Paul Cowley, Stroll Out West
As the blues sounds of the Delta and the Deep South emanate and sink into your soul from Stroll Out West, you’d be hard pressed to know that Paul Cowley is an Englishman living in the heart of the French countryside.
In this, his fifth album, Cowley digs deep into classic acoustic blues territory with songs by Robert Petway, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and, of course, Robert Johnson. The rest of the twelve-song set, bar one are Cowley originals, but you’d be hard pressed at times knowing they didn’t come from some obscure part of the history of the blues. Paul Cowley’s drink from the deep well of the blues has been long and full, and this rich potion flavours each of the original songs.
These are not, however, stuck in the past. Although we get songs with the typical blues subject matter or lost love, Cowley laments the current state of the world in World Gone Crazy and meditates on the fleeting nature of life in Life is Short, a tribute to his father.
There’s humour too, in Nosey, a jaunty and mischievous song about a neighbour, which beautifully captures the spirit of John Hurt. These are strong songs, all catching the acoustic blues vibe, and all beautifully arranged.
Multi-instrumentalist Pascal Ferrari was an important contributor to the album, again working with Paul on the mixing and mastering, and he contributed to several tracks with drums, guitars and a few other instruments.
The album, as have the previous six (go check them out – you can find reviews and interviews with Paul here at Down at the Crossroads), features Cowley’s outstanding guitar picking and tasteful slide guitar work. As well as that treat, Cowley’s voice, deep gravelly, expressive, perfectly matches the feel of the songs.
Previous albums have featured just Paul and his guitars. Here, with Ferrari’s help we get a number of songs more fully orchestrated. Songs of Love is a good example, where Cowley’s opening acoustic guitar riff is joined by drums and a colourful bass backing. This very satisfying song, dedicated to Jim Crawford, a very fine guitarist and singer, also sees Cowley work his magic with some tasty slide guitar.
It’s always a pleasure to find a Mississippi John Hurt song on an album. Cowley chose Stagerlee, a song about a barroom fight in St. Louis, which has become something of a standard and has been recorded by just about everybody. Cowley brings his own nuances to the song, however, and his occasional non-singing, growling of the lyrics works a treat.
The album’s title is taken from Robert Petway’s Catfish Blues, reflecting Cowley’s westward orientation with his music. Cowley takes it at a slower pace than Petway’s original, finger-picking a solid groove on his resonator over his gnarly vocals.
Robert Johnson famously told us “the blues, is a low-down shakin’ chill,” it’s an “achin’ old heart disease” and Cowley closes the album with the song that contain these classic lyrics. Cowley, sensibly, does not try to out-Johnson Johnson on Preachin’ Blues, but gives his own sound, rooted in the past, but clearly that of an able and modern exponent of the blues.
This song, apparently, nearly didn’t make the cut, but it’s an admirable way to finish the album. At 52 minutes, it’s great value for money, it’s hugely enjoyable, and if you like acoustic blues, this is one you must listen to.