Well-known bluesman and one-time Oklahoman Bill Homans, known in the blues world as “Watermelon Slim” and known by ’70s rare psychedelic vinyl collectors as “Merry Airbrakes” found work as forklift driver, funeral officiator, small-time criminal, newspaper reporter, saw miller, and truck driver for industrial waste among others. In 1979, Slim and a friend came to Oklahoma and wound up in Pushmataha County, where he bought a piece of land and took up watermelon farming. That vocation didn’t last, but the nickname he got doing it did.
It was in Vietnam, while laid up by an extended illness at a Cam Ranh Bay hospital, that Homans negotiated in French the five dollar purchase of his first guitar from a “papasan” in a tiny commissary on the hospital grounds. “It was the nastiest old guitar you ever saw, but it did have all six strings on it,” he said. There, with a Zippo lighter and a broken shard of a coffee can top, he began to teach himself to play his unique, backwards style of bottleneck slide. After returning stateside he would join the ranks of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), and in 1973 recorded with his brother and friends an LP titled Merry Airbrakes, a protest album he categorized as “psychedelic folk.” A cut from that record eventually appeared on a Country Joe McDonald compilation of music by Vietnam veterans. However, his music career would soon tank. A brief career in petty crime ensued, which he would forsake by 1978.
What is an underground album? Some people would say that it is one which has been produced outside, or in spite, of the music industry, whether or not it has prospered. This album, Merry Airbrakes, has incontrovertible underground credentials.
This may be one of the only albums one can hear by a Vietnam veteran, and aside from certain American bluesmen, John Prine, and a literal handful of others, American music has never addressed the Vietnam War and its effects. Certainly it is the only place one can ever hear a song from the Vietnamese point of view.