Check out this episode of Meet the Music: A Capella to Zydeco.
If you happen to be new to the blues, then here’s your way in. Seven classic songs to get you started on what will be a life-ling appreciation!
“Dr. Burnett shares a little history of the Blues and his deep love for the Blues. In our conversation, we discussed the impact of women blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Memphis Minnie. Listen as Dr. Burnett lists his suggested artists and songs for new listeners.”
Click for podcast
And here are my seven recommendations for getting started in listening to the blues:
Robert Johnson: Kind Hearted Woman, recorded in 1936, just a couple of years before he died as a young man of 27, poisoned, it seems by a jealous husband. Johnson was a jaw-droppingly good guitarist and a fine singer. He only recorded 29 songs, but Johnson has probably been the most influential blues artist on the whole of rock and roll. Eric Clapton says Johnson was his most formative influence and he has a great version of Kind Hearted Woman on his Me and Mr Johnson album from 1996. Keb’ Mo’ who is one of today’s great blues artist also has a fine version on his 1994 Keb’ Mo’ album.
Blind Willie Johnson: The Soul of A Man recorded in 1930. Willie Johnson was an exponent of gospel blues, and his slide playing, which he did with a penknife, was just outstanding. He’s a remarkable singer, at times a sweet tenor, at other time utterly raw. His music is making its way around the universe on the Voyager space probe launched in 1977 on a golden disk containing a sample of earth’s music. Quite what aliens might make of Johnson’s eerie slide playing and moaning on his song Dark Was the Night, is anyone’s guess! (Check out Tom Waits’ version of Soul of a Man on the 2016 tribute album, God Don’t Never Change, with various artists including Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Lucinda Williams, and Luther Dickinson.)
Mississippi John Hurt: Louis Collins John Hurt was a sharecropper who recorded some songs in 1928, which were not terribly successful. He was then rediscovered in 1963 and recorded a number of albums and performed on the university and coffeehouse concert circuit before he passed away. By all accounts he was a lovely man, and his guitar playing is just delightful. (The version here is Lucinda Williams with Colin Linden on guitar on a tribute album called Avalon Blues. Check out also Rory Block’s tribute album – just her and her guitar, also Avalon Blues)
Memphis Minnie: In My Girlish Days. Before the men began playing the blues, it was the women who were the big stars – women like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey. Memphis Minnie was a performer, a guitar player and singer, mostly in the 1930s and 40s. The poet Langston Hughes described her electric guitar as “a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill” – but she was quite a talent. I’ve gone for her In My Girlish Days. You can hear a great version of this on Rory Block’s 2020 album, Prove it on Me, where she plays tribute to the women of the blues. Rory Block is an outstanding acoustic guitar player, and check out also her tribute to these women in her 2018 album, A woman’s Soul: a Tribute to Bessie Smith.
B.B. King: The Thrill Has Gone. This is B.B. King’s signature tune. King was a great singer, but an outstanding guitarist – one of those guitar players where you can tell who it is from just hearing a single note. The song is on a number of albums, but you can find it on a 2006 album of the same name, along with other great B.B. King numbers.
Muddy Waters: Hootchie Cootchie Man.Recorded in 1954. Muddy Waters is known as the father of Chicago blues. He was a Mississippi sharecropper who moved to Chicago in the 1940s and popularized electric blues. He has been a hugely influential figure on rock’n’roll, and the insistent riff that drives Hootchie Chootchi Man is one of the most famous in all blues music. Eric Clapton has a great version on his 1994 From the Cradle album.
Allman Brothers Band: Statesboro Blues on At Fillmore East from 1971 is an old Blind Willie McTell song. Bob Dylan has a famous song which says, nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell. The Allman Brothers’ version has become a classic version of the song and rightly so, featuring Duane Allman’s fabulous slide guitar playing.
Larkin Poe: God Moves on the Water, on 2020’s Self-Made Man. Larkin Poe are two exceptionally talented sisters, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, both amazing guitarists and wonderful singers. They really bring the blues up to date with their own compositions and the way they cover old blues songs. And they are one of the most exciting bands you’d see live. God Moves on the Water is an amended version of an old Blind Willie Johnson song.
Slide guitar – it’s sweet, it’s gritty, it’s sensual, it reaches right inside and grabs your innards. In the hands of an expert exponent, it’s a thing of wonder. And it’s got a long tradition in the history of the blues, reaching back to Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson, when those glissando and vibrato notes were squeezed out by a penknife or a broken bottle neck caressing or, at times, attacking the guitar strings. It was the sound of the slide guitar that first alerted W.C. Handy to the blues when he heard the solitary guitar player on the station in Tutweiler, Mississippi in 1903 – “The effect,” he said, “was unforgettable.”
We’ve chosen 25 terrific blues songs that feature slide guitar, from Willie Johnson to Derek Trucks. They’re in chronological order so there’s no attempt here to judge these against each other. They’re just here for you to explore and enjoy – I hope they give you as much pleasure as I had in researching, choosing and listening to them. (actually 25 has become 26!!)
Blind Willie Johnson: Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (1927)
Willie Johnson’s slide playing is widely admired. Ry Cooder said, “Blind Willie Johnson had great dexterity, because he could play all of these sparking little melody lines. He had fabulous syncopation; he could keep his thumb going really strong. He’s so good – I mean, he’s just so good.” Eric Clapton’s view was that Johnson’s slide work on It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine was “probably the finest slide guitar playing you’ll ever hear.” So there’s a number of songs we could have chosen. We’ve gone with Dark was the Night, where Johnson’s exquisite slide playing takes you right into the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane, negating the need for sung lyrics, and is just augmented by Johnson’s moaning. [Check out our post about Willie Johnson here.]
Blind Willie McTell: Mama ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day (1928)
Willie McTell was an accomplished slide player as well as being an adept Piedmont style and ragtime finger picker and had a significant recording career in the 1920s and 30s. His 1928 Mama ‘Taint Long Fo’ Day lets you appreciate the depth of his skill and musicality.
Charlie Patton: Mississippi Boweevil Blues (1929)
Along with Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton was arguably the most important and formative voice of the early sound of the blues in the Mississippi Delta. He recorded Boweevil Blues in 1929 as “The Masked Marvel.” It’s primal blues, with one chord accompaniment, three basic notes in the vocal melody, and a high-note bottleneck accent after the vocal phrase, with the slide often finishing the last word in the phrase. Patton bewails the devastation caused by the invasion of the Boweevil beetle which fed on cotton buds and caused huge problems for the cotton industry and in particular for African American tenants.
Robert Johnson: If I Had Possession (1936)
Robert Johnson was hailed as the “king of the Delta blues,” and described by Eric Clapton as “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” His short life ended in 1938 at the age of 27, but his songs have become standards of the blues canon, and he’s recognized as an outstanding guitarist and a songwriter who pushed the boundaries of the genre during his lifetime. Despite that crossroads myth, Johnson’s prodigious guitar chops likely came from finding a tutor and working hard as a student. Guitar players still marvel at Johnson’s dexterity, the complexity of his playing and the intensity of his songs. He was a skilled slide player, amply demonstrated here on this 1936 recording. [You’ll find our piece about another Johnson song here.]
Muddy Waters: I Can’t Be Satisfied (1948)
The “father of modern Chicago blues” moved to Chicago in 1943 and began recording for Aristocrat Records, a newly formed label run by the brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. He recorded, I Can’t Be Satisfied and I Feel Like Going Home in 1948, both of which became hits, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the recording session for the two songs, they were preparing to wrap up, and Muddy asked if they could do the song without the piano. Leonard obliged and Muddy did the songs on the electric guitar, giving the songs a completely new feel. The single, with its raw electric sound and Muddy’s slide playing sold out on its first weekend. Buddy Guy said Muddy was “one of the slidingest people I’ve ever heard in my life. He got it from the Mississippi players playing the Saturday night fish fries, and he took it home.” [We look at another Muddy Waters song here.]
Elmore James: Dust My Broom (1951)
Known as “King of the Slide Guitar” and noted for his use of loud, reverb-heavy amplification, Elmore James is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the influence behind many rock musicians. That full octave slide riff in the opening to his 1951 adaptation of Robert Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, has become a classic riff. The song became James’s signature song and has been re-recorded many, many times, usually with James’s riff intact.
Mississippi Fred McDowell: You Gotta Move (1965)
Originally recorded by The Gospel Keys in 1948, McDowell’s version is the most famous and was picked up by the Rolling Stones and included on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album. Fred McDowell’s version is raw and bluesy, never misses a beat and has a nice slide vibrato. It was from McDowell that Bonnie Raitt learned her slide guitar. [More on You Gotta Move here.]
Son House: Death Letter Blues (1965)
House’s 1965 performance was on a metal-bodied National resonator guitar using a copper slide. Death Letter Blues is a revision of House’s earlier recording My Black Mama, Part 2 from 1930. The guitar playing is raw, almost rough, but the passion of the performance and the subject matter make listening to it a dramatic experience.
Johnny Winter: Broke Down Engine (1968)
Winter was a Grammy winning inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame, the first non-African-American performer to be inducted, and one of the first blues rock guitar virtuosos. His version of this Blind Willie McTell song appears on his album The Progressive Blues Experiment from 1968. Winter is probably better known for his high energy electric blues rock guitar, but he played this song on a resonator, with an approach that has echoes of Robert Johnson.
Allman Brothers: Statesboro Blues (1971)
The Allman Brothers’ 1971 concert at New York’s Filmore East is legendary, and the album represented the band’s commercial breakthrough. This cover of Blind Willie McTell’s famous song opens the set and showcases Duane Allman’s fabulous open-E slide playing. His approach to the song is clearly modelled on Taj Mahal’s1968 version of the song.
Rory Gallagher: McAvoy Boogie (1972)
Rory Gallagher never attained star status in his short life (he died aged 47) but he is a cult figure in the blues-rock world because of his incredible guitar skills – he was, for example, voted Melody Maker’s 1971 International Top Guitarist of the Year, ahead of Eric Clapton. Gallagher’s McAvoy Boogie was in honour of Gerry McAvoy, a great Northern Irish blues rock bass guitarist. Recorded around 1972, the song appears on the DVD, Rory Gallagher, Ghost Blues: The Story of Rory Gallagher and the Beat Club Sessions. Gallagher was equally at home on electric, acoustic or resonator guitars, and on McAvoy Boogie he lets loose on his Fender Telecaster.
Ry Cooder: Feelin’ Bad Blues (1986)
Multi-Grammy award winner Ry Cooder has been making music and recording for the past 50 years. He’s a songwriter, film score composer, and record producer. A multi-instrumentalist, he is maybe best known for his slide guitar work. Rolling Stone magazine’s ranked him eighth on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Feelin’ Bad Blues is on his 1986 Crossroads album and is an instrumental slow blues, which demonstrates Cooder’s exquisite slide technique and emotive playing. [Check out our post on Ry Cooder here.]
Eric Clapton: Running on Faith (1992)
Clapton originally recorded this on his 1989 Journeyman album, but we’ve chosen the Unplugged version of 1992, where Clapton plays a wooden resonator. He’s played a lot of electric slide during his career, but this performance puts the musicality of his skill in the spotlight, as well as his excellent vocals. [Check out our appreciation of Eric Clapton here.]
(Sadly WMG has blocked the YouTube video of this 28 year-old song)
Bonnie Raitt: I’m In the Mood (with John Hooker) (1991)
Bonnie Raitt has won 10 Grammys and sold millions of albums. The same year as her big 1989 breakthrough with Nick of Time, she recorded this duet with Hooker, which was included on Hooker’s album The Healer. Playing her Stratocaster with the slide on her second finger, and picking with her fingers, Raitt gets the right amount of sass and moan into this reprise of Hooker’s 1951 hit.
Joanna Connor: Walkin’ Blues (1992)
Joanna Connor is so much more than her self-description as “that middle-aged lady with the scorching guitar.” She’s a tremendously talented and original guitar player, whose incredible slide guitar, complete with mushy guitar-player face from 2014 has been seen by around 1.5m people. She is a guitar-playing tour de force. Walkin’ Blues from her second album aptly illustrates her jaw-droppingly good slide guitar. [You’ll find a review of Connor’s Rise album here.]
Bryn Haworth: Will You Be Ready (1995)
Bryn Haworth is an outstanding slide guitarist and songwriter from the UK who has been making records and performing for the past 50 years. He’s appeared on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test and the John Peel show, was a major figure in the explosion of Jesus Rock in the 1970s and 80s, and been the guest guitarist on many albums by rock and folk artists. [Don’t miss this great interview with Bryn here.]
Kelly Joe Phelps: When the Roll is Called Up Yonder (1997)
There’s scarcely a better acoustic slide player on the planet than Kelly Joe Phelps, aptly demonstrated by this superb old hymn which appears on Roll Away the Stone. At this stage in his career Kelly was playing slide on a lap steel guitar. By 2012, he had moved to a more regular bottleneck slide style – and produced similarly outstanding playing on Brother Sinner and the Whale. Check out the interplay between the slide guitar and Kelly’s vocals in this song, particularly in the chorus. Quite remarkable. As for the beautiful solo… [More on Kelly Joe Phelps here.]
Rory Block: Cross Road Blues (2006)
Rory Block is one of the world’s greatest living acoustic blues artists. Her talent has been recognized many times by WC Handy and Blues Music Awards in the US, as well as gaining accolades and awards in Europe. She has won Acoustic Artist of the Year in the 2019 Blues Music Awards. She’s done a number of albums paying tribute to the great blues guitarists of the past, and her 2006 Lady and Mr Johnson sees her taking on Robert Johnson and delivering the songs such that they take on new life, and at the same time showcasing Johnson’s outstanding guitar expertise. Block plays Cross Road Blues on her Martin guitar with incredible attack, accuracy and groove – quite wondrous. [Check out our great interview with Rory here.]
Johnny Dickinson: Ocean Blues (2006)
Northumberland-born slide-guitarist/singer/songwriter, Johnny Dickinson sadly passed away in 2019. He was widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s finest exponents of acoustic slide guitar. And a thoroughly nice guy. Ocean Blues, from 2006’s Sketches from the Road is a fine example of Dickinson’s technique and musicality.
Brooks Williams: Amazing Grace (2010)
Brooks Williams is one incredible acoustic guitar player. He’s a gifted songwriter and singer too. His versatile guitar chops include some tasty slide playing. You’ll scarcely hear a better version of Amazing Grace than Brooks’s from his 2010 Baby O! album. Playing the strings on either side of the slide and moving masterfully all round the fretboard, Williams coaxes each ounce of bluesiness from this old tune. [Check out our interview with Brooks here.]
North Mississippi Allstars: Let It Roll (2011)
Luther Dickinson is a guitarist, songwriter, singer and record producer who grew up in the hills of North Mississippi. Influenced by R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, he and his brother formed the North Mississippi Allstars. Their 2011 album, Keys to the Kingdom, features Dickinson’s characteristic raw singing style and his style of electrified, fingerstyle slide guitar that he calls Modern Mississippi. It’s sounds traditional but bang up-to-date all at once. [Check out our interview with Luther here.]
Tedeschi Trucks Band: Midnight in Harlem (2011)
When you see Derek Trucks live, you’d be forgiven for calling him the world’s best living electric slide guitarist. His guitar and slide just seem to be part of the man. Trucks was something of a child prodigy, playing slide from a young age and by the age of 13, he had shared a stage with Buddy Guy. He was a guest musician for several years with the Allman Brothers and has toured as part of Eric Clapton’s band. The fabulous band formed with him and his wife, Susan Tedseschi, released Revelator in 2011 which features a cover of Mike Mattison’s Midnight in Harlem. It’s quite wonderful, as much for Tedeschi’s vocals as for Truck’s slide work. But his slide work is top drawer and we like the live version on Everybody’s Talkin’ from 2012.
Keb’Mo’ & Taj Mahal: Diving Duck Blues (2017)
There may be better examples of Keb’ Mo’s slide guitar style, but this duet with blues legend Taj Mahal from their excellent 2017 Tajmo album is one of the most enjoyable. Mo’s metal resonator slide playing accompanies Taj Mahal’s rhythmic acoustic picking, rather than taking centre stage. But, of course, it’s the combination of these two wonderful artists playing together that is best of all. [Check out our piece on Keb’ Mo’s Put a Woman in Charge here.]
Sonny Landreth: Key to the Highway (2017)
One of the world’s best, but most under-appreciated guitarists, said Eric Clapton of slide guitar specialist, Sonny Landreth. Landreth has incredible slide guitar technique, able to play notes, chords and chord fragments by fretting behind the slide while he plays. As with nearly all these artists, it’s hard to choose a song from Landreth’s considerable back catalogue, but his version of this blues standard normally credited to Big Bill Broonzy, on his 2017 Live in Lafayette, is a real treat.
Larkin Poe: Mississippi (2018)
Larkin Poe are the Lovell sisters from Atlanta, Georgia with a unique blues-based Americana rock. Adept at taking traditional blues and bringing them bang up-to-date at the same time, the pair are exceptional musicians, wonderful singers and high-powered performers. Both terrific guitarists, it is Megan who is the slide guitarist, trading licks with her sister. Standing up – and occasionally walking through the audience – she plays her lap steel guitar with incredible energy. Mississippi from 2018’s Grammy nominated Venom and Faith album evokes the spirit of the Delta while channelling a modern, fresh approach to the blues. Superb. [Be sure and check out our great interview with Larkin Poe here.]
Martin Harley: Roll With the Punches (2019)
When it comes to slide guitar, England’s Martin Harley really is the business. With eight albums to his credit, he delights audiences wherever he plays in the UK and US with his hugely enjoyable brand of Americana and blues. His Roll With the Punches from 2019 finds Harley with a new, more electric sound, now coaxing those trademark slide guitar licks from an electric guitar rather than simply the Weissenborn lap steel he is usually to be seen with. The title track showcases his great slide technique and is just a great song – so positive: “don’t let nobody drag you down, keep your head high, put your good foot on the ground.” [You’ll find our review of Martin Harley’s Roll with the Punches here.]
Another year, another superb collection of Americana/roots music to choose from. This year’s selection has a number which have addressed pressing social issues, as well as giving us great music.
Here’s Our Top 10
Our Native Daughters: Songs of Our Native Daughters
The thirteen-track album, featuring Rhiannon Giddens. Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Leyla McCalla, explores the history of slavery and its legacy, especially from the point of view of black women. It’s a stunning piece of work, a tour de force, musically, lyrically and thematically. Rhiannon Giddens, the driving force behind the album, has said that she sees this album “as a part of a larger movement to reclaim the black female history of this country.”
Rich, typically Keb’ Mo’ style rootsy blues, featuring collaborations with Rosanne Cash, Taj Mahal, Jaci Velasquez, and his wife, Robby Brooks Moore. Producer Colin Linden and Robert Randolph pitch in too, to great effect in a potent and hugely enjoyable set of songs which will surely compete for a Grammy. Check out our longer piece on the album here.
The Avett Brothers: Closer than together
“At some point, [our] conversations grow melodies,” said Seth Avett of this terrific album which combines the Brothers’ commitment to Americana with some hard-hitting songs about gums, the threat of violence, injustice and the legacy of American racism. “I live in the country because I love peace and quiet / But all of my neighbors have closets full of machine guns.”
Paul Nelson: Over, Under Through
A terrifically fresh collection of Americana, featuring great arrangements of really fine songs. It’s a well-produced album, with a top notch set of musicians. It’s laid back and bluesy, yet with a gentle intensity. It’s still one the best albums we’ve heard this year. Highly recommended. You can find our full review combined with a chat with Paul here.
Luther Dickinson & the Sisters of the Strawberry Moon: Solstice
Dickinson, in the background for the most part, along with Amy Helm, Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago), Shardé Thomas, Amy LaVere, and the Como Mamas, have given us a wondrous, soulful album of both old and new songs, which live and breathe delight.
Drew Holcombe: Dragons
An upbeat, infectious affair, with songs co-written by Lori McKenna, Natalie Hemby, Zach Williams of The Lone Bellow, producer Cason Cooley, and Ellie Holcomb. You’ll find yourself humming along, tapping your toes and generally the better for having listened to it. It’s an assured slice of sunny Americana. Catch our interview with Drew here.
Dori Freeman: Every Single Star
Wonderful, melodic set of classic country songs from the ever consistent Dori Freeman, aided and abetted by producer Teddy Thompson. “A master of blurring the lines between Appalachian folk and Nashville country,” said one reviewer.
Marc Cohn & The Blind Boys of Alabama: Work to Do
These Grammy winners seem made for each other, Cohn’s gospel-tinged songs blending perfectly, and given new life by the Blind Boys. An album consisting of Cohn hits, gospel standards and two newly penned Cohn songs is mesmerizing stuff, guaranteed to bring a big smile onto your face.
Vince Gill: Okie
Intensely personal collection of songs, from a master songwriter which tackles sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, and racial inequality. Gill’s fine singing voice is to the fore here, rather than his blazing Telecaster in a beautiful set of songs. A highlight is, of course, Forever Changed, a song he wrote some years ago that was inspired by a moment in middle school when a gym teacher touched him inappropriately. “There is so much shame,” says Gill. “If you speak out, you are persecuted. I wanted to speak out for innocence.”
North Mississippi Allstars: Up and Rolling
11th album from the Dickinson brothers’ band, which is effectively a soundtrack to photographer Wyatt McSpadden’s shots of local musicians which sought to capture the musical heritage of North Mississippi. With guest appearances from Mavis Staples, Sharde Thomas, Jason Isbell and Duane Betts, this is a hugely enjoyable album, with its roots in the past but a distinctly modern feel.
And Our Next 10
Gidden & Anthony Turrisi: There is No Other
Rhiannon Giddens continues to give us albums of wonderful music which can’t quite be pinned down to one particular genre or region. There Is No Other is a collaboration with Italian pianist and percussionist, Francesco Turrisi, twelve songs effortlessly fusing influences from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and America. You can find our review of the album here.
Sean McConnell: Secondhand Smoke
Terrific album from the talented songwriter and performer McConnell. Thirteen songs choc full of great melodies, engaging stories and biblical imagery. “You could buy the world for the price of your soul,” he sings against the background of the McCrary sisters gospel harmonies. McConnell’s singing is consistently outstanding and the whole album is one you want to play again and again.
The Allman Betts Band: Down to the River
Recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, recorded live to 2-inch analogue tape and no digital editing. Allman (the son of Gregg Allman) and Duane (the son of Dickey Betts) and Berry Oakley Jr. (son of Berry Oakley) pay homage to a famous pedigree. A great set of songs, full of life and energy, is completed by a wonderful cover of Tom Petty’s Southern Accents, which features some delicious slide guitar.
The Highwomen: The Highwomen
The country supergroup, composed of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hamby, puts a feminist spin on country music, whilst sounding classic. Produced by Dave Cobb and backed by a top-notch band, this is fine stuff, great tunes, lovely harmonies. What’s not to like?
Pierce Pettis: Father’s Son
Ten years on from his last album, folk troubadour Pettis returns with this outstanding release. Sometimes hailed as the “songwriter’s songwriter,” Pettis gives us a 10-set of songs quietly introspective, spiritual, nostalgic, and humane, beautifully arranged and performed. Recommended for sure.
Various Artists: Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits
What’s not to like about an album of Tom Waits covers? Especially with a stellar cast of women artists which includes Iris Dement, Rosanne Cash, Shelby Lynne, Patty Griffen, Courtney Marie Andrews and others. Twelve songs, beautifully arranged and performed, which shine a light on Waits’s lyrical artistry in a new way.
Mavis Staples: We Get By
Remarkable vocal performance by the 80 year-old Staples, aided and abetted by producer Ben Harper. In songs of hope and determination, she sings, “things gotta change around here” and we’re “not too far down the wrong road to turn around.”
Jamestown Revival: San Isabel
Austin-based duo of Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance deliver their third album of nostaligic Americana, with beautiful harmonies and melodic storytelling. Watch out for the masterful cover of the Mama and Papas’ California Dreaming.
Ian Noe: Between the Country
Rich storyteller with a large cast of characters in this 10 song set from Kentucky songwriter, Noe, who brings them to life in a world-weary, plaintive kind of way. Produced by Dave Cobb, the sparse arrangements blend perfectly with Noe’s Dylan-esque vocals and the subject matter.
Hayes Carll: What It Is
This 6th album from Texas troubadour, Carll, is choc full of snappy lines, great tunes and sharp wit. Twelve fine songs, most driven by Carll’s acoustic guitar, but backed by a fine band. “I just wanna do my labor, love my girl, and help my neighbour, while keeping all my joie de vivre.” (Times Like These)
We’ve had some terrific blues albums during 2019. It’s always hard to compare blues-rock with acoustic blues or with Americana blues; or more traditional sounding blues with modern blues that stretch the boundaries of the genre. But, nevertheless, here’s a list of the 30 albums that we’ve enjoyed listening to and that we consider a cut above the rest. (Click on the links as you go through to find full reviews or interviews.)
Here’s our Top 10
Keb’ Mo’: Oklahoma
Rich, typically Keb’ Mo’ style rootsy blues, featuring collaborations with Rosanne Cash, Taj Mahal, Jaci Velasquez, and his wife, Robby Brooks Moore. Producer Colin Linden and Robert Randolph pitch in too, to great effect in a potent and hugely enjoyable set of songs which will surely compete for a Grammy. Here’s our comments on the album.
Martin Harley: Roll with the Punches
Top-notch slide guitarist, Martin Harley’s album is upbeat, it’s positive, the musicianship is superb, the songs and their arrangements are terrific. It’s everything a bluesy Americana album ought to be. It’s a little piece of “sunshine to keep in your pocket everywhere you go.” Check out our full review here.
North Mississippi Allstars: Up and Rollin’
11th album from the Dickinson brothers’ band, which is effectively a soundtrack to photographer Wyatt McSpadden’s shots of local musicians which sought to capture the musical heritage of North Mississippi. With guest appearances from Mavis Staples, Sharde Thomas, Jason Isbell and Duane Betts, this is a hugely enjoyable album, with its roots in the past but a distinctly modern feel.
Beth Hart : War in My Mind
Bluesy, at times hard-rockin’, Hart’s album gives full vent to her powerful and emotive vocals. Honest, revealing and passionate.
Gary Clark Jr.: This Land
Texas bluesman’s 3rd studio album and his best. Seventeen tracks where he cleverly and successfully fuses a number of styles from rock, R&B, hip-hop and soul, with a dash of reggae. Here’s our comment on the album.
Mary Flower : Livin’ With the Blues Again
Eleventh album from fingerstyle blues maestro, Mary Flower is a 12-song set that comprises instrumentals of blues, gospel songs and some Mary Flower originals which showcase her acoustic guitar chops. It’s the blues, but its uplifting as well. Check out our interview with Mary here.
Jontavious Willis: Spectacular Class
Wonderful Grammy-nominated album of acoustic blues, produced by Keb’ Mo’. Described as a “wonderboy” by Taj Mahal, no less, Willis matches his skilful country blues guitar with rich, soulful vocals. Find our interview with Jontavious here.
Rory Gallagher: Blues
New collection of blues recordings from the Irish artist released in what would have been his 50th year of recording. Gallagher was one of the great white blues guitarists of the rock’n’roll era. 36 tracks over 3 CDs – electric and acoustic and live – exude a raw energy, and include special guest sessions with legendary blues artists Muddy Waters and Albert King. A wonderful overview of Gallagher’s career.
Christone Ingram: Kingfish
Quite simple a terrifically enjoyable album, with twelve original songs that feature Ingram’s mellifluous vocals and stunning guitar work. The album is very definitely the blues, with familiar themes of lost and unrequited love but there’s a positivity throughout that is very tangible. Our full review is here.
Peter Frampton Band: All Blues
Ten classic blues tracks deliciously delivered by the vintage rocker and his top-notch band. With guest appearances from Sonny Landreth, Larry Carlton and Steve Morse, this is just terrific stuff.
And here’s the next 10
Kenny Wayne Shepherd: The Traveler
Eight originals and two covers from the ever-consistent Shepherd, accompanied by a group of talented musicians. Shepherd has become not only a not class blues rock guitarist, but a fine song-writer. Mind you, it’s the acoustic Tailwind, with its positive vibe, that stands out for me.
Elles Bailey: Road I Call Home
Superb sophomore album from English singer-songwriter. Blues-infused Americana, with eleven strong songs featuring Bailey’s impressive, soulful vocals.
Robert Randolph: Brighter Days
Pedal steel guitarist and his band are in fine form here with ten excellent songs, some true to their gospel roots, others full out rockers. It’s great fun, full of energy, groove and inspiration.
The Jorgensens: The Lexington Stretch
A completely captivating slice of timeless Americana, that is at once bluesy, jazzy, retro, modern and rocking. Seriously good music, to be enjoyed by anyone who loves blues or Americana. Find our full review here.
Southern Avenue: Keep On
Vintage blues and soul from Memphis-based band. Singers Tierinii and Tikyra Jackson are outstanding in these 12 tracks of fresh, soulful grooves. Outstanding new band, with refreshing new sound.
Walter Trout: Survivor Blues
Walter Trout’s 28th album covers songs that have inspired him along his long musical journey, including numbers by Elmore James, John Mayall, Hound Dog Taylor, Fred McDowell and J.B. Lenoir, putting his own inimitable stamp upon them. Walter Trout is an exquisite guitarist, an accomplished singer and he’s given us another gem.
Jimmy “Duck” Holmes: Cypress Grove
Produced by Black Keys frontman, Dan Auerbach, and features musical support from Auerbach and members of his band. The result is a raw explosion of genuine Mississippi juke-joint blues, with 11 traditional Delta blues songs from Holmes’s extensive repertoire. It’s fabulous stuff, a treat for any blues fan. Check out this great interview with Jimmy here.
Matty T Wall: Transpacific Blues
This new eight-song features Matty T Wall and some of the finest guitarists on the international music scene, including Eric Gales, Walter Trout, Kirk Fletcher, Dave Hole and Kid Ramos. With traditional blues songs and new approaches to the genre with plenty of creative twists, this is some of the best guitar playing in one place you might hear all year. Find our full review here.
Mavis Staples: We Get By
Remarkable vocal performance by the 80 year-old Staples, aided and abetted by producer Ben Harper. In songs of hope and determination, she sings, “things gotta change around here” and we’re “not too far down the wrong road to turn around.”
Tulle Brae: Revelation
Ten original, well-crafted and hugely enjoyable songs, full of energy and emotion. Blues rock, delivered with a huge amount of soul and underpinned by Tullie’s gospel roots. Our full review is here.
3 Top Live Albums
Hans Theessink: 70th Birthday Bash
Last year, for 4 nights in April, Hans celebrated his 70th birthday in the Metropol in Vienna, with musical friends from all over Europe and North America, including The Blind Boys of Alabama. The result is a double album of delightful, top-notch roots music. Find our full review here.
Joe Bonamassa: Live at the Sydney Opera House
Another top drawer live album from blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa and his band at this iconic venue in 2018. Some epic performances here from what was clearly a very special night.
Lee Boys: Live on the East Coast
High-energy, funky, bluesy, sacred steel ensemble delivers a set of songs pulsing with contagious energy and inspiration, fuelled by Chris Johnson’s pedal steel and the band’s tight musicianship. Our full review is here.
And our final set of 7
Tedeschi Trucks: Signs
4th studio album from the impressive Tedeschi Trucks outfit, with its typical meld of classic rock, old soul and blues, into a full-bodied Americana. It’s a calmer than previous outings, however, with Tedeschi’s incredible vocals to the fore, supported, as always by Trucks’ exquisite slide guitar.
Colin Linden, Luther Dickinson & the Tennessee Valentines: Amour
Bluesy dose of Americana covers, including classics like Careless Love and Honest I Do. First time collaboration between Linden and Dickinson, two outstanding musicians, here on top form with 10 songs of bittersweet love.
Joanne Shaw Taylor: Reckless Heart
Blues rock, full of energy from Detroit-based British artist. It’s an upbeat album with some fiery, up-tempo tracks, driven by Taylor’s top-notch guitar work (with no guitar pedals) and her superb, raspy vocals.
Joanna Connor: Rise
Blues, jazz and rock from this incendiary slide guitarist. It’s an accomplished set of 12 original songs which show off Connor’s versatile guitar chops and her impressive song-writing skills.
Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers: No Good Deed
This is a fine album of joyous, upbeat, full-production blues rock, with a dollop of soul and funk here and there. The musicianship from the whole band is outstanding, the choice of songs interesting, the arrangements fabulous and the whole thing makes for a hugely enjoyable summery record. Our full review is here.
Ronnie Earl the Broadcasters: Beyond the Blue Door
15 traditional sounding and soulful blues delivered by Earl’s band with guests Kim Wilson, David Bromberg, and Greg Piccolo. We get a range of covers, including a heart-felt version of Howlin’ Wolf’s How Long, and a number of Earl originals. Look out for the duet between Earl’ Stratocaster and David Bromberg’s acoustic guitar on Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.”
Samantha Fish: Kill or Be Kind
An album which pulls you in with strong melodies, top notch guitar work and Fish’s versatile vocals which can belt out rockers, go all sultry or give-it-some-soul, in turns sweet, passionate, and gritty. It’s an impressive vocal performance, actually, on a set of songs that encompass soul, blues, pop and melodic love songs. Find our full review here.
Racism is evil. That’s always been our stance at Down at the Crossroads. Anyone who knows anything about the blues knows that the blues grew up in the iniquity of the Jim Crow era in the United States and were a visceral response to the suffering and afflictions of the black community. Skip James’s Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues captures the grim reality of the time for his community:
“Hard times is here
An’ everywhere you go,
Times are harder than ever been before.”
Leadbelly’s 1930 Jim Crow bemoaned the social situation he was in and pleaded, “Please get together, break up this old Jim Crow.” In Bourgeois Blues, he takes issue with the idea of America being the “land of the free” and “home of the brave” – for Leadbelly, it was somewhere he was “mistreated” by the “bourgeoisie.”
And Josh White’s Trouble in 1940 says bluntly, “Well, I always been in trouble, ‘cause I’m a black-skinned man.” All he could expect from life was “Trouble, trouble, ever since I was born.”
Despite the gains made since those days, racism has patently not gone away, and it’s been heartening to hear some of today’s artists putting it firmly in their sights. Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars takes a look at the current state of race in his country in Pray for Peace, and wonders just what is going on:
“I think our grandmothers would be broken hearted
To see their children’s children right back where we started…
Makes me want to holler, makes me want to moan.”
Other artists have recently echoed this theme: Jason Isbell in White Man’s World confronts the privileges and disadvantages inherent in American society because of race, and his own complicity in it:
“I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.”
For a good summary of the problems of race in the US, check out Nicholas Kristof’s series of articles in the New York Times, entitled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” Outside of the evident problem of the shootings of unarmed blacks by law enforcement and the problems in the criminal justice system (just read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy to understand more about this), Kristof points out that “overwhelming research show[s] that blacks are more likely to be suspended from preschool, to be prosecuted for drug use, to receive longer sentences, to be discriminated against in housing, to be denied job interviews, to be rejected by doctors’ offices, to suffer bias in almost every measurable sector of daily life.” The statistics tell their own story – and yet around 50% of white Americans today say that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks.
Which narrative feeds the hate and vileness spewing from the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who turned up in force last weekend in Charlottesville. And whose views and actions are given succour by the reaction of the American president. White separatist David Duke declared that this show of unity by the alt-right “fulfils the promises of Donald Trump.” The statements by Trump since Charlottesville have been quite simply shocking. Despite a half hearted attempt to condemn racism, he has doggedly held on to his narrative of “many sides” being responsible, thus effectively equating out and out hated-filled racism with protest, and lamented the removal of the “beautiful” statues and monuments that celebrate and glorify the defence of slavery – structures that for the most part were erected long after the civil war to bolster the Jim Crow system and opposed the Civil Rights movement.
“Such an ungainly assembly of white supremacists rides herd on political memory. Their resentment of the removal of public symbols of the Confederate past — the genesis of this weekend’s rally — is fueled by revisionist history. They fancy themselves the victims of the so-called politically correct assault on American democracy, a false narrative that helped propel Mr. Trump to victory. Each feeds on the same demented lies about race and justice that corrupt true democracy and erode real liberty. Together they constitute the repulsive resurgence of a virulent bigotocracy.
This bigotocracy overlooks fundamental facts about slavery in this country: that blacks were stolen from their African homeland to toil for no wages in American dirt. When black folk and others point that out, white bigots are aggrieved. They are especially offended when it is argued that slavery changed clothes during Reconstruction and got dressed up as freedom, only to keep menacing black folk as it did during Jim Crow. The bigotocracy is angry that slavery is seen as this nation’s original sin. And yet they remain depressingly and purposefully ignorant of what slavery was, how it happened, what it did to us, how it shaped race and the air and space between white and black folk, and the life and arc of white and black cultures.”
We’re grateful for the music artists that are prepared to stand firmly against all of this. Wilco, for example, has just released a song in the wake of last weekend’s unrest. It’s called All Lives, You Say and takes on the “All Lives Matter” slogan which seeks to protest the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I can see you are afraid
Your skin is so thin
Your heart has escaped
All lives, all lives you say
…But you don’t know how to sing anything anyway
So all lives, all lives you say”
We can applaud too the broad coalition of local faith leaders called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective who resisted the racism in their town last weekend. “I’m trying to lead a church whose Christian identity leads my members to their politics, and not to have their politics lead them to the church,” said Rev. William Peyton, Rector of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, a mostly white Episcopalian congregation.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice
They are reflecting the God revealed in the Bible as one who “loves justice” and cares for the poor and oppressed. Just read the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets if you’ve any doubt about that. Jesus declared those blessed who sought after justice and peace. The apostle Paul said that a key component of the gospel for him and the other Christian leaders was “remembering the poor,” and that the kingdom of God consisted of “justice, peace and joy.” He also said that equality in Christ trumped all human divisions.
As Buddy Guy says in Skin Deep, “Skin Deep, Skin Deep, Underneath we’re all the same.”
That being the case, “We all gotta be careful, how we treat one another.” And Josh White in Free and Equal Blues: “Every man, everywhere is the same, when he’s got his skin off…That’s the free and equal blues!”
To quote Nicholas Kristof again: “A starting point is for us whites to wake from our ongoing mass delusions, to recognize that in practice black lives have not mattered as much as white lives, and that this is an affront to values that we all profess to believe in.”
God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson has earned plaudits from all quarters and Grammy Award nominations for Best Roots Gospel Album and Best American Roots Performance for the Blind Boys of Alabama recording of Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time. The album was produced by Jeffrey Gaskill of Burning Rose Productions. The album features a star studded cast which includes Tom Waits, Lucinda William, Derek and Susan Trucks, Luther Dickinson and the Cowboy Junkies. Down at the Crossroads chatted with Jeffrey Gaskill to find out more about how the album came about:
DATC: First of all Jeffrey – congratulations on God Don’t Never Change. It’s a wonderful record; it’s been very widely acclaimed; it’s had two Grammy nominations. That’s no doubt been very pleasing for you – but have you been surprised at just how well it’s gone down?
Jeffrey Gaskill with Lucinda Williams
Jeffrey: I guess I’m not so surprised. I’m grateful for the Grammy nominations – I was hopeful they would come. But I like the fact that it’s gotten great reviews. These are uncertain times – everything’s uncertain, the music business is uncertain, you can’t take anything for granted. But, yes, I’m pleased with the nominations.
DATC: One writer said that your guidance resulted in “Eleven stirring renditions which replicate the soul of the songs, not just the sounds.” Presumably that was what you were striving for?
Jeffrey: Yeah, that was exactly it. Exactly. You know, just going for the heart of the song, and what Willie Johnson was saying at that time. Just bringing it up to contemporary times. And bringing artists together who can convey the song, convey the thought. Really, you know, it’s the thought in the song behind the music that matters the most.
DATC: So why did you want to do an album of Willie Johnson songs?
Jeffrey: Well I wanted to do it way back in 2003, after my Dylan project, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan came out. But you know, I had to give some things a rest after that and it was hard to find a label that was willing to go to bat for the project on paper before it was recorded. This was at the time the record industry was collapsing.
DATC: So what is it about Willie Johnson’s music that really appealed to you, that made you want to do this album?
Jeffrey: I think it’s the sense of permanence – and I think it’s the same thing with Dylan’s music – these are themes that everyone needs to think about in their lifetime, no matter when in the spectrum of time they’re living their life – it’s really timeless, enduring music. It’s not something to be sung today and forgotten about tomorrow.
DATC: And that’s the thing about his music – it really has endured over the years. It’s been covered by so many artists, in so many ways over the years. There’s something about it that seems to appeal to people in different eras, perhaps coming from different genres of music.
Jeffrey: Yeah, his music can be interpreted in any number of styles, so seminal is it. He himself, we might say, is hidden in plain sight, to the extent that most everybody is familiar with at least one or two of his songs, if not all of them. Although maybe not familiar with him as an artist.
DATC: The interesting thing, Jeffrey, is that Johnson’s music is quite unashamedly Christian; it springs right out of his vibrant faith. How come people still have an appetite for it, and how come artists who may have no particular interest in faith want to cover his songs and find his songs compelling?
Jeffrey: Well, of course some people only see Blind Willie Johnson as a blues artist, with those universal themes. It takes perhaps a little bit more understanding and appreciation of the lyrics and what he’s getting at to really fully realize him as a gospel artist, which he truly is. But he can be taken either way I guess.
DATC: Can you tell us a bit about the process of making this album, Jeffrey? From what you’ve said I gather it was a long time in the making?
Jeffrey: Labels loved the concept of the album and the artists who were interested in recording, but the budget and the financial end just wasn’t feasible while the industry was collapsing. So inevitably I wound up raising the funds through a kick starter campaign. I was grateful for kick starter, but it’s not really in my nature to want to go out and do things like that. But, you know, when your back’s against the wall, and you want to get something done like that, you’ll do what needs to be done. And then the thought came to me about his dilapidated home in Marlin in Texas that I had visited, and what could be done about the wood from it, and through some extraordinary generosity, a woman down there whom I had befriended was able to secure some wood from the house before it was demolished. And that became the Blind Pilgrim Collection – the cigar box guitars.
[Wood that had fallen free from the dilapidated house where Johnson lived with his wife and singing partner Willie B. Harris in Marlin was delivered to the capable hands of George Brin at String Tinkers in Putnam, CT. He carefully cleaned up this old Southern Yellow Pine and painstakingly hand-made ten magnificent finger-jointed boxes book-matched front and back to create these cigar box guitars.]
DATC: And there were some guitar picks as well weren’t there? I’m kinda kicking myself – I wish I’d tried to get one of those picks!
Jeffery: Well, they were made from the same wood that the guitars were made from. I said, “do you have any scraps left?” and in fact there were three very small pieces of wood left, and so I sent them out to a fabulous pick maker out in California, and he was able to get a hundred picks out of that wood. [Chris Brossard Picks (www.brossardpicks.com)]
DATC: Wonderful. So how did you go about recruiting the artists – I mean it’s a fantastic cast on the album, and all the performances are very, very strong. So how did you go about recruiting them, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey: Well, just sending letters to management, saying, hey, I’m Jeff and I made a record called Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, and I’m working on this Blind Willie Johnson project, and here’s a song, and I wonder if you’d consider singing it?
One artist we tried, an Irish one other than Sinead O’Connor, was Van Morrison, but we never heard back from him. That would’ve been nice.
DATC: So you suggested songs for particular artists, rather than artists choosing?
Jeffrey: In most cases yes. With some exceptions – like for Sinead O’Connor, I think I gave her different suggestions up front and then she came back and said she wanted to do a different couple of songs. But then I gave her Trouble Will Soon be Over. So that took a little bit of back and forth. But I think we landed on the right one.
DATC: You sure did! It’s probably the surprise of the album, but it’s really fabulous. I wouldn’t have thought of Sinead O’Connor doing a song on an album like this. But she really nails that one, doesn’t she?
Jeffrey: Yeah, she totally nails it. And when I heard that, it really surpassed any expectations I had for the record. That and the Cowboy Junkies. I’m proud of all the tracks – they’re all great – but I really feel like, Sinead O’Connor and the Cowboy Junkies take it to another level, to a real contemporary sound, and show the relevancy of the words and of Blind Willie Johnson’s music. And these are the sort of songs that can be played on the radio, you know, anywhere, anytime.
DATC: What do you think the songs of Willie Johnson have to say to the modern world? We’re going back a long time to a particular social context, to an individual in very difficult circumstances, singing songs about faith – what can these songs say to the modern world?
Jeffrey: Well I like to think that the world is an improved place since his time. But I would think Willie Johnson would think that the lessons from his songs are still relevant. I would hope there is less desperation now than there was back then, and that there would be more empathy and understanding.
DATC: Have you another project in mind, Jeffrey, or do you just want the let the dust settle a bit on this on at the moment?
Jeffrey: Yeah, maybe let the dust settle for now. I do have another project in mind, it’s more of a audio museum exhibit of shaker music. I’m from New England and this music comes from the area in which I live. It’s got real historic importance.
DATC: Sounds like a great project. Thank you Jeffrey. Again – congratulations on the album our best wishes for the Grammys.
Luther Dickinson is one of today’s outstanding blues musicians, well known for his work with the Black Crowes and North Mississippi Allstars. He’s also got a number of top notch solo albums to his credit – Hambone’s Meditations, Rock ‘n Roll Blues and now Blues and Ballads, Parts I and II. This latest release is a joy from start to finish, featuring twenty one songs from throughout Luther’s career, new songs, North Mississippi Allstars songs and old favourites – all stripped down, loose and relaxed. It’s the perfect vehicle for Dickinson as carrier of the Mississippi Hill Country blues torch.
Down at the Crossroads caught up with Luther at the Blues Kitchen in Brixton, London, the third of three nights at the Blues Kitchen’s three London venues. Luther played an outstanding set of his psychedelic folk-rock blues, showing why he is renowned for his slide playing and guitar playing generally. Armed with a couple of Gibson Les Paul semis, his Martin Dreadnaught and a guitar he had fashioned out of a coffee can, Dickinson rocked the joint with a selection of songs from Blues and Ballads as well as fuelling Bob Dylan, Fred McDowell and Jimi Hendrix in his own inimitable, captivating style.
He’s a great entertainer, frequently interacting with the crowd and regaling us with stories and comments throughout. Particularly moving was his story about his father, when very ill, suggesting he record Dylan’s Stuck Inside of Mobile, as a one-chord Hill Country blues. “There are things in life which will disappoint you,” Jim Dickinson told his son “but not Bob Dylan.” That’s about right, isn’t it?
Luther, easy-going and relaxed, greeted me warmly as I waited for him before the gig and we found somewhere quiet to have a conversation. We talked about the new album, passing on the musical tradition, the Saturday night-Sunday morning tension in American music and the enduring power of the blues.
DATC:Luther, thanks for talking to us at Down at the Crossroads. First let me ask you about your new album, Blues and Ballads, which has had a great reception and great reviews.
LD: Fooled ‘em again! It’s cool because I realized that the more casual and honest and humble the production and recording experience is, the more people like it. And that’s a good lesson to learn.
It’s very, very pared down, it’s very acoustic and it’s all live. Buddy Miller, the guitar player and producer in Nashville, he really turned me around. He told me – because we were jiving each other about working together, because he’s busy and expensive!; and I was like, come on, Buddy, just produce this, and he was like, look, just don’t overdub. And it’s so true, just commit to live vocals; and if you need a fiddle player, then call the fiddle player, and if you need background singers, then call ‘em up and wait for them. Get everyone in one room and capture a real performance.
And you know, we grew up with our father, Jim Dickinson, who was a great producer, but he taught us to make the band tracks first and then the vocals being secondary, And that’s a great way to make records too, but, it’s really been liberating for me to just commit to the live voice. It’s all about the voice.
DATC:You know I thought the vocals in this record were perhaps the best you’ve ever done. Really, really good, really noticeable on this.
LD: Thank you.
DATC:The record’s called Parts I and II. Does this imply more to come in the same vein?
LD: It’s a double album. The inspiration for the record was the song book context. I wanted to make a songbook, because I love songbooks, folk songbooks, hymnals, whatever. I grew up pre-Internet, I learned from the library, I memorized every book in the Hernando Mississippi library. My grandmother’s hymnals, the early folk songbooks, magazines. I love sheet music, and so I wanted my own proper songbook.
So I re-recorded my favourite songs in a folk fashion befitting a folk songbook, and a handful of new ones, so it’s volumes one and two – and the plan is, my previous solo record, Rock ‘n Roll Blues, I would like to have it transcribed – that would be volume 3, and then have another solo record, HambonesMeditations, [an instrumental album] – transcribed as Volume 4.
And then it starts amassing, you know – it’s not like I’m going to record another Blues and Ballads anytime soon. But the plan is for the songbook to grow.
DATC:The song book is only available with the vinyl, isn’t that right?
DATC:And you’ve got a stellar cast on the album. Jason Isbell, Jim Lauderdale, Amy LaVere, Shardé Thomas, JJ Grey, Charles Hodges, Jimbo Mathus. And one of my favourites – Mavis Staples.
LD: Aw, Mavis is the queen! That was the beginning of the whole record.
DATC:She does Ain’t No Grave, which I know is a very personal song. But it’s wonderful what she does with it.
LD: Aw, man. We went to Chicago, she said she wanted to record the song, and I wanted to make sure that happened. If she wants to record one of my songs – let’s make that happen! So I set it up with my band, Amy LaVere and Shardé Thomas, and we go to Chicago and we get the track – first take – band and vocals, first take. And Mavis shows up about an hour later and we get her first take. She sits and listens and reads the lyrics, and it breaks her down. She starts crying.
DATC: It’s a very moving song. I know the context of it. [the song was written by Luther after the passing of his father, producer/singer/songwriter Jim Dickinson in 2009]
LD: My father passed in ‘09. I wrote a lot of songs when my father passed – as he was ill, and when he passed. But that one just came – I woke up one morning, I was on the tour bus and I wrote that song down before I even turned on my light, in my little bunk. It just came out, top to bottom. And at the end of the night, after the concert, I took my songbook and my guitar into the bathroom of the bus and the melody came just as easy. But it was hard to record that song, originally, for Keys to the Kingdom in ‘09. So I asked Ry Cooder to help me with that song. It was so easy to write but I couldn’t figure out the right interpretation. And Ry just played slide guitar – like the master that he is – and I went, of course, slide guitar! And once again there’s another great lesson.
That is another version of the Buddy Miller story, just to keep things simple. And Seasick Steve, he grabbed me by the shoulder and was like, you are the link, you grew up with Otha Turner and R L Burnside, and you are the link, and you’ve got to keep it primitive. He literally shook me and said, “Keep it primitive.”
And you know, my brother and I, we’d fallen prey to, you know, delusions of grandeur and over producing records, but Ry Cooder, just simply playing it on slide guitar and Seasick Steve yelling at me and Buddy Miller saying don’t overdub – these things have formed my new production aesthetic. It’s been really fruitful.
So Mavis came in and she was just first take, and that was the beginning of the record. And every other recording was just as casual. I had a handful of songs. So if I was in Memphis, I’d call my Memphis friends or if I was going to be in Nashville, I’d call my Nashville friends. JJ Grey had always liked Up over Yonder, so I knew I wanted to get him to sing on it . Because we’d been touring together. The songs are like snapshots of who we’re with, when we’re making the record.
DATC:And is Ain’t No Grave a song that you sing often?
LD: Not in night clubs. Unless it’s requested. You know, it’s a sad song about losing a loved one. I don’t want to violate the escapism of having a good time, but if people request a song…but I’m not going to sing that song over a loud crowd, or people who wanna dance.
DATC:There are a number of songs on the album with a gospel feel or theme (Up Over Yonder; Ain’t No Grave; How I Wish My Train Would Come; Let it Roll); we get that coming through in your work over the years, all sorts of scriptural references and echoes, old hymns – what’s the inspiration for this sort of material?
LD: It’s when my loved ones pass away. I always celebrate them when they pass away. And it started with Junior Kimbrough, Otha Turner, and then Lee Baker, my father’s guitar player in Mudboy and the Neutrons – he was murdered, you know. I’m a folk musician, I play loud psychedelic blues rock, but I’m a folkie at heart. And it dawned on me, like, Cassie Jones, Stagger Lee, once upon a time, these were just men that walked the earth, It was folk songs that made them legends. So I thought, I’m going to start celebrating my heroes, and sing about Kenny Brown or sing about my father, or Otha Turner, and make them my folk heroes, celebrate them in song.
And then the biblical imagery, growing up in the south, my grandmother played piano in the church. And I don’t talk religion or anything, but I love gospel music, it’s just a positive feeling, and I think a lot of musicians relate to it. But once again it’s not right to play it in the night clubs, it’s not appropriate. Maybe slip one in at the end, you know! And then the imagery – funny thing is, I’ve never studied the Bible. I mean I’ve poked around, but when you do pick it up, it’s like, oh my God, here’s this song, here’s that song. Every soul and R&B song has a biblical reference, and the blues too. To be honest, I’ve learned more from Pop Staples or Blind Willie Johnson about the Bible than I ever did reading it myself – listening to Samson and Delilah – you know what I’m saying?
Thing is, I just love the vernacular. I love the phrases of folk music and blues music and conversation with the elders, and the biblical stuff slips right in there. Bob Dylan’s a master of this, and also Robert Hunter [Grateful Dead songwriter]. Ain’t No Grave – there are multiple songs entitled that, or Rollin’ and Tumblin’ or Let Your Light Shine, or whatever – these phrases, they have weight, when people hear ‘em, they have, like, repercussions, sub-conscious repercussions. All those phrases I’ve internalized over my life, that’s the oral tradition of making it your own, and making it your own story, using the timeless vernacular of our culture.
DATC:So you mentioned Blind Willie Johnson. There’s kind of thread over the last century – from Blind Willie Johnson to Robert Wilkinson to Fred McDowell to Gary Davis to Kelly Joe Phelps, and many others. Why do you think that is, given the other darker side of the blues where some church goers felt it was the devil’s music, and the myth of the crossroads and mojo and all of that?
LD: Well, Robert Wilkins quit playing blues so he could become a preacher and only play gospel music. Son House went back and forth. Fred McDowell, he was a bluesman, but he played in his local church every Sunday. But when he passed away, they wouldn’t bury him there, because he was a bluesman. And that church is in Como Mississippi. Rev Robert Wilkins’ son is the preacher in that church [Hunter’s Chapel Church] now, and even he is a bluesman that preaches. In that culture, it’s a very treacherous line.
And it still goes on. Like, I’ve known Robert Randolph since before he was a professional musician with a career, and he and the Campbell Brothers, they don’t play in church any more. The Campbell Brothers were kicked out of church. Many, many of the sacred steel musicians have been pushed out of their churches for one reason or another. And there’s a new batch of sacred steel players playing in the church, but – they don’t know the tradition or the history, they’re just starting with Robert Randolph. So with sacred steel, the roots have been cut off and the new growth is going to be starting from scratch.
But, it’s just that American experience of church and blues. You know, Saturday night, Sunday morning.
LD: Yes, I didn’t realize how emotional that was going to be. Interesting thing.
DATC:You started off playing Just As I Am on slide guitar. Took me back to my own childhood, those were the songs I grew up with and nearly had me in tears!
LD: I learned that from my grandmother. That was one of the invitational hymns… My Mom is a huge believer, teaches Sunday School to elderly ladies. It’s very interesting, I could say that I’m well balanced, because I’ve got all the extremes. I just try to navigate it!
DATC: The blues is traditional music, with a long heritage, and were essentially the music of African Americans in the trauma of the early part of the 20th century. Why has this music endured? And why does it have an appeal beyond people whose lives were as harsh as those among whom it grew up?
LD: I think there’s a human quality to it. But as well as blues, there’s also country music, Appalachian music, and music just brings people together. It did for my dad’s generation in the 50s, rock ’n roll, the 60s, music helped transcend segregation… And with the blues, the lyrics and the melodies are ancient and they just resonate, you know, and it evolves. And what I play is not Delta Blues, it’s psychedelic folk blues rock, you know – that’s just where I am – but I grew up in Mississippi, second generation musician studying songs and blues, and I will claim that what I do is modern day blues. But it’s like what Buddy Guy says, I got ten fingers, I got two hands, I can play some blues!
DATC:Thank you Luther.
Postscript:Three quarters way through his set that evening, Luther switched from the Les Paul to his Martin acoustic. First thing he played? Just As I Am on slide guitar. This being a London audience, I was probably the only person there who recognized it. Thank you Luther!
I recently stumbled upon a recording of a great session by Luther Dickinson of the Mississippi All Stars in Grace-St.Luke’s Episcopal Church in Memphis. Luther Dickinson is, in my view, an outstanding performer and exponent of modern day blues, with his distinctive singing style and guitar playing, both of which at times sound almost careless, but which are, in fact, carefully styled and show considerable expertise. Apart from that, there is real feeling and emotion in Dickinson’s music, as well as a great deal of good-natured fun.
The session in St. Luke’s has Luther ranging across a number of topics, including the relationship between Saturday night and Sunday morning for the musician, heaven, the death of his father, and gospel and blues music. The often perceived tension between the gospel and the world is clearly one that Luther has faced, but now seems quite comfortable with, accepting his church background and the gospel music on which he was raised as a quite integral part of him as a musician. He quite unabashedly performs a number of sacred songs, as he has done on a number of his recordings (including Onwards and Upward; Hambone’s Meditations). He explains that for him, performing music and bringing love and joy to people is a “ministry.”
There’s a great segment in the video where Dickinson talks about the “famous jam session in the sky.” He quips, “You got Miles Davis playing with Louis Armstrong, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman – with Martin Luther King doing the voice over!”
He then launches into Jelly Rolling All Over Heaven, “about this great dance session” in the sky, which he performs with some pretty nifty guitar work. Musician’s heaven, says Luther, “Lord knows, it’s filled with a joyful noise!”
I’m not sure that the biblical idea of “heaven” is a place up in the sky somewhere (it’s really more to do with God renewing and transforming the earth – see my post on this topic), but for sure music’s gotta be a part of God’s future for us. Music is integral to our humanity, but at the same time transcendent – it’s a gift of God, for now and for the future.
Songs about death and dying are common in the blues. Not surprising, given the toughness of life for African Americans in the southern states under Jim Crow during the early decades of the twentieth century when the blues grew up. Infant mortality was high, life expectancy low, disease common and healthcare practically non-existent for many. So death was an ever-present reality – families losing children, children losing a mother or father, neighbors aware of the pain of bereavement suffered by their friends. Today we expect our full three-score years and ten and then some, and until we start heading towards that point, most of us don’t have to attend too many funerals. But, sooner or later, we all have to face it – “I gotta walk that lonesome valley, I gotta walk there by myself, Ain’t no one can walk there for me, I gotta walk there for myself.”
The reality of death in the early days of the blues is highlighted by the traditional song, sung by Rev Gary Davis and many others since, Death Don’t Have No Mercy. It’s a particularly mournful blues, as befits its subject matter:
Death don’t have no mercy in this land, He’ll come to your house, he won’t stay long Look in the bed and find your mother is gone – Death don’t have no mercy in this land.
The song covers all the family members – mother, father, sister and brother and says starkly: “Death will leave you standin’ and cryin’ in this land.” Those of us who have lost those near and dear to us know the numbness that comes when we’re left “standin’ and cryin.”
Here’s a version of the song done by Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna:
The Roman Empire of first couple of centuries in which Christianity grew up was one where the great mass of people in the urban centers lived generally impoverished, uncertain lives, where disease claimed the lives of many, and where, again, infant mortality was high and life expectancy low. In a situation where the old pagan gods offered no comfort beyond this life, Christianity emerged with news of a God who had become human and had risen from the dead, and who now offered the same prospect of resurrection to believers. Not only that, but that this resurrection-life-to-come could begin to be experienced in the here and now. This is part of the explanation of the growth of the Christian church over these early centuries. Christianity offered hope – in the midst of harsh, difficult lives, there was hope – hope that things could be better within the new community of faith, sharing and love, hope for beyond the grave and hope for the world to be transformed.
One of the songs that gives expression to this hope is Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down, originally written and recorded by “Brother” Claude Ely, who was a singer-songwriter and Pentecostal holiness preacher, born in 1922. The song, strictly speaking, isn’t a blues song, but to my mind, it fits right in with the gospel blues we see from Blind Willie Johnson right up until the present.
Ain’t No Grave has been recorded by Odetta, recently by Charlie Parr and Crooked Still (featuring in the vampire TV series True Blood) and, of course, famously by Johnny Cash on his American VI album, released not long after he died. The album is a record of Cash’s faith during the last months of his life.
Claude Ely’s original version of the song is bright and jaunty, whereas Cash’s is sombre, sung by a man who knows he’s approaching the moment of truth – and yet it still manages to capture the essence of defiant hope that infuses the song.
Rick Rubin, who produced the album recollects a conversation in May 2003 with Johnny Cash soon after his wife June had died:
I’d never heard him so distraught. And he said, ‘You know, I’ve been through tremendous pain in my life, and I’ve never felt anything like this.’…
…He sounded so weak, so beaten, and I’d never really heard him like that before. I’m not sure where the question came from, but I said, ‘Do you feel like somewhere you can find faith?’ And when he heard that word, a switch went off in his head, and he answered in a strong voice, ‘My faith is UNSHAKABLE.’ And the conversation changed after that. So he had tremendous faith, he didn’t really have fear and he already was dealing with pain; I think he had acceptance. When he knew he was going to die, he was calm and matter of fact about it, and…that was it.”
Johnny Cash died in September of that year, sustained by the faith expressed in Ely’s song:
There ain’t no grave can hold my body down. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down.
When I hear that trumpet sound
I’m gonna rise right outta the ground
Ain’t no grave that can hold my body down.
Well look way down the river and what do you think I see? I see a band of angels and they’re coming after me.
There ain’t no grave that can hold my body down. There ain’t no grave can hold my body down.
Cash’s voice is that of an old man, and yet is clear and convincing over the sparse instrumentation. The recording is both sobering and powerful.
The CD was released in May 2004, three days before what would have been Cash’s 78th birthday. A video to accompany the song was created with the help of professional and amateur artists, and fans of Johnny Cash. Within four months a quarter of a million people had contributed illustrations:
In some ways, the video attests to the enduring power of art and the fact that Johnny Cash lives on through the legacy of music he has left. That wasn’t what the song meant to Cash, however. An integral part of Cash’s Christian faith was the hope of resurrection. This has been the case since the very earliest days of Christianity. Within twenty years or so of the first Easter, Paul the apostle told the Jesus-followers in Corinth – “if the Messiah has not been resurrected, then your faith is useless.” Paul didn’t think there was much point in following someone who had simply brought a new philosophy to the world – such people were ten a penny in Paul’s day – one more dead philosopher or would-be Messiah was neither here nor there. The point was, though, Paul, along with a load of people he actually knew, had seen the risen Jesus – and he goes on to explain that the Messiah’s resurrection was the “firstfruits” – the first and the guarantee – for believers who “fall asleep,” in other words who die. The Messiah’s death and resurrection brought a “new creation” which Christians could share in – the new life of the Messiah infusing Jesus followers right now and then raising them to life at the last. This is the Christian hope, this was the essence of Cash’s faith, this is what Ely’s song expresses.
Finally, here’s a terrific updated version of Ely’s song, written by Luther Dickinson after the death of his father – Ain’t No Grave.
When that day comes, when death comes my way I would hope to be as brave As he was on judgement day.