Roadhouse album review: Cedric Burnside adds personal “I Be Trying” chapter to hill country blues story

Cedric Burnside comes from a family filled with the story of North Mississippi hill country blues. With his latest album “I Be Trying” (June 25 Single Lock Records), Burnside takes that musical story, that history, and nudges it a just little out of the deep dark hollows of its past with some contemporary sensibilities.

But there’s not so much nudging that the music loses its historical power and significance.

The Mississippi hill country music is a powerful branch of the blues tree growing outside the Delta that features strong rhythmic and percussive content with polyrhythmic drumming, and heavy, almost monotonous, guitar work. It can easily conjure a hypnotic, trance-like effect.

Burnside’s grandfather, R.L. Burnside, was one of the forefathers of hill country music, which he reportedly absorbed from a neighbor, another hill country ancestor, Mississippi Fred McDowell.

His father, Calvin Jackson, was a drummer and also an innovative player in the hill country tradition.

Put all of that musical history into Cedric Burnside’s head and musical soul, tease it out with his newfound guitar-based songwriting skills, and you have a more autobiographical and introspective take on hill country blues in “I Be Trying.”

Plaintive vocals and stark guitar on “The World Can Be So Cold” serve as an introduction to the thoughtful lyrics and production throughout. The spare hill country style adds notes of pain and pleasure, a complement to the haunting lyrical content of Burnside’s very personal journey.

The album includes eleven of those personally crafted songs, plus two covers — R.L. Burnside’s “Just Like a Bird Without a Feather,”  Junior Kimbrough’s “Hands Off That Girl.” 

On “I Be Trying,” a deeply thoughtful look inward, Burnside expands the family’s musical tree in a lovely duet with his daughter, Portrika .

Burnside has been changing the way he creates his music. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, he said: “I really love to be myself. And the reason I say that is because all the times before “Benton County Relic” (in 2018) I always collaborated with other musicians. Before I got really focused on guitar, I wrote my music from the drums, or I just had it in my head, so I’d always have to show another guitar player what I had in my head. Now I play what I have in my head. … A lot of stuff in my head can be really unorthodox, off the beaten path,” he said.

“I am one of R.L. Burnside’s grandsons that will play this music until I leave this world,” he said in that interview. “I feel that I am hill-country blues.”

This is an excellent album. You can feel the strength of the emotional energy that Burnside has obviously invested. He definitely is the hill country blues.

Some extra information:

  • Cedric Burnside recently received a 2021 National Heritage Fellowship
  • The album was recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis and produced by Boo Mitchell, the son of Memphis producer and Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell (noted for his work with Al Green). Burnside played guitar and shared percussion with Reed Watson (owner of Single Lock Records). North Mississippi Allstars’ Luther Dickinson and Alabama Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell also contribute.
  • Just for fun: A photo I took of Burnside at the Wheeling, W.Va., blues festival in 2010.

A video of the song “Step In”:

A video of “Pretty Flowers”:

Track list:

The World Can Be So Cold
Step In
I Be Trying
You Really Love Me
Love Is The Key
Keep On Pushing
Gotta Look Out
Pretty Flowers
What Makes Me Think
Bird Without A Feather
Hands Off That Girl
Get Down
Love You Forever

Roadhouse album review: Paul Cowley’s “Long Time Comin'” is masterful country blues

I’m a big fan of old acoustic country blues. So when an email came into the Roadhouse recently asking if I was interested in a new album of exactly that, I couldn’t turn it down. I’m glad I didn’t.

The offer came from Paul Cowley, an Englishman living in France who just happens to have an uncanny talent for writing and performing one of the most basic and beautiful of all blues styles. Add to that a sense of traditional folk music, throw in some Americana, and you have his unique approach.

So I’ve been listening with great pleasure to the album, his sixth, titled “Long Time Comin.'” And then you learn that he didn’t really have much of a musical life until he was in his early 40s, when he was given an old Yamaha steel string guitar,

Since then, he has spent about 20 years since perfecting his unusual craft, and it makes his music an impressive accomplishment.

It’s even more impressive when you hear how he has created his own songs. It’s one thing to learn to play the music of others (and do it this well), but it’s a completely different level to be able to write the lyrics and music in the same spirit. Cowley makes it all sound easy.

That isn’t to say his music sounds old-fashioned or out of date. There’s a lyrical sophistication here, which, when coupled with his elegant guitar work, weaves a tapestry of highly personal, contemporary acoustic blues.

This new album is just Cowley on guitar (plus some percussion), six finely crafted originals and five great old tunes — Blind Boy Fuller (‘Lost Lover Blues”), Charlie Patton “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues”), Mississippi John Hurt (“Louis Collins”), Ray Charles (“Confession Blues”) and Blind Willie McTell (“Love Changin’ Blues”)

As he sings on the title track, “I got my mojo, I found my voice, I’m singin’ the blues….”

And it certainly sounds as though he has. As he told Gary Burnett of the blog Down at the Crossroads, “I’m most pleased this time, because this time in the recording process I found a new level of certainty. So yeah, long time coming, I do feel I’ve got my mojo and my voice and I’m happy!”


Cowley tours in France, Belgium and the United Kingdom. I haven’t seen any references to U.S. appearances. Maybe someone can coax him over. And maybe someone should look into marketing his music here. We’d all benefit.

If you have a hard time finding his music on CD or streaming, do a quick YouTube search. You can buy his CDs on his web site.

Here’s an interview from Earlyblues.com, from about 2015.

Here’s a review/interview from Down at the Crossroads.


Video of “Long Time Comin'”:

Video of “Don’t Need Too Much”:

The track list / back CD cover

Ladyva is a finely tuned Swiss boogie woogie piano pounder

Ladyva’s most recent album, from 2017.

I’m a big fan of piano blues, boogie woogie, and just about anything that happens on a keyboard. With that in mind, a friend (Paul, you know who you are!) recently sent me a link to a video of Ladyva, or Vanessa Sabrina Gnaegi, and I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of her.

In my defense, she was born in Switzerland, and has performed mostly in Europe, and usually under the name Ladyva. Sometimes Vanessa G. But still. I guess I just don’t get around much anymore.

She plays rollicking boogie woogie piano, both solo and in a combo. She sometimes sings. She always seems to be having a great time.

Her last album “8 to the Bar,” was released in 2017, and she released a video single in May called “Ladyva’s Stomp” (watch it blelow).

Her bio will tell you that she started to play piano when she was 14, “inspired by the music of the great masters of boogie woogie.” I’d love to know which ones, and how she learned, without the benefit honky-tonk saloons or smoke-crusted blues bars. Or maybe, like many American blues artists, she just heard the music and loved it enough to learn it.

So I’m hoping you’ll check the videos below, give her albums a listen where you can find them, and maybe enjoy her music as much as I do.

Here’s her latest video:

She sings:

Here’s a concert video, with drums and a second keyboard:

Alligator Records celebrates its 50th anniversary with blues gold from the vaults

It’s been a half-century since Bruce Iglauer scraped together $2500 and changed the course of blues music in America.

Bruce Iglauer with his (and Alligator’s) first recording artist, Hound Dog Taylor. (Nicole Fanelli photo)

But it seems like only yesterday that a young, hippily hirsute Iglauer joined Chicago’s Delmark Records, then left to produce “Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers,” the 1971 debut album of Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor.

That album became Iglauer’s Alligator Records, and what has since become arguably the world’s premier blues label. And also introduced the label’s motto: “Genuine Houserockin’ Music.”

At least that’s how it feels to me. I imagine Bruce has passed those 50 blues-filled years somewhat differently than I have. Shoot, I’m still listening to the 30th anniversary set.

To celebrate this milestone, Alligator is releasing a 3-CD set (58 songs) or 2-LP set (24 songs) June 18, titled “50 years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music.” That’s a lot of music, especially on the CD side, plus a 40-page booklet!

It takes a lot of music to even begin to outline the blues (and blues history) that Alligator has given us. The label’s catalog of more than 300 albums is an audio time capsule of Chicago blues — and other styles like Piedmont blues and jump blues — that should help preserve the music for future fans.

The CD set kicks off with Taylor’s original and joyously raw “Give Me Back My Wig” from that prescient first album that became Taylor’s signature song.

It wraps up, 58 songs later, with “The Chicago Way,” by a “young” Toronzo Cannon, who at 53, should certainly be part of Alligator’s next 50 years.

In between is blues and rootsy music from past and present greats, including Hound Dog Taylor, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, J.J. Grey & Mofro, Koko Taylor, Johnny Winter, Tommy Castro, Marcia Ball, Albert Collins, Luther Allison, James Cotton, Toronzo Cannon and a cast of not quite thousands more. Plus, all of it remastered for our modern, more digitally sensitive ears.

Bruce Iglauer with Albert Collins. (Alligator Records photo)

There’s not really any “new” music here to write about. It should be more than enough of a recommendation to say that this music simply samples some of the best of 50 years of Alligator. That’s sort of like taking the cream off the top and finding even more cream underneath.

But it’s great to look back and listen to great tracks from Fenton Robinson (“Somebody Lend Me A Dime”), Son Seals (“Telephone Angel”), Luther Allison (“Soul Fixin; Man”) and the Holmes Brothers (“Run Myself Out Of Town”). They should send you deep into your Alligator blues library for more.

I know there’s a picture of an alligator in the label’s logo. And now I know why. I’d never heard the story before, but Iglauer talked about it an interview with the Chicago Sun Times:

“Alligator was my nickname,” Iglauer said, “and it comes from this funny habit I have of listening to music and unconsciously, not knowing I’m doing it, playing drum parts by clicking my teeth together. I’ve got this weird last name — Iglauer — which nobody can spell or pronounce. And then beyond that, alligators come from the South; blues, the music I love, is all Southern-rooted.”

Thanks to that music that he loves, Iglauer’s passion is our gain.

Congratulations, and don’t stop now. You’re just getting warmed up.

More about Alligator:

There’s a long interview with Iglauer in Blues Music Magazine, a short TV video interview, and what I hope is the complete list or albums released by Alligator.

Even more houserockin’ music:

Alligator will add to its 50th throwdown with a vinyl reissue of “Natural Boogie,” the raucous second LP from Taylor and The HouseRockers. Released in 1974 as the fourth title in Alligator’s catalog, this is the first vinyl pressing of “Natural Boogie” in more than 30 years. Iglauer produced the original, as he has done with many of the label’s albums, and supervised its remastering.

One final look:

Roadhouse album review: “Where and When” is passionate acoustic blues from Kelly’s Lot

Kelly Zirbes, or Kelly Z as she is sometimes known, has been performing her unique blend of folk, Americana and roots music since 1994, with a band (Kelly’s Lot) that can be two people, or as many as eight. She has 15 albums to her credit, but her newest release, “There and Then” (Self-release, June 11), is the first to focus entirely on the blues.

It’s an acoustic effort — just my luck to write about two excellent acoustic albums in a row, following Donna Herula’s sparkling “Bang at the Door” — with six originals written by Kelly and rhythm guitarist Perry Robertson that effortlessly capture the essence of their blues ancestors. Five other songs are taken from the considerable works of those ancestors, and given exemplary treatment.

There are three critical interlocking parts to this album — the lyrical content of all the songs, originals and covers; the whipsmart band (the Lot) of Doug Pettibone on sinuous lead guitar, David Grover on bass and Robertson; and blues-baked vocals by Zirbes.

From the opening track’s liquid guitar notes of the original what doesn’t kill you makes you “Stronger,” Kelly’s Lot sets the tone for what’s to come — an album filled with the musical strength and passion of the blues.

The rest of the album alternates between their creative originals and their selection of songs from the great blues talents of Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Cora “Lovie” Austin and Ma Rainey.

Here are the album notes on how these songs came to be written or selected (consider this a public service, since many of you are streaming your music and never get to see all the work that went into the CD or vinyl packaging. It certainly has nothing to do with me looking for easy content. And I’ve added a few notes of my own in italics.)

1) Stronger – Kelly and Perry were inspired to write this song by everything happening in the world. So many are feeling down, depressed, and trapped. We wanted to remind them that maybe these challenges will make us all stronger. A hopeful song to help us come out of a tough situation. (The best blues can be very hopeful, despite their reputation to the contrary. This is a beautiful example.)

2) Somebody In My Home – Kelly chose this song from Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) for its slow-moving groove and message about infidelity and who’s to blame. We all want love in a relationship but without it we may stray. Howlin’ Wolf writes the lyrics as the person who didn’t love their partner enough, which created a path for his lover to welcome someone else into his home.

3) Heaven – Kelly wrote the lyrics to this song after hearing Perry fiddling around on the guitar. Took them about 15 minutes from fiddling to finishing the song. They like to think of this song as a spiritual that doesn’t want to surrender. The truth is we don’t want to miss out on things when it is our time to leave this earth. (There’s a stirring call and response here with the band.)

4) Jealous Hearted Love – Cora “Lovie” Austin wrote this, and Ma Rainey made it known. It’s one of Kelly’s favorite Ma Rainey tunes and Lovie’s lyrics about jealousy make for some smiles instead of the ‘pit in your stomach’ jabs you get when you feel it. (Sample lyric that encourages smiling: “Got a range in my kitchen, cooks nice and brown, All I need is my man, to turn my damper down.”)

5) Lost – Perry challenged Kelly with a few guitar riffs to sing slower than she was used to and these words just came out. Depression is universal and those who feel it also know what it’s like to be lost. (“Lost on a lonely road…” is how it begins.)

6) Nature – Another great twist by Howlin’ Wolf. His lyrics explain how it is natural for a man to be lookin’ around or even being unfaithful. The twist is singing it as a woman who also has that choice. The upbeat vibe makes for a little fun.

7) Where And When – This song was written for a project Kelly did about grief. But it was also inspired by the idea that we don’t spend enough time with each other. (The shuffling blues melody is perfect counterpoint to the message.)

8) Stones In My Passway – Kelly knew she had to do this song by Robert Johnson because everyone can find a message in these lyrics. We all have stuff that gets in our way including those who love us and promise to respect us. You can also find a darker message too if you look for it, but it will come from your own experience because these lyrics let you do that! (One of Johnson’s best, I think. A universal message.)

9) That Fool – Kelly and Perry wrote this to express the deep sorrow of loving someone who doesn’t love you back and the quest to find a way to stop doing it. (The eternal quest.)

10) Black Eye Blues – The hard part about covering this song is Kelly’s mother lived the same experience as ‘Miss Nancy Ann’. Domestic violence is too common of a thread in our world, but these lyrics and upbeat music give some hope in finding strength and hopefully making the decision to leave. (Also a Ma Rainey song. An interesting sidelight or two: The original recording featured the prolific and influential Tampa Red on guitar and Georgia Tom Dorsey on piano. Dorsey later changed his tune a little, and became known, with some accuracy, as the father of gospel music.)

11) Ship – The phrase, “My ship is about to come in” morphed into this song about waiting for your ship when all along it is waiting for you to get on board. (Just the right thought to conclude this excellent album.)

Kelly’s Lot has been around for more than a quarter-century, which is a tribute to both the quality of the songwriting and excellent musical production. This album, for example, is rich with interplay between two talented guitarists (and a bass, of course!), all layered warmly around thoughtful lyrics and expressive vocals.

Listen to it soon.


Here’s a video of “Heaven”:

Roadhouse album review: Donna Herula creates an acoustic gem with “Bang at the Door”

I have to confess that prior to a few weeks ago, I had never heard the vibrant, rootsy acoustic music of Chicago singer/songwriter Donna Herula. My loss, of course.

She released a self-titled debut album of her finger-picking styles in 2009, and a follow-up in 2011 titled “The Moon Is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk.” Since then, she has performed regularly in Chicago and worldwide, but her new album, “Bang at the Door,” (self-release, May 21) is her first studio effort in ten years.

The release of this sparkling album is a double treat: hearing her for the first time, plus enjoying the dynamic range of her songwriting and finger-picking skills.

In the space of eleven finely crafted originals and three unique covers, Herula displays a fluid range, moving from irresistibly jaunty rock (“Bang at the Door”) through folk music reminiscent of the ’60s (“Promise Me”) to straight-ahead blues (“Can’t Wait to See My Baby“).

Herula and her bandmates create a combination of lyrical sensibility and musical authenticity that makes you feel that this music has leapt right from a time out of mind onto the digital stage.

“Not Lookin” Back” is almost a ’50s jazz combo standard. “Got No Way Home” features rollicking piano, harp and liquid guitar that offer tasty blues, “Movin’ Back Home” dips into a lighthearted old-timey ragtime, “Got What I Deserve,” is a countryish ode to what appears to be unexpected motherhood, “Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen” is one of those delightful little slightly salacious double-entendre blues things, “Something’s Wrong With My Baby” is a bittersweet bluesy ballad.

The three covers are excellent versions of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die,” Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson,” and Blind Willie Johnson’s magnificent “The Soul of a Man.”

Pay close attention to Herula’s guitar work throughout. No matter what the style — Delta, fingerpicking, slide — she brings an effortless authenticity to the music. Her vocals follow suit, and the combination makes the music go down easy. She deserves a much wider audience.

Special guests on this session include Anne Harris (violin), Daryl Davis (piano), Doug Hammer (piano), Bill Newton (harmonica), Tony Nardiello (singer/guitarist), and backup-singers Katherine Davis and Rebecca Toon.  The CD was produced by Jon Shain and recorded by FJ Ventre (also the upright bass player) at Good Luck Studio in Chapel Hill, NC.

If you want to hear how Herula sounds mainly on her own, working entirely in blues (and it’s very good), check out her album “The Moon Is Rising: Songs of Robert Nighthawk” for some enjoyable time travel through the visceral music of Robert Lee McCollum, or Robert Nighthawk.

And there’s an excellent interview with her on the Acoustic, Folk and Country Blues website by Frank Matheis, where she talks about how she came to be who and where she is.

Here are videos of two songs on “Bang at the Door”:

Track list (with descriptions from the album)

  1. Bang at the Door:  Pop/rock blues about a late-night visitor
  2. Pass the Biscuits:  New Orleans style about relationship between musician and DJ host
  3. Can’t Wait to See My Baby: Chicago-Blues style duet about the excitement of love
  4. Promise Me: Folk song about the loss felt when a loved one is in prison (with slide guitar and mandolin)
  5. Not Lookin’ Back: Jazz combo about leaving a partner with a drug addiction
  6. I Got No Way Home: Chicago blues jam with piano, harmonica, guitar and three-part harmonies
  7. Black Ice: Brooding slide guitar instrumental
  8. Fixin’ to Die: Traditional Delta Blues with slide guitar solos (cover)
  9. Jackson: Ballad with acoustic guitar and slide with male lead and harmonies (cover)
  10. Movin’ Back Home: Comical ragtime song with call and response
  11. Got What I Deserve:  A woman’s view on the tribulations of motherhood (with Anne Harris on fiddle)
  12. Who’s Been Cookin’ in My Kitchen:  Double entendre solo, acoustic blues
  13. Something’s Wrong With My Baby:  Heartfelt vocals, desperation with loving a partner with depression
  14. The Soul of a Man:  Blues gospel with harmonies (cover)

All songs written by Donna Herula except track 8 (Booker T. Washington “Bukka” White), 9 (Lucinda Williams), 11 (Jon Shain & Donna Herula), and 14 (Blind Willie Johnson).