No shortage of terrific blues albums this year thus far. We’ve chosen 15 of the best, including albums of traditional blues, blues rock, and bluesy Americana. We’ve maybe been a bit light on acoustic blues albums so far, but let’s see what the rest of the year brings. In the meantime, go check out each of these outstanding albums
Elles Bailey, Shining in the Half Light
UK Blues Award winner’s Bailey’s third studio album of soulful and passionate blues. She’s a remarkable talent, and here delivers ten songs that highlight just how good her powerful, but beautifully controlled voice is. If you’re not familiar with Ms. Bailey, put that right, right now with this terrific album.
Dana Fuchs, Borrowed Time
Dana Fuchs has a wonderful, nuanced, blues-tinged voice with just the right amount of huskiness. This album of rock songs has heaps of blues feeling and soul, along with some delicious guitar work. [Check out our interview with Ms. Fuchs here]
Eric Gales, Crown
This is a remarkable piece of work from the talented Eric Gales, stretching the boundaries of blues rock and setting a new standard for the genre. The musicianship and arrangements serve the strength of the song-writing perfectly, Gales’s singing is versatile and powerful and, of course, as you’d expect, his guitar work is all you’d want from one of the world’s great electric guitar players. [Full review here]
Katie Henry, On My Way
Stylish album of bluesy Americana from the very talented New Jersey native Katie Henry. There’s nice variety in the songs, from the blues of the opening song to more jazzy or country-tinged numbers. Ms. Henry is a terrific and versatile vocalist and a talented pianist and guitarist to boot.
Son House, Forever On My Mind
Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label is restoring and releasing Dick Waterman’s archived tape collection of Delta blues artists, and this collection of Son House songs, Forever on My Mind is the first instalment. The sound quality on the album is great and it contains eight classic House songs, including Preachin’ Blues, Death Letter, Pony Blues and Levee Camp Moan. [Full review here]
Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder, Get On Board
Mahal and Cooder’s set of Terry and McGhee songs tries to recreate something of the rawness of the blues recordings of yesteryear, and it has the feeling of two old friends thoroughly enjoying themselves. Taj Mahal said, “There are basic things in our culture that connect us, that allow us to be able to reach back and connect to a history of people, the things that nourish us as a people, and music, this music is one of those things.” In Get on Board, Mahal and Cooder reach back and connect to a part of blues history, helping to make sure it is not forgotten. [Full review here]
Dom Martin, A Savage Life
Dom Martin’s new album, A Savage Life, sees him fulfil the potential that his acclaimed 2019 album, Spain to Italy, pointed to. Martin is a multiple UK and European Blues Award winner who seems equally at home playing the acoustic blues of Blind Blake and the blues-rock of Rory Gallagher. Add to that his expressive vocals, and you have in Dom Martin the real deal. His guitar work and vocals throughout are stellar and the arrangements and musicianship from the rest of the band, are excellent. [Full review here]
Keb’ Mo’, Good to be Home
Another fine and hugely enjoyable album from Keb’ Mo’. It’s not exactly the blues, but – hey, it’s Keb’ Mo’! It’s feel-good stuff all the way, Sunny and Warm, the third song, describing things perfectly. Mr Mo’ is joined for good measure by Darius Rucker, the Old Crow Medicine Show and Kristin Chenoweth. Good Strong Woman continues Keb’ Mo’s recent affirmation of women, as opposed to the sexist lyrics often heard in the blues.
John Mayall, The Sun is Shining Down
You expect a John Mayall album to be good and this one doesn’t disappoint. 89-year-old Mayall is joined by a number of guests, including Marcus King, Buddy Miller, Scarlett Rivera in eight covers and two originals. It’s top-notch, modern blues rock, and you’ve got to hand it to John Mayall – for 60 years he’s been leading the charge with the blues and The Sun is Shining Down shows no sign of waning performance.
North Mississippi Allstars, Set Sail
An album from these Mississippi hill country guys is always welcome and Set Sail doesn’t disappoint. It’s a bit different from previous albums, not so much blues rock as funky R&B with a hint of gospel. Luther Dickinson’s unmistakable, laid back vocals are augmented in a few songs by Stax legend William Bell and the Allman Brothers’ Lamar Williams. It’s fine, upbeat stuff pointing us to brighter days.
Charlie Musselwhite, Mississippi Son
Fourteen mostly original songs from the 78-year-old veteran bluesman, Musselwhite, who plays guitar and harmonica and handles the vocals throughout. Songs like In Your Darkest Hour and Rank Strangers are perfect front-porch blues, with Musselwhite’s searching harp and raw vocals. Mississippi Son puts you right back in the heat and sweat of Musselwhite’s home state and bears testimony to the man’s lifetime in the blues. (And what about that album cover? Very cool).
Bonnie Raitt, Just Like That
Her first album in six years, it’s all you’d want from a Bonnie Raitt album. Cool songs, Raitt’s characteristic slide guitar and her ever soulful vocals. The ten songs are strong, narrative-based, and well-arranged, and Raitt, now in her eighth decade delivers a classy performance throughout. The title track is a wonderful treat, pretty much just Raitt picking her acoustic guitar and singing plaintively.
Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, Carry Me Home
Carry Me Home is something of a masterpiece, it would not be too bold to suggest, a celebration of friendship, mutual admiration and faith. You can’t help but be moved by both the poignancy of the selection of songs and the pair’s performances, now knowing that Helm was to pass shortly after and that Staples is now in her 83rd year. It’s simply a great set of songs, a wonderful collection of blues, gospel and Americana. [Full review here]
Cristina Vane, Make Myself Again
Cristine Vane is a quite wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. It’s the sign of a talented songwriter and musician to give a traditional feel to a song, and yet have it feel bang up to date. Vane says she’s “essentially a rock kid who is obsessed with old music.” And that’s a winning combination. This is a top class album of 13 well-crafted songs, blessed by Vane’s silky vocals and guitar chops.
Edgar Winter, Brother Johnny
Several years in the making, Brother Johnny is a labour of love, a warm tribute by Edgar Winter to his brother, who passed away aged 70 in 2014. Brother Johnny features a star-studded cast of musicians, including Keb’ Mo’, Ringo Starr, Joe Bonamassa, Robben Ford, Warren Hayes, Billy Gibson, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. With 17 tracks and clocking in at 76 minutes, it’s a huge treat of an album and a fine tribute to one of the giants of blues rock. [Full review here]
With songs by Gladys Bently, Eric Bibb, Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Blind Boys of Alabama and Kirk Franklin
A couple of years ago President #45 claimed he had “made Juneteenth very famous…nobody had ever heard of it.” Utter nonsense, of course. Happily his successor signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Nevertheless, more than 30 states have not as yet authorized the funding to allow state employees to take the day off and it’s been said that not enough people know about the holiday to make the effort worthwhile. This, in spite of the fact that In June 2022, the percentage of Americans who said they knew about the holiday, was around 60%, rather than the 37% of the previous year. Still…60% isn’t terribly good, is it? – I mean, this Irishman knows about it!
Anyway, the day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.”
Juneteenth celebrates the 19th June, 1865, when Union soldiers read the announcement in Galveston, Texas, that all enslaved African-Americans were free, two months after the South has surrendered in the Civil War, and more than two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is African-Americans’ Independence Day and has traditionally been celebrated with barbeques, parades and parties.
It’s an important day, it seems to me, not only for African Americans but for the whole country. Historian Kate Masur says that “Juneteenth…should serve not only to remind us of the joy and relief that accompanied the end of slavery, but also of the unfinished work of confronting slavery’s legacy.”
Down at the Crossroads celebrates Juneteenth with four songs. The first is Juneteenth Jamboree, recorded by Gladys Bentley, a Harlem singer, well known in the 1920s and 30s, who hits a note of celebration and joy.
There’s no shirking, no-one’s working Everybody’s stopped Gums are chompin’, corks are poppin’ Doing the Texas hop
Eric Bibb’s album Dear America, he says, is “a love letter, because America, for all of its associations with pain and its bloody history, has always been a place of incredible hope and optimism.” [check out our terrific interview with Eric here] In the title track, he addresses the open wound of America’s racial divisions in a way that is both personal and hard hitting. His simple appeal is, that although the “temperature’s rising”
“Don’t let hatred’s fire burn you and me”
Shemekia Copeland and Kenny Wayne Shepherd recently joined forces with Robert Randolph on steel guitar and veteran blues drummer Tony Coleman to record Hit ‘Em Back, a song which addresses divisiveness and anger within the greater blues community. Copeland said, “I don’t want my music to come from a place of anger because when it does, no one hears you. Let’s educate; let’s open people’s eyes; why can’t we be united?”
The song appeals to our common humanity and the power of love as an answer to division:
Don’t care where you’re born Don’t care where you been The shade of your eyes The color of your skin We all join together
Hit ‘em back Hit ‘em back with love
Our next Juneteenth celebration song, is the Blind Boys of Alabama singing Luther Dickinson’s Prayer for Peace. The song celebrates progress made, but bemoans continued racial division. The song wishes we all could be “color blind.” In the voices and harmonies of the Blind Boys of Alabama, it’s another appeal to our common humanity. [check out our interview with Jimmy Carter here]
The innocence and love seen in our children’s face Makes me pray ignorance and hate disintegrate into space Shall we pray Pray for peace.
And finally here’s the “Black national anthem” in the United States, a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. This is a truly inspirational song, and Kirk Franklin and this fabulous choir, really hit the heights.
God of our weary years God of our silent tears Thou who has brought us thus far on the way Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light Keep us forever in the path, we pray Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee
Son House, who died in March 1988, was one of the original Delta bluesmen, who began singing and playing guitar in 1927, and within a short time became a blues legend. Friends with Charlie Patton, he recorded nine classic songs for Paramount Records in the 1930s and was a major influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. After recording for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in 1942, he quit playing and moved to Rochester, New York. His music career was revived, however, after his re-discovery in the mid-sixties, recording and touring America and Europe.
His life and later career were marred by his alcoholism – Howlin’ Wolf told him, “You had a chance with your life, but you ain’t done nothin’ with it…See, you in love with one thing, and that’s some whiskey.” Nevertheless, House managed some remarkable live performances and recordings at this time and the songs on Forever on My Mind are from 1964, from a taped performance at Wabash College in Indiana obtained by House’s manager and blues curator Dick Waterman. [check out our review of Waterman’s biography here]
Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label is restoring and releasing Waterman’s archived tape collection of Delta blues artists, and Forever on My Mind is the first instalment. The sound quality on the album is great and it contains eight classic House songs, including Preachin’ Blues, Death Letter, Pony Blues and Levee Camp Moan.
House was first gripped by hearing the sound of glass on steel – the bottleneck slide – when, as a young pastor, he strolled past a house where a party or “frolic” was taking place. He stopped to listen. “Wonder what’s that he’s playing? I knew that guitars hadn’t usually been sounding like that. So I eases up close enough to look,” House said. “Sheez, I like that! I believe I want to play one of them things.”
Whereupon he got himself a guitar, albeit with only 5 strings and a hole in the back and learned to play it, after Willie Wilson (who was the bluesman at the frolic whom he had heard) fixed it up for him. With his guitar tuned in Open G, he soon was “zinging it” as he called it, with the bottleneck slide. Within a matter of weeks, he was out earning money at gigs. And as he said himself, “I kept on playing and got better and better.”
And on Forever On My Mind, there’s plenty of “zinging,” House working his resonator skilfully in accompaniment to his characteristically expressive vocals. The songs sound, perhaps, more reflective and calmer than other recordings, though they still drip with emotion.
Many people will know Death Letter from his videoed 1965 performance (with 3.5m views on YouTube), which is frantic and anguished. House made the song a centrepiece of his live shows during the 1960s, often playing it more than once during a concert. About a man who learns by letter of the death of the woman he loves and who later views her body at the morgue, Paul Du Noyer said the song is “one of the most anguished and emotionally stunning laments in the Delta blues œuvre.”
The version of Death Letter included here is a much calmer version, the slide playing more nuanced. Given the nature of the song, though, it is by no means mellow, and House expresses the tragedy masterfully.
Preachin’ Blues has a nice combination of slide work on both strummed chords and single notes and, no matter how often you hear it, the song is always arresting. This song was something of a signature song for House and it vividly describes the tussle between the church and the blue devils for his soul – a tussle the church kept losing. He sang:
Oh, and I had religion Lord this very day But the womens and whiskey, well they would not let me pray.
By all accounts House had been an accomplished preacher. Yet, for most of his preaching career, he was living a double life, drinking and womanizing. In Preachin’ the Blues, a deacon jumps up in church and accuses the minister:
Another deacon jumped up and said, “Why don’t ya hush?” “You know you drink corn liquor and your life’s a horrible stink.”
Which might well be an accusation that House either had thrown at himself or felt should have been thrown at him. And his disillusionment with religion, or at least his disillusionment with himself as a worthy church leader, comes out in these lines from the song:
Yes, I’m gonna get me religion, I’m gonna join the Baptist Church. You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher, just so I won’t have to work.
The title track is real, old time Delta blues, bleak but articulated beautifully by House and accompanied mostly by sparse single note guitar work. Never officially recorded and released before, it’s a fine introduction to forty-five minutes of blues history, the recordings superbly re-mastered by Easy Eye Sound.
The final song is another Son House classic, Levee Camp Moan. Levee camps were temporary settlements along the Mississippi River for about 60 years until 1940 for workers on the earthen levees that run along both sides of the river’s banks. The workforce was almost entirely black men who were fearfully exploited – forced to work long work hours, paid badly and harshly disciplined. House’s song laments a man’s separation from his woman and the problem in their relationship “when I done not get the check.”
The album gives us Son House at the peak of his abilities, sober, and singing and playing with passion and clarity. Dick Waterman said of the concert: “The show was held in kind of an assembly hall. There were a few dozen, there may have been up to fifty people, something like that. They were quiet and polite during the performance…There were no barriers, there were no filters between him and the audience. He was just giving them the plain, unvarnished Delta material, as he knew it and as he sang it.”
Plain and unvarnished it may be, but it sounds fresh and clear. Waterman and Easy Eye have given us a great gift in these wonderful recordings of quintessential Delta blues by one of the masters.
“Snooks has got it all, including possibly the coolest name in blues history” (Slide guitarist Martin Harley)
Snooks Eaglin was born Fird Eaglin Jr. around 1936, and lost his sight shortly after his first birthday. Nevertheless, he taught himself to play guitar as a child by listening to the radio and by the time he was 10, he was singing and playing in local Baptist churches. When he was 11, he won a talent contest at a radio station with his version of 12th Street Rag and then dropped out of school three years later to become a professional musician.
He was a talented guitarist, singer and performer, being dubbed the “human jukebox” for his ability to play a vast range of songs, rarely sticking to a set list and regularly taking requests from his audience. Eaglin often claimed his repertoire included 2,500 songs!
On the guitar Eaglin could play finger-picking blues, jazz, R&B or Hendrix-like rock. He’d amaze people by playing melody, bass and chords, seemingly all at once. Keyboardist /producer Ron Levy said, “He can play any song just off the top of his head. If he can think about it and hear it in his head, he can play it perfectly.” Levy goes on to recount how at a party “Snooks was sitting in the corner playing, and he sounded great. But after a while I noticed that he was missing a couple strings on his guitar but it didn’t seem to make any difference. He still sounded great!”
Eaglin recorded and toured inconsistently over his long 50-year career, but his first recordings, released by Folkways in 1959 as New Orleans Street Singer, showcase Eaglin’s prodigious talent both in terms of his guitar chops and his vocal performance.
These recordings were made by folklorist Harry Oster, who had found the 22-year-old Eaglin playing in the streets of New Orleans. If club or studio work was sparse, Eaglin would often would play on the street for tourists in the French Quarter. Although Eaglin had played in a band for many years, in these recordings he plays in an acoustic blues style, just him and his guitar. Eaglin proves himself to be an exceptionally accomplished guitarist, with a sophisticated, metronomic strumming style perforated by complex and fast runs. His singing, although a bit reminiscent of Ray Charles, is all his own – it’s laid back, a bit throaty, a bit soulful and thoroughly captivating.
There are 16 tracks on the album, a combination of traditional blues songs and covers of R&B songs of the period. It kicks off with a jaunty version of Careless Love, followed up by the slow blues of Come Back Baby, written and recorded by singer and pianist Walter Davis in 1940, but made popular shortly before Eaglin recorded this album by Ray Charles on his debut album in 1956.
The album has a lovely balance with slow songs and songs you could dance to, and throughout, even with songs like St. James Infirmary or Trouble in Mind, there’s a positive, upbeat feel to it all, fuelled by Eaglin’s much-to-be-admired guitar work.
His guitar chops are especially on display on the instrumental number High Society, which features some amazingly fast runs up and down the fretboard.
There’s one serious song on the album. I Got My Questionnaire, later covered as Uncle Sam Blues by Jefferson Airplane, about a man called up to go to a war not of his own choosing. Pretty topical then – and now.
Said Uncle Sam ain’t no woman But he sure can take your man Well, they got him in the service Doin’ somethin’ he don’t understand
The album finishes with the upbeat Look Down That Lonesome Road. Eaglin’s rhythmic strumming and nicely phrased vocals will leave you with a smile on your face.
Eaglin’s Seventh Day Adventist faith loomed large in his life. His seventh day observance kept him from playing on from Friday evening to Saturday night, and he wouldn’t perform on religious holidays either, winning him admirers for sticking to his convictions. He recorded and performed gospel songs throughout his life – check out the moving I Must See Jesus.
By all accounts, he was both a delight and a marvel to see perform. New Orleans guitarist Camile Baudoin has said, “When Snooks plays, that’s all I can do is laugh, makes me feel so good. Nobody plays like Snooks Eaglin. Nobody.”
Snooks Eaglin passed away in 2009, so we don’t have the privilege of seeing him perform live. But we have recordings like The New Orleans Street Singer where we get to hear his musical genius.
Track Listing (Folkways FA-2476, 1959) 01 Careless Love 02 Come Back Baby 03 High Society 04 Let Me Go Home Whiskey 05 Trouble in Mind 06 St. James Infirmary 07 I Got My Questionnaire 08 The Drifter Blues 09 Rock Island Line 10 Every Day I Have the Blues 11 Sophisticated Blues 12 See See Rider 13 One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer 14 A Thousand Miles Away From Home 15 I’m Looking for a Woman 16 Look Down That Lonesome Road
“Blues is the news we can use to survive in a world on fire”
For nearly thirty years, Corey Harris has been at the forefront of blues interpretation, fusing jazz, reggae, gospel and Caribbean influences to traditional blues. Along the way he has recorded and played with artists like B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, R.L. Burnside, Ali Farka Toure, and others, performing throughout North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Australasia. He starred in Scorsese’s Feel Like Going Home and collaborated with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue album series.
He’s a W.C. Handy Blues Award winner, has an honorary doctorate in music and was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Award for Genius.
Insurrection Blues, his new album, is a fantastic collection of traditional blues songs performed with passion, rawness and fine guitar picking. The album was recorded in May 2021 in
Abruzzo in Italy, where Corey lived during the pandemic before returning to the United States. The album also features contributions on a couple of tracks from harmonica player, Phil Wiggins, and the mandolinist Lino Muoio.
Down at the Crossroads got the opportunity to chat to Corey about the new album and about his music in general.
He told me, first of all, that he’d wanted to show his roots and let people understand know where he’s coming from. “I’ve done a lot of different excursions over the years,” he said, “but this is my foundation. So, I wanted to re-inscribe that into people’s memory banks; that this is what it’s about.”
So you’ll find interpretations of songs by the likes of Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Charlie Patton, all performed with passion by a skilled guitarist and singer.
In dealing with such a wide scope in the tradition, I wondered how he goes about selecting a particular song and then making it his own?
“I try and be faithful to the form of the song, how it’s supposed to be played and the recognizable licks, if you will, but at some point, you can’t ever play it just like the version you’re learning – at least I can’t. So that’s where my own creativity and character comes in. Because, you know, you’re gonna sound like you!
“In these the traditional songs, I really try and be faithful to the musical presentation of the song, how it’s sung and the rhythm, unless I’m really trying to do something that is adding to it and doing a totally different version – but I normally don’t do that. Some artists will take, say, a Skip James tune and make it totally different, but I’m not really into that. I’m really into trying to interpret a song through my own filter if you will.”
Corey Harris has been performing, rootsy, bluesy music for a long time now. I asked him what is it about this music that is so important to him.
“Well, I would say that this music connects us to our ancestral heritage in America. And it also opens eyes to the realities of what we’re dealing with. You know, the blues is like our CNN, it is what is happening. It’s the news, you know what I mean?
“So, with the times as they are, I just really felt it was important to get back to the basics about the strengths in the culture, and that’s why I was looking at the different song forms and the different varieties within that culture. Nowadays a lot of times, in the popular context, people assume black culture is gonna be hip-hop, or Lil Uzi Vert or something, but it’s actually quite deeper than the commercial varieties we’ve been conditioned to accept. So, I wanted to show really where it’s coming from, and try and do a survey, not only of how I see the music, but of the last hundred and fifty or so years of it.”
This coheres with what Harris has previously said of Insurrection Blues, that it “is an unflinching look at desire and destruction in 21st century America…as an African American living in America, as a descendant of slaves that built this country, I am looking at the survival mechanisms that have existed for people to persevere in difficult times. And when we think about that, the blues always comes to mind.”
“Yeah. There’s a tendency in the popular press and even in academia, to typify the blues and say it’s this sad music about being drunk and losing your woman. But it’s actually so much more than that. And so, I just want to show that the blues is a textbook for life. It’s just like any other great art, it describes the condition of man and woman in all the different situations in life. So that’s what I’m trying to show. Also, that this is a rich tradition and it’s not anything that can be easily diluted or reduced into simple song forms and like, a skinny tie and a hat, you know what I mean? It’s more than that. And that’s what I wanted to show.”
The blues, clearly, grew up in the context of terrible injustice suffered by Black communities. But, I suggested to Corey, the music and the form, and the spirit seems to be something that has a very broad application and appeal, so that there are all sorts of people all around the world who feel drawn to it.
“Well, you know, we all struggle. That’s why we’re here, to struggle and to overcome, as human beings. We can all relate to that journey of struggle and overcoming, in our own way, because it’s not all equal and not all the same. We all have our own different little histories, but we all have that same feeling of, you know, it’s hard, but finally, I’m victorious. Let’s look back and celebrate how hard it was.”
The blues always seem to have that double edge about them – a lament for the way things are, but hope that things might get better. You see it in so many of the songs, where the singer seems to be able to sing his or her way out of the blues feeling.
“That’s it, being able to see the sun on the horizon and being able to get that strength you need to see the next day and to persevere and to keep going. This is the tradition. It wasn’t a tradition that people did for money. There was no profession back in the days with the ancestors of blues singers, blues performers – I’m talking, like, before the Chitlin’ circuit, before the recordings of the twenties, before Mamie Smith. There was no occupation of blues singer, people did it because they had to, because this is what their culture showed them – how you can deal with the things that the world is giving you, all the oppression and all the Black codes, the lynching, you know, all of that. So, this is a tool for survival is the way I see it.”
Harris was profoundly disturbed (along with most other right-thinking people) about the events in Washington at the beginning of 2021. He has said, “When I saw the insurrection, I saw how race and history collided there.” So Insurrection Blues directly channels his feeling about all this – “I felt there was a duty, a responsibility, to use the craft to say something.”
As I listened to the album, any message of resistance is not very explicit. Somebody could listen to the album and miss that. So I wondered, for Corey as an artist, how explicit or otherwise does he feel he needs to be about issues that he feels are important?
“Well, I think it depends on how you feel at the time emotionally. There are some issues that kind of speak for themselves, and you can make a commentary very easily on them. With the insurrection, depending on your political persuasion, you’re gonna see that event through drastically different spectacles, you’ll have a different perspective. And also, depending on your ethnic origin, with your ethnic history in America, you’ll have a very different perspective on this event. So yeah, there’s some resistance in it, because just the act that I’m here alive is proof that there was resistance.
“Because the system wasn’t built so that I would thrive. But also, this project is like an analysis of where we’ve been, where we are and what might happen in the future. If you listen to the record, there’s an interlude to the song Insurrection Blues, which is some audio of the actual crowd at the insurrection. And then after there’s the sound of thunder and lightning; and then the sound of rain, to symbolize that there needs to be sort of a cleansing. This is a storm, and then after a storm, the clouds go away, the sun comes out and things are fresh and clean. So, that’s what we’re going through. We’re going through a purging right now.”
Prefaced by this short interlude, the title track, Insurrection Blues (Chickens Come Home to Roost), becomes a powerful commentary on the infamous storming of the Capitol, such a symbolic emblem of American democracy. As the storm fades and the rain washes things clean, Insurrection Blues kicks in, a minor key blues. The lyrics are not explicit, but the repeated, ominous minor key riffs on the guitar are the repeatedly intoned, “it’s time to get wise” and “chickens come home to roost” make the point well enough.
It comes right in the middle of the album, and although the songs on either side might just be taken as enjoyable interpretations of acoustic guitar blues numbers, Harris has cleverly drawn attention to his African American blues tradition as pointing to both the struggles and the survival of his community.
On a more general note, I asked Corey about the re-emergence of acoustic blues back in the 1990s when he was starting out. Before that there had been a lot of electric blues for several decades.
“Yes, there was a renaissance of acoustic blues. I think the Columbia Records release of the Robert Johnson box set around 1990 had a lot to do with that. And then, shortly after that Keb’ Mo’ came out with his record on Sony’s OKeh Records – it was on a major label and made a big splash. So those two things had a lot to do with it. And then just by happenstance, I came along, Alvin Youngblood Hart came along and so did Guy Davis. And people were realizing, wow, black people still play the blues and they still play acoustic blues! And they realized that this is part of their culture. So it was a great confluence of events at that time.”
And what is the popularity of blues music, particularly in the United States. What, I wondered, is Corey’s sense of the people and the demographic listening to this music and the more traditional forms of it?
“My sense is that there are people my age – I’m in my early fifties – and older who are listening to this music and coming to these shows. The blues market is still people who buy CDs at shows. They’re not really downloading as much as other genres yet. So we’re kind of oldies but goodies blues people, as far as the fans go!” Harris is encouraged, though, by some of the younger talent coming up, like Jontavious Willis and Buffalo Nichols, whom he referred to as “a really monster guitar player.”
Along the way, Corey Harris has played with a lot of wonderful artists from both North America and Africa. I was very interested to hear about his experience of playing with B.B. King in the 1990s.
“I opened up for BB about 75 times around the world, over the years from about ‘95 until about 2005. I was around him quite a lot over the years and what I observed was he was very professional. He put the music on a level where you just had to respect it because the way that it was presented was first class. And very well mannered, very diplomatic, well spoken. You know, it was really like royal, like he was aptly named. You really felt, wow, I’m with somebody who’s putting their art on the top shelf. And so you felt inspired being around him because you felt wow, I got to raise my standards.
“He was someone who came from nothing, but he just dedicated himself to his craft. He studied a lot, he practiced a lot and he elevated his craft so that you just had to respect it for what it was. That’s what I really loved about him. And then he engaged people really well – he talked to you like you mattered and he was interested in you. He was a good people person. Just great being around him and you know, his stories – he had stories about hanging out with Satchmo in the fifties. He said Satchmo used to cook him bread, beans and rice backstage! And he had stories about hanging out with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. And thinking of that, he used to tell me, ‘Stay away from drugs!’ But I’m like, don’t worry. I don’t do drugs!”
Corey Harris is a multi-talented guy. Not only is he a successful and talented musician, but he’s the author of several books and is currently doing a PhD (he already has an honorary doctorate in music).
“I’m in the music department in the University of Virginia and I’m studying all sorts of different things. Some are things that I didn’t know a lot about, for example, 17th and 18th century classical music. But my main thrust is music of black resistance. So that could include anything from capoeira to blues, to jazz to music associated with Santeria. So I’ve really whittled it down. But that’s what I’m really interested in – black music of the Americas, of the Atlantic, of the black diaspora.”
As well as studying, Harris is teaching as well, working with university classes along with renowned jazz writer Scott DeVeaux. All of this is sure to find its way into future Corey Harris performances and recordings.
At the moment he’s planning an album in collaboration with Cedric Watson. “He’s a great Louisiana, old-school Creole player who plays a violin and a push button accordion. He also plays banjo, so he’s an excellent talent. We’re going to do a duet record. We both speak French, so we’ll do some French songs and some Creole songs, so, it’s gonna be good!”
And Corey has a book just recently published, Blues People Illustrated.
“People can buy that on my website at Nattyworks.art. It’s fifty-one blues artists, men and women, the cool, all-traditional blues artists, mainly those who were active from the 1920s through the blues revival of the sixties. Each artist has a drawing of them and I’ve written a biography of the artist and included a complete discography as well. So it’s a kind of reference book.
“So those who don’t really know about the specific genre of traditional acoustic blues, the pre-war, can learn about people like Son House, Tommy McClennan, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. And even little-known people like Hacksaw Harney, Precious Bryant or John Jackson. I talk about people that I knew as well – Cephas And Wiggins are in there, and Brownie and Sonny.”
One worth checking out as well as the terrific Insurrection Blues.
“Where there is light there is hope; and where there is hope, there’s a chance” Jimmy Carter, Blind Boys of Alabama
During 2021, we had the opportunity to speak to 15 great blues and roots artists, as well Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records and Tim Duffy of the Music Maker Foundation. All of them, plying their trade, entertaining us, at times challenging us, against the significant odds posed by the pandemic. Each of them doing what they do with determination, grace and even joy. Pick any one of the interviews if you feel in need of a little inspiration – go ahead, you’ll come away feeling just a bit better about life.
So, looking back, what did we learn from talking to each of these exceptional people?
1. Age is no barrier to following your dream. Several of the people I talked to are in their eighth or ninth decade of life. A time when many people just want to sit back on the sofa and start watching daytime TV, thinking their best days are behind them. Not so with people like Jack Ward or Elizabeth King, who at 83 and 77 respectively had just released their first solo albums and were looking forward to going on the road to promote them. Or Maria Muldaur, in her late seventies, who teamed up with a bunch of young people to record Let’s Get Happy Together, the most upbeat, cheerful album I heard all year. She told me simply, “you have a choice every day – you can be bummed out of you can be happy.” Atagirl, Maria! And I love the positivity in Bryn Haworth’s Boom Baby Boom, which he wrote about getting older: “you’ve got one life and so much left to give…there’s still time for one more dance.”
Jorma Kaukonen, now turned 80, told me he was just about to embark on a new tour with Hot Tuna. He has just released a new album and has been performing regularly online from his Fur Peace Ranch during the pandemic. He told me performing was “just as energizing as it ever was.”
And then there’s Jimmy Carter of the Blind Boys of Alabama, who’s 88 and has just released Blind Faith, a terrific album of Americana/gospel songs – his first solo album – and who told me that he hopes the album “will energize people and change lives.” Now that was impressive – Jimmy’s still wanting to be a blessing to others.
2. Music can be a great vehicle for not only entertaining us, but challenging us. Guy Davis, Eric Bibb, and Leyla McCalla didn’t make protest albums, but they included songs that highlighted injustice and made us think about our response to that. Davis’s God’s Gonna Make Things Over about the Tulsa Massacre and Eric Bibb’s Emmett’s Ghost dealing with the murder of Emmett Till both used historical tragedies to shine a light on the present. And Leyla McCalla’s stark Song for a Dark Girl, about a lynching “way down in Dixie” is as arresting as Strange Fruit. She told me that music isn’t some sterile environment where an artist can simply be apolitical. Musicians want to entertain us; we want to be entertained – but music, the blues in particular, has always been an important way for artists to comment on what is going on around them, and to help us all to see the injustice that many of us, in our comfortable lives, might miss or ignore.
3.Faith is a vital life-force for quite a number of these artists. Jimmy Carter told me “my faith is strong” and “when it gets rough, I pray.” He and Elizabeth King and Elder Jack Ward have had considerable challenges in their lives, but each told me how important their faith in God was for them. Jack Ward came from a life of poverty as a sharecropper and told me “when you weak, God will make you strong; when you lonely, he would never leave you alone.”
Ms. King, who also grew up picking and chopping cotton, told me the incredible story of how God had healed her after a horrific injury from a drunk driver; now she says, her job “is just to encourage people…when you’re going through something, just turn to God.” Maria Muldaur told me she’s being going to her neighbourhood African American church for the last 40 years and is inspired by joyful worship.
Bryn Haworth, slide guitarist par excellence, who’s featured on the albums of a who’s who of top rock artists, as well as having an excellent back catalogue of his own, spends a lot of his time visiting prisons and talked about the “amazing stuff” he’d seen happen through prayer. His vibrant faith shone through our conversation – a faith, which, incidentally, has him on a mission to save the trees in England, about which he has a song on his new album.
4. Blues music is alive and kicking. It may have been around for more than a hundred years now, but artists old and young are breathing new life into the genre all the time. Mark Carpentieri of M.C. Records spoke of his optimism as he looked around at the blues and roots scene and saw people “taking the blues and gospel and making it their own.”
Grainne Duffy, a young Irish guitarist and singer, who’s performed on stages with Keb’ Mo’ and Van Morrison, has recorded an outstanding album, Voodoo Blues, with a set of original songs that both tap deeply into the legacy of the blues and breathe positivity. Joanna Connor, whose terrific 4801 South Indiana Avenue was produced by Joe Bonamassa and is packed with raw, high energy musicianship, is one of today’s great electric guitarists. She told me she was “fleshing out” stories as she played the songs, and making them sound epic in the process. She talked about the joy in the blues, despite the hardship out of which they emerged and the way they speak to the human emotion, And Carolyn Wonderland, the blistering Texas guitar-slinger, just finishing a stint in John Mayall’s band, whose vocals and guitar work on Tempting Fate are positively spine-tingling, talked about the fun and joy in making her music.
5. And the blues is a worldwide phenomenon. Yes, the blues are founded on the experience of African Americans, and are deeply rooted in the souls of people like Guy Davis and Eric Bibb. And Tim Duffy, through his Music Maker Foundation, is working hard to preserve the tradition of unsung Southern musicians and present them to the world – he talked about the “very special people” in the communities he works with and the need to “amplify their voices” and promote “cultural equity.”
But I talked to Paul Cowley, an Englishman living in rural France, playing traditional acoustic blues – which he discovered relatively late in life and was smitten with; and to Mark Harrison, another Englishman, whose story-telling blues reflect deeply on the human condition; to Leyla McCalla, whose family roots are in Haiti; to Grainne Duffy from Ireland; to Bert Deivert, an American who’s lived most of his life in Sweden, and who says “it’s the soul of it, the emotion, which drives me.” Eric Bibb, of course, has also made his home in Sweden for many years.
All these people are doing more than just keeping the blues alive – they are, of course, deeply drawing from the well of music and blues feeling from the past, but as well, lyrically, they are applying the blues to new and current situations, and musically, they are either forging new directions or keeping it fresh by their talent, dedication and musicianship.
There are links to all the interviews below for you to read and enjoy:
What a great year it’s been for blues albums. Whether it’s acoustic blues, blues rock, traditional, modern, gospel or funk, there’s been something for everyone. Some artists – like Eric Bibb, Guy Davis and Corey Harris – have included important social commentary in their music; we’ve had great music from a bunch of…well, let’s say mature musicians, like Dion, Alabama Slim, Elizabeth King and Hans Theessink; and some terrific output from young musicians, like Christone Ingram and Selwyn Birchwood, who are making it clear that the blues are alive and well.
We’ve chosen our top 25 albums – arranged in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them. Enjoy!
Here’s our top 12.
Dear America, Eric Bibb Dear America is a collection of thirteen Eric Bibb originals, all testament to his outstanding song-writing skill, ear for a good tune and top-notch guitar chops, but what makes Dear America such a great album – and an important album – is not just the music but the nuanced social commentary and challenge he presents. But like every Eric Bibb album you listen to, there’s a thread of hope and joy that comes through strongly. Here’s our interview with Eric.
Joanna Connor, 4801 South Indiana Avenue An absolutely top-notch set of blues rock that clearly has a Chicago blues heritage, yet sounds completely fresh and modern. Connor’s killer slide guitar and vocals are augmented by some characteristically fine guitar work by Joe Bonamassa and a tight-knit top-class band. Superbly produced, and packed with raw, high-energy musicianship. Check out our interview with Joanna.
Paul Cowley, Long Time Comin’ Paul Cowley is an outstanding musician, a fine guitarist, with a deep appreciation for the acoustic blues tradition. Long Time Comin‘, has 12 acoustic blues songs, 5 traditional songs from the likes of Charlie Patton, Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell and 7 originals. It’s outstanding, and hugely enjoyable. We talked to Paul about the album here.
Dion and Friends, Stomping Ground Another great blues album from the erstwhile wanderer, Dion. As with his last album, he’s collaborated with a bunch of his friends – probably a list of your favourite artists. They’re mine, anyway – Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Keb’ Mo’, Mark Knopfler, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton…It’s the blues, but it’s positive and upbeat, and it’s an album you’ll return to again and again.
Corey Harris, Insurrection Blues Corey Harris’s 20th album is what acoustic blues is all about. Fourteen traditional blues songs performed with passion, rawness and fine guitar picking. The spirit of the blues breathes in every song. This is a rich feast of acoustic blues, all the more satisfying for presenting the tradition with freshness and originality, and for showing its relevance to current times. Check out our full review here.
Christone Ingram, 662 There’s never a dull moment in the album, with a nice blend of styles and approaches to the songs – to his guitar and singing skill, add song-writing too. Ingram’s singing throughout is outstanding and his guitar solos glorious. At the end you’re left wanting more. If he can keep up the quality shown in this release, Christone Ingram has a stellar career ahead. Highly recommended. Here’s our full review
Catfish Keith, Land of the Sky Catfish Keith’s full range of acoustic guitar pyrotechnics are on display in his 20th album, Land of the Sky – picking, plucking, pinching, bending, sliding, harmonics-ing, on his wide collection of guitars, which include parlours, full-size 6 strings,12-strings, Nationals and a ukulele. It’s a feast of hugely enjoyable guitar fare for any guitar, blues, roots or just music fan. Our full review is here.
Gary Moore, How Blue Can You Get If you buy one blues album this year, this is it. A set of eight songs, some previously unheard and unreleased, from the Moore family archives, will move you, excite you, get you on your feet, and make you regret all the more that Gary Moore is no longer with us. Released on the tenth anniversary of Moore’s passing How Blue Can You Get proves, if there was ever any doubt, that Gary Moore was a master of the blues. Check out our full review here.
Alabama Slim, The Parlor Approaching his 82nd birthday, close to seven feet tall, and typically dressed in an impeccable tailored suit, Alabama Slim has given us a perfect, classic blues album which recalls the boogie of John Lee Hooker. It’s delicious, pared-back, but tasty fare from a man whose soulful and oh-so-cool vocals are served up in a wrap of sweet guitar groove from Little Freddie King, Slim’s cousin. Here’s the link to our full review.
Joanne Shaw Taylor, The Blues Album Taylor’s incredible guitar chops are well in evidence, but it is perhaps her singing that stands out on this album. At turns intensive, gritty, raw and husky, she makes these songs her own, grabbing your attention, and wresting every ounce of emotion out of the music. Joanne Shaw Taylor has made a huge statement with The Blues Album, and take it from me, it’s an album you will want to play repeatedly. Here’s our full review.
Hans Theessink and Big Daddy Wilson, Payday It feels like payday for all of us who get the opportunity to hear this fine album from two blues artists at the top of their game. Hans Theessink and Big Daddy Wilson join voices and blues spirit for sixteen songs of exceptional acoustic blues. It’s joyous stuff, the songs driven by Hans’s sure and characteristic rhythmic finger-picking and the lovely harmonies and melding of baritone and tenor voices. Check out the full review here.
Christina Vane, Nowhere Sounds Lovely Sit up and take notice of Cristina Vane, whose Nowhere Sounds Lovely is a terrific amalgam of blues, bluegrass and country – a thoroughgoing bluesy Americana, you might say. Whatever way you want to describe it, she’s a wonderful talent – a skilful guitar picker and slide player, a fine songwriter and a beautiful singer. And here’s the full review.
And the next baker’s dozen
Joe Bonamassa, Time Clocks It’s heady stuff, with complex arrangements, full orchestrations, bending of genres and a breathless energy from the first song to the last. All the ingredients of his previous work are here – the blues basis, the guitar solos, his soulful vocals, the attention to detail in the production – but this is a bold step forward, a cinematic palette of modern rock guaranteed to both surprise and delight. Our full review is here.
Selwyn Birchwood, Living in a Burning House Fresh modern blues, featuring Birchwood’s bluesy voice, and top-notch guitar and lap steel playing. Thirteen original energetic songs with a blues rock sound, with a jazzy feel at times. Birchwood is quite a talent and this is his best album yet.
Tommy Castro, A Bluesman Came to Town A blues “concept” album from the veteran bluesman, who’s “never made the same album twice.” Tracking the progress of a blues artist with all the ups and downs of the itinerant musician’s life, it is classic stuff, solid, no-nonsense blues from a man whose gritty vocals and searing guitar solos reach right down inside you.
Guy Davis, Be Ready When I Call You Great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. More than just blues musically and most of the songs have a hard-hitting strong social commentary going on. An outstanding release from Davis and M.C. Records. Read our great interview with Guy here.
Chris Gill, Between Midnight and Louise A stripped-down recording, just two microphones, a small amp, no overdubs and a lot of love for the blues. Relax on the back porch as Gill takes his acoustic, resonator and cigar box and performs nine originals and Virgil Brawley songs. It’s finger picking good, good old-fashioned acoustic blues played with considerable depth and passion. Here’s the full review.
Government Mule, Heavy Load Blues Warren Hayes’ vocals and guitar work, some nicely placed organ and horns, and thirteen fine solid blues songs combine in what is a hugely satisfying album. There are covers of songs by Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Junior Wells, Tom Waits and the Animals, as well as originals from Hayes. 78 minutes of great blues, and you get an extra 50 minutes worth if you go for the 2 CD deluxe offering.
Mark Harrison’s sixth album, The Road to Liberty, showcases his adept story-telling and clever lyrics, his knack for composing a catchy tune, and his never-less-than-engaging performance as a singer and guitarist. He’s hard to pigeon-hole, not quite blues, but the blues are never far away. This is a collection of songs that transport you to another place, make you contemplate the world around and, as well as that – most importantly – entertain you. Read our great interview with Mark here.
Colin James, Open Road Over the years, Colin James has racked up 20 studio albums and a sack-full of awards, and yet is relatively unknown. Put that right straight away by listening to this terrific album of blues covers and originals from a very fine singer and guitarist. Consistently good and hugely enjoyable.
Kelly’s Lot, Where and When Kelly Zirbes’s band, which hails from the Los Angeles area has been plying its trade for the last 25 years, mostly as a blues rock outfit. Where and When sees them stripping things back, performing 11 acoustic blues songs with resonator-slide guitar and Zirbes’s gritty voice to the fore. It’s fabulous stuff, six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that evoke the blues of a bygone age and five reworked traditional blues songs, including a terrific version of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passageway.
Elizabeth King, Living in the Last Days Wonderful set of bluesy gospel songs from gospel singer King 50 years after she stopped performing and recording professionally. It’s a funky, bluesy, soul-filled pot of rich gospel fare, an album full of great songs, music that touches you, and Ms. King’s powerful vocal performance. It’s a gift for us all. Check out our interview with this amazing woman.
New Moon Jell Roll Freedom Rockers, Vol 2 Classic old-school recording from a kind of blues super-group, the musicians sitting together in a circle in the studio and playing amongst the microphones. It’s a joyous exploration of the blues, with great heart and soul. A fine tribute to Jim Dickinson and a huge treat of an album for all of us. Full review here.
Elder Jack Ward, Already Made Jack Ward was a successful Stax recording artist, but, remarkably, has never made an album – until now. At a lively 83 years old, he has released a fabulous album of bluesy, soulful gospel songs. The ten song program features the warmly-recorded winning ingredients that are becoming a trademark of Bible and Tire’s patented Sacred Soul sound, from Ward’s spirited vocals to the crack studio band laying down the grooves behind him. We talked to Jack about the album here.
Carolyn Wonderland, Tempting Fate Glorious ten song tribute to her scorching guitar skills and rockin’ vocals. As well as blues, there’s some country, some Tex-Mex, and a whole lot of heart. The guitar work on the album is outstanding – all you’d expect from a Carolyn Wonderland record, but hot though it is, the her vocal performance in this album – the range, the dynamics, the emotion on this album – seems better than ever. And here’s our interview with Carolyn.
Jorma Kaukonen is something of a musical legend. He’s played with Janis Joplin, was a founder member of Jefferson Airplane, one of the biggest rock bands of the late 60s and early 70s, as part of the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and has performed with Hot Tuna off and on over the past 50 years.
Along the way he’s shared a stage with Muddy Waters (who opened for Airplane – “it just didn’t seem right, but there it was. I remember him as the most gracious of human beings”), headlined Woodstock, the first Isle of Wight Festival and the notorious Altamont Festival in Northern California in 1969 (“rock and roll’s all-time worst day”), and been an avid ice speed skater and motorbiker.
In addition, over the past twenty years, he’s re-invented himself as an outstanding acoustic guitar picker, releasing a number of top-notch solo albums, and has established Fur Peace Ranch in south eastern Ohio as a centre for guitar tuition and musical comradeship, drawing in top class guitarists like Larry Campbell, Warren Haynes, Tommy Emmanuel and Eric Bibb to share the instruction.
The rock and roll years took their toll – in his autobiography, Been So Long: My Life and Music, he says, “alcohol, cars, motorcycles, girls, and all that jazz – yeah, I definitely took risks. I can only say that I was lucky to make it through.”
But make it through he has, happily married with a young family, and at…whisper it…at 80 years young, is still performing solo and with Hot Tuna.
Jorma took the time to chat with me from his Fur Peace Ranch, where he was accompanied by his two dogs – “our bigger dog is a boxer-doodle mix, but he looks like an Irish Wolfhound and our other dog’s a Chihuahua.” The occasional bark over the telephone line was matched by the complaints from our own two Lakeland Terriers about the temerity of the postman to come to the door. So, we both took the dog noises in our stride.
He was just about to embark on a major tour with Hot Tuna, which he said “we’re pretty darn excited about,” public appearances having been curtailed by the pandemic. Jorma did, however, do a lot of “Quarantine Concerts” online from his ranch, which were free to view and are still available on YouTube, all fifty or so of them.
The man clearly has a lot of energy – the tour schedule made me tired, just looking at it. Is performing just as energizing as ever?
“Well, first of all,” he told me, “for an 80-year-old, I’m really lucky. I’m really still pretty healthy It’s the first long tour we’ve done in a while, but we did a show here at the Fur Peace Ranch last week. And so far, it’s just as energizing as it ever was – maybe more in some respects, because I appreciate it so much more because we were unable to do it for a while.
“I think that my appreciation of music in general is much more multi-dimensional than it was when I was younger. I spend a lot more time thinking about, not just the hot licks and stuff – I love them, I’m a guitar player, what’s not to love? – but the harmonies and chords and stuff. They’ve started to mean a lot more to me.”
Hot Tuna was a band that emerged out of Jefferson Airplane which was essentially a collaboration between Kaukonen and his long-time friend, Jack Casady. The band typically plays Airplane material and covers of American country and blues artists such as Reverend Gary Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Bo Carter and Blind Blake. There have been various other musicians in the band along the way, but always it has been Jorma and Jack. The band’s fifty year lifespan show a quite an unusual level of longevity. Has that been down to Jorma and Jack’s friendship?
“Absolutely. No question about it. Jack is my oldest friend. He’s a little bit younger than I am but we started playing together in 1958. So we’ve basically been doing it ever since. And we are absolutely still friends.”
I had been reading a recent blog post from Jorma, where he was reflecting on the process of getting older. I found that interesting, because I had been talking to Jimmy Carter from the Blind Boys of Alabama recently, who at 87 has a new album out, his first solo album. [Here’s our interview] He was very excited about it and was telling me about his hopes and dreams for the future. That’s a remarkable thing, actually – continuing to have hopes and dreams for your life as you get older.
And, I put it to Jorma, the same could be said for him, establishing Fur Peace Ranch when he was around 60, with a vision for what a piece of land in rural Ohio could be. Along with his wife Vanessa, they envisaged a place where musicians could come together and surround themselves with music for several days and emerge with a new found inspiration.
“Well, first of all, Jimmy and I are both obviously very lucky because some people, for whatever reason, are unable to keep that kind of hope for the future. But the music still speaks to me with the same power as it did when I was a kid – that’s undiminished. So that’s part of it, but just generally speaking, in a normal world, I’d probably be a great grandfather, but I have a teenage daughter and a son in his twenties. I’m not saying that keeps you young because nothing keeps you young but being young! But it keeps you involved. And it keeps a view of the future closer at hand, as opposed to just being a grumpy old so and so.
“Almost 30 years ago, I lucked into a large piece of property in Southeast Ohio. It’s very rural and we’ve got over a hundred acres here in a county with less than 20,000 people. When I first moved to California in 1962, Paul Kantner, one of the founders of Jefferson Airplane, was one of my early friends there. And he got me involved in teaching and even in an era when I’m not sure what I had to teach anybody, I loved it so much.
“Anyway, fast forward to the eighties, Happy Traum got me doing a couple of videos for his Homespun instructional videos. And I loved that as well. So when we looked at this huge piece of property we said, what are we going to do with this? And Vanessa – God bless her, she had a real life before she married me, and was a civil engineer – said, we could build this, we could do it. And it sounded like a great idea to me which would not be mutually exclusive with my ability to tour. So here at the Ranch, after almost 25 years, we now have close to thirty buildings.
“We have cabins, we’ve got a theatre. We have a little video production studio. We do a radio show for our local national public radio station. And we’ve been doing live classes for all these years. It’s about getting together with a bunch of like-minded spirits….we have lots of different teachers who all do different stuff, but basically we just love the music and geek out about it and play with each other. And our classes tend to run from Friday morning to Monday morning.”
Teaching, Jorma told me, has made him a better player. Is that, I asked him, because it makes him think more carefully about what it is he’s doing on the guitar?
“I think there are a lot of levels to this. My teaching style tends to be anecdotal – I’m not a theorist and I teach pretty much from songs. Looking at the music that I have loved for so long, I get a much more three-dimensional view of it now than I did when I was a kid. And that makes me a better interpreter, a better player. And certainly, it’s made me a better singer – even later in life, in the last decade or so, my singing has got better. I’m a lucky guy, because I’m in good shape, I’ve got good lungs!”
I mentioned to Jorma that I’d learned the old blues song Trouble in Mind from his Homespun instructional video years ago, and he was kind enough to suggest a cool new way to play part of it which he’s recently discovered after Jack Casady had found an old tape of Jorma playing the song from 1960. (I’ve now tried it out, and, yes, it’s pretty cool!). And, guitarists – check out his online instructional videos here.
Notwithstanding the psychedelic rock years with Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen has been a roots musician all his days, ever since hearing a friend play him A.P. Carter’s Worried Man Blues in 1956 as a teenager, after which he rushed home and told his dad he wanted a guitar and lessons. In his autobiography, he says, “Strange to say, I started out as an acoustic player, but I had been sidetracked by rock and roll for many years.” What, I asked him, is it about roots music, blues music, that appeals to him? It’s music that has been around for a hundred years or more, but why does it still appeal to people?
“Well, there are lots of levels to this. First of all, it was just so cool. And in my era, when I was a teenager and I started to play it, so much of the popular music was just so insipidly boring. But here were songs that had lyrics that spoke about real life. Now, it wasn’t real life in terms of me as a middle-class white kid – because I’d never been in prison, I didn’t pick cotton, I hadn’t suffered racial inequities and all this kind of stuff. But the blues lyrics just seemed to show a real side of life that I wasn’t getting from my mom and dad.
“And the music is so permanently hip anyway. Everybody doesn’t have to sound like Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin, but even so, just to have that pure honesty coupled with music that’s still to me after all these years so unbelievably hip.”
One of the artists that has been important for Jorma from he was a teenager is the Reverend Gary Davis, and he continues to play Gary Davis songs both as a solo artist and with Hot Tuna. Rev. Gary Davis, the blind son of dirt-poor sharecroppers in South Carolina, went on to exert a major influence on the folk scene of the 1960s and the early rock scene of the 70s. Bob Dylan called him “one of the wizards of modern music” and for Alan Lomax, the folklorist, he was “one of the great geniuses of American instrumental music.” What makes Gary Davis special for Jorma Kaukonen?
“When I had got turned on to Reverend Davis, that would have probably been in the late winter of 1960. I’d never really heard anything like that before, and if you studied the Reverend’s style, he’s a heavyweight guitar player. He knows a lot of stuff. But his right hand, he only uses his thumb and his first finger. He’s a two-finger picker. As was Ian Buchanan, the guy who was my mentor – he and the Reverend were friends. But it was just immediately apparent to me that it would be easier to go where I think I wanted to go by using three fingers rather than two, because it made it easier to play triplets and stuff like that.
“But all that being said, there was something that was so spiritually invigorating about the Reverend’s music. And this is interesting because, I mean, I’m a Jewish guy from an utterly unobservant Jewish family. But because my dad traveled around [during his career as a State Department official], I’ve been at a lot of Christian schools. So I’m comfortable with denominations and stuff like that. And the Reverend with that fundamentalist Baptist preaching stuff, seemed to made sense to me. Not in a religious way, but in a spiritual way, because I consider the two things are different. Reverend Davis was such a lover of life.
“I mean, think about this guy, born in the eighteen hundreds, going out blind in the American South, this can’t have been a lot of fun for him. But he never complained in his music. Although I didn’t know him in the way that guys like David Bromberg and Stephen Grossman knew him, I did meet him a couple of times, and he was an upbeat guy, and, even with a song like Death Don’t Have No Mercy – not the most cheerful song in the world – I never turn away after a Reverend Davis song depressed. I’m always, like, there’s hope for the future.”
I was intrigued reading Jorma’s biography to see him refer time and time again to “G-d” and saying how he felt God was willing things along the way. In the midst of all the chaos, somehow God was at work. Had I got that right?
“Yes, exactly. I consider myself more of a spiritual person than a religious one. I’m able to look at my life today and I realize in spite of everything, I’ve always been a blind optimist. Maybe even sometimes I shouldn’t have been, but again, like we said, you know, the Reverend’s got that song There’s a Bright Side Somewhere. And I think I always felt that.”
In Been So Long, Kaukonen is very honest about a lot of his personal struggles and the chaos there was at times. But towards the end of the book, he talks about living a good life. I asked him, reflecting on all he’s experienced, the good and the not so good, what makes for a good life?
“That’s a really good question and it’s more than it’s more than material stuff. You know, I think it’s being able to be honestly at peace with yourself. I mean, listen, obviously every day’s not a blissful day. But basically speaking, I’m able to be honest with my daughter, my wife and my son in a way I probably couldn’t have been a number of years ago, and I think I’ve come to know myself pretty well most of the time, and I’m okay with the way things are. To me that’s a good life.”
Jorma has released an album with his long-time friend, John Hurlbut, The River Flows, which grew out of the Quarantine Concerts. It’s a wonderful album of acoustic roots music in two volumes, the first thirteen songs which include classics from Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, Ry Cooder and the Byrds, and the second live versions of a number of the songs. Hurlbut takes the vocals and rhythm guitar and Kaukonen backs it up beautifully with some exquisite solo work. I asked Jorma about his collaboration with John Hurlbut.
“Johnny and I have been friends for probably 40 years and we’ve played together off and on, and he’s my ranch manager. And over the years, from time to time we’ve gotten together and played just ‘cause it’s fun. Well, it became apparent to me even before the pandemic, one of the things that I got to do playing with him, was what I got to do with Jefferson Airplane, which was there was no burden on me to be a front guy, whereas in Hot Tuna I am obviously singing and playing solo. But with Johnny I’m just trying to do my best to fill in the blanks for him.
“But then the pandemic came and shut us down, but we still kept on doing some outdoor lunches and stuff – with social distancing. And all of a sudden it occurred to me, I’m really having a good time playing with my buddy here. And since we have nothing else going on, let’s make a record! So I called up my friend, Justin, who’s our drummer in Hot Tuna, and he came down from Woodstock to be the engineer and the co-producer on the record, and Johnny and I cut all those songs in two days. And we did it all live. We just had such a good time. Just being able to make music with an old friend, with no pressure on me, was what it was about.”
Jorma Kaukonen’s acoustic guitar accompaniment throughout this album is exceptional – it’s everything a guitar accompaniment often isn’t – it’s tasteful, it doesn’t interfere with the singing and it just enhances the songs. Listen to any one of the songs – especially Knocking On Heaven’s Door, and you’ll see what I mean.
“Today I was listening to the Jefferson Airplane’s version of We Can Be Together off the Volunteers album. It’s a long song and there’s all these parts, and I’m thinking, wow! When we produced that song, there was so much thought that went into all these parts, and it worked, and that’s good. But one of the things that I got to do with Johnny, because of the way he and I play together is to just try to add whatever you want to call what it is I, do my musical art or whatever. It’s to be able to surround his voice and his playing without calling too much attention to what I’m doing, because it’s all about the song.
“And he makes it so easy for me to do that. I mean, if you saw him play, he plays with a flat pick and his right hand is the weirdest looking thing you’ve ever seen, but it works for him. And his rhythm is so solid that I don’t need to worry about anything except to try to support the lyrical content of the melody. So it was just really a lot of fun to play along with it.”
The River Flows is a fine album for sure – as are Jorma Kaukonen’s other acoustic albums from the last twenty years (I confess Stars in My Crown is my own favourite). Check them out.
I found Jorma Kaukonen not only generous with his time chatting to me, but remarkably unassuming for someone with his musical history. He’s a man who clearly has found himself, and, along with continuing to press on with his musical journey, he’s found a level of contentment. Maybe a visit to one of his guitar workshops in Fur Peace Ranch is in order…
King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, Daniel de Visé, Grove Press.
I remember reading and appreciating King’s 1996 memoire, Blues All Around Me, written by David Ritz. This, as you might expect, is a much more substantial work, much more detailed, clocking in at over 400 pages.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist de Visé’s biography of American music icon, B.B. King is a masterful piece of work. It’s hugely detailed, yet always engaging – in fact, it’s something of a page turner. He has painstakingly reconstructed King’s life from his memoir, hundreds of B.B. King interviews, discussions with dozens of surviving friends and relatives, bandmates and producers, and input from Sue King Evans, King’s ex-wife, and life-long friend, Walter Riley King. The list of acknowledgements, actually, is quite breath-taking. You can be sure that de Visé has written the definitive account of B.B. King’s life.
de Visé tracks King’s life from the birth of his father, Albert King, in 1907 and his mother, Ella Pully, in 1908 with fascinating early chapters on King growing up in rural Mississippi, through his breakthrough as a musician, the years on the chittlin’ circuit, his discovery by white musicians and fans in the 60s, and then eventually his move into revered status as King of the Blues and recognition by rock stars, presidents, the press and households around the world.
de Visé weaves a number of important threads throughout his narrative, and, as the best of writers do, he never seeks to make any of these a major emphasis or crudely highlight them. He simply tells his story and lets the reader pick up on aspects of King’s life that were important in the make-up of the man.
First, what comes across quite forcibly is King’s utter determination to make it as a musician. After playing the diddly bow – length of wire stretched tight between two nails hammered into a board – as a boy, listening to Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rodgers and Lonnie Johnson on 78-rpm shellac discs in his great-aunt Mima’s cabin, and then singing in a gospel group as a teenager, B.B.’s single-minded focus on learning the guitar, singing and performing is remarkable.
His was the most unpromising of backgrounds – a sharecropper’s son, born into deep poverty, whose family broke up when he was a small boy, whose beloved mother died when he was ten, and who was shunted around between various relatives until he left for Memphis in 1946. Yet somehow he doggedly got himself on to the radio and began getting some gigs, even though, at this stage his guitar playing was not particularly good.
Perhaps it was because of this very unpromising early life that that utter determination to succeed drove him throughout his life. We hear of the huge number of gigs King played year on year, throughout his life, never retiring even when dementia and ill-health set in, and of his remarkable ability to keep going in the midst of marital trouble, financial disasters, the ills of the Jim Crow South, and the changing waves and trends of the music business. His commitment to his art and the blues, and his skill as a guitarist and singer remained constant throughout his life.
Second, what becomes clear is the contribution King made to the blues and to American music in general. As well as leaving a huge back catalogue of music in his scores of albums dating from 1957 to 2011 (all carefully listed at the end of the book), B.B. King’s single note guitar technique was the influence for all subsequent guitar soloing, in the same way that Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos broke new ground for jazz. Eric Clapton hailed him as an “inspiration,” and said that Live at the Regal was “where is really started for me as a young player.” King mentored a young Jimi Hendrix and took both Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughn under his wing. Carlos Santana claimed simply he was a “fan.”
It’s worth quoting de Visé directly here:
“B.B. had indeed transformed the blues. Before him, the genre had embraced acoustic slide guitarists and harmonica virtuosi, saxophonists and big-band singers. After B.B., those silos collapsed. By the late 1970s, the blues were played mostly by men with electric guitars, and all of them inevitably invited comparison to B.B. King.”
King’s influence on the blues, guitar playing and American music in general is not to be doubted, and de Visé brings this out admirably, suggesting he was the rightful heir of Armstrong and Ellington, and a cultural ambassador to the world.
The third strand that stood out for me was that of racism. King grew up in rural Mississippi in poverty with all the injustice of the sharecropping system, the spectre of lynching, sundown towns and all the rest of the iniquitous Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination. His art was confined to Black audiences for decades, as he played the chitlin’ circuit before anyone who was white took notice of his art. Over the years he suffered demeaning traffic stops by racist police; had to sleep on his tour bus because of segregation in hotels; was in a hotel room that was shaken by a bomb blast set off by white supremacists in Birmingham in 1963, and with his band suffered a violent racist attack in Louisiana as late as 1968.
Things did change, though, and King became accepted and adored by white audiences, starting with a triumphant performance and acceptance by the hippies in Bill Graham’s Fillmore in San Francisco in 1967. He travelled the world, was honoured by America’s presidents, won numerous Grammy awards and returned year after year to a “Homecoming” festival held in his honour in his native Indianola.
Finally, de Visé’s King comes across as a genuinely nice man in many ways, and humble. He was fair in his treatment of his band members – provided they could stick the relentless pace of his incessant touring – and made sure they got paid properly. There was scarcely a person who had a bad word to say about him. But de Visé does not shy away from describing the man’s obvious addictions to both gambling and sex. King wasted millions of dollars in a gambling habit that left him seriously in debt from time to time and in trouble with the taxman. He played poker with his band on their bus night after night, keno in Las Vegas and on tour might join his bandmates in betting on the movement of a hotel elevator.
King’s other major addition throughout his life was sex – pornography in later years, but for decades he used his touring as an opportunity to sleep with a large number of women. While de Visé does not go into a great deal of detail, this is a recurrent thread in the narrative and unsavoury snippets about multiple liaisons in a single night are included. Clearly that left King unable to maintain a successful marriage, and you are left wondering about the effect of all this on the women concerned, although de Visé does not deal with this.
In his favour, of course, King accepted at face value the various claims of parenthood of children from various encounters over the years and sought to provide for these children throughout his life. The reality, as de Visé, points out, is it is likely that King was impotent and actually fathered no children.
In addition, it is interesting to note that, although King was at one stage a heavy drinker, he had zero tolerance for his band using drugs.
de Visé’s portrait of B.B. King is generally sympathetic, but the picture emerges of a man, very much of his time, moulded by his early background and the struggles he had to make it into the big time, ambitious but not at all ruthless, and prone to seek comfort from the hardships of the road by indulging his weakness for gambling and sex.
The last section of the book, dealing with King’s demise in later life, is sad, but de Visé is quite sympathetic to the various people who vied for his estate after his death.
King of the Blues is a wholly engaging read and you are left with no doubt as to the impact and lasting legacy of B.B. King on the blues, on guitar playing, on music.
“Mighty and joyous rock-injected blues…luxurious vocals and fine guitar work. Her voice is as muscular as her name is evocative.” – Austin Chronicle
“Nothing can be this raw. Nothing can be this real.” Mike Nesmith
Carolyn Wonderland is a blistering Texas guitar-slinger, multi-instrumentalist and song-writer, with a singing voice replete with full-throated raw emotion that will reach right inside you and give you a darn good shaking. Which you probably need.
She’s been making music since she was a small child, damaging her mother’s prized Martin guitar along the way, and developing a distinctive picking finger style approach to her guitar playing. She’s been compared to other Texas musical titans like Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but really, Carolyn Wonderland is one of a kind, something special in the broad area of blues rock.
Influenced at an early stage by Albert Collins, Jimmy Hendrix and Joe “Guitar” Hughes, she formed her first band when she was 17 and has never stopped singing and making music. She’s won multiple Austin Music Awards and been inducted into the Austin Music Hall Of Fame and has played with artists like Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, James Cotton, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Levon Helm.
Over the past three years, she’s been the lead guitarist in The Blues Breakers, the band of legendary musician and bandleader John Mayall, the first woman guitarist after a who’s who of electric guitar royalty that includes Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor, Peter Green, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout.
She has ten previous albums to her credit, and has now released, with Alligator Records, Tempting Fate, a glorious ten song tribute to her scorching guitar skills and rockin’ vocals. As well as blues, there’s some country, some Tex-Mex, and a whole lot of heart. The album features a number of guests as well as Wonderland’s longtime road band of bassist Bobby Perkins and drummer Kevin Lance, including Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Cindy Cashdollar, Marcia Ball, Shelley King, Jan Flemming, and Red Young. The album was produced by Dave Alvin who also plays guitar on three songs.
Alvin said, “I wanted to work with Carolyn because her guitar playing isn’t imitating anyone. She is especially not imitating the imitators, like so many modern blues or blues/rock guitarists do. She developed her own effective way of playing the blues, plus she always surprises me with her guitar lines and melodic twists and turns. As for Carolyn’s vocals, they are soulful and powerful to the point of being often spine-tingling…I also love that Carolyn has a wonderful, mischievous sense of humor that makes her performances honest and charming and keeps them far away from getting too bogged down in too much serious ‘artiste’ posturing.”
We were delighted to get chatting to Carolyn about the new album. I asked her about moving to Alligator and the making of the record.
“I got really lucky. It all really came about because I’ve been working with John Mayall the last three years. He’s so generous. Not only on stage with everyone, but he’s just a generous individual. Anyway, I saved up enough money and decided I should make a record. And while I was on tour with my band, I ran into my friend, Cindy Cashdollar, in Woodstock and she asked me if you could have anyone do the record, who would it be? And I was like, oh, I’d love to have Dave Alvin do it. So she called him and he said, yes!
“I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. So we all got together last January in Austin and I had my band, Kevin and Bobby, and our friends Shelly King, Marcia Ball and Cindy happened to be in town. And Jimmy Dale Gilmore came by and sang some, and it was great. It was just a hoot. I think you can tell how much fun it was. Like you can hear the joy.
“And then the pandemic hit, of course. But I got a call from Bruce Iglauer at Alligator who asked to hear the record and again I couldn’t believe my luck – really?! And so he put it out and I was so amazed.”
The guitar work on the album is outstanding – all you’d expect from a Carolyn Wonderland record, but Carolyn’s comment was a modest, “I know that I wouldn’t be here, you know, if not for the many trailblazers ahead of me.”
What you notice on Tempting Fate, hot through the guitar work is, is the vocal performance – she’s absolutely at the top of her game on this album – the range, the dynamics, the emotion on this album seems better than ever.
“I think some of that was me just being so comfortable and happy to be home, and so I really got into the record. But also I think some of the credits should be split between Dave Alvin and Stuart Sullivan [Sullivan is a recording engineer, and the founder, owner and engineer of Wire Recording in south central Austin]. Stuart and I have worked together for years and years. He makes me sounds like me instead of me going, oh, what’s that? So I was very happy that he had the time to do it and I really think he’s real good at capturing that kind of stuff. Making the voice sound like the voice.”
The album gets off to a cracking start with the first song, Fragile Peace and Certain War. There seem to be a lot of things in Wonderland’s sights there – desperate people getting evicted from their homes, water that ain’t fit to drink, and inequality between the rich and the poor. “We’re standing on the precipice” she sings. I asked her if that is that how she sees things in the United States currently.
“Yeah, I would think so. But it’s also the way I see things throughout history and in our human existence. Sometimes we tended to not do great things, and it’s hard to understand why. So I think sometimes it’s good to look at ourselves.”
John Mayall’s The Laws Must Change, from 1970 is an interesting inclusion on the album. One of the lines in the song is, ‘Some people are saying you’re wrong, and they’re right. But we’ve got to see both sides.’ And that seems to me to be very apposite in the world at the moment. As an outsider, looking on in America, there’s clearly a lot of division.
So I asked Carolyn if she had hope that things can change. She replied, talking about the need to reject the us and them attitudes that dog us, and if we can do that, then there can be hope for us. “You and I are the same. It has always bothered me when we don’t see each other that way.”
Carolyn told me about performing the song in The John Mayall Band. “When I joined John’s band, it was like, here’s 80 songs, go and learn them and who knows which ones will be pulled out on any night. It’s so fun. It’s perfect. But even with that many songs, he never pulled out The Laws Must Change. And I always loved that song. Well, during the show, John would always let me sing a song or two, so I thought, well, maybe if it’s not too cheeky. I’d like to do one of his songs. So I started doing The Laws Must Change!”
I wanted to know about her experience with the John Mayall Band, three years as his lead guitarist, following in the footsteps of some legendary guitarists. I wondered what was it like to have a sense that she was going where Eric Clapton and Peter Green and Walter Trout and so on, had been before.
“It’s often times best not to think about it because it’s a little scary! John sent me so many CDs to listen to so I could learn the songs. And I gathered that these would be his favorite versions. And there was so much Peter Green. I was in heaven. And I’ve always loved Walter and I’ve always loved Coco, but I had never really gotten to dig into Buddy Witherington’s stuff. His chord choices were sublime. And I actually wrote him a little fan letter, and he was very cool about it.”
During this three-year stint, The John Mayall Band at one stage did fifty shows in sixty days in nineteen countries, which sounds like a hugely demanding schedule, particularly for Mayall who turns 88 this year. I asked Carolyn about this.
“Oh, it’s crazy. But John loved it that way. I remember asking him at one point, like, don’t you want to take a day off and maybe go sightseeing? And I could see his eyes roll at me. Like, no, I’ve seen it, I want to want to play music. And it’s so joyful when he’s playing. Everybody wants to be on stage with John. It’s such a great time. And there’s a reason everybody in that band loves him – because he’s a really, really good guy.”
I wondered, as she looks back on this experience with John and his band, what does she thinks she learned from it?
“Oh, man, I learned so much. I mean, aside from playing more guitar than I’ve ever got to play in my life, I got to watch one of the best band leaders ever. And I’m hoping that I learned how to bring some of that to my own band too. I mean, his generosity, the way that he lets everyone express themselves on stage. And his kindness. I mean, it’s a band, but it’s very much a family, you know? When we’re out on the road it’s a family.”
Turning back to the album, while there are songs with some strong social comment, on a less serious note, there is the delightfully quirky Texas Girl and Her Boots, a great fun-filled, rockin’ blues: “This Texas girl fears no snake in the grass, I got some big bad boots baby.”
“Yeah, I’ve a good collection of all kinds of boots, mostly thrift store finds, but yeah! You get the little insert and it doesn’t matter who else walked in it!”
Texas boots. I have to say, I’m quite proud of my engraved leather, slanted heel cowboy boots which I acquired a few years ago in San Antonio. I don’t think they’re snake-proof, though. Getting back to the song, there is some rollicking piano on this track, courtesy of Marcia Ball.
“I was so happy to have Marcia on that one. And also, that one’s a great example of how having a great producer makes a great song. I had that song written and when I played it, Dave Alvin stopped me. He said ‘It sounds like you really are proud of those boots. Maybe you should kick in the door with them, instead of asking permission!’. I was like, oh! So he got me to take this guitar part we had at the back end of the song and put it at the beginning. And sure enough, I mean, instantly, the song was better.”
I always like to hear a Bob Dylan number on an album, and Tempting Fate gives us It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, a song from Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited. With Jimmy Dale Gilmore in tow, it becomes a real country number, quite different from the original, but brilliantly done. What, I wondered, made her choose this Dylan song and decide to do it in this way?
“Well, it’s a song that I had done in the past with my guitar player, Scotty Daniels, who passed away a few years ago. So whenever I would do it, I would think of him, and with it and Honey Bee, both of those songs, I do them in remembrance of Scotty. But it turns out while we were going through possible songs, Dave said Jimmy Dale used to do it when he was younger. I was like, oh, really? Jimmy Dale said yeah and he came over and we sang it together and it was so amazing. Because that voice is just one of a kind. I’ve had dreams that I could sing with him. Really awesome.”
It’s perhaps fitting that there’s a Dylan song included, because Bob, it seems is a bit of a Carolyn Wonderland fan. Apparently, a few years back whilst having lunch with legendary musician Ray Benson, Bob remarked “Hey, have you heard Carolyn Wonderland? She’s something else.” Dylan went on to meet her and they’ve jammed together on a few occasions. I mentioned this famous fan to her and she replied modestly:
“Oh, I don’t know. He’s called a couple of times. I’ve been super lucky, to get to hang out and play some guitar. But, yeah, it’s always surprising. I never know if, or when, he’ll call. I don’t know if he’ll ever call again. Just in case, I’m keeping my phone number the same!”
We finished up with me asking about her planned live performances.
“We’ve been very careful, but we’ve done a couple of things mostly outdoors and then one indoor festival where everybody was vaccinated and masked indoors. That’s the tricky thing on the road in America – every place, every state, has its own rules, so we want to be safe and healthy. So, we test every week and we’re just pretty much going to live in our little bubble.”
If you’re not able to go see her and her band live, do the next best thing – get your hands on Tempting Fate and enjoy a completely original, talented artist at the top of her game.