Fiona Boyes – A new look at some old blues on “Blues In My Heart”

I hadn’t heard much music lately by the very fine Australian blues singer and guitarist Fiona Boyes, but then I saw that her first solo acoustic album — “Blues In My Heart” — had just been re-released on its 20th anniversary by Reference Recordings.

I’m not sure (which means that I think I read iit online, but couldn’t find it again!), but I believe the 2000 version of this album was not released in the U.S.

No matter. It’s here now in a digitally remastered version, and it’s an excellent outing of acoustic finger-picking blues and old-timey ragtime styles.

Boyes is uniquely talented in her effortless mastery of traditional blues styles, especially considering that, as an Australian, she didn’t have a lot of access to American blues clubs. Thank goodness for the interwebs, radios, or whatever mystical devices that brought the blues to Boyes down under.

The elaborately packaged liner booklet offers a diary of Boyes’ blues thoughts and experiences. This description of how she came to write the gently swinging lament of the title track is worth repeating here, just in case you don’t buy the physical album (you can still read the notes on the Reference Recordings website):

“I used to joke that I wrote this song back when I thought it was cool to have a partner who gave you the blues. The lyrics are a take on the tribulations of personal relationships. There’s ambivalence, resistance and acceptance of how things often work out between lovers. It is my story, but maybe it could be yours too? This is something that I think the Blues does well: simplifying things to an essence that can make a very personal story instantly recognisable and universal. Yes, in more than one way, I had ‘Blues in my Heart’ back then, and still do to this day… although my love life is immeasurably better now!”

There aren’t too many contemporary interpreters of traditional acoustic blues who regularly reflect such excellence. Boyes combines elegant guitar work with vocals that range from silky to sandpaper, always capturing the essence of this great old music. The fact that many of the songs are originals is equally impressive. It’s one thing to master the intricacies of the music, but another level is required to capture the lyrical essence of music from another culture.

Fiona is joined on this album by bandmates Karen (Kaz) Dalla Rosa (harmonica); Gina Woods (piano); and Paula Dowse (drums and percussion).

If you have already heard or absorbed this fine album, you might want to take another look at what Boyes has been up to more recently.

Her 2019 album, “Voodoo In The Shadows,” received four nominations in the 2019 Australian Blues Music Awards, for Blues Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, Band of the Year, and Song of the Year (“Call Their Name”), and a U.S. Blues Foundation Blues Music Award nomination for Traditional Female Blues Artist.

It’s a more electric album, and a more mystical journey into, yes, the voodoo and shadows of the blues.

Here’s the title song, “Blues In My Heart”

Here’s the album track list for”Blues In My Heart”:

1. Blues In My Heart – 3:52
2. Pig Meat – 3:05
3. She Could Play That Thing – 2:51
4. I Let The Blues In – 3:24
5. Have Faith – 4:16
6. Honey You Can Take My Man – 2:37
7. My Say So – 2:20
8. Rowdy Blues – 3:37
9. Mean World – 3:38
10. Angel – 3:27
11. Two Legged Dog – 3:10
12. That Certain Something – 2:51
13. Hokum Rag – 2:14
14. Mercy – 3:53
15. Canned Heat – 3:34
16. Hotel Room – 3:34

“You See Me Laughin’,” a documentary of the Mississippi Hill Country blues

(Note: I see that Fat Possum has asserted a copyright claim on this film, which I had been showing below. I’m sorry it’s no longer available. It looks like it may be available online, if you search for the title.)

Most blues fans have probably heard about, and even heard, the primitive and powerful Mississippi Hill Country blues style. If you haven’t, you’re missing a primeval blues experience.

It’s a rhythmic, hypnotic, drum-and-guitar-heavy style that grew up in the Mississippi Hill Country and almost never left home. Most of its practitioners rarely or never left the areas where they were born and raised. A few were found and recorded by Fat Possum Records.

Some, like R.L. Burnside, recorded and toured and became, if not exactly household names, well-known to blues fans. In fact, Burnside’s 2009 album, “Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down” on Fat Possum, was named the second best blues album of the preceding decade by the old Blues Revue Magazine. (I know that mainly because I, in my previous incarnation as BlueNotes, was one of the blues writers asked to help pick the top 25. Here’s that list, if you’re curious.) But I digress.

Mostly these bluesmen lived their hardscrabble lives in rural towns and played their blues in jukes and on front porches, where they made music for the simplest and best of reasons — for their own pleasure.

T-Model Ford at the 2008 Chicago Blues Festival (Jim White photo)

All of this was brought back to me a while back when, whilst perusing the interwebs for music, I ran across the 2002 documentary on this Hill Country music, “You See Me Laughin’.” The film features artists Asie Payton, Cedell Davis, David Cardwell, Johnny Farmer, Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford.

Davis, who suffered crippling polio, played his guitar with a butter knife as a kind of slide, Ford saying how he “can’t read, can’t write, can’t spell nothin’, but I can play this guitar when I have to.”

Fat Possum co-funder Matthew Johnson hovers around, trying to get gigs and record these men. “I don’t want my guys to die unknown,” he says near the end of the film. If you watch this film, he will have at least partly succeeded.

Cedric Burnside, grandson of R.L. Burnside, at the 2010 Wheeling, W.Va., blues festival. (Jim White photo)

The film was directed by filmmaking newcomer Mandy Stein, who described her work for the website Stay Thirsty:

“My first documentary was titled, You See Me Laughin’ (2002) where I followed the last of the Hill Country Bluesmen.  The idea was sparked in early 1999, from a Mike Rubin article in Spin Magazine about the Bluesmen.  So I went on and called Mississippi where the label (Fat Possum) was based.  I had no education in the field and never attended film school. The funding came from borrowed money from my grandfather, and I just went down there, figured it out and created a documentary.”

It’s an excellent look at the music lives that these men lived, and how and why they made their music. There’s power and beauty in the music, but a poignant undercurrent throughout of struggles to survive, to live. And to create music.

Here’s the movie. Play it through your TV if you can.