Set Yourself Free
With Stace England and the Salt Kings
by Diana Glenn
"An American experience encapsulated in one town," is how guitarist and vocalist Stace England described his vision for the Salt Kings' CD, Salt, Sex, Slaves. This album provides listeners with thirteen tracks about the Crenshaw House, popularly called the Old Slave House, near Equality, Illinois.
Salt Sex Slaves' national release is November 13, but a local CD release party will take place Friday, September 21 at the Hangar 9, where the Salt Kings will warm up for the Woodbox Gang.
"This story is multithreaded in terms of fascination for real current-day context," continued England. "Ninety percent of the population didn't think about it when it was happening. So these lessons are about history: you have to understand your past to understand your future, and the lessons are there. It's a combination of rationalization and economical necessity, and that is what is intriguing about human nature."
The house served as home to John Hart Crenshaw, who circumvented Illinois's prohibition against owning slaves by leasing them for his salt mines. Legends about the house are legion. Ghosts of slaves supposedly haunt the house, particularly the attic where Crenshaw may have tortured runaway slaves. One former slave, Uncle Bob Wilson, claimed to work for Crenshaw as a slave stud, fathering more than three-hundred children. Separating fact from fiction where the Old Slave House is concerned remains a difficult task for historians.
The title of the CD was inspired by Jon Musgrave's book, Slaves, Salt, Sex and Mister Crenshaw: The Real Story of the Old Slave House and American Reverse Underground Rail Road. England gave Musgrave credit for his assistance on how to approach things while pursuing his vision for his concept album. Although it wasn't an easy task to get into the Crenshaw House-- he had to lobby to the state of Illinois to gain access to the home-- England said it was worth the effort when he finally did. He talked to George Sisk, who still resides there, and stated how "Sisk is a delightful and gregarious man who has a great appreciation for what is going on."
When England was on the grounds of the house he became overwhelmed. "This place about knocks you over," recalled England. "It's almost like a breathing organism, a remarkable experience, reconnecting with it all."
The CD's booklet includes photographs of the rumored haunted attic, supposed whipping post, and slave cells. "The house has a dramatically historical fact which is astonishing, the mythology of the house, like the ghost and Uncle Bob stories, and it's huckersterism, the inflation of the stories to get tourists out," said England.
Salt Sex Slaves is a followup to England's previous disc, Welcome to Cairo, Illinois, which recanted some of that Southern Illinois river town's more colorful stories.
Spending time in Cairo has helped England conduct research to bring that project into full effect. Preston Ewing Jr., a long-time resident and President of the NAACP of Cairo, wrote a book, Let My People Go, which was a great inspiration to England. "I had seen the photos and I was impressed and blown away. I had spent five years hanging out in bars, quietly absorbing stories, and have respect and appreciation for the people of Cairo, who are sick of people coming into their town and showing how bad it is."
Between twenty and thirty years from now, England would like for Cairo to draw more tourism and money. He thinks that a destination site for tourism for a national park at Fort Defiance for a Civil Rights Museum would be beneficial.
England hopes that listeners will embrace the messages and stories that are told on both CDs. "What I've tried to show them [is] that the stories are so powerful," he said. "It's not a negative thing. These records are more challenging to listen to, but rewarding if you give them a chance."
Illinois is not the only place that the Salt Kings--Ron Johnson (bass and backup vocals), Dane Spalt (drums and backup vocals), and Charlie Tabing (guitars and lap steel)-- have performed. The band has played in the South by Southwest music festival in Texas, shared the stage with Jason and the Scorchers in Nashville, Tennessee, and even played overseas in the Netherlands. Just recently, the UK-based Green Bay Media had asked Stace to appear in a documentary about the Mississippi River from Cairo to New Orleans.
England is proud of all the musicians heard on Salt Sex Slaves. Teamwork is what he believes is one of the Salt Kings' secrets to success. "I'm very collaborative in my approach," he said. "I really want the band to find their voice within the music and people respond to that. It's a good feeling."
Guests on Salt Sex Slaves include Wil Maring of Shady Mix, Jason Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers, Josh Murphy of the Black Forties, and David Brown of Secondary Modern.
Growing up on a farm in Bridgeport, Illinois and graduating from Southern Illinois University, England then went to work in big cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles. Currently, he resides in Cobden with his family and is thinking about future projects. England is obviously drawn toward odd stories, wanting to flesh them out, and can see himself doing that with other subjects of Little Egypt. He is fascinated with people like Oscar Micheaux, a son of slaves who grew up near Metropolis, Illinois, and now is widely recognized as the first African American filmmaker. "I am always rooting for the underdog, people surviving and moving on, like slaves escaping to freedom, emotional, dramatic stories-- important stories that people need to know about and very few people do around the country, or even here in Illinois," said England.
Meanwhile, until the official November release date, Salt Sex Slaves is locally available at Plaza Records and will be on sale at the CD release party, to which England is looking forward.
"We intend to blast these songs out as intensely we can, and it's also a great opportunity to play with our friends, the Woodbox Gang," said England. "We have an enormous amount of joy in playing and we lose ourselves in those songs."