘I got the blues’ in front of a crowd. It’s hard. Even though everyone does have the blues. If you can get to the point where you can say ‘Baby’ or ‘Oh yeah’ without it being like, ‘What the fuck did he just say?’ then you’re really cooking with grease.”
The band as a whole is called King James and the Special Men, and it is a New Orleans act through and through. Not just from the song selection — either originals or tunes by New Orleans performers (the work of Texan Johnny “Guitar” Watson being the lone exception) — but also from the feeling that there is probably no other city in America where a band like this could exist in this form. In the time of file sharing, of instant Youtube videos, of albums cranked out and sold by the fistful on the street, the Special Men have made their bones through their live sets. They’ve never released a full length album. Most of the clips of them on Youtube are grainy and jouncy, the sound gargling in the microphone of the cell phone that recorded them. But six years of regular Monday night gigs managed to get them enough buzz to do a tour in Europe and get invited to play at Lincoln Center. That a band could generate that kind of interest without going any of the standard routes of self-promotion says a lot about the city, but it also says a lot about the band.
For Jimmy Horn, this was always the goal. Not so much to chase success as to create something that people would want to come see. He spent a good deal of time in the hill country of north Mississippi, watching as artists like Jessie Mae Hemphill, R.L. Burnside, and Junior Kimbrough were sought out by famous musicians from around the world. As the Mondays have piled up over the last several years, the Special Men have become that kind of destination, keeping their sound centered around their city.
“If I didn’t write it, then we’re only doing New Orleans. You’re gonna come to New Orleans, you better get hip. Don’t ask me to play Memphis shit.”
But within those boundaries are some incredibly deep waters. The band’s shows are wild, frequently giving you the sense that everything is about to fly off the rails. But it’s chaos by design. The rhythm section, which includes bassist Rob Snow, guitarist John Rodli, and drummer Chris Davis, is as tight as they come, each of the players in regular demand for dozens of bands around the city. And Horn’s frontman act, a mix of clowning on the mic, lewd jokes, and bawdy introductions — “This next song’s about women rubbin’ one out in the bathtub” — masks a deep love of music that ranges from Korean court music to Kurdish sufi music to merengue and salsa and Haitian Rara bands. His act pulls from a laundry list of great New Orleans performers, from Jessie Hill and Fats Domino to Lee Dorsey and Champion Jack Dupree. All of this gets boiled down into something that constantly shakes the walls that contain it.
And that’s New Orleans. This is a city where second-line parades constantly hold up traffic and nobody honks their horns. Where musicians run across the street to start another gig as a fill-in for a band member who can’t make it. Where someone walks into a bar and ends up on stage singing a song so the regular singer can wind through the crowd with the tip jar. For all the music this city produces, it’s always about the live set, and with a band that exists entirely on live sets, the regulars become accidental archivists, remembering those moments and freezing them in amber as another part of the city’s story.
It’s the live sets that have put the band on so many people’s radars. But even the most elusive of New Orleans live performers, like Tuts Washington, have found their way into the studio to record. For Jimmy Horn, this is the next step. Like Dave Bartholomew — the great producer, singer, and songwriter who Horn describes as the man that “all roads in New Orleans lead back to” — Jimmy Horn has started to build a catalog centered around the Special Men sound. Drawing from the press-and-sell tactics of earlier outfits like Studio One in Jamaica, Special Men Records (under the banner of Grown Folks Only music) is building a catalog that will be centered around regularly produced material that comes out in stages, much of it produced on that largely forgotten gem of the recording industry, the 45.
“I partnered up with a studio locally, and we’ve been recording a lot. We finished up our first record a couple of times now. The way I want to come out is with a year’s worth of monthly singles. So the deal is you’re a subscriber, versus a purchaser of individual records. And every month you get a record — a 45 — and it’s a Special Men song sung by another singer.”
It’s a novel concept that, again, probably would have a hard time flying anywhere outside of New Orleans. And again it’s hard to describe it without devolving into cliché. Terms like “throwback” and “old school” and “the way things used to be.” It’s hard to escape, and can only be modified by remembering that good taste is timeless.
“I’m very, very stubborn,” says Horn. “Too many people fix what ain’t broke. It’s good music. You don’t have to put rims on it. The more I see things going, the more hard-headed I am about not cutting corners. I consider myself a hard-headed, soon-to-be-grumpy-old-man who just likes things better the old way.”about the artists