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:
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.
“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.
Eric Bibb – blues troubadour, global griot, as a recent album has it, whose music always seems to arrive at the Needed Time – considers his Dear America album to be his finest work yet.
Bibb, originally from New York, but now resident in Sweden, has been delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember, with his finely honed guitar picking, his honeyed vocals, his good humour and all-round positive vibe. No matter what sort of day you’ve had, when you go to an Eric Bibb gig, the weight of the world disappears and you’ll find yourself with a smile on your face that doesn’t go away for a week.
He’s a Grammy nominated, Blues Music Award winning song-writer and performing artist who is very much at the top of his game, as is evidenced by Dear America, which he says is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” On this record, he says, “I’m saying all the things I would want to say to somebody dear to me.”
Thanks to the wonders of Zoom, I got chatting to Eric at his home on a farm south of Stockholm where he has spent the last 18 months, like the rest of us, keeping safe. He has, however, been able to work online, performing and giving guitar lessons – “I haven’t suffered like many of my colleagues, so I feel quite, quite blessed.”
I asked him, first of all, about the making of the album and his musical collaborators and guests. He told me that, although he’s proud of the body of work he’s created in the past, both he and his producer, Glen Scott, who has worked with him on many previous projects, agree that “this is our best work.”
The album, on the Provogue label, features a number of well-known guest artists, the result of Scott’s vision, who had said to Eric a while back, “Eric, one day, we’re just going to go to New York and you’re going to have like the best rhythm section in the world, and we’re going to cut some tracks.”
So, the album features top notch players like Steve Jordan on drums, who has worked extensively with Keith Richards and John Mayer, Tommy Sims on bass, “a great musician all around, but amazing bass player and singer and guitar player, who’s worked with everybody from Bonnie Raitt to Bruce Springsteen,” Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers who plays lap steel guitar on Different Picture, Billy Branch on harmonica, and Ron Carter, again on bass.
Of the legendary Ron Carter – the most recorded jazz bassist in history – Eric talked about the first time he’d played with him more than fifty years ago, as a young man of sixteen.
“He was the bass player who had the bass chair on my dad’s television show in the late sixties. My dad [Leon Bibb, the renown folk singer, actor and civil rights activist] had a TV show called Someone New that featured young talent – nine-year-old Yo Yo Ma was on that show. I was sixteen years old and my dad put me in the guitar player’s chair. It was the first time I was in a completely over my head situation. I had to get a union card and there I was with Ron Carter playing bass and I’m trying to read the chart! So it was an amazing reconnection with him.”
Other guests include Lisa Mills, who duets on the album’s last song, the exquisitely beautiful Oneness of Love, and Shaneeka Simon, a gospel singer from the UK – “just a gem of a musician, a great singer, a fine person” – who makes a telling contribution on Born of a Woman.
The songs on the album are quite bluesy both musically and lyrically. None more so than Whole World’s Got the Blues, which bemoans the state of the world – “everywhere you turn you’re looking at sad, sad news.” The song is taken to a new dimension by the appearance of Eric Gales’s guitar, which weaves in and out of Bibb’s lyrics and then breaks into its own protesting, moaning solo, echoing eloquently the sombre message of the song.
“Eric Gales – his palette is so huge, and when it comes to blues, he’s the epitome of the best of old school and modern sensibilities. He’s in a class all by himself and also a fine person to work with, to vibe off. Because he’s spontaneous, straightforward, honest, you know, a heart open-on-his-sleeve kind of guy. I met him on a Joe Bonamassa blues cruise and Ulrika [Bibb’s wife] caught him on film, kind of dancing to a song during my set. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good sign.’ And then I heard him and I was completely blown away, so I went up to him said, ‘listen, would you guest on my album if I could make the thing happen?’ And he said, ‘it’s going to happen’!
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.
Dear America addresses the troubled racial history of the United States and what is still, sadly, going on. A number of the songs are quite explicit and quite hard hitting. In White and Black, he highlights the “crooked thinking, white is good, black is bad”; in Dear America, “on the one hand to be called your citizen, on the other to be excluded because of the colour of my skin”; and in Different Picture, the repetitive nature of America’s racial problems are firmly in view.
I wondered how important it was for Eric to make this record, to say the sort of things that he’s saying here and to ask the sort of questions he poses.
“I think the whole world has been preoccupied with current events in America for some time – the whole Trump era unleashed a lot of monsters that we’ve been trying, as a collective people, to sweep under the carpet. I think that, with that, and with events like the George Floyd murder and so on, things just seem to be coming to a head.
“And it was like everything was conspiring to make the world pay attention to these issues in a new way. This was borne out by the fact that so many young people ended up becoming involved, and not only African-Americans, but others with the whole Black Lives Matter movement. And, you know, this is ongoing. It’s not new, but it’s certainly more in our face than ever before.
“I was very aware going into this project that we were dealing with very uncomfortable issues. But to pretend that it doesn’t exist or minimize its impact on our lives is to end up being much more uncomfortable. And I think the more we understand that, the better off we’ll be. So, I knew I wanted to say something about all of this and say it from a perspective of an American living outside of America.”
One of the very sobering songs on the album is Emmett’s Ghost. The gentle, almost cheery finger-picked guitar introduction belies the dreadful historical event the song refers to. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, who was falsely accused of offending a white woman and then brutally lynched, before his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Outrageously, his murderers were acquitted, but Emmet Till became an iconic figure in the Civil Rights movement.
Bibb sings about his own experience of coming to know about Emmet Till as a boy himself, of coming to realize “from that day on, some hated my kind.” Sadly, this is not just an event from the past – Emmet Till’s ghost still haunts America, “we can’t move on because hate’s still going strong all over this country.”
Events like this still clearly reverberate; another recent blues album, Guy Davis’s Be Ready When I Call You, shines a light on the appalling Tulsa Massacre of 1921 [see our interview with Guy here]. I asked Eric if America has really come to terms with its past, with the brutality and inhumanity of events like these?
“Well, the hatred mentioned in the song refrain is still going on, and one of the reasons for that is because it’s never been properly acknowledged, it’s never been properly taught about in schools. It’s that part of American history that has often been whitewashed. There are people who told me – and I’m talking about educated people, man – they had never heard of this story.
“But African-Americans have been aware of it because it was pivotal in the history of the whole Civil Rights movement. But the number of people who were unaware of this story was quite shocking to me. Emmet was 1955, half a century ago or longer. The George Floyd murder, for example, to me was a very palpable reverberation of the same energy, the same attitudes.
“The fact that the guys who perpetrated the Emmett Till murder got off, the fact that the policemen who murdered George Floyd didn’t get off, tells me something about the evolution of consciousness and that we’re growing. And I also found out the Emmett Till case has been reopened and in absentia could possibly get a guilty verdict. [This Guardian article reviews the re-opening of the case.]
“So, as uncomfortable with this history is, as long as it’s taken to even get to this point and, let’s face it, these are what seem like minimal steps forward, I have a feeling that the process is accelerating.
“And I think being in a position to add my voice to this ongoing conversation is really good for me because this is what I do. I’m a troubadour who is aware of my surroundings and the world that I live in. And if there’s any way this troubadour can influence a conversation and perhaps promote change, that’s good.”
Although Dear America addresses some serious issues, Eric wanted to make clear that “this is not a protest album.” Growing up in the ‘60s in New York, with a father like Leon Bibb, Eric was well acquainted with folk protest songwriters like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. And so, although he never considered himself an artist in that vein, “it was impossible for me to not take on board in my songwriting all of these things. It was just impossible.”
“I consider myself some kind of storyteller. Who’s got something to say, with a history that gives me a platform for speaking out and being a voice for promoting certain kinds of conversations that will hopefully lead to change. That’s part of my chameleon background. But I also wanted it just to be a groovy album, you know, that people would get into. I didn’t want to just be on a soap box. So that was in itself challenging, but I think I had help from above in pulling it off, you know?”
That’s a delicate balance to achieve, but I think he has, indeed, pulled it off. Because, like every Eric Bibb album you listen to, there’s a thread of hope and joy that comes through very strongly. And the music is great.
I did want to ask him about one other song on the album, which I think is a hugely important one. Born of a Woman, which features Shaneeka Simon, addresses the tsunami of violence against women all over the world.
“Yes, I’m very glad that song came to me because I want to weigh in on this and basically draw attention to something that is really, as you say, global and alarming, to say the least.
“Again, to me it is indicative of the fact that we’re in a time right now, where it seems that all of the issues or whatever trauma that is holding the human community back from becoming this loving family – the misogyny, racism, all of that – seems to just being pushed to the front of our awareness in dramatic ways, and people are taking sides.
“And young people, fortunately, are kind of getting it and stepping up in more numbers than ever before. But the pushback is also quite intense right now, there are people who are really resistant to looking at all of this and coming to terms with it.”
While Eric, rightly, points to the hope lying in the younger generation, a thread of hope is never far away in an Eric Bibb album. Take the first song, Whole Lotta Lovin’, where we find Eric giving thanks for the simple things in life. “A whole lot of thank you, Lord, for all you provide.” It’s a wonderful way to start the album and we get threads of this thankful attitude right the way through. I wondered how important gratitude is to him and how important gratitude is in the midst of all the difficulties we’ve be talking about?
“It’s essential to me personally, and I think it’s an essential attitude and emotion for the healing of all of us. I’ve written a couple of songs, even one with the title Gratitude [On Roadworks, 1999]. It’s central to my way of going forth in the world. And it’s really helped me, I think. Without that the possibility of tipping over into the lane of cynicism and bitterness is quite huge. So that’s the antidote to that.
“And it’s funny, you mentioned the first song. This album is called Dear America and I call it a love letter. If I can think of one or two things about the American experience – speaking personally, but I think it’s also a universal feeling – it would be the food and the music, you know, because there’s something poetically and cosmically fitting about a music that spans so many different kinds of expressions – jazz, calypso, blues, gospel, whatever, music born of a history and a people who have been really hard done by. And this fascinates me.
“It’s like, it tells me something about the creator. Giving the gift of a certain kind of irresistible music that not only makes the whole world joyful, but makes whole world connected in its love of it, makes the whole world want to play it, sing it, understand it, know about it.
The fact of where it’s come from is a beautiful, beautiful comment on life in general. And I want to make it clear that this gift from the African-American tribe to the world, that has basically brought so many people together in so many ways, is the way I want to think about America when I think about what’s great about it, you know, what it’s given us. And I wanted to start there because I knew I had to go other places, but I really wanted to start there. And I’m glad you mention that.”
In similar vein, Love’s Kingdom, strikes that same note of hope and thankfulness – “Everything can change, if we believe,” and “Let’s start with being grateful for being alive.” There’s a defiant hope here against all the darkness, hope which almost goes against the grain.
“That song, really, I guess you could say, summarizes my philosophy. I really think at the end of the day this is the way. And I think it’s not a simple path, getting there is not simple, but it is a simple solution. Making that decision to step into Love’s Kingdom, to basically really follow the great teachings of all the great teachers, whoever you want to follow, that was the message. And we have that possibility and I just felt like saying it as simply as that – if we can step into Love’s Kingdom, you know, turn it over and really trust in some kind of loving higher power, however you want to frame it or put it into words.”
It’s a fabulous song, though not a typical Eric Bibb arrangement. A collaboration between Eric, Glen Scott and Tommy Sims, it’s got a kind of retro soul feel to it, which lifts you up and carries you along. Right into the closing song, Oneness of Love, a beautiful, gentle song, with a simple accompaniment, graced by the sweet voice of Lisa Mills added to Bibb’s own. It’s a fitting way to complete the album, where a letter that is painfully honest, but never hopeless or cynical, is sandwiched between notes of thankfulness, hope and love at the beginning and end.
Eric Bibb’s is a voice we need to hear. In a world where there’s so much aggression and hatred, a voice for peace, for unity, for humanity is one that needs to be heard. And Dear America is especially timely – shining a light on much of what is pulling people apart and giving rise to bitterness and division, but never giving up on the possibilities that love can bring.
[See our extended comment on Born of a Woman here]
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, Already Made, on Bruce Watson’s Bible and Tire Recording Co. label.
“I was born in the country,” says Jack, “and I would hear Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, all of them guys — and I used to patronize them, and sing like them a little bit, but I came back to my roots. I used to do a lot of blues singing but I broke from that and got into the gospel.”
Jack was the lead vocalist in a 1960s group along with Isaac Hayes on piano and had several hit records with both Stax Records and Peacock Records. He retired from professional singing to concentrate on being a church pastor in Memphis, and although his outstanding singing voice has been heard often in his church, this outstanding release from Bible and Tire gives the rest of us the opportunity to appreciate his considerable songwriting and vocal talent.
Elder Jack Ward’s re-discovery comes as a result of Bruce Watson working with Juan D Shipp on the old D-Vine Spiritual’s back catalogue. On finding some of the artists still alive and active, Watson has had them in the studio, with brilliant results. Elizabeth King’s Living in the Last Days was released to considerable critical acclaim and now we have Ward’s Already Made. [Catch our interview with the remarkable Elizabeth King here.] Produced by Watson and Sacred Soul Sound Section leader Will Sexton at Memphis’s Delta-Sonic Sound Studio, 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.
I was delighted to get the opportunity to chat to Elder Jack Ward about the album, his music and life. I found him justifiable proud of his past singing career, performing and recording in the 1960s.
“I did a recording with Stax, Don’t Need No Doctor. It’s been so long, man, fifty years, but that’s what put me on the top. It was all just about for two years a hit. The Christian Harmonizers, we were with Stax and we went out on the road. I did a lot of writing myself, my own songs. And then I put a group together called The Gospel Four. That’s when we put out, Look Down the Lonesome Road and Change Gonna Come. And that put me in the spotlight.”
When you listen to Jack Ward sing, you hear a soulful tenor voice, with great range and a sweet falsetto. I asked about choosing gospel music rather than blues or soul.
“My mom, she was a singer and, I used to hear her – see, I’m a country boy – she used to pick cotton in the country and drive tractors and mules and she would sing songs. She was the one that kept me in the church whenever I was a lad of a boy. I was the only son and I had two sisters.”
Jack was singing from a young age, better, he said, than the “white boys” he knew, who would get him to sing for them in Moorhead Mississippi. “They heard me sing and I was I think about 10. I’d say, ‘Come on, who you want to hear?’ I used to do Earnest Tubb’s Walking the Floor Over You, Hank Williams and all of that. And they would give me a dime, fifteen cents.”
Jack left his home on the farm and came to Memphis when he was 18 – “I had it in mind to make me a hit record.” He went back and forth for a couple of years, but settled, he told me, when he was 21 and has been in Memphis ever since.
“And I had my mind set to come to Memphis to sing blues or rock ’n’ roll.” But some school friends said to him, ‘Look, man, we need you to sing gospel,’ so he joined the Christian Harmonizers, making a number of successful gospel records before going on to form the Gospel Four in 1968. The Gospel Four had an altogether different sound and style than the Christian Harmonizers, as exemplified by the gripping testimonial The Last Road and the mid-tempo, minor-keyed A Change Is Gonna Come.
“That was something that I enjoyed in my heart,” Jack told me, “and maybe this stopped me going to rock and roll and the blues and I’m glad that I turned around and got into the gospel.”
He earned the moniker “Jumping Jack Ward” around this time, “because, you know, I had a little jump from the singing. It was no outstanding thing, it just made me feel good. And I just do my little thing and they called Jumping Jack Ward.”
For the last fifty years, though, Jack has been Elder Jack Ward. He had started pastoring before his professional singing career finished – “I was doing evangelism and so on” – and went on to found the Earth Temple Holiness Church, which he has led for the past 57 years, although he started to “pass things back” a while ago.
Jack is clearly – and justifiably – quite delighted about the new album and the opportunity to get on the road. “Now this would be my first album [as opposed to 45 singles]. So this is where I am now at this time. I plan to do some traveling as soon as we get everything lined up. I’m an 83-year-old man!”
Watson feels that Already Made is one of the best albums he’s ever produced – given some of the albums he’s worked on at Fat Possum, that’s saying a lot. It is, indeed, very, very good, with Ward’s soulful vocals beautifully backed by both his daughters and Bible and Tire label mates the Sensational Barnes Brothers. Guitarists Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang add a little magic to the mix, adding variety to the songs, from the distortion on He’s Got Great Things to the cool reverb of Shout Trouble’s Over to the shimmering vibrato of God’s Love.
God’s Love is a lovely song, with Ward’s tender vocals giving a great sense of somebody who has personally experienced God’s love and care over the years, despite life’s difficulties.
“When you weak, he will make you strong, when you’re lonely, he would never leave you alone. So that was a comfort to me a whole lot. I didn’t drop out. I just kept doing what God had gave me from birth. I love that one, God’s Love.”
Other songs, like Someone Who Is Greater Than Me, Lord I’m In Your Care and God’s Got a Hold of My Hands, all convey the same positive message of Ward’s experience of faith in the nitty gritty of his own life and those of the many people he has pastored over the years.
He’s someone who knows about hard times – not that he’ll be forthcoming in complaining in any way. I asked him, for example, about his early life, and he told me about life in a family of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi in the first half of the last century. Life wasn’t easy, to say the least.
“We was raised up on a farm. I had to work on the farm, my family and I, and my two sisters. And we had to chop cotton, pick cotton. When I turned 17, I was working with my father and some men that he had hired. And we cut wood for cross ties that goes on the rail road. So I was working, doing, the job that men was doing. I was pretty apt to catch on.
“And, as I just come up through the years, I applied to use a one row planter. You had to put the mule on the row with the planter, and you had to walk on the top of it, one road planter, and man, it was hot. We was in the sun. 85 or 90, sometime they would get up there to 105. My head, it was black in the sun! I’ve done some bogus work. I’ve done everything, drove tractors and drove mules and baled hay.”
Sharecropping is a system where the landlord allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop. Mississippi tenant farm families were often kept severely indebted. The landlord would extend a line of credit to the sharecropper while taking the year’s crop as collateral. The sharecropper could then draw food and supplies all year long. When the crop was harvested, the harvest was sold and the debt settled, but with no added benefit for the sharecropper.
“Sharecropper,” Jack mused. “But you would get nothing out of it. You wouldn’t get anything out of that because the boss man, he tell you, ‘Well, Jordan’ – that’s my daddy’s name – he said, ‘y’all just come out, outta debt.’ And so daddy said, outta debt? He said, ‘well, we’ll loan you some money and go through the winter.’” Jack chuckled as he recounted this.
Remarkably, he remembers the good things about those days. His family never went hungry – “because, we raised vegetables and water melons, sweet potatoes, corn, popcorn. We hunted rabbits and stuff like that. And we never did get hungry.”
“I mean, back in the old days, it was pretty good, because, we didn’t have no responsibility like, lights and all of this, ‘cause we didn’t have lights. During that time we had to use kerosene, paraffin, stuff like that, and when the boss man put lights in our house, man, I tell you, I was just so happy.”
“You know, you was in the country. You didn’t have nothing too much to worry about. You had to work hard and they pay you little money. So from that point, yeah, it was tough. But, people was not sick. Like a lot of people now. See, we had chickens, geese, mules and all of that and hogs. Getting close to wintertime, dad would kill a hog. We was in the field and didn’t get sick because you would get out in the heat and sweat all that stuff out. You didn’t have no high blood pressure. They didn’t have no headaches and diabetes.”
Jack remembers being able to dress up once in a while, putting on his best shoes and a suit. “Looking back, we was taken care of. We just did so much hard work, bogus work. I call it like that. You didn’t get no pay amount to anything. I’ve chopped cotton for a dollar and a quarter a whole day. We moved on from that, but, you know, I thank God for how he kept me and I didn’t get sick and a lot, but I just thank God for this time.”
Elder Jack Ward has an incredibly positive attitude to life, and thankfulness is clearly a mark of the man. You just have to listen to He’s Got Great Things Waiting You, to get a sense of the way his faith gives him confidence in God, no matter what life throws at him. “Dry your eyes, and don’t you cry, your blessing is so nigh.”
At 83, Jack knows the road ahead is shorter than what’s behind, but his sense of gratitude, his faith and his enthusiasm for life as inspirational. “I know we all got to leave here, but a whole lot of my friends, they are gone. So I’m thankful. I thank God for just keeping me alive. And I’m doing pretty good and my ministry and then my singing career – I love both. I love singing. I love preaching. I love teaching and that’s me.”
The album finishes with Ward’s favorite, I Feel Better Since I Prayed. When I asked him about it, he got on the theme of thankfulness again.
“We do pray the prayer of Our Father, but perhaps you want to thank God for what he has done and how far he has brought you. And you look back and you see a lot of your friends and your school mates in the singers, they are gone and we are blessed to be here. Now, I’ve got a song called You’re Blessed to be Here, with the Sunset Travelers. You’re blessed to be here. And I tell people without God, we are nothing because he wakes us up in the morning. We have a lot to be thankful for.
“And I thank God every day. You know, you don’t have to be screaming, hollering, you can just pray in your spirit. When we leave home and go places, when we get ready to get out of drive, my wife prays and I’m driving. God has brought us through a lot of things. So I just take a step every day. I don’t worry about what tomorrow would bring. The Bible tells us that the morrow will take care of itself. And, we just go one day, when you wake up, you’re thankful that you are alive. I tell people when you wake up, you sit up and you get up!”
“You can give God praise, you got to tell him, thank you for another day, you kept me, you kept your arms around me.”
He may have just recorded a terrific album in Already Made, but there’re no sense of Jack Ward resting on his laurels. He’s looking to the future with a thankful heart and an optimistic spirit. “I tell people there’s a whole lot to be done and a little time to do it. So I got a message. I got a message I’m going to do on that. It’s a whole lot to be done, but a little time to do it.”