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.
What a year it’s been for roots music. So much wonderful, high quality work by a host of artists in a diversity of styles – variously with country, blues or folk to the fore. That being the case, it’s hard to suggest a best of list. But here goes. We’ve grouped them into two sets of ten and then a group of six. Each set is in alphabetical order.
Here’s our Top 10
Amy Helm This Too Shall Light
In an album produced by Joe Henry, Amy Helm, daughter of late Band drummer Levon gives us ten songs tinged with soul and gospel, featuring uplifting lyrics and beautiful nuanced singing. A wonderful set of interesting, sometimes obscure covers and lovely originals.
Birds of Chicago: Love in Wartime
This is simply an outstanding album of classic Americana. JT Nero and Allison Russell’s vocals and rich harmonies, as usual, meld wondrously, and the song arrangements are innovative and imaginative while, at the same time, warm and inviting.
Eric Bibb: Global Griot
Double album of wonderful songs, brilliantly presented by the blues troubadour. As much world-music as Americana or blues, this is surely one of Bibb’s best accomplishments. There’s joy, love and hope inhabiting these songs, as well as a dose of righteous protest – whether it’s at the materialism of the age or the frightful tweeting of number 45.
Jayhawks: Back Roads and Abandoned Hotels
Reworking of some of the songs Gary Louris, has co-written with other artists, including the Dixie Chicks and two new songs. It’s a great Jayhawks album, with the band in great form over the course of 11 songs of magnificent alt-country.
John Hiatt: The Eclipse Sessions
In his first album in four years, Hiatt is in fine form, his crusty vocals accompanying a largely pared back band. This is an album that draws you in and enchants you the more you listen to it.
Larkin Poe: Venom and Faith
Quite simply this is an extraordinary album from the very talented Lovell sisters in their 4th studio album. The two sisters play every instrument, aside from some wonderful slide guitar in one song by Tyler Bryant, creating a wonderful variety of sounds and textures. Classic but innovative, with traditional, primal sounds mixed with electronic beats.
Lori McKenna: The Tree
Lori McKenna is a brilliant song writer. Here she gives us 10 songs about family life and the tensions of everyday existence in a fabulous, understated record, produced by Dave Cobb. Outstanding.
Parker Millsap: Other Arrangements
Melodic and bluesy, rock and roll-ish outing from Oklahoma born singer, songwriter and bandleader, Parker Millsap. The depth and range in Millsaps vocals are terrific, across twelve rollicking, pulsating songs.
Paul Thorn: Don’t Let the Devil Ride
Unabashed album of gospel music, with Paul and his band, and a group of top notch collaborators including the Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, Bonnie Bishop and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Horns, all in scintillating form. Check out our interview with Paul Thorn here.
Ry Cooder: The Prodigal Son
An album of wonderfully reinterpreted old gospel songs and hymns, from the guitar virtuoso. Cooder’s first album for six years has been hailed as “destined to become an instant classic” the produce of a “musical mastermind” and “completely fresh and contemporary.” These are songs that will speak to anyone, believer or unbeliever. There’s humanity, decency, inspiration, hope in these songs, that anyone can feel. You can find more comment on this album here:
Here are our picks for 11-20, again in alphabetical order:
“You boys wanna hear some live blues? Head on over to Red’s, starts about 9 o’clock,” said Roger Stolle when we visited his Cats Head Delta Blues and Folk Art store in Clarksdale. Red Paden’s Juke Joint is arguably the last of the real Mississippi Delta juke joints, set downtown between a weedy graveyard and the eastern bank of the Sunflower River. Sadly, we had to get back to Memphis and had to content ourselves enjoying a spectacular sunset behind us as we drove back on Highway 61, the sky changing colour magnificently from red to magenta to purple.
I’d met up with two friends from Texas a few days earlier in Memphis. Bob and Steve and I had met just over a year earlier in Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio, where we’d all come to see Sean McConnell and his band. That was a great gig, by the way – if you don’t know Sean McConnell’s upbeat Americana, go check him out. We’d got on well in our chance meeting, and Bob, very hospitably had invited me to his family’s Thanksgiving a few days later. So, after keeping in touch for the next year, here we were to explore Memphis and the blues. The Irish guy showing the Americans the home of the blues.
I woke up in my hotel in Memphis the first morning to glorious blue skies, a great view over the Mississippi River and – what the heck is that? Yes, an enormous pyramid overlooking the river. It turned out to a huge Bass Pro megastore and hotel. Apparently, it’s the 10th largest pyramid in the world, no kiddin’. Bass Pro, if you don’t know, is a chain of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ stores all across the US, particularly in the South. On visiting the store, I was astonished at the amount of gear associated with these pursuits, and utterly appalled at the gun section, where available for purchase were every conceivable hand-gun or rifle, including military style semi-automatic weapons. Deeply unsettling.
But Memphis is a great town. Beale Street may have become sanitized and tourist-friendly, but it’s got a lot of great eating establishments with live music every night, including B.B. King’s Blues Club. If you go, check out Blues City Café just across the road for some great bar-b-que ribs. Our best night for music was in Rum Boogie, seeing a band called Young Petty Thieves, who did the most original covers I’ve ever heard along with their own bluesy, Americana music. These guys deserve to be heard more widely.
You’re never short of things to do in Memphis. We had a great visit to the Gibson Guitar Factory, given the tour by the fast-talking and friendly Kyle (whose name, when he said it seemed to have about four syllables). I enjoyed sampling the finished article in the store afterwards, lusting after one of the Gibson Memphis ES-335s we’d seen being made – largely by hand – in the factory. At over four thousand dollars, I decided against an immediate purchase.
Across the road is the outstanding Rock’n Soul Museum which tells the complete story of Memphis music history, as researched by the Smithsonian Institution. And an absolute highlight was our visit to Sun Studio, “the birthplace of Rock’n Roll.” Graham, our host on the tour, was a goldmine of terrific stories about the early history of the Studio, featuring Sam Phillips who discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s a piece of musical history not to be missed. I loved the radio booth exhibit belonging to pioneering disk jockey, Dewey Phillips, whose Red, Hot and Blue show attracted 100,000 listeners in the 1950s and helped launch the career of Elvis Presley. He was reputed to play repeatedly on his show records that he liked, and to lift the needle off records he wasn’t appreciating and to smash them live on air.
Dewey Phillips’s Original Radio Booth
Most moving in Memphis is the National Civil Rights Museum. Set in the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it is a gripping history of black America from slavery to the Civil Rights movement. The story of the injustice and suffering of this community is pains-takingly told, with exhibits that I found utterly absorbing. We looked at our watches after 3 hours and were surprised at where the time had gone. One story amongst many struck me forcibly – that of six-year-old Ruby Bridges who braved a hateful crowd of protesters in New Orleans, on her first day of attendance at the all-white William Frantz Elementary on November 1960. After she arrived, white parents pulled their children out of school and teachers refused to teach her. The courage of this little girl was remarkable, never crying or whimpering, despite the vile hatred she had to endure, including threats of poisoning.
The tour concludes with you passing by the room MLK was staying in that fateful day in April 1968 and being able to look on to the balcony at the spot where he was slain. Very moving. Across the road is the final part of the Museum’s tour, situated in the building from where his assassin, James Earl Ray, took the shot. You can look across the road from the bathroom window from where he shot, the balcony outside MLK’s room in the Lorraine Motel in full view. We didn’t linger too long over the exhibits detailing the various conspiracy theories that arose after Ray’s conviction, blaming the US government, the Mafia or the Memphis police for King’s death.
We had lunch a few blocks away at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, where I was able to sample some authentic Southern cooking – fried okra, sweet potato pie, greens, and gumbo. Pretty tasty. On other occasions I sampled catfish and tamales – “hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes I got ’em for sale.” And, of course, there was the endless offerings of barbeque chicken or pulled pork. Well, I did enjoy all this soul food, but have to admit, after a few days I was longing for a plain cheese sandwich.
Before we left Memphis I was intrigued to visit Schwabs’ 1950s style Soda Fountain on Beale Street. Here you can get phosphate sodas, milkshakes and soda jerks, buy a souvenir tee-shirt and browse toys some of us remember from our childhood in the 50s and 60s – catapults and balsa wood gliders with elastic sprung propellers, Chinese checkers and jacks. It’s a nostalgic walk back into time, definitely worth the visit.
Schwab Soda Fountain, Beale Street
Memphis is a laid-back town where everybody has time for you, and you always feel welcome. A great place from which to launch our visit to the Delta.
So…it’s been another very good year for blues albums. Here is Down at the Crossroad’s view of the 25 Best Blues Albums. All these albums are terrific in their own way, so the ranking doesn’t really mean too much. Doubtless you’ll have your own favourites – by all means let us hear about albums we’ve left out.
Here’s our Top 10:
Taj Mahal & Keb’Mo’: Tajmo
Two huge blues talents combine to give us an exceptional album of uplifting, joyous blues. You just know these two guys are enjoying every minute of playing together. Eleven songs of potent, acoustic blues – pure delight. Here’s our review of their London gig: Review
Van Morrison: Roll with the Punches
Van Morrison’s new album, Roll With the Punches, is an unashamed album of blues songs which pay tribute to the influence of the blues on his own body of work. It’s solid, traditional blues, but always sounds up-to-date and the visceral attraction of the blues that the artist must have felt when he first heard the blues as a teenager is here channelled and explored, so that you can’t help but be drawn in and made to feel the emotion. Here’s our comment on some of the songs: Review
Guy Davis & Fabrizio Poggi: Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train
As fine an acoustic blues album as you will hear all year. Two top modern day artists at the top of their game channelling two of history’s greatest acoustic bluesmen. There’s a warmth, feeling and joy in the way these songs are presented that draws you in and puts a big smile on your face. Check out our album review and then the interview with Fabrizio: Review
Walter Trout: We’re All In This Together
A joyful set of fourteen songs, with a guest on each song, trading licks and runs with Walter. The songs are upbeat, melodic, feature blistering, smouldering guitar work and are hugely enjoyable, each tailored by Trout to the style of each guest. According to Trout, he was just “jamming with his friends and having fun.” Wonderful stuff. Here’s our interview with Walter about the album: Interview
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Live from the Fox Oakland
A big band of 12 world class musicians is a truly wonderful thing. Good as these guys are in the studio, they are sensational live and this album captures them perfectly, with a blend of orginal songs, riveting blues standards, and soulful covers of Leonard Cohen, the Beatles and Derek & the Dominoes. It’s joyful stuff, with Derek Trucks’s peerless electric slide to the fore and Susan Tedeschi quite incredible vocals – blues, soul, Gospel, Americana – doesn’t matter, she’ll nail it. Here’s our review of their Berlin gig this year: Review
Gregg Allman: Southern Blood
The last album from the legendary Allman Brother whom, sadly, we lost this year. It’s a timeless blues and soul record, featuring Allman’s 8 piece road band and a raft of collaborators like the McCrary Sisters, Greg Leisz, Buddy Millar and Scot Sharrard. Mixing songs by Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan with originals, it’s a wonderfully poignant, intimate and ultimately satisfying bookend to Allman’s life and career.
Eric Bibb: Migration Blues
Bibb said of this record, “With this album I want to encourage us all to keep our minds and hearts wide open to the ongoing plight of refugees everywhere.” He gives us American folk music classics, like Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War,” with his own songs about the current refugee crisis – “Prayin’ For Shore,” a gospel-based tune about the exodus from Syria. It’s typical Eric Bibb fare – gorgeous vocals, wondrous picked guitar and songs of faith that go right to the heart.
North Mississippi Allstars: Prayer for Peace
Swamp and hill country blues, as usual, sounding fresh and compelling. With original and classic songs, and including a raft of fine guest musicians, there is raw energy about the album, which blends tradition with a contemporary sound. Prayer for Peace, the title song (which is also recorded on the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Almost Home album) addresses the racial problems facing the US. Luther Dickinson’s characteristic vocals just get better and better.
Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black
In songs written by Jeff Tweedy and an album produced by him, Mavis Staples delivers a powerful blues, funk and gospel protest against all that’s currently wrong in America. It’s stiring stuff, but never gets angry. Love is the answer. According to Mavis – “We go high when they go low”
Samantha Fish: Belle of the West
One of two albums she’s released this year, Belle of the West is a fine collection of bluesy Americana. Produced by Luther Dickinson, and featuring a fine set of musicians, it’s rootsy, it’s Southern, and it’s one treat of an album.
And here’s the next 10:
Robert Cray & High Rhythm
Recorded at the legendary Royal Studies in Memphis, this rootsy R&B offering from Cray and his band is mostly covers of little known songs and features Cray’s beautiful voice which hits notes other male singers can only dream of, and his matchless guitar playing with that glassy, pure tone that he coaxes out of his Strat and Matchless amps. Here’s our review of the band’s Belfast gig: Review
Ruthie Foster: Joy comes Back
An album that is both a joyous celebration of life and reflection on the wider world. Lovely bluesy, gospel feel throughout, from 3 time Grammy nominee. Foster said that recording was a challenging and rewarding personal journey. Check out our interview with Ruthie here
Low Society: Sanctified
On their 3rd studio album, Mandy Lemons and Sturgis Nikides have crafted a wonderfully variegated slice of Americana. There’s nothing predictable about this fine album, with Nikides virtuosic slide guitar on display throughout, allied to Lemons’ powerful, but controlled and emotion-stoked vocals. Album review here: Review
Eilen Jewell: Down Hearted Blues
Twelve covers of classic blues songs from the likes of Memphis Minnie, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf. This is a quite exquisite take on a great set of songs, with wonderful arrangements that fit each perfectly. Combined with Ms. Jewell’s sensitive and adept vocals, it’s a winner.
Jonny Lang: Signs
More blues and more guitar than his last album in 2013, Signs is an album of high energy blues rock, and features some strong song writing, excellent guitar work and Jonny’s characteristic, soulful vocals. Nice work!
Alastair Greene: Dream Train
Hugely enjoyable blues rocker with help from luminaries as Walter Trout, Debbie Davies, Mike Zito, and others. Twelve original songs by Greene and Billy Gibbons’s Nome Zayne make for an adrenalin charged, head banging thrill of a record. Turn it up loud and let blues rock do what it does best – transport you out of your troubles and daily concerns. Here’s our album review: Review
Kat & Co: Blues is the New Cool
What a treat this album is! Blues is indeed the new cool in the hands of this tightly-knit band of excellent, multinational musicians, led by singer Kathleen Pearson. Clearly the blues, but it’s modern blues – cool blues – which draws you in, speaks to you and lifts your spirits. Here’s our album review
Lew Jetton & 61 South: Palestine Blues
A remarkable piece of work. It’s the blues, it’s dark, it’s raw, it’s frighteningly honest, it’s brutal, it’s poignant. And it asks a lot of questions of the artist, the listener and the world around. The style is electric blues, but done with a sparseness and simplicity that allows the song lyrics and message to come through loud and clear. Our review is here.
Thornetta Davis: Honest Woman
Blues diva Thornetta Davis’s album will draw you in, move you, and get your feet dancing. There’s an upbeat, bold attitude throughout with some inspirational gospel here and a lot of good fun. Check out our review here.
Mandy Brooks: Move On Up
In consideration for this year’s Grammy nominations, Move On Up is as fine a gospel blues album as you’ll hear. It features covers of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Curtis Mayfield, all nicely arranged and produced. But it’s Mandy Brooks bluesy, versatile vocals you’ll be enjoying most.
And a final 5:
Music from the American: Epic Series
Hayes McMullan: Everyday Seems Like Murder Here
Otis Taylor: Fantasizing about Being Black
Kenny Wayne Shepherd:Lay It On Down
Eliza Neals: 10,000 Feet Below And our review is here.
Van Morrison has been singing the blues for a long time. In a Rolling Stone interview a while back he said he first realized he had a voice when he recorded himself singing on his dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder. What did he sing? – “Leadbelly songs.” His influences were, he said, all black and he “related to the lyrics in Chicago blues and the stuff I heard by John Lee Hooker.”
Fast forward a few decades and Van Morrison’s new album, Roll With the Punches, is an unashamed album of blues songs which pay tribute to the influence of the blues on his own body of work. As well as a number of original songs, there are numbers by Sam Cooke, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bo Diddley, Mose Allison, Little Walter, T-Bone Walker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well as jazz musicians Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing.
This, Van Morrison’s 37th studio album, is one of the best blues album you’ll hear all year. The fifteen songs feature guest appearances by Jeff Beck, Paul Jones, Georgie Fame, Chris Farlowe and Jason Rebello, as well as some outstanding gospel-tinged backing vocals from Dana Masters and Sumudu Jayatilaka. The blues piano throughout is fabulous and Jeff Beck’s guitar work, especially on Bring It On Home to Me, is quite wondrous. The superb musicianship and production serves as a solid platform for Van’s vocal performance which is quintessentially Van, with its exquisite phrasing and characteristic stretching of words across musical phrases.
“From a very early age, I connected with the blues,” says Van. “The thing about the blues is you don’t dissect it – you just do it. I’ve never over-analyzed what I do; I just do it. Music has to be about just doing it and that’s the way the blues works – it’s an attitude.” Attitude is what this album has in spades. It’s solid, traditional blues, but always sounds up-to-date and the visceral attraction of the blues that the artist must have felt when he first heard the blues as a teenager is here channelled and explored, so that you can’t help but be drawn in and made to feel the emotion – the trouble, the loss and the joy that is the blues.
That dual sense of trouble and joy is explored in Morrison’s own song Transformation, again with some delightful Jeff Beck guitar work. “Remember when we were downhearted, didn’t have nowhere to go…” he sings, before,
“Then something starts happening, feel like you’re on a roll
Gonna be a transformation, baby, down in your soul.”
The reason for the transformation? Love – “Love like a river keeps on wanting to flow…Love is for ever, baby, down in your soul.” It’s easy to simply think of the casual romantic love – the careless love – of a thousand pop songs. But an old preacher I heard once defined love as a “conscious choice for someone else’s good – a decision, not an emotion.” Coming at it like that puts a different perspective on things. That’s the sort of thing that might, just, cause a transformation down in your soul. That strikes me as being a world away from Mose Allison’s “self-love” in Benediction, which for all its thanking of God, doesn’t give a proper answer at the point “When burdens get heavy, And hope starts to fade.” We need something more than self-love. Actually, that might be counter-productive.
Bob Dylan gets the real remedy for the blues. In a Christmas message from a while ago he said, “You don’t need Dr Phil…you don’t need me. Just go out and help someone more unfortunate than you.” Bob suggests going to “a soup kitchen, or a retirement home, maybe even a prison” to find someone to be with and to bring some cheer to. “No matter how bad you have it, somebody got it worse.”
Bob’s spot on with this bit of advice – it’s amazing how just taking your eyes and attention of yourself and your own problems, and starting to focus on the difficulties someone else has, suddenly makes your own situation look, well, not so bad after all. As Jesus famously said – “If you love your life, you’ll lose it.” It’s those who “care nothing for their lives” that have the best reward (John 12.25)
Spirituality is never far away in Van Morrison, and he includes Sister Rosetta Tharpe’sHow Far from God, and features something of the barrelhouse piano of the original – expertly done by Stuart McIlroy. The song reminds me of some of the lyrics in Bob Dylan’sI Believe in You – Dylan’s faith songs are to the fore at the moment with the imminent arrival of Trouble No More, the 13th in the Bootleg Series, which focuses on his spirit-filled output of 1979-1981.
In Tharpe’s song, Van sings, “Well since I received the blessing, My so called friends turned their backs on me.” Dylan’s song goes:
“And they, they look at me and frown,
They’d like to drive me from this town
They don’t want me around
‘Cause I believe in you.”
Seems like sometimes having a definite faith – or worse still, talking about it – doesn’t go down too well. In Rosetta Tharpe’s song, it seems that some “playmates” have walked and talked her down the road before she came to the realization of how far she now was from God. Interesting question for all of us, isn’t it, as we walk down the road – to wonder how far we are from God?
Walter Trout is the elder statesman of blues rock, with a solo career going back some 28 years. Sixty-six years old and just three years on from a liver transplant that saved his life, he says that he feels like he’s “in the best years of my life right now.” He says he “has a whole different appreciation of being alive, of the world, of my family, of my career, and that he wants “life to be exciting and celebratory.”
And that’s why his new album, We’re All In This Together, sounds so joyful. It’s fourteen songs, with a guest on each song, trading licks and runs with Walter. All but one are original songs – the odd one out is the outstanding The Sky Is Crying, with Warren Haynes. The songs are upbeat, melodic, feature blistering, smouldering guitar work and are hugely enjoyable, each tailored by Trout to the style of each guest. His guests – all friends – are all musical stars in their own right, and include John Mayall, Joe Bonamassa, Sonny Landreth, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Louis Walker, Robben Ford, Mike Zito, Eric Winter, Charlie Landreth, Eric Gale, John Nemeth and Randy Bachman. Walter’s son Jon Trout, himself an exceptional guitarist, also features on one song.
Walter Trout has been hard at work, on tour with the new album, but Down at the Crossroads caught up with him before he takes his show to Europe in October.
DatC: Hello Walter. Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us. First of all, I take it that you’re well and healthy? Hale & hearty, as they say!
WT: Hearty as I can be! Yeah, I’m feelin’ great.
DatC: Congratulations on the new album, Walter, which is only just out, but which has already got great reviews from both critics and fans. I loved one of the Amazon reviews, which described it as “a face meltingly amazing blues rock album.” You’re pleased with how it’s been received?
WT: Oh I’m very pleased. I think it’s getting the best reviews I ever got. I’ve done 26 albums, and this was my first album that in the United States was at number 1 on the Billboard Blues Chart. And it was also number 1 on Amazon and on iTunes Blues. So that was the first time I hit number 1 on the triumvirate on the market over here. And it felt great!
DatC: Tell us what you were hoping to achieve with the album – because it’s very different from your previous one,Battle Scars.
WT: Well, how do you follow up Battle Scars? That was my dilemma. That album was so personal and so intense and so…dark. How do you follow that up? I put a lot of thought into what do I do now. Do I just write 15 more songs and play ‘em with the band? And what do I write about? So it was a bit of a dilemma.
Then I did a gig at Carnegie Hall with Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Edgar Winter. And I was hanging out with both of them and I said, “Why don’t we record something together,” and they were both like, “Yeah, OK, let’s do it.” And then I got this idea that that was what I needed to do – something completely different, where I just jam with my friends and we have fun. And it’s about the guitar playing and the music, it’s not all these deep depressing lyrics. So, I wanted to do something that was the exact opposite of Battle Scars.
DatC: And that comes across. You’ve got a stellar cast of musicians on this album– was it difficult to organize such a diverse set of people?
Warren Haynes (Photo: Jeremy Williams)
WT: You know, it wasn’t difficult to get in touch with them and talk to them. Two weeks after Carnegie Hall I played in Toronto with Sonny Landreth and Randy Bachman and I talked to them and they said, “Yeah, that’d be great.” And then a week after that I had a dinner in LA with Warren Hayes and Robben Ford we sat around for about four hours and had a great evening, and I talked to them [about it].
So it was easy to get in touch, but the difficult part of this album was the logistics. My wife handled that. ‘Cause all these guys are touring, they’re hard working players, so she had to schedule with each guy. A lot of ‘em were on tour – so she had to talk to them, get their schedules, “when do you have a day off? Do you think you could get in the studio?” And one guy would say, “In two weeks I have a day off in Cleveland.” So my wife would have to find a studio in Cleveland, set it up, find an engineer, go through all that stuff and then get in touch with Eric the producer, and have him get through to the engineer and send him the track. It had to be done with so many – what I don’t understand – so many bits and megabytes – all this stuff that I don’t get! And she really had the rough part of it. I just talked to my buddies and I had to write some songs and then go in and play! But the logistics of this were kind of a nightmare. She really put it together. I couldn’t have done what she did.
DatC: Did you write each song with the particular artist in mind?
WT: Yes, of course. I had to sit down and think – what do you write for Kenny Wayne Shepherd? OK, I got Kenny Wayne. I listened to a lot of his current stuff and it’s very blues-rock, like what I do. But then I think to myself – you know what, his roots are the blues. And my roots are the blues. So instead of writing some rocking thing, let’s play an up-tempo blues. Let’s play a shuffle, that’s where we come from.
So then I had to come up with some lyrics. And I thought about when I was a drug addict, what it felt like when you run out of drugs. I’ve been sober for 30 years, but I thought about when I was young and when I was addicted to drugs, and what was it like when they ran out. It felt good for a little while but then it hurt like hell. So, OK, I got a song here.
But yeah, the songs were written with the person in mind. For instance, Eric Gales. To me Eric is more of a kind of a funk fusion guy. He doesn’t really come out of the blues, he’s from a different genre. So I need to write something for him that he can jam over, but it’s got a bit of a funk feel to it. So I just approached each artist like that.
Photo: Michael Weintrob
DatC: Walter, as you say, the album is great fun, it’s good time music, But there are some serious bits here and there, aren’t there? Crash and Burn with Joe Louis Walker is a quite hard-hitting song. “Are we ever gonna learn, I’m getting mighty worried…” Is that a commentary on what’s going on in the United States at the moment?
WT: Well, of course, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? If I get going on this…That song is directly about what’s going on.
DatC: And then We’re All in this Together with Joe Bonamassa. “It’s up to you and me – black and white, left and right” speaks to the divisions in the country?
WT: That‘s exactly it. And you know what’s really funny, is three days ago my wife became an American citizen, and I went to the swearing in ceremony. And there were 5,000 new citizens being sworn in, and a lady got up and gave a speech, and she said, “All of you, you come from different countries, but now you are all American citizens, and I want you to remember something: we’re all in this together!”
DatC: Cue guitar solo!
DatC: It’s such a pleasure to hear you and Joe Bonamassa playing together. That interplay between both guitars at the end of the song is really something.
WT: Well, I’ll tell you, that was a lot of fun. What you’re hearing on there is the rehearsal! The only time we played the song! We were rehearsing it and I said to the band, “Here’s how the song goes,” and I said to Joe, “Here’s the lyrics I want you to sing.” Let’s see what happens. And at the end of it, I looked at Eric in the control room, because we were rehearsing, and I said, “Did you record that?” And he said, “Yeah.” And we all looked at each other and laughed and said, “There’s no reason to do that again!” So that was one take, spontaneous, no fixes, no overdubs, no nothing. And that’s the first and last time we played that song! And I think it gives it a real urgency.
DatC: So looking back, Walter, you’ve been immersed in the blues for a lifetime; you’ve played with John Lee Hooker’s band, Canned Heat, John Mayall, and artists like Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, Bo Diddley and the list goes on – what, for you, is the blues – is it the form of the music, is it the lyrics, is it the feeling? And what is it about this music that has such enduring appeal?
WT: To me it’s the feeling. You know Count Basie said, “Blues can be approached in many, many different ways , but it still remains the blues.” So, when I run into purists that say the blues has to be played a certain way, I just start laughing – you need to broaden your vision. I think the reason it’s enduring – and the reason it’s in a very healthy state – there’s a lot of young, great blues players coming up through the ranks – is that it’s the basis of modern music. It is about human emotion and human feelings and I this era we’re in of corporately produced computer stuff that has absolutely no soul to it, the blues is all about human feelings. It’s a person with an instrument playing and singing from their heart, and there’s always gotta be an audience for that, for music that makes people feel something. That’s what it’s about. It’s about making people feel it.
DatC: Let me ask you this, Walter: There’s a spiritual dimension to some of your music, Walter – whether it’s Gonna Live Again, or Fly Away or Bottom of the River, Turn Your Eyes to Heaven. How important is that dimension of life to the blues or to you as a person?
WT: How important it is to the blues – that I can’t answer. But I know that to me it’s very important. Something that I feel very deeply. I don’t want to call it religious; I want to call it spiritual, that’s a great word. I believe we all have a soul, there is more to life than what you perceive with your five senses. There are things we don’t understand, and we are all connected. We are all in this together.
I want to produce music that reaches out to all of our common humanity, and the common problems that we share, and our common joys, our common concerns. And to me blues has the potential to go very, very deep. And I strive for that and I aspire to that.
DatC: And let me ask you about one of my favourite songs in your catalogue, Brother’s Keeper, on Blues for the Modern Daze – where you’re quoting Genesis, you’re quoting the Gospel of Matthew. It seems to me that you’ve got right to something very important here about Christian faith in this song – that is a quite remarkably spiritual song, would you agree?
WT: The teachings of Jesus have been very prostituted and perverted over the years. And especially right-wing evangelicals over here forget what it’s about completely. There was a video put up recently of me doing that song. And somebody went on there and said, “You’re a heathen, you’re putting down Christianity.” I’m actually a Christian and I’m calling out the hypocrites.
The right wing in American who go around talking about God and Jesus – are so far away from Jesus’s teaching. Health care for the poor? – no, no way. Feed the hungry? – no way. You’re on your own. Well, that’s not what Jesus had in mind. And then they go to church on Sunday. It grosses me out, really.
DatC: Over quite a number of years, you’ve written songs bemoaning the way the world is going (e.g. Can’t Have It All, Welcome to the Human Race), culminating, I suppose in your 2012 album, Blues for the Modern Daze – songs like Money Rules the World; Turn Off Your TV; Lifestyle of the Rich & Famous and so on – you get a lot of the modern world in your sights there, Walter. Whether it’s getting trapped by technology, or global warming or corruption in politics or the corporate world – that’s the way of the world – how do we escape it? How do we live in such a world?
WT: I don’t have any answers for that. But I do know the sooner we realize that we are all in this together, the better. I hate to keep quoting that phrase – but the sooner we figure that out and we get past our divisions and past our tribal mindsets, the better it’s going to be. I don’t want to be pessimistic but I’m not sure there’s really much hope for mankind – because we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. I’m hoping the younger negation is going to do a much better job handling the world than my generation has done.
I’m from the sixties hippy generation and we had all these high ideal, but it all turned to s**t. And we have done more to screw up the world than any other generation. It’s sad to me, it’s embarrassing. Because the hippies had a wonderful idea – they were really talking about the teachings of Jesus. Let’s love each other, let’s help each other. And then they grew up and went out in the world and it turned into the quest for the almighty dollar. And my generation has really screwed up the world royally, and I’m just hoping the younger generation is going to do a better job.
DatC: And the thing I always think about when I listen to the blues, is that often the song starts off when things are very bad – you know, Trouble in mind, I’m blue – but at the end of the song there’s that little note of hope – Sun’s gonna shine in my backyard someday. And you gotta hold on to that, I guess.
WT: Yeah, well, I believe that too. You have to hold on to hope.And my hope is in the younger generation. I see a lot of great kids out there.
Sidemen, narrated by Marc Maron, is a splendid tribute to three legendary bluesmen – pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Over an hour and twenty minutes we get brief life histories of the three men, interviews and live performances by them, and tributes from a who’s who of the blues world, including Bonnie Raitt, Greg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, to name but a few. It’s a beautifully crafted film, utterly engaging and an overdue appreciation of three musicians who left an indelible mark not only on the blues, but on rock’n roll. Their role was to support, and yet their contribution was foundational for both Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s bands. Today’s musicians interviewed in the film leave us in no doubt that these three helped redefine modern music as we know it.
The beauty of the film is in the intimate interviews and live performances shot shortly before Perkins, Smith and Sumlin passed away in 2011, though there is a wealth of concert footage of Waters, Wolf, Hendrix and the Rolling Stones over the years too. Both Perkins and Smith died a few months after their Grammy success for the “Joined at the Hip,” album. Perkins was 97, the oldest Grammy winner, and Smith 75. It was indeed a long road to glory.
The film strongly makes the case for Hubert Sumlin’s induction into the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame. Not only was he an outstanding guitarist – number 43 in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Guitarist list, but rated by Derek Trucks as much, much better than that – but he was, according to Kenny Wayne Shepherd, “an extraordinary example of a human being.”
Sidemen is an affectionate, but never sentimental, tribute to three top class musicians who were overshadowed by two titans of blues history, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Any music fan ought to enjoy this film; any blues fan will be delighted – indeed for them it is required viewing.
Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ have teamed up for an album and tour under the name TajMo. We caught their gig at the lovely old theatre, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, which was packed with appreciative fans.
What a fabulous idea to bring two blues masters together in this way. Two performers with great stage presence, two very different but complementary singing styles and two people clearly with a love of life and music. Add to that mix an outstanding band with drums, bass, saxophone, brass, keyboards and two wonderful singers – and you have a recipe for a hugely entertaining night. Oh, and stir in Keb’ Mo’s guitar virtuosity (and his dazzling range of guitars – that PRS Semi!)
At 75, Taj Mahal’s still got his groove. He jiggled and shook his way onto the stage, shaking a pair of maracas, beaming broadly, as the band played him in, clearly delighted at the raucous reception from the London crowd. And, oh my, that voice – still strong, with a throaty rasp. The man can sing the blues – and play the guitar, harmonica, banjo and ukulele.
Keb’ Mo’ is a hugely talented songwriter, singer, guitarist and performer, but even he seemed to be delighted to be on the same stage as Taj Mahal. Mahal, of course, is a legendary artist who has been performing since the late 60s. As we waited to get into the venue I chatted to Randolph from New York City, who’d first seen and heard Taj Mahal at Woodstock in 1969. Mahal has released more than two dozen studio albums, as well as live albums, and contributions to other people’s records. He’s been nominated for nine Grammy awards, and won two Grammy’s for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Nobody was in any doubt that we were in the presence of a blues legend.
At ten years his junior, Keb’ Mo’ must have been delighted when, after another tasteful guitar solo, the older master called for a reprise with, “One more time, son.”
The collaboration of these two artists dispels the notion that the blues are downbeat or depressing. Friday evening was two solid hours of unmitigated joy. As Taj Mahal says, “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is. It’s therapeutic, so you can get up off that down.” The blues faces life head on, calls it like it is, but it’s a way to work through trouble and hard times. This performance was fun, even uplifting, and more than a thousand people went away after the performance with huge smiles on their faces and optimism in their souls.
Backing singers needn’t take a back seat. Taj Mahal’s two daughters, Zoe Moon and Deva Mahal smiled, grooved, danced, and of course – sang – their way into the audience’s affections throughout the course of the evening. Their joy in the music was infectious.
Keb’ Mo’ had obviously read our review of his concert last year in Union Chapel, where I bemoaned the fact that he hadn’t played a personal favourite of mine, Life is Beautiful. He, Taj and the band duly rectified that with a sweet version of the song. The setlist overall covered most of the songs on the TajMo album – which I’d highly recommend, by the way – a few Keb’ Mo’ songs and a couple more songs done by Taj Mahal in the past. At the beginning of the concert we had the up tempo Don’t Leave Me Here, a longing for the blues heartland of Mississippi, which drew the audience from the get-go. The band disappeared for a few songs along the way to allow Mahal on acoustic guitar and Mo’ on a Resonator to give us some nice country blues, including the Sleepy John Estes number Diving Duck Blues, which was particularly enjoyable. As the concert drew to a close, the Empire crowd sang and clapped along to Soul, with its African rhythms and world music feel. And let’s not forget All Around the World, with its indomitable optimism:
“What’s all the fuss about, why can’t people just get along?
Maybe we ought to talk about all the good we got goin’ on
Everybody knows there’s a better way
And we’re all hopin’ and prayin’ that one day
There’ll be love all Around the world
There will be peace and understanding All around the world
There will be joy All around the world
There will be happy children singing All around the world.”
There’s a lot of heartache, pain and suffering going on around the world. But New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoffpointed out recently that, “Despite the gloom, the world truly is becoming a better place.” Indeed, 2017 is likely to be the best year in the history of humanity.” He pointed to the large gains we’ve seen in combating disease and poverty, even in the developing world. Scourges like leprosy, malaria, worm infestation are receding and that’s before we starting thinking about the decline in extreme poverty. Yes, there are still huge challenges and many millions living in desperate conditions – so we must never be complacent or stop the fight for justice. But, there is hope – especially when we strive for peace and understanding. Thanks for the reminder, Keb’.
David Honeyboy Edwards I’m Gonna Tell You Somethin’ That I Know (CD/DVD), Pro Sho Bidness
David “Honeyboy” Edwards was born in Mississippi in 1915 and lived a long life in the blues, which he called “a leading thing.” Son of a share cropper (“Papa didn’t make no money,” he says in his 1997 autobiography), and working in the fields from he was nine years old, Edwards became an itinerant bluesman, playing all over the Delta in juke joints, river boats and good-time houses, first recording in 1942, and eventually settling in Chicago as the blues went electric.
His friend and acquaintances in those early days read like a who’s who of the blues – Charlie Patton, Tommy Johnson, Big Joe Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson, Son House, Memphis Minnie and Robert Johnson. He experienced first hand the 1927 Mississippi River Flood, the Depression, Southern vagrancy laws (Honeyboy was imprisoned for a time working on a cotton farm for hitching a ride on a freight train), and the racial and economic problems of the Black community due to Jim Crow. Honeyboy Edwards really was the last living link to the early blues.
He recorded extensively, was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1996, and won a Grammy in 2007 for Best Traditional Blues Album. This CD and DVD set, entitled I’m Gonna Tell You Somethin’ That I Know, was recorded in September 2010, just eleven months before Edwards passed away. It’s a remarkable piece of blues history.
The disks capture around an hour of a performance by the bluesman, accompanied by Jeff Dale and the South Woodlawners, and Michael Frank in the G Spot in Los Angeles. The CD has 9 songs, the DVD 10, plus about 20 minutes of Edwards reminiscing about his early experience of the blues in the Mississippi Delta. This is priceless. He talks about playing with Robert Johnson when he was 21 and goes into Robert’s life and death in some detail. Johnson “was crazy ‘bout two things,” says Honeyboy, “women and whiskey.” His narrative about Johnson’s sad death speaks volumes about the situation of African Americans in the deep South at that time. “Same doctor that would come to a mule would come to you then.” Anyone who got seriously ill would likely die, for want of decent healthcare. Honeyboy’s own mother died at 32 of “dropsy” – or edema, often associated with malnutrition, and both preventable and curable.
We get details, too, about Charlie Patton (“a hell raiser”) and about Honeyboy’s own career – “been all over the world, Japan, Paris France…Turkey…can’t recall all the places I’ve been.” At 95 Edwards was both lucid and showed a remarkable memory for people, places and incidents long past.
His performance in the gig is quite something as well. He launches into each song with a guitar introduction, whereupon the band joins in, sings with feeling and gives a short guitar solo on his Gibson Les Paul each time. Quite something for a nonagenarian. The DVD is nicely shot, with a kind of sepia tinge and the sound quality good. There are songs by Robert Lockwood Jr., Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and St. Louis Jimmy – a fine collection of classic blues. Sweet Home Chicago is part of the mix, usually attributed to Robert Johnson, but claimed by Honeyboy himself.
“The guitar kept me rolling a whole lot,” says Honeyboy. And it kept him rolling for over nine decades. “God learned me music. He gave me that gift…There ain’t no harm in playing blues, that’s a gift God gave me.” If you’re a blues fan, you don’t want to miss this performance of Honey Boy Edwards’ gift right at the end of his life.