Persistence pays off. Singer-songwriter Mike Younger began this project now titled, Burning the Bigtop Down, in January of 2001, over 20 years ago. The original tracks, the same nine Younger originals represented herein, were recorded alongside the departed icons Levon Helm and Jim Dickinson. For reasons which remain inexplicable to us, maybe even to Younger, his label called at the time and told him to shut the project down. Yet, through endless battles with lawyers and a will to win Younger is now able to present the project some twenty years later.
The original core band for the recording reads like a Hall of Fame lineup with Luther Dickinson (guitar), Levon Helm (drums), Spooner Oldham (keyboards and organ), Jim Dickinson (piano), Cody Dickinson on washboard for “Ragtime Angel,” and David Hood (bass) supporting Younger’s vocals and acoustic guitar. The final rendition of the album involves several notable Nashville greats including Bob Britt, Regina McCrary, Lisa Oliver-Gray, and several others. The original Memphis sessions were produced by Jim Dickinson with Chad Brown helming the Nashville session which involved 12 additional musicians and singers.
The album takes its name from the 1944 Hartford Circus tent fire that Younger regards as a metaphor for recent social unrest and upheaval. The first track, “Together,” is as timely as when first written in 1999 when it premiered at The Kennedy Center with a high school choir back in 2000 on behalf of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Today its optimism could relate to several issues. This version has the Nashville backgrounds of McCray, Oliver-Gray, and Jeanne Peterson. “Soul Searchin’” carries an upbeat, breezy vibe while “Laying Low” urges listeners to stay strong and aware amidst seemingly endless societal challenges. And it’s clear that Younger updated the songs in view of recent social unrest, with “Lord of the Fleas” dealing with corruption and insurrection.
On the other hand, “Ragtime Angel,” written before the millennium and 9/11, reflects more innocent times. Younger doesn’t stay in that mode long though, penning “Killing Time” for an old friend, lost in the street life of Younger’s early years. “Baby, What Can I say?” is a rousing Jim Dickinson piano-driven shuffle with an uncredited harmonica solo (maybe it’s Younger) while “Devil’s On the Rise” takes us to the Crescent City, replete with horns and blistering guitar as Younger describes numerous characters. The closer, the uplifting standout “Desdemona,” (named after Othello’s ever-faithful wife) speaks to escape and the need for caring amidst times of trouble as Spooner Oldham gives a clinic on Hammond B3.
These songs, written over 20 years ago, still resonate and with these top shelf musicians aboard, it proves to be the worthwhile album that Younger fought so hard to resurrect.