Here’s our roundup of fifteen of the best of Americana music in 2021. There’s some tasty fare here for sure. However you want to define Americana (you probably know it if you hear it), these albums are all classy records by artists at the top of their game and are music you want to listen to. (btw, if you’re looking for blues, check out our Best Blues Albums of 2021.)
Here they are in alphabetical order, rather than ranked.
American Aquarium, Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers Volumes 1 & 2 Two ten song collections of classic 1990s country, covers of songs by Trisha Yearwood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Faith Hill, Brooks & Dunn, and others. The pedal steel is never far away from these toe-tapping melodies – what’s not to like?
Jackson Brown, Downhill from Nowhere The music is reliably good throughout, with fine musicianship and song arrangements, featuring superb, less-is-more guitar work by Greg Leisz and Val McCullum. The lyrical content, as always, is superbly crafted by a master songwriter, often with a nice synthesis of the personal and the political. For more on the album, click here.
Hayes Carll, You Get It All Carll’s gritty, world-weary vocals never fail to draw you in, in this superb set of eleven songs. It’s unapologetically a country singer-songwriter record, all telecaster, pedal steel and occasional fiddle. Clever lyrics and memorable melodies throughout make it very listenable-to. Look out for the duet with Brandy Clark.
Jimmy Carter, Blind Faith Jimmy Carter, the last original member of The Blind Boys of Alabama, remarkably at 87 has released his first solo album, Blind Faith. He said he wants this album to be “a ray of hope and encouragement.” In nine songs which encompass gospel, blues, country and roots music and yet cohere wonderfully, Jimmy Carter’s positive outlook on life and faith shine through. The music is great, the lyrics and inspirational. Catch our interview with Jimmy here.
Steve Earle and the Dukes, JT Earle’s lament for the tragic loss of his son. All the songs are Justin’s apart from the final “Lat Words,” a poignant goodbye from his father. There’s nothing morbid or downbeat about the album however, and musically, it’s hugely enjoyable.
John Hiatt & Jerry Douglas, Leftover Feelings A rewarding set of songs from Hiatt and Dobro master Jerry Douglas. Hiatt taps a rich vein of song-writing skill and experience in a mixture of ballads and blues songs with compelling stories. The combination of Hiatt’s always interesting voice, Douglas’s jaw-droppingly good guitar work and eleven good tunes makes for a hugely enjoyable experience.
John Hurbut and Jorma Kaukonen, The River Flows Wonderful album of acoustic roots music in two volumes, the first thirteen songs which include classics from Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Ry Cooder and the Byrds, and the second live versions of a number of the songs. Hurlbut takes the vocals and rhythm guitar and Kaukonen backs it up beautifully with some exquisite solo work. Here’s our interview with the remarkable Jorma Kaukonen.
Jamestown Revival, Fireside with Louis L’Amour Texan folk-rock duo’s tribute to legendary Western author L’Amour comprises six songs which reflect six of his short stories. Each is quite brilliant, lyrically and musically, performed simply with beautiful harmonies. It’s an album I’ve returned to again and again.
Sean McConnell, A Horrible Beautiful Dream Grammy nominated singer, songwriter and producer McConnell here showcases his wonderful vocals and song-writing. Honest searching lyrics which cover love, justice and faith, and melodies and arrangements that just draw you in. One of the best voices in modern Americana.
James McMurtry, The Horses and the Hounds McMurty, one of Texas’s finest songwriters, delivers ten songs of vividly-told stories, full of carefully drawn characters. He’s a fiction writer, like his dad, Larry, just a different medium. But the music’s great, as well, with some fine guitar work by David Grissom and, of course, McMurtry’s languid vocals. “This James McMurtry album is really great. It blew me away,” said Jackson Browne. That ought to be enough for you.
Maria Muldaur, Let’s Get Happy Together Let’s Get Happy Together captures the note of hope we’re all looking for, not only in its title but in the exuberance and joy of the songs. The album “is a historic project that pays reverence to many of the early New Orleans women of blues and jazz,” recorded by Maria with Tuba Skinny, a group of traditional jazz musicians. Don’t miss our great interview with Maria here.
Emily Scott Robinson, American Siren This is one beautiful country album, featuring terrific three-part harmonies, songs of loss and love and the exquisite voice of the siren herself, Ms Scott Robinson. Her songs are well crafted stories, wonderful vehicles for her sharp wit and observation. Best of all, it’s just hugely enjoyable.
Blackberry Smoke, You Hear Georgia This band does Southern country rock and does it awfully well. This their seventh studio album, produced by Dave Cobb, is filled with energy, rockin’ guitars and rasping vocals. Get out your air guitar, get up and boogie!
Christina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely Nowhere Sounds Lovely is a terrific amalgam of blues, bluegrass and country. She’s a wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. Intelligent, classy, and, most importantly, hugely enjoyable. Here’s our full review.
The Wallflowers, Exit Wounds Their first album in nine years and it’s classic roots-rock, unmistakably The Wallflowers. Great melodies, Dylan’s distinctive rasping voice and good old bass, guitar, drums and Hammond driving the songs. And the added value of Shelby Lynne on four of the tracks. No attempt here at modernizing, and why fix it if it’s not broke? It’s terrific.
“Where there is light there is hope; and where there is hope, there’s a chance” Jimmy Carter, Blind Boys of Alabama
During 2021, we had the opportunity to speak to 15 great blues and roots artists, as well Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records and Tim Duffy of the Music Maker Foundation. All of them, plying their trade, entertaining us, at times challenging us, against the significant odds posed by the pandemic. Each of them doing what they do with determination, grace and even joy. Pick any one of the interviews if you feel in need of a little inspiration – go ahead, you’ll come away feeling just a bit better about life.
So, looking back, what did we learn from talking to each of these exceptional people?
1. Age is no barrier to following your dream. Several of the people I talked to are in their eighth or ninth decade of life. A time when many people just want to sit back on the sofa and start watching daytime TV, thinking their best days are behind them. Not so with people like Jack Ward or Elizabeth King, who at 83 and 77 respectively had just released their first solo albums and were looking forward to going on the road to promote them. Or Maria Muldaur, in her late seventies, who teamed up with a bunch of young people to record Let’s Get Happy Together, the most upbeat, cheerful album I heard all year. She told me simply, “you have a choice every day – you can be bummed out of you can be happy.” Atagirl, Maria! And I love the positivity in Bryn Haworth’s Boom Baby Boom, which he wrote about getting older: “you’ve got one life and so much left to give…there’s still time for one more dance.”
Jorma Kaukonen, now turned 80, told me he was just about to embark on a new tour with Hot Tuna. He has just released a new album and has been performing regularly online from his Fur Peace Ranch during the pandemic. He told me performing was “just as energizing as it ever was.”
And then there’s Jimmy Carter of the Blind Boys of Alabama, who’s 88 and has just released Blind Faith, a terrific album of Americana/gospel songs – his first solo album – and who told me that he hopes the album “will energize people and change lives.” Now that was impressive – Jimmy’s still wanting to be a blessing to others.
2. Music can be a great vehicle for not only entertaining us, but challenging us. Guy Davis, Eric Bibb, and Leyla McCalla didn’t make protest albums, but they included songs that highlighted injustice and made us think about our response to that. Davis’s God’s Gonna Make Things Over about the Tulsa Massacre and Eric Bibb’s Emmett’s Ghost dealing with the murder of Emmett Till both used historical tragedies to shine a light on the present. And Leyla McCalla’s stark Song for a Dark Girl, about a lynching “way down in Dixie” is as arresting as Strange Fruit. She told me that music isn’t some sterile environment where an artist can simply be apolitical. Musicians want to entertain us; we want to be entertained – but music, the blues in particular, has always been an important way for artists to comment on what is going on around them, and to help us all to see the injustice that many of us, in our comfortable lives, might miss or ignore.
3.Faith is a vital life-force for quite a number of these artists. Jimmy Carter told me “my faith is strong” and “when it gets rough, I pray.” He and Elizabeth King and Elder Jack Ward have had considerable challenges in their lives, but each told me how important their faith in God was for them. Jack Ward came from a life of poverty as a sharecropper and told me “when you weak, God will make you strong; when you lonely, he would never leave you alone.”
Ms. King, who also grew up picking and chopping cotton, told me the incredible story of how God had healed her after a horrific injury from a drunk driver; now she says, her job “is just to encourage people…when you’re going through something, just turn to God.” Maria Muldaur told me she’s being going to her neighbourhood African American church for the last 40 years and is inspired by joyful worship.
Bryn Haworth, slide guitarist par excellence, who’s featured on the albums of a who’s who of top rock artists, as well as having an excellent back catalogue of his own, spends a lot of his time visiting prisons and talked about the “amazing stuff” he’d seen happen through prayer. His vibrant faith shone through our conversation – a faith, which, incidentally, has him on a mission to save the trees in England, about which he has a song on his new album.
4. Blues music is alive and kicking. It may have been around for more than a hundred years now, but artists old and young are breathing new life into the genre all the time. Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records spoke of his optimism as he looked around at the blues and roots scene and saw people “taking the blues and gospel and making it their own.”
Grainne Duffy, a young Irish guitarist and singer, who’s performed on stages with Keb’ Mo’ and Van Morrison, has recorded an outstanding album, Voodoo Blues, with a set of original songs that both tap deeply into the legacy of the blues and breathe positivity. Joanna Connor, whose terrific 4801 South Indiana Avenue was produced by Joe Bonamassa and is packed with raw, high energy musicianship, is one of today’s great electric guitarists. She told me she was “fleshing out” stories as she played the songs, and making them sound epic in the process. She talked about the joy in the blues, despite the hardship out of which they emerged and the way they speak to the human emotion, And Carolyn Wonderland, the blistering Texas guitar-slinger, just finishing a stint in John Mayall’s band, whose vocals and guitar work on Tempting Fate are positively spine-tingling, talked about the fun and joy in making her music.
5. And the blues is a worldwide phenomenon. Yes, the blues are founded on the experience of African Americans, and are deeply rooted in the souls of people like Guy Davis and Eric Bibb. And Tim Duffy, through his Music Maker Foundation, is working hard to preserve the tradition of unsung Southern musicians and present them to the world – he talked about the “very special people” in the communities he works with and the need to “amplify their voices” and promote “cultural equity.”
But I talked to Paul Cowley, an Englishman living in rural France, playing traditional acoustic blues – which he discovered relatively late in life and was smitten with; and to Mark Harrison, another Englishman, whose story-telling blues reflect deeply on the human condition; to Leyla McCalla, whose family roots are in Haiti; to Grainne Duffy from Ireland; to Bert Deivert, an American who’s lived most of his life in Sweden, and who says “it’s the soul of it, the emotion, which drives me.” Eric Bibb, of course, has also made his home in Sweden for many years.
All these people are doing more than just keeping the blues alive – they are, of course, deeply drawing from the well of music and blues feeling from the past, but as well, lyrically, they are applying the blues to new and current situations, and musically, they are either forging new directions or keeping it fresh by their talent, dedication and musicianship.
There are links to all the interviews below for you to read and enjoy:
What a great year it’s been for blues albums. Whether it’s acoustic blues, blues rock, traditional, modern, gospel or funk, there’s been something for everyone. Some artists – like Eric Bibb, Guy Davis and Corey Harris – have included important social commentary in their music; we’ve had great music from a bunch of…well, let’s say mature musicians, like Dion, Alabama Slim, Elizabeth King and Hans Theessink; and some terrific output from young musicians, like Christone Ingram and Selwyn Birchwood, who are making it clear that the blues are alive and well.
We’ve chosen our top 25 albums – arranged in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Enjoy!
Here’s our top 12.
Dear America, Eric Bibb Dear America is a collection of thirteen Eric Bibb originals, all testament to his outstanding song-writing skill, ear for a good tune and top-notch guitar chops, but what makes Dear America such a great album – and an important album – is not just the music but the nuanced social commentary and challenge he presents. But like every Eric Bibb album you listen to, there’s a thread of hope and joy that comes through strongly. Here’s our interview with Eric.
Joanna Connor, 4801 South Indiana Avenue An absolutely top-notch set of blues rock that clearly has a Chicago blues heritage, yet sounds completely fresh and modern. Connor’s killer slide guitar and vocals are augmented by some characteristically fine guitar work by Joe Bonamassa and a tight-knit top-class band. Superbly produced, and packed with raw, high-energy musicianship. Check out our interview with Joanna.
Paul Cowley, Long Time Comin’ Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, with a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition. Long Time Comin‘, has 12 acoustic blues songs, 5 traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell and 7 originals. It’s outstanding, and hugely enjoyable. We talked to Paul about the album here.
Dion and Friends, Stomping Ground Another great blues album from the erstwhile wanderer, Dion. As with his last album, he’s collaborated with a bunch of his friends – probably a list of your favourite artists. They’re mine, anyway – Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Keb’ Mo’, Mark Knopfler, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton…It’s the blues, but it’s positive and upbeat, and it’s an album you’ll return to again and again.
Corey Harris, Insurrection Blues Corey Harris’s 20th album is what acoustic blues is all about. Fourteen traditional blues songs performed with passion, rawness and fine guitar picking. The spirit of the blues breathes in every song. This is a rich feast of acoustic blues, all the more satisfying for presenting the tradition with freshness and originality, and for showing its relevance to current times. Check out our full review here.
Christone Ingram, 662 There’s never a dull moment in the album, with a nice blend of styles and approaches to the songs – to his guitar and singing skill, add song-writing too. Ingram’s singing throughout is outstanding and his guitar solos glorious. At the end you’re left wanting more. If he can keep up the quality shown in this release, Christone Ingram has a stellar career ahead. Highly recommended. Here’s our full review
Catfish Keith, Land of the Sky Catfish Keith’s full range of acoustic guitar pyrotechnics are on display in his 20th album, Land of the Sky – picking, plucking, pinching, bending, sliding, harmonics-ing, on his wide collection of guitars, which include parlours, full-size 6 strings,12-strings, Nationals and a ukulele. It’s a feast of hugely enjoyable guitar fare for any guitar, blues, roots or just music fan. Our full review is here.
Gary Moore, How Blue Can You Get If you buy one blues album this year, this is it. A set of eight songs, some previously unheard and unreleased, from the Moore family archives, will move you, excite you, get you on your feet, and make you regret all the more that Gary Moore is no longer with us. Released on the tenth anniversary of Moore’s passing How Blue Can You Get proves, if there was ever any doubt, that Gary Moore was a master of the blues. Check out our full review here.
Alabama Slim, The Parlor Approaching his 82nd birthday, close to seven feet tall, and typically dressed in an impeccable tailored suit, Alabama Slim has given us a perfect, classic blues album which recalls the boogie of John Lee Hooker. It’s delicious, pared-back, but tasty fare from a man whose soulful and oh-so-cool vocals are served up in a wrap of sweet guitar groove from Little Freddie King, Slim’s cousin. Here’s the link to our full review.
Joanne Shaw Taylor, The Blues Album Taylor’s incredible guitar chops are well in evidence, but it is perhaps her singing that stands out on this album. At turns intensive, gritty, raw and husky, she makes these songs her own, grabbing your attention, and wresting every ounce of emotion out of the music. Joanne Shaw Taylor has made a huge statement with The Blues Album, and take it from me, it’s an album you will want to play repeatedly. Here’s our full review.
Hans Theessink and Big Daddy Wilson, Payday It feels like payday for all of us who get the opportunity to hear this fine album from two blues artists at the top of their game. Hans Theessink and Big Daddy Wilson join voices and blues spirit for sixteen songs of exceptional acoustic blues. It’s joyous stuff, the songs driven by Hans’s sure and characteristic rhythmic finger-picking and the lovely harmonies and melding of baritone and tenor voices. Check out the full review here.
Christina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely Sit up and take notice of Cristina Vane, whose Nowhere Sounds Lovely is a terrific amalgam of blues, bluegrass and country – a thoroughgoing bluesy Americana, you might say. Whatever way you want to describe it, she’s a wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. And here’s the full review.
And the next baker’s dozen
Joe Bonamassa, Time Clocks It’s heady stuff, with complex arrangements, full orchestrations, bending of genres and a breathless energy from the first song to the last. All the ingredients of his previous work are here – the blues basis, the guitar solos, his soulful vocals, the attention to detail in the production – but this is a bold step forward, a cinematic palette of modern rock guaranteed to both surprise and delight. Our full review is here.
Selwyn Birchwood, Living in a Burning House Fresh modern blues, featuring Birchwood’s bluesy voice, and top-notch guitar and lap steel playing. Thirteen original energetic songs with a blues rock sound, with a jazzy feel at times. Birchwood is quite a talent and this is his best album yet.
Tommy Castro, A Bluesman Came to Town A blues “concept” album from the veteran bluesman, who’s “never made the same album twice.” Tracking the progress of a blues artist with all the ups and downs of the itinerant musician’s life, it is classic stuff, solid, no-nonsense blues from a man whose gritty vocals and searing guitar solos reach right down inside you.
Guy Davis, Be Ready When I Call You Great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. More than just blues musically and most of the songs have a hard-hitting strong social commentary going on. An outstanding release from Davis and M.C. Records. Read our great interview with Guy here.
Chris Gill, Between Midnight and Louise A stripped-down recording, just two microphones, a small amp, no overdubs and a lot of love for the blues. Relax on the back porch as Gill takes his acoustic, resonator and cigar box and performs nine originals and Virgil Brawley songs. It’s finger picking good, good old-fashioned acoustic blues played with considerable depth and passion. Here’s the full review.
Government Mule, Heavy Load Blues Warren Hayes’ vocals and guitar work, some nicely placed organ and horns, and thirteen fine solid blues songs combine in what is a hugely satisfying album. There are covers of songs by Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Junior Wells, Tom Waits and the Animals, as well as originals from Hayes. 78 minutes of great blues, and you get an extra 50 minutes worth if you go for the 2 CD deluxe offering.
Mark Harrison’s sixth album, The Road to Liberty, showcases his adept story-telling and clever lyrics, his knack for composing a catchy tune, and his never-less-than-engaging performance as a singer and guitarist. He’s hard to pigeon-hole, not quite blues, but the blues are never far away. This is a collection of songs that transport you to another place, make you contemplate the world around and, as well as that – most importantly – entertain you. Read our great interview with Mark here.
Colin James, Open Road Over the years, Colin James has racked up 20 studio albums and a sack-full of awards, and yet is relatively unknown. Put that right straight away by listening to this terrific album of blues covers and originals from a very fine singer and guitarist. Consistently good and hugely enjoyable.
Kelly’s Lot, Where and When Kelly Zirbes’s band, which hails from the Los Angeles area has been plying its trade for the last 25 years, mostly as a blues rock outfit. Where and When sees them stripping things back, performing 11 acoustic blues songs with resonator-slide guitar and Zirbes’s gritty voice to the fore. It’s fabulous stuff, six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that evoke the blues of a bygone age and five reworked traditional blues songs, including a terrific version of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days Wonderful set of bluesy gospel songs from gospel singer King 50 years after she stopped performing and recording professionally. It’s a funky, bluesy, soul-filled pot of rich gospel fare, an album full of great songs, music that touches you, and Ms. King’s powerful vocal performance. It’s a gift for us all. Check out our interview with this amazing woman.
New Moon Jell Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol 2 Classic old-school recording from a kind of blues super-group, the musicians sitting together in a circle in the studio and playing amongst the microphones. It’s a joyous exploration of the blues, with great heart and soul. A fine tribute to Jim Dickinson and a huge treat of an album for all of us. Full review here.
Elder Jack Ward, Already Made Jack Ward was a successful Stax recording artist, but, remarkably, has never made an album – until now. At a lively 83 years old, he has released a fabulous album of bluesy, soulful gospel songs. The ten song program features the warmly-recorded winning ingredients that are becoming a trademark of Bible and Tire’s patented Sacred Soul sound, from Ward’s spirited vocals to the crack studio band laying down the grooves behind him. We talked to Jack about the album here.
Carolyn Wonderland, Tempting Fate Glorious ten song tribute to her scorching guitar skills and rockin’ vocals. As well as blues, there’s some country, some Tex-Mex, and a whole lot of heart. The guitar work on the album is outstanding – all you’d expect from a Carolyn Wonderland record, but hot though it is, the her vocal performance in this album – the range, the dynamics, the emotion on this album – seems better than ever. And here’s our interview with Carolyn.
Jorma Kaukonen is something of a musical legend. He’s played with Janis Joplin, was a founder member of Jefferson Airplane, one of the biggest rock bands of the late 60s and early 70s, as part of the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and has performed with Hot Tuna off and on over the past 50 years.
Along the way he’s shared a stage with Muddy Waters (who opened for Airplane – “it just didn’t seem right, but there it was. I remember him as the most gracious of human beings”), headlined Woodstock, the first Isle of Wight Festival and the notorious Altamont Festival in Northern California in 1969 (“rock and roll’s all-time worst day”), and been an avid ice speed skater and motorbiker.
In addition, over the past twenty years, he’s re-invented himself as an outstanding acoustic guitar picker, releasing a number of top-notch solo albums, and has established Fur Peace Ranch in south eastern Ohio as a centre for guitar tuition and musical comradeship, drawing in top class guitarists like Larry Campbell, Warren Haynes, Tommy Emmanuel and Eric Bibb to share the instruction.
The rock and roll years took their toll – in his autobiography, Been So Long: My Life and Music, he says, “alcohol, cars, motorcycles, girls, and all that jazz – yeah, I definitely took risks. I can only say that I was lucky to make it through.”
But make it through he has, happily married with a young family, and at…whisper it…at 80 years young, is still performing solo and with Hot Tuna.
Jorma took the time to chat with me from his Fur Peace Ranch, where he was accompanied by his two dogs – “our bigger dog is a boxer-doodle mix, but he looks like an Irish Wolfhound and our other dog’s a Chihuahua.” The occasional bark over the telephone line was matched by the complaints from our own two Lakeland Terriers about the temerity of the postman to come to the door. So, we both took the dog noises in our stride.
He was just about to embark on a major tour with Hot Tuna, which he said “we’re pretty darn excited about,” public appearances having been curtailed by the pandemic. Jorma did, however, do a lot of “Quarantine Concerts” online from his ranch, which were free to view and are still available on YouTube, all fifty or so of them.
The man clearly has a lot of energy – the tour schedule made me tired, just looking at it. Is performing just as energizing as ever?
“Well, first of all,” he told me, “for an 80-year-old, I’m really lucky. I’m really still pretty healthy It’s the first long tour we’ve done in a while, but we did a show here at the Fur Peace Ranch last week. And so far, it’s just as energizing as it ever was – maybe more in some respects, because I appreciate it so much more because we were unable to do it for a while.
“I think that my appreciation of music in general is much more multi-dimensional than it was when I was younger. I spend a lot more time thinking about, not just the hot licks and stuff – I love them, I’m a guitar player, what’s not to love? – but the harmonies and chords and stuff. They’ve started to mean a lot more to me.”
Hot Tuna was a band that emerged out of Jefferson Airplane which was essentially a collaboration between Kaukonen and his long-time friend, Jack Casady. The band typically plays Airplane material and covers of American country and blues artists such as Reverend Gary Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Bo Carter and Blind Blake. There have been various other musicians in the band along the way, but always it has been Jorma and Jack. The band’s fifty year lifespan show a quite an unusual level of longevity. Has that been down to Jorma and Jack’s friendship?
“Absolutely. No question about it. Jack is my oldest friend. He’s a little bit younger than I am but we started playing together in 1958. So we’ve basically been doing it ever since. And we are absolutely still friends.”
I had been reading a recent blog post from Jorma, where he was reflecting on the process of getting older. I found that interesting, because I had been talking to Jimmy Carter from the Blind Boys of Alabama recently, who at 87 has a new album out, his first solo album. [Here’s our interview] He was very excited about it and was telling me about his hopes and dreams for the future. That’s a remarkable thing, actually – continuing to have hopes and dreams for your life as you get older.
And, I put it to Jorma, the same could be said for him, establishing Fur Peace Ranch when he was around 60, with a vision for what a piece of land in rural Ohio could be. Along with his wife Vanessa, they envisaged a place where musicians could come together and surround themselves with music for several days and emerge with a new found inspiration.
“Well, first of all, Jimmy and I are both obviously very lucky because some people, for whatever reason, are unable to keep that kind of hope for the future. But the music still speaks to me with the same power as it did when I was a kid – that’s undiminished. So that’s part of it, but just generally speaking, in a normal world, I’d probably be a great grandfather, but I have a teenage daughter and a son in his twenties. I’m not saying that keeps you young because nothing keeps you young but being young! But it keeps you involved. And it keeps a view of the future closer at hand, as opposed to just being a grumpy old so and so.
“Almost 30 years ago, I lucked into a large piece of property in Southeast Ohio. It’s very rural and we’ve got over a hundred acres here in a county with less than 20,000 people. When I first moved to California in 1962, Paul Kantner, one of the founders of Jefferson Airplane, was one of my early friends there. And he got me involved in teaching and even in an era when I’m not sure what I had to teach anybody, I loved it so much.
“Anyway, fast forward to the eighties, Happy Traum got me doing a couple of videos for his Homespun instructional videos. And I loved that as well. So when we looked at this huge piece of property we said, what are we going to do with this? And Vanessa – God bless her, she had a real life before she married me, and was a civil engineer – said, we could build this, we could do it. And it sounded like a great idea to me which would not be mutually exclusive with my ability to tour. So here at the Ranch, after almost 25 years, we now have close to thirty buildings.
“We have cabins, we’ve got a theatre. We have a little video production studio. We do a radio show for our local national public radio station. And we’ve been doing live classes for all these years. It’s about getting together with a bunch of like-minded spirits….we have lots of different teachers who all do different stuff, but basically we just love the music and geek out about it and play with each other. And our classes tend to run from Friday morning to Monday morning.”
Teaching, Jorma told me, has made him a better player. Is that, I asked him, because it makes him think more carefully about what it is he’s doing on the guitar?
“I think there are a lot of levels to this. My teaching style tends to be anecdotal – I’m not a theorist and I teach pretty much from songs. Looking at the music that I have loved for so long, I get a much more three-dimensional view of it now than I did when I was a kid. And that makes me a better interpreter, a better player. And certainly, it’s made me a better singer – even later in life, in the last decade or so, my singing has got better. I’m a lucky guy, because I’m in good shape, I’ve got good lungs!”
I mentioned to Jorma that I’d learned the old blues song Trouble in Mind from his Homespun instructional video years ago, and he was kind enough to suggest a cool new way to play part of it which he’s recently discovered after Jack Casady had found an old tape of Jorma playing the song from 1960. (I’ve now tried it out, and, yes, it’s pretty cool!). And, guitarists – check out his online instructional videos here.
Notwithstanding the psychedelic rock years with Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen has been a roots musician all his days, ever since hearing a friend play him A.P. Carter’s Worried Man Blues in 1956 as a teenager, after which he rushed home and told his dad he wanted a guitar and lessons. In his autobiography, he says, “Strange to say, I started out as an acoustic player, but I had been sidetracked by rock and roll for many years.” What, I asked him, is it about roots music, blues music, that appeals to him? It’s music that has been around for a hundred years or more, but why does it still appeal to people?
“Well, there are lots of levels to this. First of all, it was just so cool. And in my era, when I was a teenager and I started to play it, so much of the popular music was just so insipidly boring. But here were songs that had lyrics that spoke about real life. Now, it wasn’t real life in terms of me as a middle-class white kid – because I’d never been in prison, I didn’t pick cotton, I hadn’t suffered racial inequities and all this kind of stuff. But the blues lyrics just seemed to show a real side of life that I wasn’t getting from my mom and dad.
“And the music is so permanently hip anyway. Everybody doesn’t have to sound like Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, but even so, just to have that pure honesty coupled with music that’s still to me after all these years so unbelievably hip.”
One of the artists that has been important for Jorma from he was a teenager is the Reverend Gary Davis, and he continues to play Gary Davis songs both as a solo artist and with Hot Tuna. Rev. Gary Davis, the blind son of dirt-poor sharecroppers in South Carolina, went on to exert a major influence on the folk scene of the 1960s and the early rock scene of the 70s. Bob Dylan called him “one of the wizards of modern music” and for Alan Lomax, the folklorist, he was “one of the great geniuses of American instrumental music.” What makes Gary Davis special for Jorma Kaukonen?
“When I had got turned on to Reverend Davis, that would have probably been in the late winter of 1960. I’d never really heard anything like that before, and if you studied the Reverend’s style, he’s a heavyweight guitar player. He knows a lot of stuff. But his right hand, he only uses his thumb and his first finger. He’s a two-finger picker. As was Ian Buchanan, the guy who was my mentor – he and the Reverend were friends. But it was just immediately apparent to me that it would be easier to go where I think I wanted to go by using three fingers rather than two, because it made it easier to play triplets and stuff like that.
“But all that being said, there was something that was so spiritually invigorating about the Reverend’s music. And this is interesting because, I mean, I’m a Jewish guy from an utterly unobservant Jewish family. But because my dad traveled around [during his career as a State Department official], I’ve been at a lot of Christian schools. So I’m comfortable with denominations and stuff like that. And the Reverend with that fundamentalist Baptist preaching stuff, seemed to made sense to me. Not in a religious way, but in a spiritual way, because I consider the two things are different. Reverend Davis was such a lover of life.
“I mean, think about this guy, born in the eighteen hundreds, going out blind in the American South, this can’t have been a lot of fun for him. But he never complained in his music. Although I didn’t know him in the way that guys like David Bromberg and Stephen Grossman knew him, I did meet him a couple of times, and he was an upbeat guy, and, even with a song like Death Don’t Have No Mercy – not the most cheerful song in the world – I never turn away after a Reverend Davis song depressed. I’m always, like, there’s hope for the future.”
I was intrigued reading Jorma’s biography to see him refer time and time again to “G-d” and saying how he felt God was willing things along the way. In the midst of all the chaos, somehow God was at work. Had I got that right?
“Yes, exactly. I consider myself more of a spiritual person than a religious one. I’m able to look at my life today and I realize in spite of everything, I’ve always been a blind optimist. Maybe even sometimes I shouldn’t have been, but again, like we said, you know, the Reverend’s got that song There’s a Bright Side Somewhere. And I think I always felt that.”
In Been So Long, Kaukonen is very honest about a lot of his personal struggles and the chaos there was at times. But towards the end of the book, he talks about living a good life. I asked him, reflecting on all he’s experienced, the good and the not so good, what makes for a good life?
“That’s a really good question and it’s more than it’s more than material stuff. You know, I think it’s being able to be honestly at peace with yourself. I mean, listen, obviously every day’s not a blissful day. But basically speaking, I’m able to be honest with my daughter, my wife and my son in a way I probably couldn’t have been a number of years ago, and I think I’ve come to know myself pretty well most of the time, and I’m okay with the way things are. To me that’s a good life.”
Jorma has released an album with his long-time friend, John Hurlbut, The River Flows, which grew out of the Quarantine Concerts. It’s a wonderful album of acoustic roots music in two volumes, the first thirteen songs which include classics from Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Ry Cooder and the Byrds, and the second live versions of a number of the songs. Hurlbut takes the vocals and rhythm guitar and Kaukonen backs it up beautifully with some exquisite solo work. I asked Jorma about his collaboration with John Hurlbut.
“Johnny and I have been friends for probably 40 years and we’ve played together off and on, and he’s my ranch manager. And over the years, from time to time we’ve gotten together and played just ‘cause it’s fun. Well, it became apparent to me even before the pandemic, one of the things that I got to do playing with him, was what I got to do with Jefferson Airplane, which was there was no burden on me to be a front guy, whereas in Hot Tuna I am obviously singing and playing solo. But with Johnny I’m just trying to do my best to fill in the blanks for him.
“But then the pandemic came and shut us down, but we still kept on doing some outdoor lunches and stuff – with social distancing. And all of a sudden it occurred to me, I’m really having a good time playing with my buddy here. And since we have nothing else going on, let’s make a record! So I called up my friend, Justin, who’s our drummer in Hot Tuna, and he came down from Woodstock to be the engineer and the co-producer on the record, and Johnny and I cut all those songs in two days. And we did it all live. We just had such a good time. Just being able to make music with an old friend, with no pressure on me, was what it was about.”
Jorma Kaukonen’s acoustic guitar accompaniment throughout this album is exceptional – it’s everything a guitar accompaniment often isn’t – it’s tasteful, it doesn’t interfere with the singing and it just enhances the songs. Listen to any one of the songs – especially Knocking On Heaven’s Door, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Today I was listening to the Jefferson Airplane’s version of We Can Be Together off the Volunteers album. It’s a long song and there’s all these parts, and I’m thinking, wow! When we produced that song, there was so much thought that went into all these parts, and it worked, and that’s good. But one of the things that I got to do with Johnny, because of the way he and I play together is to just try to add whatever you want to call what it is I, do my musical art or whatever. It’s to be able to surround his voice and his playing without calling too much attention to what I’m doing, because it’s all about the song.
“And he makes it so easy for me to do that. I mean, if you saw him play, he plays with a flat pick and his right hand is the weirdest looking thing you’ve ever seen, but it works for him. And his rhythm is so solid that I don’t need to worry about anything except to try to support the lyrical content of the melody. So it was just really a lot of fun to play along with it.”
The River Flows is a fine album for sure – as are Jorma Kaukonen’s other acoustic albums from the last twenty years (I confess Stars in My Crown is my own favourite). Check them out.
I found Jorma Kaukonen not only generous with his time chatting to me, but remarkably unassuming for someone with his musical history. He’s a man who clearly has found himself, and, along with continuing to press on with his musical journey, he’s found a level of contentment. Maybe a visit to one of his guitar workshops in Fur Peace Ranch is in order…
Bryn Haworth, slide guitarist par excellence – no, just great guitarist, full stop – has had a stellar recording career with his own albums and as a session musician for the likes of Chris de Burgh, Joan Armatrading, Cliff Richard and Gerry Rafferty. As well as jamming in the 60s with Jimi Hendrix, he has toured extensively with bands like Traffic, Bad Company, Gallagher & Lyle and Fairport Convention.
His career started in the late sixties with “Les Fleur de Lys” a Motown/soul band which became house band for Atlantic Records in England. After moving to California, he became a founder member of Wolfgang, a band put together and managed by the legendary Bill Graham, and appeared on bills with Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Taj Mahal and others.
In 1973 he returned to England and was signed to Island Records where he made his first LP, Let The Days Go By and followed this up by Sunny Side Of The Street. These are both excellent albums which I bought on vinyl at the time and, on listening to again recently, have stood the test of time. You know how when you put on a record you listened to as a youngster, you know every line and what song follows what? – that’s me with these two albums.
I talked to Bryn a wee while ago and he told me his moving and powerful story about finding faith around this time and then a little of his work over subsequent years, taking his music into prisons around the country. [you can find this here]
He’s got a terrific new album just released, called Ready or Not and I got chatting to him about it. First of all, I asked him about the prison work which is so dear to his heart and which he’s been involved in for a long time, but which had been interrupted by the pandemic. He told me he’d continued sending talks and music videos for prisons to play on their community radio stations, but that recently he’d begun to go back in both women’s and men’s prisons in Surrey and London for their Sunday services, where prisoners are entitled by right to an hour of religious service.
“It’s coming back, but you can’t do big gatherings. I basically take the Anglican service for the hour, but you get people just coming along because they want to get out of their cells and don’t have any particular beliefs, but they’re just wanting to see something, a visitor, see something different, hear some music. And that’s been really creative, in that it starts them off thinking about God and about their lives.
“We have a Post Office box and prisoners can write to us through that. So we’re in communication with various prisoners, and then sometimes, when they get out, if we feel it’s appropriate, we can see them. We’ve seen some really good turnarounds in people’s lives. It’s not big numbers, but people can genuinely turn around in a major way in prison. What we do is a drop in the ocean, but I think it’s like what Jesus said about the woman who gave her offering to him, “she did what she could.” So we just do what we can. We feel particularly called to this work. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but we’ve always felt called to it.”
The new album, Ready or Not is a really fine collection of eleven songs, a couple of rerecorded older songs, some new songs, a great cover of Let’s Stick Together and two nice guitar instrumentals. Bryn is not only an excellent guitarist, he’s a talented songwriter and singer, and this album showcases all of this. And it’s also got a group of very talented musicians contributing. He told me about the making of the album.
“I got the title track Ready or Not and I thought, right, that’s a good title for the album. But just as I was supposed to record it in 2020, Martha Rafferty, Gerry Rafferty’s daughter, asked me if I’d play on an album of Gerry’s she was putting together. [Gerry Rafferty passed away in 2011]. And that was more urgent. So I dropped my own plans and I did Gerry’s stuff. [Bryn contributed guitar work on five tracks on the album, Rest in Blue, which was released to critical acclaim in September 2021].
“So then, I started my own album in November a year ago. I did some live sessions with Paul Beavis [drums] and Dave Bronze [bass], just the three of us together, about four or five tracks. And then it all kicked off after that. I then had rebooked to do some live work in January, but COVID came in and the lockdown happened again.”
So Bryn had to improvise, travelling up and down the country to accommodate various musicians he wanted on the album. People like Henry Spinetti, who played drums in the Climax Blues Band, was previously a member of Eric Clapton’s touring band and played on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, and Teri Bryant, another world class drummer who has done world tours with the likes of Faith Hill, Peter Gabriel and Matt Redman. And then he worked remotely with Chris Stainton, long-time keyboard player in Eric Clapton’s band.
So, this album is chock-a-block with top notch English rock musicians and the song arrangements sound like a proper band playing.
It gets off to a great start with the title track with some characteristic Bryn Haworth slide guitar as the song begins. I asked Bryn about this song.
“For me, the whole idea came about when I was playing hide and seek with my niece’s children. You let them go and hide, then you count 20, and then shout “coming, ready or not!” It’s just that whole thing, that you can be doing something, and then you can be suddenly found. And I think Jesus’s return is something we need to be reminded of in the church and the world as well, because to me, it begs the question, am I ready?
“When I first became a Christian, a guy said to me, ‘are you living in the light of his coming?’ And it always stuck with me. It does makes you think. I think generally the album is about that, about that theme – so it’s just that urgency.”
We talked a bit about another song Bryn had written and recorded many years ago, on a similar theme – The Grand Arrival, the title track of his 1978 album. And then I asked him about All I need is a Home, now re-recorded on Ready or Not, which had originally appeared on his 1974 Let the Days Go By album. It’s a beautiful song where you really appreciate Bryn’s singing voice. When I asked him why he decided to include it on this album, he immediately started thinking about his work with prisoners.
“So many people are released from prison and they don’t have anywhere to go. They just end up committing crimes and going back into prison. And there are various homeless charities that we’re involved in as well.
“I wrote that song nearly 50 years ago when I was 23. And that was my experience when I came down to London, then. I didn’t have a home. I slept on buses and bus stations. And then during the day I’d go and try to look for work in music shops, and try and get a gig somewhere, but then I’d go back and sleep on a bench.
“So I know what it’s like to not have a place to live and especially in London, it’s horrible. And I just felt that in the next couple of years, it’s going to be more of an issue in this country, homelessness and people not being able to afford rent, and we’re going to need to do something about it. There are some really good initiatives already going. So I thought recording this song might just help raise the profile of this problem.”
Bryn’s not the young guy he was when he made Let the Days Go By, but here he is still being creative, still making great music, as evidenced by Ready or Not. I wondered what he thinks about getting older and continuing to be creative?
“It’s like the song, Boom, Baby, Boom, that’s on the album. That’s really about this whole thing of getting older. Because when you get older, you feel sidelined, you feel useless, irrelevant, and invisible, and you’re not wanted, but at the same time, you have so much experience from your job, what you’ve been doing and your experience in life.
“And especially as a follower of Jesus, you’ve got so many things you’ve experienced, seeing Jesus working and seeing miracles. I’ve seen amazing stuff happen through prayer. I want to carry that on. Psalm 92 verse 14 says that the righteous will stay fresh and green and they’ll still bear fruit in old age. And that’s what I feel. I mean, as long as there’s something to sing about and something to play, then you keep going as long as your hands are able to play. Boom Baby Boom was about that.”
Boom Baby Boom, a great 1950s style rock’n’roll song with some terrific piano and guitar work, is one of my favourite songs on the album. As I get older myself, I appreciate the positivity here: “You’ve got one life with so much left to give…there’s still time for one more dance.”
When I spoke to Bryn a while ago, he mentioned having problems with his hand, his fingers, so I wondered how that was going.
“Well, you always find there’s a way of playing around it that you can figure out. Bruce Coburn, has problems with his fingers and he’s figured out a way to still keep playing. For me sometimes there’s a way of placing your fingers where you wouldn’t have done normally – you can do it and it still works. You adapt. And I think the thing with slide guitars, it makes it a little bit easier because you’re only playing with a slide, you’re not playing with the fingers so much.”
We Never Thought This Could Happen is a delicious country number. At first I thought it was a song about the pandemic. But as I listened, it seemed to be broader than that – it’s all about the sense of foundations shaking, loss of confidence, “cold hearts and empty eyes” – a hard look at the world as it is.
“I got the idea for the song in a dream ten years ago. In this dream, my grandparents were singing this song, we never thought this would happen, and I thought, that’s really good. And they said to me, don’t you know this song? And I said, no, and then suddenly realized I was dreaming it. And so I better get up and write it down.
“There are two or three songs here that came through dreams. But I think for me how it developed was just looking back in history and it struck me how quickly, how easy it is for the way of life people take for granted to just disappear overnight. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about the things that we take for granted.
“That song’s got many levels, but I think it’s important for people just to think about it. Because it’s not just about the pandemic – although, of course, we never thought this could happen. We never thought our way of life could be disrupted and that’s the weakness that we have.”
I asked Bryn about Enough is Enough, which he released as a single a wee while ago. This is a lovely slice of Americana which starts with Bryn singing over a strummed acoustic guitar and eventually gives way to some sumptuous slide guitar. The song is about our trees being destroyed, which Bryn has been quite vocal about.
“I just changed a couple of lines in this new version. I just think we’re losing so many of our mature trees unnecessarily through the building of houses and roads and railways. The government can say, well we’ll plant more trees, but you know, trees take 150 years to grow. The UK is the least forested place in Europe already, we’ve lost so many mature trees.
“William Blake says, the tree, which moves some to tears of joy, is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. I thought that was really good. To a builder, it just stands in the way. But to some people this is massive. This tree is going to outlive me. And then you start to think how much you need them just to live on this planet. They’re just being felled indiscriminately. So that’s why that song is there.”
There’s a great reworked version on the album of Let’s Work Together, which again has some tasty slide guitar. I only knew the Bryan Ferry version, but Bryn put me straight.
“Wilbur Harrison wrote that in 1969. He was a Black American, one-man-band kind of guy, with a bass drum and a guitar. I remember he supported Creedence Clearwater in the early seventies at the Albert Hall.”
Apparently, Harrison wrote the song as Let’s Stick Together and then changed it a few years later to Let’s Work Together. Bryan Ferry went back to the original title and then Bryn went with Let’s Work Together. All clear?
“I’ve gone to the Canned Heat version [a million seller in 1970) and the Harrison version. I just felt that community is the one good thing that I’ve seen come out of these last two years. Our street has gotten much, much better over these last two years – we have a WhatsApp group and we can look after each other, do people’s shopping for them. And I think in the coming years, we’re going to need that sense of community more and more. So that’s why I put this song on.”
The last couple of songs on the album are Holy Spirit of God, and Doxology, the first of which, within the bounds of a lovely tune, contains a remarkable amount of theology. I asked Bryn if he thought there was enough emphasis on the Spirit and what the Spirit does in the church.
“No, I don’t think there is. Christianity is more than having your sins forgiven, as amazing as that is, and then waiting to die to go to heaven. You don’t really hear much about the fact that we’re called to live a new life and God’s got things for us to do. You know, I love Ephesians two verse ten – it says we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to join him in the work that he does and the good works he’s got ready for us to do. If that’s the case, then I need to be able to recognize his voice because he’s got stuff for me to do.
“And I think the person of the Holy Spirit is so vital to living this new life. I wrote that song just to remind myself that every day, you need to be asking, ‘Holy Spirit, teach me to hear your voice.’ When I wrote it, I just played it to myself. I’m saying it to myself because I just wanted to be reminded. But then I recorded it and I was pleased with the way that it came out.”
The album wraps up with Doxology, a beautiful, finger-picked acoustic guitar piece, which reminds you again what a fine guitarist Bryn is. But more than this, as you listen and begin to think of the words of the Doxology hymn behind the tune, it’s a fitting note of praise on which to complete the album.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, Daniel de Visé, Grove Press.
I remember reading and appreciating King’s 1996 memoire, Blues All Around Me, written by David Ritz. This, as you might expect, is a much more substantial work, much more detailed, clocking in at over 400 pages.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist de Visé’s biography of American music icon, B.B. King is a masterful piece of work. It’s hugely detailed, yet always engaging – in fact, it’s something of a page turner. He has painstakingly reconstructed King’s life from his memoir, hundreds of B.B. King interviews, discussions with dozens of surviving friends and relatives, bandmates and producers, and input from Sue King Evans, King’s ex-wife, and life-long friend, Walter Riley King. The list of acknowledgements, actually, is quite breath-taking. You can be sure that de Visé has written the definitive account of B.B. King’s life.
de Visé tracks King’s life from the birth of his father, Albert King, in 1907 and his mother, Ella Pully, in 1908 with fascinating early chapters on King growing up in rural Mississippi, through his breakthrough as a musician, the years on the chittlin’ circuit, his discovery by white musicians and fans in the 60s, and then eventually his move into revered status as King of the Blues and recognition by rock stars, presidents, the press and households around the world.
de Visé weaves a number of important threads throughout his narrative, and, as the best of writers do, he never seeks to make any of these a major emphasis or crudely highlight them. He simply tells his story and lets the reader pick up on aspects of King’s life that were important in the make-up of the man.
First, what comes across quite forcibly is King’s utter determination to make it as a musician. After playing the diddly bow – length of wire stretched tight between two nails hammered into a board – as a boy, listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rodgers and Lonnie Johnson on 78-rpm shellac discs in his great-aunt Mima’s cabin, and then singing in a gospel group as a teenager, B.B.’s single-minded focus on learning the guitar, singing and performing is remarkable.
His was the most unpromising of backgrounds – a sharecropper’s son, born into deep poverty, whose family broke up when he was a small boy, whose beloved mother died when he was ten, and who was shunted around between various relatives until he left for Memphis in 1946. Yet somehow he doggedly got himself on to the radio and began getting some gigs, even though, at this stage his guitar playing was not particularly good.
Perhaps it was because of this very unpromising early life that that utter determination to succeed drove him throughout his life. We hear of the huge number of gigs King played year on year, throughout his life, never retiring even when dementia and ill-health set in, and of his remarkable ability to keep going in the midst of marital trouble, financial disasters, the ills of the Jim Crow South, and the changing waves and trends of the music business. His commitment to his art and the blues, and his skill as a guitarist and singer remained constant throughout his life.
Second, what becomes clear is the contribution King made to the blues and to American music in general. As well as leaving a huge back catalogue of music in his scores of albums dating from 1957 to 2011 (all carefully listed at the end of the book), B.B. King’s single note guitar technique was the influence for all subsequent guitar soloing, in the same way that Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos broke new ground for jazz. Eric Clapton hailed him as an “inspiration,” and said that Live at the Regal was “where is really started for me as a young player.” King mentored a young Jimi Hendrix and took both Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughn under his wing. Carlos Santana claimed simply he was a “fan.”
It’s worth quoting de Visé directly here:
“B.B. had indeed transformed the blues. Before him, the genre had embraced acoustic slide guitarists and harmonica virtuosi, saxophonists and big-band singers. After B.B., those silos collapsed. By the late 1970s, the blues were played mostly by men with electric guitars, and all of them inevitably invited comparison to B.B. King.”
King’s influence on the blues, guitar playing and American music in general is not to be doubted, and de Visé brings this out admirably, suggesting he was the rightful heir of Armstrong and Ellington, and a cultural ambassador to the world.
The third strand that stood out for me was that of racism. King grew up in rural Mississippi in poverty with all the injustice of the sharecropping system, the spectre of lynching, sundown towns and all the rest of the iniquitous Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination. His art was confined to Black audiences for decades, as he played the chitlin’ circuit before anyone who was white took notice of his art. Over the years he suffered demeaning traffic stops by racist police; had to sleep on his tour bus because of segregation in hotels; was in a hotel room that was shaken by a bomb blast set off by white supremacists in Birmingham in 1963, and with his band suffered a violent racist attack in Louisiana as late as 1968.
Things did change, though, and King became accepted and adored by white audiences, starting with a triumphant performance and acceptance by the hippies in Bill Graham’s Fillmore in San Francisco in 1967. He travelled the world, was honoured by America’s presidents, won numerous Grammy awards and returned year after year to a “Homecoming” festival held in his honour in his native Indianola.
Finally, de Visé’s King comes across as a genuinely nice man in many ways, and humble. He was fair in his treatment of his band members – provided they could stick the relentless pace of his incessant touring – and made sure they got paid properly. There was scarcely a person who had a bad word to say about him. But de Visé does not shy away from describing the man’s obvious addictions to both gambling and sex. King wasted millions of dollars in a gambling habit that left him seriously in debt from time to time and in trouble with the taxman. He played poker with his band on their bus night after night, keno in Las Vegas and on tour might join his bandmates in betting on the movement of a hotel elevator.
King’s other major addition throughout his life was sex – pornography in later years, but for decades he used his touring as an opportunity to sleep with a large number of women. While de Visé does not go into a great deal of detail, this is a recurrent thread in the narrative and unsavoury snippets about multiple liaisons in a single night are included. Clearly that left King unable to maintain a successful marriage, and you are left wondering about the effect of all this on the women concerned, although de Visé does not deal with this.
In his favour, of course, King accepted at face value the various claims of parenthood of children from various encounters over the years and sought to provide for these children throughout his life. The reality, as de Visé, points out, is it is likely that King was impotent and actually fathered no children.
In addition, it is interesting to note that, although King was at one stage a heavy drinker, he had zero tolerance for his band using drugs.
de Visé’s portrait of B.B. King is generally sympathetic, but the picture emerges of a man, very much of his time, moulded by his early background and the struggles he had to make it into the big time, ambitious but not at all ruthless, and prone to seek comfort from the hardships of the road by indulging his weakness for gambling and sex.
The last section of the book, dealing with King’s demise in later life, is sad, but de Visé is quite sympathetic to the various people who vied for his estate after his death.
King of the Blues is a wholly engaging read and you are left with no doubt as to the impact and lasting legacy of B.B. King on the blues, on guitar playing, on music.
“I have always wanted to help people. I hope this project will energize people and change lives. Where there is light, there is hope; and where there is hope, there is a chance.” Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter is the last original member of The Blind Boys of Alabama and, remarkably, at 87 has released his first solo album, Blind Faith. He told me he wants this album to be “a ray of hope and encouragement.”
And that it certainly is. In nine songs which encompass gospel, blues, country and roots music and yet cohere wonderfully, Jimmy Carter’s positive outlook on life and faith shine through. The music is great, the lyrics and inspirational and it’s one of the albums I’ve enjoyed listening to most this year.
The album was produced by Ron Pullman – multi-talented guitarist, songwriter, music business manager, writer and wood craftsman – who wrote most of the songs on the album, and who says, “I spent a lot time trying to understand what Jimmy wanted; the feel and message, and the overall sound.”
Guests on Blind Faith include Charlie Musselwhite, Alan Parsons, The Mendelson Choir of Pittsburgh and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They all provide a suitable backdrop to Jimmy Carter’s distinctive and still-strong voice, which is the highlight of the album.
Jimmy Carter has been a member of The Blind Boys of Alabama for forty years and has sung for three presidents, won five Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and collaborated with a who’s who of the music industry, including Willie Nelson, Marc Cohn, Ben Harper, Peter Gabriel, Mavis Staples, Robert Randolph…the list goes on.
Carter was there in 1939, one of the boys at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, when the Blind Boys started out and began to play church engagements, but he was too young to join them on the road. He began singing with them in 1982 and has seen them become the world’s premier gospel group, legendary musicians and hugely respected far beyond the gospel genre.
I had the great pleasure of chatting to Jimmy Carter while ago (check it out), but was pleased to get the opportunity to speak to him again, specifically about this excellent album, along with Ron Pullman.
Jimmy was in fine form, having weathered the storm of the pandemic. “I’ve stayed well. I have all of my shots and I’m doing good.”
From the kick-off I knew this was going to be an enjoyable chat. Before long, Jimmy was joking that “it’s my first solo album and, I mean, I’m beginning to like it!” It helps, of course, that there’s been so much positive feedback for all sorts of quarters, especially ordinary listeners who are finding inspiration and encouragement in it.
Taking over the interview, Jimmy asked me, “what’s your favourite song?”
That’s a hard one, actually, given the quality to choose from. I mentioned Lord Take Me, a gently rocking Americana track, with some rootsy violin by Ryan Joseph and an oh-so-cool guitar solo. The song morphs beautifully into Swing Low Sweet Chariot with the added harmonies of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. Then again, there’s I Love to Pray, written by Joey Williams, band leader of the Blind Boys of Alabama, which Carter puts across in a very personal way. Jimmy declares, “my faith is strong” and “if it gets rough, I start to pray.”
Jimmy Carter is a man who believes that God answers prayer, and he told me that “prayer is very important to me. When I pray, I think of the verse that says, the fervent prayer of a righteous man does much [James 5 v16]. If someone is connected with God, you can call him and he’ll hear you. That’s what I’ve been doing. I know what prayer will do. I know what God will do, and I know what Jimmy Carter’s going to do. He is going to stay right there with him.”
Talking of favourite songs on the album I wondered if Jimmy had one? “Yeah, I have one. I Am With You Still.”
This is a quite beautiful song, a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s old friend and fellow original Blind Boy, Clarence Fountain, whom we lost in 2018. The song features a choir of young people from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and the Blind, the school which Jimmy attended when he was a boy.
There’s a great video for the song which shows the young people singing. Said Ron Pullman, “They got to go down and record in a real studio. They got the experience of going to the Sound of Birmingham Studio and it was just amazing.”
Ron went on to tell me that he and Jimmy had gone recently to visit the school again and brought signed CDs for all the students who had performed on the record.
“And it was most touching when Mr. Carter addressed these kids about how you have to stay fast to your faith. And, you know, the things that happened early in his life didn’t dissuade him – ‘I didn’t deviate from my faith!’ I could hear Jimmy calling out in the background – and he ended up performing for several white house presidential administrations and then on every major TV show. And of course, you’ve seen him perform many times around the world. So, it was a most inspiring speech Mr. Carter gave to the students yesterday. It was amazing. I got to tell you, it made me cry, Gary, because Mr. Carter was so inspiring.”
I Am With You Still is an incredibly powerful song about God’s presence with us. Jimmy told me that this is something that is very important to him.
“I was brought up in a Christian environment in my early life. My parents were Christian people, and they told me about God. They told me about Jesus and all of that. And then I had a personal experience with God – I have – and that built my faith. My faith is strong. That’s all I can say.”
The very personal nature of the record comes to a head in the final song, written by Joey Williams, Why Me. It’s a nice bluesy piece where we get some honest reflections on the fact of Jimmy Carter’s blindness.
Ron Pullman said, “In Why Me Jimmy starts out asking God, ‘Why me? Why was I blind? Because all my brothers were all healthy sighted individuals.’ But then at the end of the song, he’s saying to God, how could I have known that you would select me to do God’s work and would give me so many blessings.”
Jimmy added, in a remarkable testimony of faith, “Yeah. That’s what I felt. I felt that I was called to do what I’m doing. You know when I found out that all my brothers could see, except me, I felt all alone. I was blind, but God saw further down the road, he knew what he was going to do. He knew what he wanted me to do. Because I think if I had gotten my sight back, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now. He knew that that’s what I needed.”
Ron provided some detail about the recording of the song. “When we got into the studio with that song, we realized the third verse wasn’t written. And so we were trying to come up with writing a quick verse, and finally Jimmy says, how about I just go in there at the chorus and speak? And that’s what he did – we all got chills! And what you hear on the record is the very first take when Mr. Carter sat down in front of the mike and did it. I mean, we all got chills and it was a blessing right off the bat.
And the great Charlie Musselwhite plays on the song. And Peter Levin on Hammond B-3. Just so many people came together on that song to keep that bluesy, gospel feel. But I used to always say. blues is the cousin of the gospel. So we kept that real, real traditional.”
There’s a great song on the album called Dream On, on which the Blind Boys provide the backing vocals. As I listened to it, I love the fact that Jimmy Carter is still talking about having dreams, even though he’s reached a ripe old age. It kind of follows up a line in the title track, Blind Faith, where Carter sings about following the light that God shined for him when he was a boy. He’s followed his dream all these years, despite the difficulties along the way, including his blindness. “Well, you know,” he told me, “I still have a dream and I’m still following it.”
To add to that, however, Ron Pullman said that “Mr. Carter has an amazing dream still, and that is for this album to bring peace and serenity to the world.” Most people at 87 have already kicked back and forgotten about the ills of the world, but Jimmy Carter’s not finished yet.
In addition, there’s one particular dream Jimmy mentioned to me, that he and Ron are currently working on. “There’s one special thing I want to do before I retire, I want to go and perform in Jerusalem on a Christmas Day. That’s my dream right now.”
It’s one thing to dream your dreams when life is easy. But as you look at Jimmy Carter’s life, for sure there’ve been hard times – not least growing up in the Jim Crow South and, of course, his blindness. He remains resolutely positive:
“Well, you know, that’s when my faith comes in. Like I told you before, I have had a personal experience with God. I know what he will do. I know what he has done and know what he will do. All he’s asking me is to keep the faith and I’m going to do that. My faith is very strong.”
This positivity shines through every song in the album. But it’s not positivity for the sake of it, some attempt to make the most of things. There’s an authenticity here, a sincerity and a joy which is just part of Jimmy Carter. He’s a man who has learned, like St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “to be content, no matter what happens to me” because of the “great joy of the Lord.”
Ron Pullman spoke movingly of the great blessing it has been for him “to be able to work with an icon like Mr. Carter. It’s just been a life changing experience.”
Blind Faith finds Jimmy Carter in strong voice and ever-hopeful spirit. Ron Pullman has done a fine job of arranging the songs and assembling the perfect set of musical contributors for each song. It’s an album that will appeal to a wide range of listeners and one which will inspire and speak to each one.
Thank you, Jimmy Carter, for your message of peace and encouragement in these dark times.
“Mighty and joyous rock-injected blues…luxurious vocals and fine guitar work. Her voice is as muscular as her name is evocative.” – Austin Chronicle
“Nothing can be this raw. Nothing can be this real.” Mike Nesmith
Carolyn Wonderland is a blistering Texas guitar-slinger, multi-instrumentalist and song-writer, with a singing voice replete with full-throated raw emotion that will reach right inside you and give you a darn good shaking. Which you probably need.
She’s been making music since she was a small child, damaging her mother’s prized Martin guitar along the way, and developing a distinctive picking finger style approach to her guitar playing. She’s been compared to other Texas musical titans like Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but really, Carolyn Wonderland is one of a kind, something special in the broad area of blues rock.
Influenced at an early stage by Albert Collins, Jimmy Hendrix and Joe “Guitar” Hughes, she formed her first band when she was 17 and has never stopped singing and making music. She’s won multiple Austin Music Awards and been inducted into the Austin Music Hall Of Fame and has played with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, James Cotton, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Levon Helm.
Over the past three years, she’s been the lead guitarist in The Blues Breakers, the band of legendary musician and bandleader John Mayall, the first woman guitarist after a who’s who of electric guitar royalty that includes Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout.
She has ten previous albums to her credit, and has now released, with Alligator Records, Tempting Fate, a glorious ten song tribute to her scorching guitar skills and rockin’ vocals. As well as blues, there’s some country, some Tex-Mex, and a whole lot of heart. The album features a number of guests as well as Wonderland’s longtime road band of bassist Bobby Perkins and drummer Kevin Lance, including Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Cindy Cashdollar, Marcia Ball, Shelley King, Jan Flemming, and Red Young. The album was produced by Dave Alvin who also plays guitar on three songs.
Alvin said, “I wanted to work with Carolyn because her guitar playing isn’t imitating anyone. She is especially not imitating the imitators, like so many modern blues or blues/rock guitarists do. She developed her own effective way of playing the blues, plus she always surprises me with her guitar lines and melodic twists and turns. As for Carolyn’s vocals, they are soulful and powerful to the point of being often spine-tingling…I also love that Carolyn has a wonderful, mischievous sense of humor that makes her performances honest and charming and keeps them far away from getting too bogged down in too much serious ‘artiste’ posturing.”
We were delighted to get chatting to Carolyn about the new album. I asked her about moving to Alligator and the making of the record.
“I got really lucky. It all really came about because I’ve been working with John Mayall the last three years. He’s so generous. Not only on stage with everyone, but he’s just a generous individual. Anyway, I saved up enough money and decided I should make a record. And while I was on tour with my band, I ran into my friend, Cindy Cashdollar, in Woodstock and she asked me if you could have anyone do the record, who would it be? And I was like, oh, I’d love to have Dave Alvin do it. So she called him and he said, yes!
“I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. So we all got together last January in Austin and I had my band, Kevin and Bobby, and our friends Shelly King, Marcia Ball and Cindy happened to be in town. And Jimmy Dale Gilmore came by and sang some, and it was great. It was just a hoot. I think you can tell how much fun it was. Like you can hear the joy.
“And then the pandemic hit, of course. But I got a call from Bruce Iglauer at Alligator who asked to hear the record and again I couldn’t believe my luck – really?! And so he put it out and I was so amazed.”
The guitar work on the album is outstanding – all you’d expect from a Carolyn Wonderland record, but Carolyn’s comment was a modest, “I know that I wouldn’t be here, you know, if not for the many trailblazers ahead of me.”
What you notice on Tempting Fate, hot through the guitar work is, is the vocal performance – she’s absolutely at the top of her game on this album – the range, the dynamics, the emotion on this album seems better than ever.
“I think some of that was me just being so comfortable and happy to be home, and so I really got into the record. But also I think some of the credits should be split between Dave Alvin and Stuart Sullivan [Sullivan is a recording engineer, and the founder, owner and engineer of Wire Recording in south central Austin]. Stuart and I have worked together for years and years. He makes me sounds like me instead of me going, oh, what’s that? So I was very happy that he had the time to do it and I really think he’s real good at capturing that kind of stuff. Making the voice sound like the voice.”
The album gets off to a cracking start with the first song, Fragile Peace and Certain War. There seem to be a lot of things in Wonderland’s sights there – desperate people getting evicted from their homes, water that ain’t fit to drink, and inequality between the rich and the poor. “We’re standing on the precipice” she sings. I asked her if that is that how she sees things in the United States currently.
“Yeah, I would think so. But it’s also the way I see things throughout history and in our human existence. Sometimes we tended to not do great things, and it’s hard to understand why. So I think sometimes it’s good to look at ourselves.”
John Mayall’s The Laws Must Change, from 1970 is an interesting inclusion on the album. One of the lines in the song is, ‘Some people are saying you’re wrong, and they’re right. But we’ve got to see both sides.’ And that seems to me to be very apposite in the world at the moment. As an outsider, looking on in America, there’s clearly a lot of division.
So I asked Carolyn if she had hope that things can change. She replied, talking about the need to reject the us and them attitudes that dog us, and if we can do that, then there can be hope for us. “You and I are the same. It has always bothered me when we don’t see each other that way.”
Carolyn told me about performing the song in The John Mayall Band. “When I joined John’s band, it was like, here’s 80 songs, go and learn them and who knows which ones will be pulled out on any night. It’s so fun. It’s perfect. But even with that many songs, he never pulled out The Laws Must Change. And I always loved that song. Well, during the show, John would always let me sing a song or two, so I thought, well, maybe if it’s not too cheeky. I’d like to do one of his songs. So I started doing The Laws Must Change!”
I wanted to know about her experience with the John Mayall Band, three years as his lead guitarist, following in the footsteps of some legendary guitarists. I wondered what was it like to have a sense that she was going where Eric Clapton and Peter Green and Walter Trout and so on, had been before.
“It’s often times best not to think about it because it’s a little scary! John sent me so many CDs to listen to so I could learn the songs. And I gathered that these would be his favorite versions. And there was so much Peter Green. I was in heaven. And I’ve always loved Walter and I’ve always loved Coco, but I had never really gotten to dig into Buddy Witherington’s stuff. His chord choices were sublime. And I actually wrote him a little fan letter, and he was very cool about it.”
During this three-year stint, The John Mayall Band at one stage did fifty shows in sixty days in nineteen countries, which sounds like a hugely demanding schedule, particularly for Mayall who turns 88 this year. I asked Carolyn about this.
“Oh, it’s crazy. But John loved it that way. I remember asking him at one point, like, don’t you want to take a day off and maybe go sightseeing? And I could see his eyes roll at me. Like, no, I’ve seen it, I want to want to play music. And it’s so joyful when he’s playing. Everybody wants to be on stage with John. It’s such a great time. And there’s a reason everybody in that band loves him – because he’s a really, really good guy.”
I wondered, as she looks back on this experience with John and his band, what does she thinks she learned from it?
“Oh, man, I learned so much. I mean, aside from playing more guitar than I’ve ever got to play in my life, I got to watch one of the best band leaders ever. And I’m hoping that I learned how to bring some of that to my own band too. I mean, his generosity, the way that he lets everyone express themselves on stage. And his kindness. I mean, it’s a band, but it’s very much a family, you know? When we’re out on the road it’s a family.”
Turning back to the album, while there are songs with some strong social comment, on a less serious note, there is the delightfully quirky Texas Girl and Her Boots, a great fun-filled, rockin’ blues: “This Texas girl fears no snake in the grass, I got some big bad boots baby.”
“Yeah, I’ve a good collection of all kinds of boots, mostly thrift store finds, but yeah! You get the little insert and it doesn’t matter who else walked in it!”
Texas boots. I have to say, I’m quite proud of my engraved leather, slanted heel cowboy boots which I acquired a few years ago in San Antonio. I don’t think they’re snake-proof, though. Getting back to the song, there is some rollicking piano on this track, courtesy of Marcia Ball.
“I was so happy to have Marcia on that one. And also, that one’s a great example of how having a great producer makes a great song. I had that song written and when I played it, Dave Alvin stopped me. He said ‘It sounds like you really are proud of those boots. Maybe you should kick in the door with them, instead of asking permission!’. I was like, oh! So he got me to take this guitar part we had at the back end of the song and put it at the beginning. And sure enough, I mean, instantly, the song was better.”
I always like to hear a Bob Dylan number on an album, and Tempting Fate gives us It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, a song from Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited. With Jimmy Dale Gilmore in tow, it becomes a real country number, quite different from the original, but brilliantly done. What, I wondered, made her choose this Dylan song and decide to do it in this way?
“Well, it’s a song that I had done in the past with my guitar player, Scotty Daniels, who passed away a few years ago. So whenever I would do it, I would think of him, and with it and Honey Bee, both of those songs, I do them in remembrance of Scotty. But it turns out while we were going through possible songs, Dave said Jimmy Dale used to do it when he was younger. I was like, oh, really? Jimmy Dale said yeah and he came over and we sang it together and it was so amazing. Because that voice is just one of a kind. I’ve had dreams that I could sing with him. Really awesome.”
It’s perhaps fitting that there’s a Dylan song included, because Bob, it seems is a bit of a Carolyn Wonderland fan. Apparently, a few years back whilst having lunch with legendary musician Ray Benson, Bob remarked “Hey, have you heard Carolyn Wonderland? She’s something else.” Dylan went on to meet her and they’ve jammed together on a few occasions. I mentioned this famous fan to her and she replied modestly:
“Oh, I don’t know. He’s called a couple of times. I’ve been super lucky, to get to hang out and play some guitar. But, yeah, it’s always surprising. I never know if, or when, he’ll call. I don’t know if he’ll ever call again. Just in case, I’m keeping my phone number the same!”
We finished up with me asking about her planned live performances.
“We’ve been very careful, but we’ve done a couple of things mostly outdoors and then one indoor festival where everybody was vaccinated and masked indoors. That’s the tricky thing on the road in America – every place, every state, has its own rules, so we want to be safe and healthy. So, we test every week and we’re just pretty much going to live in our little bubble.”
If you’re not able to go see her and her band live, do the next best thing – get your hands on Tempting Fate and enjoy a completely original, talented artist at the top of her game.
This episode features a chat with blues troubadour, Eric Bibb, about his new album Letter to America. He says he “was very aware going into this project that we were dealing with very uncomfortable issues.” Nevertheless, the album is full of great songs, wonderful musicianship from Eric and his musical guests, and features Eric Bibb’s characteristic hopefulness in the midst of difficult times.
“…like me, he loves the old style blues and he always does a great and faithful job of presenting it.” – Charlie Musselwhite
Born in the United States, but now resident in Sweden (like his old friend, Eric Bibb), Bert Deivert has been performing blues and folk music for over fifty years. A talented multi-instrumentalist with acoustic guitar, lap steel, resonator, slide guitar, mandolin, charango, and bass, he has performed in more than twenty countries and collaborated with hundreds of fine musicians around the globe, including Peter Case, T-Model Ford, Tom Paley, Charlie Musselwhite, Eric Bibb, and Wanda Jackson.
His 14th album, I Ain’tLeavin’, comes hot on the heels of his excellent collaborative album from 2020 with Libby Rae Watson, She Shimmy. Ten songs, nine Deivert originals, feature performances by Deivert playing a variety of instruments, along with his wife Eva Deivert on fiddle and daughter Emmy Deivert adding backing vocals on a couple of songs. Son Seamus did all the mastering, making it quite the family affair.
It’s a great collection of blues-tinged songs, several of which tell intriguing stories. I got chatting to Bert from his home in Sweden. I first asked him about his background as a musician, and about his perhaps unusual migration as an American to Europe.
“Well,” he told me, “I grew up in New Hampshire, but we moved around a lot when I was a child. I began playing drums because of the Beatles in 1964 and then guitar, and then started some bands. I went to San Francisco because I had a scholarship for film school there, and while I was playing in the streets I met Peter Case.
“Peter and I played together as street musicians and later on, after I went to Sweden, he had a band called the Nerves and another one called the Plimsouls which had a couple of big hits on Geffen records in LA. And he’s still going strong. I was over recording with him recently for his album Midnight Broadcast, which was released, I think, in March or April. He does a bunch of blues on it and I play mandolin and drums and sing a bit on it. So that was kind of cool.
“Anyway, I met a Swedish girl and came to Sweden with her and I just stayed there. So I’d say I’m a real mix of influences and you hear that on this new album as well. I play a lot of folk music – I was really into folk music and blues in the sixties. I heard Son House on TV in 1966 when I was sixteen on public television. And he played Levy Camp Moan and Death Letter Blues and I was blown away. So I actually went out and broke a wine bottle that my parents had laying around, and then scraped the bottleneck on the brick steps outside our house, so I wouldn’t cut my finger off. And I tried to learn how to play bottle neck. It didn’t go very well then, but I learned later!”
Deivert is well known for being a mandolin player, but you quickly realize in listening to I Ain’tLeavin’ that’s he’s a pretty nifty guitar picker as well. That’s largely what we hear on this new album. Interestingly, mandolin was something Deivert only picked up on within the last 20 years, but he’s played guitar his whole career, playing mostly folk and blues as a singer-songwriter.
Having played so much blues throughout his career, I wondered what is it about the music that really draws him to it?
“As far as blues music is concerned, it’s like any folk music, I think – and I play Irish folk music, Swedish folk music, Thai folk music, South American folk music and American folk music. And all those things sometimes have elements of all these other kinds of music. It’s a conglomerate, but there’s something about the soul of it, the emotion is what drives me. Like when I was very moved by Son House’s Death Letter Blues, where it talks about a woman who dies and he goes to see her. I get chills every time I listen to it.”
Deivert has played with a lot of well-known blues artists along the way, including Eric Bibb, with whom he made three albums in the early ‘80s and who sang on his album last year with Libby Rae Watson.
“I also played with T Model Ford and when I was in Mississippi, I met Jimmy Duck Holmes and jammed with him. I’ve played with Cadillac John Nolden and Sam Carr, the Delta drummer, who was in the Jelly Roll Kings. He’s on one of my albums. And I’ve jammed with some of the guys like Terry Harmonic Bean.”
There are some great story songs on the album – like, for example, the remarkable Badge 623, about the murder of his grandfather, a policeman in Boston.
“That’s the one about my grandfather’s murder. I started doing genealogy seriously about a year ago, because I wanted to find out more about my people in Ireland. And I happened to run across some newspaper clippings about my grandfather’s killing which I had only known about as a kid. It was a big trauma for my mother and her siblings, but I didn’t know any details. And my mom, who was two years old when her father was killed, didn’t talk about it. So I compiled all the information I could find and decided I was going to write a song.
“And I think unconsciously, it had some sort of Irish elements in it. It’s hard to pinpoint something, but my wife plays Irish fiddle too as well as Swedish fiddle. And then, I play with Christy O’Leary, an Irish musician living in Sweden too. So, you know, all this stuff is in my head. So, I took all the information and I wrote this song for my grandfather. I still get moved by it. I mean, I can’t imagine how my grandmother managed after that. She collapsed at the funeral and her brother and my grandfather’s brother, Thomas, who was also a policeman, had to hold her up – she was eight months pregnant her next child.”
Another notable song is I Heard the Dark Roads Call, which is about the Vietnam war.
“All these songs, except for one, are stories from my life. What happened in December, 1969, was there was going to be a lottery for the draft. They had two barrels, one with dates and one with numbers. And they picked one from each. They took away all student deferments. Now, I was going to college at the time and I was going to turn nineteen in the Fall and eligible for the draft.
“So what I did in the summer was to hitchhike to Montreal and take a look around. I met draft dodgers and deserters that were hanging around, living on the streets, having a hard time, trying to get asylum in Canada. And I met a couple of French separatists who were really nice to me and let me stay with them. So I began to think well, I think I’m probably gonna move to Canada if I get drafted. Because I was not going to fight in the Vietnam war. So that’s what this song is all about. Luckily, I got a good number – I got 196 and they took it up to 195. I missed it by one.
“I didn’t tell my parents about all this, but I was all prepared. I was against the government and I was against the war. I didn’t feel it was right. And so, I did what I thought was right.”
Another intriguing song is Yank and Sleepy John, which is Bert’s tribute to Yank Rachell, a country blues musician from Tennessee, who recorded blues songs prolifically with the mandolin, and Sleepy John Estes, another Tennessee bluesman. The two frequently performed together.
“When Peter Case and I were playing in San Francisco, neither of us had a place to live at the time. I was sleeping out of a car and staying with whoever I could. But Peter had a little travel record player, and he had this album called Broke and Hungry with Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell. He’d put it on and we’d listen to it. I was just amazed. This was 1973 and I’d never heard mandolin with blues. And it was like, wow, this is amazing. So we started playing Broke and Hungry among other things on the streets.
“And I never forgot that album afterwards. So when I finally decided that I was going to learn to play mandolin in 2004, I just sat down and woodshedded with Yank Rachell records for two years and drove my violin-playing wife absolutely mad. She said, it sounds terrible, I gotta go in the other room! But finally, I got pretty good at it. And next thing I was on a Yank Rachell tribute album in the States. Then all of a sudden, I started getting gigs internationally. And after that, it just took off, and my blues mandolin and the albums did well. I just love what Yank and Sleepy John do. And that’s what the song is about. It’s a tribute homage to them both.”
The last song on the album, I Can’t Feel at Home, is an interesting one to me because it’s an old Christian song and I remember it hearing it being sung by Jim Reeves. We had Jim Reeves records in my home when I was growing up, and I really hated it. And all of that sort of music, although I must admit that I’ve mellowed somewhat and wouldn’t mind listening to those old Jim records now – sadly long gone. But Bert’s version really transformed it for me – it really lifts the song into a different dimension.
“It’s kind of interesting – well, have you heard the Woody Guthrie parody of it – I Don’t Have a Home in this World Anymore. Oh, you gotta listen to that. The first recording that I actually heard of the song was the Carter family. Because it’s an old Southern gospel song that’s been around for a long time. A lot of country artists have done it and then copyrighted it by changing the words slightly for themselves. I heard Geoff Muldaur’s version and was super inspired. He’s a great guitar player and a very soulful singer. And then I decided I was going to do it with DADGAD tuning, which is the tuning that I use for Irish music. The song sounds very different using that kind of tuning. And then I slowed it down and I did some little bluesy kind of things with it.”
Bert Deivert has been making music professionally for close to 50 years. I asked him if, looking back, he have known when he started out what he knows now, would he still have pursued his musical career?
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it hasn’t been easy and there’s been some real tough times. My wife, thinks I’m obsessed by music, which I am. I mean, she’s a musician, a trad Fiddler that grew up with it, so it’s in our blood. But she thinks I get into this sort of tunnel vision thing with my music. But she understands that, she appreciates that at the same time.”
When you listen to I Ain’t Leavin’, you appreciate what a talented musician Bert Deivert is, and the richness of his musical experience. It’s a fine album of well-crafted songs, good tunes, a traditional, bluesy vibe and masterful story-telling. Definitely one to get in your collection.