Friday, September 10, 2010

Essential Recordings: Deep Blues (Original Soundtrack)

A lot of the best blues recordings I ever picked up were strictly based on impulse.  Something about it just interested me at the time I saw it, whether it was the cover, the track list, the featured artists, or even a particular song.  Such was the case with Deep Blues.  I was in a fairly new record store (remember when most record stores were "fairly new" instead of "recently closed?") browsing through their blues cassette section, which consisted of a whopping two rows of about twenty-five selections. 

While flipping through one of the rows, I ran across this cassette bearing a couple of familiar names.  First, the cassette title was the same as a book I had just finished reading a few weeks before (and one that was discussed on this blog a few months ago).  Second, and I had to go across the aisle to the CD section to find this out (something I did frequently because of the lack of basic information on cassettes due to space limitations), I saw Robert Palmer, the author of the book, Deep Blues, listed as the producer.  I was familiar with a few of the names on the track listing.  I had picked up a cassette by Booba Barnes a couple of years earlier at Stackhouse Records while visiting the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, so I knew his music.  The other musicians listed were only familiar in name......I hadn't actually heard any of their music before.  I didn't even remember any of these guys being mentioned or written about in the book, Deep Blues, but the fact that they were all from or associated with Mississippi really intrigued me, so I bought it.

Before I left the parking lot, I popped it into my cassette player.  The opening cut was called "Jumper On The Line," and it was by R.L. Burnside.  Now, I'm driving home on the interstate, on a clear, crisp moonlit fall evening, and this track was positively eerie with its droning, rhythmic guitar pulsing through the speakers, then Burnside's high-pitched moan piercing the night...."See my jumper, Lord!  Hangin' out on the line!"  I didn't even know what the song meant at the time, but I was hooked.  I've heard several different versions of this song from Burnside, but I think that this is the absolute best one.  This was my first encounter with Burnside, and with Mississippi Hill Country blues, but definitely not my last with either.  R. L. signed with Fat Possum Records soon after Deep Blues was released and recorded some marvelous albums, my personal favorite being Too Bad Jim, also produced by Palmer.

The next track, "Jr.'s Blues," was by Junior Kimbrough.  Kimbrough had been playing houseparties since before he was ten years old.  More than likely, his sound never varied a whole lot between the time he was ten and when he recorded this track in his early 60's for Deep Blues, but that was okay.  "Jr.'s Blues" sort of falls together at the beginning, with Kimbrough moaning the opening lyric over the shouts of the appreciative crowd......then it's nearly seven minutes of Kimbrough tossing stinging lead guitar in amidst the rumbling bass and drums that maintain that absolutely hypnotic beat.    I can remember listening to this song (and Burnside's opening track) over and over again....rewinding the cassette back to the beginning....trying to figure out what it was that gripped me so much about it.  You've seen the quote above from Albert Collins about simple music being the hardest to play.......folks, this kind of music seems simple, but if it was, everybody would be playing it. It comes from deep within the heart and soul of Junior Kimbrough. That's how it sinks it's teeth into you and why you have to hear more.  Kimbrough may often be imitated, but he will never be duplicated.

I can remember Robert Palmer writing somewhere (maybe in the liner notes of Kimbrough's incredible first album for Fat Possum, which he produced) about getting so caught up in the hypnotic atmosphere of Kimbrough's juke joint and his music that he once woke up out in a pasture about fifty yards from the joint and had no idea how he got there.  That's powerful stuff.  The production on this album made things even better.  With the crystal clear sound, you could actually hear the bottles clanking around in the background along with the appreciative voices in the audience.

Deep Blues also took in some of the more urban Mississippi Delta sounds as well, ranging from Big Jack Johnson and Frank Frost to Booba Barnes...."urban" meaning that they mixed elements of R&B and soul into their blues.  Though it was urban, it was still far from the urban blues of a Jimmy Witherspoon or B. B. King.  Frost's lone track on the disc was marred by some sound problems, but Big Jack Johnson more than made up for it with his three selections. 

At the time Deep Blues was filmed/recorded, Johnson was still driving a truck, delivering heating oil to Delta residents and earning the nickname "The Oil Man," but he had played guitar for years, first backing Frost on some of Frost's classic sides for Sam Phillips' Phillips International label, then teaming up with Frost and Delta drumming legend Sam Carr (son of Robert Nighthawk) to form the Jelly Roll Kings.  Johnson eventually recorded some solo discs for Earwig Records in the late 80's and eventually developed into one of the Delta's biggest names and is one of the best guitarists in the blues right now, mixing the old and the new seamlessly.  Check out this track from the album, a full modernization of the immortal "Catfish Blues," with Terry "Big T" Williams helping out on second guitar.  Highly underrated, Johnson has released several outstanding discs on M.C. Records over the past decade and all of them are worth a listen.

Booba Barnes was at the height of his fame in the early 90's.  A highly flamboyant showman, people came from all over the world to check him out at his Nelson Street stomping grounds in Greenville at his own Playboy Club.  He wore outrageous costumes, played guitar with one hand, his teeth, or his tongue, and literally bounced around the stage, but he was a gifted guitarist and singer and his antics sometimes overshadowed his abilities.  Unfortunately, he made what might be considered a bad career move several years after Deep Blues, when he sold his club and moved to Chicago to try his luck.  He was just another face in the crowd in the Windy City and found it hard to get gigs due to the increased competition.  Shortly after moving, he was diagnosed with cancer and he died in the mid 90's.  He released one album, called The Heartbroken Man, that is recommended listening.  Here's a clip of Barnes, from the Deep Blues documentary (the song is also included on the album), called "Ain't Gonna Worry About Tomorrow."  Lending a hand on guitar is the late Dave Thompson, who got his start with Barnes before going solo in the mid 90's.

Other Mississippi blues artists featured on Deep Blues, included Jessie Mae Hemphill, Jack Owens and Bud Spires, and Lonnie Pitchford.  Pitchford was the youngest musician featured and he was impressive.  He was not only an excellent modern blues player, he also focused a lot on the roots and origins of the music, playing the diddley bow, the one-string guitar mounted on a board or the side of a house that served as many blues guitarists' first guitar.  He also learned, and mastered the music of Robert Johnson, with an assist from Robert Lockwood, Jr., Johnson's stepson.  At the time of Deep Blues, Pitchford didn't even own a guitar, so Palmer and company bought him one and he ripped through two tunes of Robert Johnson's....."Terraplane Blues" and this one, "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day."  He captured the dread and desperation of Johnson's original perfectly.  As Palmer stated in the Deep Blues liner notes, it was "as if the hounds of Hell were indeed snapping at his heels."

Pitchford was able to make one recording before his death in 1998, at the age of 43. from AIDS.  The disc was called All Around Man and featured him on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, diddley bow, harmonica, and double bass.  His death was a huge loss, because he was one of the few young bluesmen continuing in the Mississippi Delta Blues tradition at the time.  Though others have emerged since then, it would have been interesting to see how his career would have progressed.

Deep Blues is an album I have played over and over again.  Unfortunately, it will be much harder for you to do the same.  That's because for some unfathomable reason, the disc has been OUT OF PRINT since the mid 90's.  There are lots of things in life that I don't and never will understand, but this one takes the cake.  This is a perfect summary of the Mississippi blues scene of the late 80's and early 90's, with some performers who would later find some measure of success as all of them (except for Owens and Spires) released wonderful, critically acclaimed recordings in the 90's, and it can only be found on eBay or from one of Amazon's independent sellers, usually, but not always for a high price.  I looked for the CD for a couple of years before finally finding it on eBay for.....well, never mind what I paid for was worth it.  Today, it seems to be a little easier to find and less expensive.  However you do find it, you should definitely purchase it if you're able, because it is essential listening for blues fans that want to hear the real thing. 

Sometime in the future, we'll complete the Deep Blues trifecta and discuss the actual documentary.

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