It’s been a great year so far for blues albums. Whether it’s acoustic blues, blues rock, traditional, modern, gospel or funk, there’s been something for everyone. We’ve chosen our top 15 albums – arranged in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Enjoy!
Selwyn Birchwood, Living in a Burning House
Fresh modern blues, featuring Birchwood’s bluesy voice, and top-notch guitar and lap steel playing. Thirteen original energetic songs with a blues rock sound, with a jazzy feel at times. Birchwood is quite a talent and this is his best album yet.
Joanna Connor, 4801 South Indiana Avenue
An absolutely top-notch set of blues rock that clearly has a Chicago blues heritage, yet sounds completely fresh and modern. Connor’s killer slide guitar and vocals are augmented by some characteristically fine guitar work by Joe Bonamassa and a tight-knit top-class band. Superbly produced, and packed with raw, high-energy musicianship. Check out our interview with Joanna here.
Paul Cowley, Long Time Comin’
Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, with a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition. Long Time Coming, has 12 acoustic blues songs, 5 traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blin Willie McTell and 7 originals. It’s outstanding, and hugely enjoyable. Here’s our great interview with Paul.
Steve Cropper, Fire It Up
Legendary guitarist, songwriter and record producer delivers his first proper solo album since 1969. Thirteen well-constructed songs, with a terrific band, excellent guitar work by Cropper and an outstanding vocal performance from Roger Reale. Check out our full review here.
Guy Davis, Be Ready When I Call You
Great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. More than just blues musically and most of the songs have a shard-hitting strong social commentary going on. An outstanding release from Davis and M.C. Records. Guy spoke to us about this important album.
Robert Finlay, Sharecropper’s Son
Finlay’s rasping, soulful voice is distinctive and memorable, and shines on this terrific album of blues, gospel, soul, and R&B. Produced by Dan Auerbach, the album evokes Finlay’s life of struggle and determination. Finlay is one of those musicians helped by the Music Maker Relief Foundation and his first album only appeared in 2016. Auerbach says simply, “Finlay is the greatest living soul singer.” To judge by this album, he’s not wrong.
Chris Gill, Between Midnight and Loiuse
A stripped-down recording, just two microphones, a small amp, no overdubs and a lot of love for the blues. Relax on the back porch as Gill takes his acoustic, resonator and cigar box and performs nine originals and Virgil Brawley songs. It’s finger picking good, good old-fashioned acoustic blues played with considerable depth and passion.
John Hiatt with the Jerry Douglas Band, 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.
Kelly’s Lot, Where and When
Kelly Zirbes’s band, which hails from the Los Angeles area has been plying its trade for the last 25 years, mostly as a blues rock outfit. Where and When sees them stripping things back, performing 11 acoustic blues songs with resonator-slide guitar and Zirbes’s gritty voice to the fore. It’s fabulous stuff, six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that evoke the blues of a bygone age and five reworked traditional blues songs, including a terrific version of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days
Wonderful set of bluesy gospel songs from gospel singer King 50 years after she stopped performing and recording professionally. It’s a funky, blues, soul-filled pot of rich gospel fare, an album full of great songs, music that touches you, and Ms. King’s powerful vocal performance. It’s a gift for us all. Check out our great interview with the wonderful Ms King.
New Moon Jell Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol 2
Classic old-school recording from a kind of blues super-group, the musicians sitting together in a circle in the studio and playing amongst the microphones. It’s a joyous exploration of the blues, with great heart and soul A fine tribute to Jim Dickinson and a huge treat of an album for all of us. Our full review is here.
Gary Moore, How Blue Can You Get
If you buy one blues album this year, this is it. A set of eight songs, some previously unheard and unreleased, from the Moore family archives, will move you, excite you, get you on your feet, and make you regret all the more that Gary Moore is no longer with us. Released on the tenth anniversary of Moore’s passing How Blue Can You Get proves, if there was ever any doubt, that Gary Moore was a master of the blues. Our full review is here.
Reverend Shawn Amos, The Cause of It All
“I want to bring the ancestors into the room,” said Amos of this set of blues classics by the likes of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. The songs are stripped to the bone, with Amos on harmonica and vocals, and his longtime collaborator Chris “Doctor” Roberts on guitar. Check out Amos’s hair-on the-back-of-your-neck-raising vocal performance on the wholly acoustic Hoochie Coochie Man.
Alabama Slim, The Parlor
Approaching his 82nd birthday, close to seven feet tall, and typically dressed in an impeccable tailored suit, Alabama Slim has given us a perfect, classic blues album which recalls the boogie of John Lee Hooker. It’s delicious, pared-back, but tasty fare from a man whose soulful and oh-so-cool vocals are served up in a wrap of sweet guitar groove from Little Freddie King, Slim’s cousin. Check out our full review here.
Christina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely
Sit up and take notice of Cristina Vane, whose Nowhere Sounds Lovely is a terrific amalgam of blues, bluegrass and country – a thoroughgoing bluesy Americana, you might say. Whatever way you want to describe it, she’s a wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. We reviewed this excellent album here.
Tim Duffy is a breath of inspiration, and what he and the Music Maker Relief Foundation are doing and have been doing for the past 30 years deserves widespread attention.
Music Maker Relief Foundation, based in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was founded in 1994 by Tim and Denise Duffy to “help the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs.” In addition, it wants to preserve these traditions and help them flourish by presenting them to the world.
Over the years, Music Maker has helped over 500 artists who were struggling, and in many cases, impoverished, get paying gigs and back onto their feet. It has produced over 200 albums of music from these artists, and recorded thousands of tracks. It is keeping an entire tradition alive.
“It’s like a glorious awakening of discovery of all this music you’ve never heard of,” Tim Duffy told me. “These guys stand in front of me for 45 minutes and change the world. You know, they have a body of work and want someone to document it, and they do this because they want the next generation to know about it. They know it’s important work but they don’t have the means to buy a tape recorder or get into a studio. And when I tell them about the Foundation and they’re open for it, it’s a tornado. It’s just locked down. There it is, lightning in a bottle!”
Our chat began by me asking Tim what Music Maker is all about. He told me that it’s a nonprofit organization, founded in 1994, that “tends to the roots of American music.” He described the deep poverty in which he has found many artists living in – “from outside the US, it’s hard to understand what extreme poverty is like in the United States.” Just getting by is hard if you’re trying to live on the $7,000 to $12,000 a year that Music Maker regularly finds artists subsisting on. So, says Tim, Music Maker provides small amounts to help get bills paid and get prescription medicine, and then, “when we get them working and get them gigs, that can easily double their annual income.”
Music Maker has been doing this work for many years now, and I wondered if the levels of poverty amongst aging artists had improved any.
“You know, I hate to say it, I think it’s worse. I think poverty gets worse in America. It’s always bad, but prices of food go higher, access to medical care was always tough, and I think poverty in housing is about impossible.” Some people, Duffy told me, are still living in cheap trailers that were built in the 1950s for elderly people, trailers that had a shelf life of five years. So, he said, “Over the years I’ve been doing it, I think the times are harder. Food insecurity is hard, but there are even food deserts. There’s not even access to healthy food.
“And rent – these artists used to be able to have rent for $100-$300 a month. After Katrina, little Freddy King was renting for $300, but now rent for not even a nice place in New Orleans is $1,500 or so. But their income hasn’t gone up.”
Add to that the decreasing number of places for these artists to play, whether it’s churches or the Chitlin circuit, and you have an increasingly tough situation. One that, Tim suggested, was felt by more than the artists he deals with – “we have a huge problem of starving children in America.” His view is that these problems are fixable – if there really was a will to do it. Sadly, “there doesn’t seem a public will to help our fellow man, the really impoverished people.”
Older models of charity have often ended up with wealthier people sweeping in as benefactors in a way that robs those they are trying to help of their dignity. How, I wondered, does Music Maker avoid this?
Tim was clear that the artists he has dealt with have not been asking for a handout, rather they need a hand up. “Number one thing they want is a gig, a place to perform. They can earn their own money. That is the greatest thing. And then it’s a slow process because we can only do very little by our sustenance program. We don’t have billions of dollars, we can’t hand out $20,000 a year to hundreds of artists. I wish I could, but I don’t have that kind of resource.
“So, there are other things that we do because people are disenfranchised. Like community building. We have a social worker who writes every month to the artists and introduces them to one another. And they meet and when they play together, they exchange phone numbers. It’s like joining a little congregation, like a guild, so that now a very remote Mississippi blues man is friends with a gospel artist in North Carolina; and they’re friends with a blues man in Detroit; and they all talk to each other, and they stay in touch. So, it’s community building. Everyone needs someone to talk to someone who understands them. Building those friendships is one of the interesting things that we do.”
So that’s Music Maker’s sustenance programme. Then, says Tim, “we have professional development where we help make CDs and get artist’s music released, get bios written and make them known – from being unseen artists, to known artists, a known quantity. And then we have an education program where we educate the world through exhibits. We have photo exhibits that go to a lot of cultural institutions. Over the last six years, we’ve done over 50 of them. So that is the essence. We’re trying to let the world know.”
Tim pointed to the uniquely African-American experience at the root of the blues. This music, he told me “was born in the South. It was born from very disenfranchised people and those conditions still exist today. And if you go into these small communities, there are literally the great, great, great, great grandsons and granddaughters of the artists that created this music that have held dear to the older traditions. And they are very special people because this music really isn’t popular within their communities, but they keep it alive. And so, we try to amplify their voices and after they pass, keep their voices amplified. The greatest gift that America has given to the arts is our American musical traditions, largely rooted in the South. So our focus is going back within that culture and promoting what Alan Lomax would call cultural equity.”
Tim Duffy clearly has a deep respect for the music, its tradition and the artists who keep that tradition alive. He was never into pop or rock music, and from his days as a folklore student at the University of North Carolina, he has been seeking to record and promote the music he has found in the American South, especially the Carolinas. He spoke warmly and admiringly of artists he had worked with, like Cootie Stark, John Lee Zeigler, Wille Mae Butler, Drink Small, Macavine Hayes, and Adolphus Bell.
“You know, those are a bunch of names most people have probably never heard of, but I would say is they’re just as important American artists as anybody you know. I’m a folklorist, I like going to the most real rooted, unknown thing – a lot of people like going to big concert halls and big festivals, but I’d rather be in someone’s living room. That’s what gets me excited.”
These living room recordings – “field recordings” – are what Tim Duffy has done since the early days of Music Maker. What has been important for him is trying to replicate exactly what he hears in front of him, without filtering it. He mentioned Mark Levinson, renown audio system designer, who “fell in love with my work and taught me about biaural recordings, gave me these extremely expensive, beautiful, rare microphones, and a way of recording where it’s like replicating what you hear in front of you.”
Duffy recalled the example of Alan Lomax, noted ethnomusicologist and recorder of folk music, who could “change the world with one mic and 500 pounds of recording gear.” The music Lomax recorded in places like Angola Prison in Louisiana or Haiti “is still as fresh and vibrant today.”
What, I wondered have been the milestones along the way, as Tim looks back over the last nearly thirty years?
“Well, there were a couple. Meeting Mark Levinson was great and then meeting Taj Mahal in 1995 and him reaching his hand to help me and the elder artists has been huge. And then we went on tour with Taj, did a 42-city tour in 1998 and ’99, and my wife had the great idea to collect email addresses and we collected thousands of addresses.
“And then in 2000, I looked at Fat Possum records and I thought they were just so incredible, but I knew we couldn’t do what they were doing. I couldn’t sell records. So my wife and I decided we were going to really focus on being a nonprofit, instead of trying to be an independent record label. And that was a keystone moment. And here we are, 20 years later, still doing it.
“And I think the next key thing was meeting Freeman Vines. And when I got out of my car the first day I met him and saw his yard, I knew. When I had met Guitar Gabriel and a few others, I knew I was in the presence of a genius. But I didn’t have all the skills that I have now. And so when I met someone as smart as Freeman, that first day I could envisage the book and an exhibition. I talked to him about it and we had a lot of dialogue and then we spent five years putting it together.
“And I’m glad we did that. I don’t know what the next big idea I’ll come up with, put that kind of resources to. But that decision, to work with Freeman, was not a real popular decision in my organization or my board. And when we released the book [Hanging Tree Guitars], a lot of people were thinking, what the heck are we doing, going into a pandemic, releasing a book. But, we sold out of the first run of the book in five weeks. And so that little book has kept Music Maker going for the next year.”
Along the way, Music Maker Relief Foundation has caught the attention of some big names in the music industry, who have been prepared to lend a hand. Mark Levinson introduced Tim to Eric Clapton in 1995 which helped him to get a record deal with GRP records [a jazz record label founded by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen in 1978].
“And then through Taj Mahal, I met his friend and producer, John Porter, who was recording B.B. King’s Deuces Wild record. Then, in LA, Taj introduced me to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. B.B. introduced me to Joe Cocker and took me over to England and which resulted in me spending time with Eric Clapton again, and Jeff Beck and Van Morrison and all these people.
“B.B. King wrote the introduction to my first book, Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America. He thought the idea of Music Maker was fabulous, and I spent a lot of time traveling with him, and he helped me form the ideas of the foundation. So, Taj Mahal opened that door for me and Taj lends his helping hand to a lot of people.” In the foreword to this first book of Duffy’s photographs, B.B. King wrote, “By documenting the faces and the deep, soulful eyes of the people who make the music I love, these photographs preserve a dimension of blues culture that could easily be lost forever.”
Beyond his work with Music Maker, Tim Duffy is also a master photographer who has documented the artists he has worked with over the years, and used unusual and very effective photographic techniques to do so. His latest book, Hanging Tree Guitars, a collaborative effort between himself, Freeman Vines, a luthier-artist and bluesman, and Zoe Van Buren, a folklorist, features stunning photographs of Vines’s work, documenting the guitars made by Vines out of wood from a tree that had been used for lynching. The photographs utilize collodion wet plate processing, an early form of photographic processing which gives them an aged look, and seems particularly suitable for the sombre subject matter.
“When I wanted to present Freeman to the world, I knew if I just took straight colour photographs of the images, it would’ve been nice, but it wouldn’t reflect my 25-year journey of looking at artists and how I see them. And I wanted people, when Freeman talked about parallel universes and the root of the lynched man and the wood, I wanted them to see something horrifying. I wanted to express the horror that I felt in Freeman felt through my art. And I worked for five years at that. And I think it did.”
Tim Duffy began his work with Guitar Gabriel, who had been inactive in the music industry for many years, had received no royalties for his music,and was impoverished. He required almost daily assistance from Duffy, who provided transportation to medical appointments, money, and food for Gabriel and his wife. When I asked Tim what was the motivation for that, he was much more interested in telling me how his encounter with Guitar Slim had changed his life, how he had learned that there was no place in the music industry for elderly African-American artists, and how amazing Guitar Slim and all the other artists he had subsequently met were.
His focus is clearly on recognizing the worth and value of the artists he works with, sensing that when he grants funding, he doesn’t have to be prescriptive, because they know what they need to do for themselves. “And so we set up what I thought was a whole new model of folklore, of dealing with traditional artists – supporting them, recording them, and professional development and education. And we really haven’t veered very much from that. You know, it’s kind of like a church in a sense, it’s a family organization. We feel like a family.
“And then you connect fans with the music, like-minded people that have extra income that can support the foundation. And I have donors that have been donating to me since 1994, that haven’t missed a year, and they do it because they say it’s made their life a much better. So, it works on both sides. It’s just like when you go to church and a good preacher is talking to a whole congregation, but you feel like he’s talking directly to you and you leave feeling uplifted. And I think that the experience we create both for our donors and for the artists is an uplifting situation.”
The whole Music Maker enterprise is an uplifting one. As was my conversation with Tim Duffy. If you’re reading this, you’re a music fan – so scoot over to https://musicmaker.org/ and learn more about the fabulous work the Foundation does. And while you’re there, do your bit and buy some CDs, a book of fabulous photographs or just donate.
Photo Credits: Drink Small by Jimmy Williams; Hands on guitar by Axel Kustner; Others by Tim Duffy