“Mike Collins Jr. was born in South Carolina lives in New Orleans, but his home is the road. He travels with everything he owns, his banjo on his back and his clothes in his suitcase-cum-bass drum. He sets up anywhere in the world he wants, busking everywhere from major American cities to tiny French hamlets, on street corners and in metro stations, in parks and in the French Quarter of his adopted home. He gets from place to place however he can, hitchhiking through Europe and hopping freight trains in California. He sleeps where and he can, on a stranger’s couch or under the stars.
It is, for Collins, a relentless pursuit of living freely and cheaply, and at full speed. Or, as he puts it: “How free can I be to do anything?”
Recorded live in a living room in South Carolina,Trying to Stay Ahead is a veracious translation of Collins’ righteous busking sets. Collins used to perform under the name The Outdoor Protestant Blues Band — despite the fact that he isn’t Protestant, and his music is only tangentially related to the blues inasmuch as it is to the rich diaspora of Southern music. But despite the deep connection to the Deep South — and the outward appearance of a dude playing the banjo — Collins can hardly be called old-timey. He plays the banjo in a primitive style, eschewing the more traditional clawhammer fingerpicking style for a pick, strumming with the energy and abandon of punk.
Trying to Stay Ahead is an eager mix of old and new — the rustic heart of Lomax enmeshed with the modern blues of the Millennials. Collins’ reverent covers — The Carter Family’s “Worried Man Blues,” Doc Watson’s “Walk On, Boy,” and Bill Dox’ “Oozlin’ Daddy Blues” — pair with his folk vérité songwriting. In the grand tradition of Guthrie and Seeger, Collins sings minimalist country and blues songs about his real-world experiences — loneliness, drugs, traveling, the law, love and God — setting him apart from the staid and vacuous New South folk revival. His spit-polished approach is equally derived working-class traditions of folk and punk: telling truth to power, searching for equality, striving for freedom. (See “Boys in Blue,” an anti-police brutality screed that owes as much to Black Flag as it does Bill Monroe.) And it’s been tempered by his years of busking: Songs like the workaday screed “Waitin’ on the Landlord” tumble along at punk-rock tempos, and his slower blues numbers, like the forlorn “Homesick Carolina Blues,” are punctuated by rattling tambourine and Collins powerful holler.