Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Blue-eyed blues

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By Ted Drozdowski  

Legend has it that the wiry perfector of the style known as country blues sold his soul at a midnight Mississippi crossroads in exchange for his uncanny musical prowess. And when he died terribly at age twenty-nine on poison whiskey, it was Ol' Scratch collecting on his mean debt.

Yet today it seems that Robert Johnson's spirit is still walking the Earth, echoing in the work of a new generation of acoustic performers who are bringing this music birthed in the dust of the Delta cotton fields to a modern audience. At the forefront of this group of musicians are Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Kelly Joe Phelps, Guy Davis, Paul Rishell & Annie Rains and Corey Harris -- who all labor to bring something of themselves to a sound rooted in the distant past.

This isn't the first time country blues has had a renaissance. During the '60s folk boom, guitarist John Fahey, musicologist/businessman Dick Waterman and others traveled the deep South in search of the originators of the music that inspired white artists like Koerner, Ray & Glover and Bob Dylan and Paul Butterfield to play and sing about life in a Mississippi style. They found that some of the greats who had recorded in the 1930s were still alive. So powerful performers like Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and the Son House (who'd been a profound influence on Robert Johnson nearly 40 years earlier) unexpectedly found their careers reinvigorated in their twilight years.

Now all of those pioneers are dead. Only Mississippi-born performers David "Honeyboy" Edwards and Robert "Junior" Lockwood remain of those who learned from Robert Johnson first-hand. And while we are in another resurgence of country blues popularity, this is the first time it's being driven by musicians who weren't raised in the Delta or the hill country below Memphis.

The new country blues heroes are from unlikely places: Denver, Colorado; Washington state; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and New York City. They benefit from associations with well-distributed labels like Alligator, Rykodisc, Tone-Cool and Red House. And they play a worldwide circuit of clubs, colleges and festivals - primed by radio airplay and press the music's originators never dreamed possible until they were embraced by what Otis Redding called "the Love Crowd."

What's the appeal for today's musicians and fans of a music that was fashioned to help erase the pain of slavery and abject poverty?

"For one thing, I think rock 'n' roll for the most part is played out and it's just being propped up by marketing money," offers Corey Harris, a thirty-five year old singer songwriter who's made two albums for the Chicago-based Alligator label. "Artistically, there are many rock 'n' roll artists today who can't play at all. They're there because they turn a profit for their record label. They can be controlled by the label since their careers aren't built on a solid artistic base."

Harris has been playing guitar for twenty years, but his most potent instrument is his graceful, soaring voice. On his albums Between Midnight and Day and Fish Ain't Bitin', his singing transports listeners back to the red-clay dust of the plantations, whether he's wringing every dollop of passion from Son House's "Preaching Blues" or Blind Willie Johnson's spiritual "God Don't Ever Change," or recreating the sounds of the '20s and '30s in his own numbers like "High Fever Blues" or the title tune of "Fish Ain't Bitin'."

The surging dynamics and the elongated syllables in his vocal delivery reverberate with a connection to the blues deepest roots: back to the griots, the storytelling singers of West Africa. Harris grew up in Denver, got his first singing experience in church and cut his teeth as a musician playing rock 'n' roll. But he has also explored African music. Armed with a love of blues and a National steel guitar, Harris moved to Cameroon in 1991 after attending Bates College in Maine. There he fell in love with the joyful poly-rhythmic feel of juju, the swinging and wildly propulsive West African sound first popularized in the U.S. by King Sunny Ade. More so than the classic blues players (with the exception of Blind Blake), Harris lists Ade, Franco, Ebenezer Obey, and Ali Farka Toure as profound guitar influences, as well as New Orleans' Snooks Eaglin, whose uncategorizeable brand of blues picking often mirrors the fluidity of African six-string masters. Harris began playing on the streets of New Orleans after he returned to the States, and in 1994 cut Between Midnight and Day.

Despite his deep appreciation of the music as part of his African-American heritage, Harris explains that his berth in music stores' blues bins is a marketing necessity rather than a personal statement. "Even though I play songs associated with country blues, I see myself more as a songwriter. I don't call myself a bluesman. You won't see me wearing skinny ties and a hat. One of the reasons I like to play slide is that I dug hearing country music growing up, as well as Mexican music, or whatever."

For Guy Davis, too, the blues is a matter of heritage. "I'm here to tell stories about my people, about our history," the forty-four year old New York City-based performer explains. "I don't mean that to sound exclusive. It's just that if I had to say I have a mission, it would be that. Because like the blues, my people are constantly in danger of extinction. If not through outright racism or war, then by neglect or a lack of self-knowledge."

Davis' inquisitive nature has led him to incorporate many styles of blues into his repertoire, from the strummed, driving music of the Piedmont area of Virginia and the Carolinas, to the Delta slidesmanship of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson, to Leadbelly's folksongs and the clipped, percussive attack of old-time jug bands. He's collected folklore the same way. They share time with songs in his concerts and on his albums Stomp Down Rider and Call Down the Thunder.

Davis wanted to play hard as Buddy Guy and Hendrix, until the fascination he'd developed with Leadbelly's storytelling at that same summer camp began driving his music. That led him to investigate the legacy of the country blues.

Kelly Joe Phelps would agree that the country blues is a treasure, but he believes too many musicians treat it like a museum piece. "I don't hear enough people playing it as if their lives depended on it," the thirty-eight year old guitarist from Sumner, Washington contends. "I hear a lot of people copping the same stuff that was done seventy years ago."

"The renaissance is a good thing, because my heroes: Fred McDowell, Skip James, Son House, Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams, and Doc Watson, should be known and understood. But they all sounded vastly different from one another.  What happened to that idea?  Where are the musicians who are working hard enough to understand the tradition, but accept the fact they're living today and this music is no longer limited to small towns in Mississippi? It's a different world, man. We've heard Led Zeppelin, John Coltrane, John Cage, Henry Mancini. We've had George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton. My blues heroes sang straight and honest about what was happening to them personally, culturally and socially."

"What I'm saying is, when you stand in front of a mirror, you don't see Robert Johnson, you see yourself. So when you come to see someone play, you should see that person, too."

Indeed, Phelps is the most innovative of the young old-school blues players. On his album Roll Away the Stone, Phelps snatches up a sound born of the church and the hot breezes of the cotton-patch and brings to it a quiet, personal virtuosity. He wraps his tenor voice around tunes by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, and Furry Lewis, but extends their tradition via his own ballads and spirituals. In the old days, artists like Son House accepted a strong dividing line between the blues -- the Devil's music -- and gospel, the church's.  Phelps gently kicks that barrier to pieces.  His vocals and guitar mesh with the durable gossamer beauty of a spider's web lit by the first rays of a dewy morning.

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based duo of Paul Rishell & Annie Raines are themselves a microcosm of the kind of audience their music is reaching. At fifty-two, Rishell is at the older end of the new country blues demographic. He is a veteran of blues and rock bands who has been playing acoustic-based blues since the '60s, when he encountered Son House and other pioneers. At thirty-four, Raines is among the new generation exploring blues, but her odyssey runs deep. Over the last ten years she's become a young master of harmonica, developing a tone and melodic ear comparable to the great Chicago bluesman Little Walter. Together, they conjure an authentic, virtuoso sound few can match.

"We know acoustic blues is non-mainstream music," says Raines, "so we're in a small pond. But we've noticed some things about our audience: they like music in an intimate setting, and these days there are a lot more teens and young people coming out of the woodwork."

For Rishell, making a career in country blues has been a decades-long struggle. "Sometimes I would realize that I was pursuing a style of music that had its biggest hits nearly a century ago, and think 'I should be committed.'"  But making albums for the Tone Cool label since 1990, and the addition of Raines as creative foil, has yielded an international following and pried open the doors of clubs and festival. At last he's making a living playing the music he loves.

Today's most popular blues artists are, ironically, white males who mix the music with plenty of hard-edged rock. Many of them, certainly the successful young newcomers Kenny Wayne Shepard and Johnny Lang, have barely reached an age at which they can even begin to appreciate the deep cultural and spiritual gumbo that's nourished the music for a century. But fresh interest in the blues may help put the entire genre in perspective for listeners who are just now coming to the music via these artists' inspired performances.

To get to know this music further, the author recommends the following acoustic blues recordings:

* Guy Davis Stomp Down Rider (1991; Red House) and Call Down The Thunder
(1996; Red House). This New York City-based singer/guitarist/harpman exhibits a firm command of various country blues styles on both CDs, but Call Down the Thunder taps the strength Davis developed touring in his first album's wake.

* David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Delta Bluesman (1992: Earwig). The past and present mix in this collection of Edwards' historic 1942 recordings for the Library of Congress and 14 numbers cut between 1977 and 1991.

* Corey Harris, Between Midnight and Day (Alligator; 1995) and Fish Ain't Bitin' (Alligator; 1997). Like Davis, Harris' busier schedule of live dates after his debut resulted in a stronger sophomore release, especially in his guitar playing. But the timbre and lusty phrasing of his vocals is a joy on both.

* Alvin Youngblood Hart, Big Mama's Door (Okeh; 1996). On this promising debut Hart appears to be a newcomer with roots-consciousness and a lot of potential, but uninspired live performances have kept the jury out. Worth watching.

* Keb' Mo', Keb' Mo' (Okeh; 1994). Keb' Mo has more recent electric-band dominated CDs, but here he ably carries the acoustic blues tradition into pop territory.

* Kelly Joe Phelps, Roll Away The Stone (Ryko Disc; 1997) and Lead Me On (Burnside; 1994). Phelp's brilliant album is one of the best, combining country blues with gospel's spirituality and his own free-music sensibilities. It's beautiful and easy listening. Phelps made Lead Me On early in his exploration of the country blues, so the material's more traditional.

* Paul Rishell, Blues On A Holiday (Tone Cool; 1990). Fifteen years ago singer/guitarist Rishell was ahead of the country blues revivalist pack. This album established him as one of the style's best contemporary interpreters and songwriters.

* Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, I Want You To Know (Tone Cool; 1996). Raines down home harmonica enhances Rishell's Mississippi-dust sound, and a handful of electric tracks display this duo's versatility.


* Sounds of the South: A Musical Journey from the Georgia Sea Islands to the
Mississippi Delta, Recorded in the Field By Alan Lomax (Atlantic; 1993). Among the 105 tracks here can be found the roots of virtually all American musical forms, including the work songs and field hollers that are the progenitors of country blues. There are also compelling performances by Fred McDowell and others.

* Leadbelly: The Library of Congress Recordings (three volumes: Midnight Special, Gwine Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In, Let It Shine on Me) (Rounder; 1991). Huddie Ledbetter was a Texas songster, more a musical storyteller than hard-core bluesman. These 1930s recordings by musicologist Alan Lomax capture this revered singer and 12-string guitarist at his peak.

* Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Lemon Jefferson (Milestone; 1992). Texan Jefferson had a haunting voice and an idiosyncratic ear for guitar melodies that helped set the tradition of blues melancholy in classic like 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.' These recordings, from 1926 to '29, were very influential even in his own day.

* Blind Willie McTell, The Early Years (Yazoo; 1990). McTell was a clever songwriter who embraced all the popular contemporary styles of the '20s and '30s and developed a unique 12-string guitar style with poignant slide guitar. He authored 'Statesboro Blues,' later re-popularized by the Allman Brothers Band.

* Charley Patton, Founder of the Delta Blues (Yazoo: 1995). Delta blues songwriting starts with Patton, who chronicled floods, his travels, and the struggles of living in Cottonpatch, Mississippi's plantation era in these recording from 1929 to 1934. He also perfected the open tunings and played in the aggressive lead-and-bass picking style that's come to signify country

* Son House, Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions (Columbia/Legacy; 1992). House was still a commanding presence when he cut these songs at age 63. His rhythmic intensity and stinging slide were profound influences on Robert Johnson. And his 'Death Letter' and 'Preaching Blues' are among the idiom's greatest numbers.

* Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (Columbia; 1990). Some 60 years after his death, this two-CD box went platinum. Contains the legendary player's entire musical legacy -- country blues honed to a razor's edge.

* Muddy Waters, The Complete Plantation Recordings (Chess/MCA: 1993). Before Muddy left the farm in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the father of modern electric blues played in a country style deep as the red clay under his feet. Alan Lomax made these field recordings in 1941 and '42.

* Skip James, Devil Got My Woman (Vanguard; 1989). The leading exponent of the creepy style bred among the weeping willows in Bentonia, Mississippi. James, caught here in 1967, was a virtuoso on guitar and piano whose songs of sex, death and hellfire are the stuff from which blues mythology is coined.

Ted Drozdowski is a freelance journalist and musician based in Boston. His work has appeared widely in such publications as Rolling Stone, Musician, and the Boston Phoenix.