Roadhouse Album Review: “Stripped Down in Memphis” is classic blues from Big Jack Johnson

Big Jack Johnson — “Stripped Down In Memphis” — M.C. Records

If you’re a blues fan, every once in a while, some older music comes along that reminds you of just how good traditional blues can be.

This thoroughly enjoyable album, released in May (11 years after Johnson’s death), does just that.

Johnson was a big-voiced singer who played guitar and mandolin, wrote some of his own songs, and was generally an impressive force in the traditional blues world that seems to be rapidly fading.

The tracks on this album are taken from outtakes on two earlier releases — 1998’s “Lickin’ Gravy,” with harp-player Wild Child Butler, and “The Memphis Barbecue Sessions,” recorded in 2000 with Kim Wilson on harp and released in 2002. It won a W.C. Handy Award (now the Blues Music Awards) for Acoustic Album of the Year.

Mark Carpentieri president of M.C. Records and producer of the album says:

“I was so happy to discover these recordings. You get to see all of Big Jack in these recordings, his amazing playing, his humor, and can get as deep down as any bluesman. Wild Child Butler was truly underrated during his time and these recordings prove that. As for Kim Wilson, he was able to create the tone and dynamics without the use of amplification and that’s why he’s regarded as a master of the instrument.”

This is one of those albums that offers echoes of blues past, but it isn’t just dry history — it’s a testament to some traditional blues by a few players who have helped define the music. And it’s pretty much all acoustic, adding to its flavor.

The album kicks off with a fine cover of the Jimmy Reed chestnut, “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” as Wilson’s harp floats around Johnson’s guitar to introduce his deep, rich vocals. The interplay of music and vocals here is a treat, and foreshadows the excellence of the remaining eight tracks.

“Run Blues Run” introduces Butler’s subtly insistent harp on a Johnson original, again leaving the focus on his sturdy vocals. Wilson then shines on a lucid instrumental, “The Hucklebuck,” followed by “Aching All Over,” with a little intro chat between Johnson and Butler before a gentle harp and guitar opening leading into another tough vocal cut that gives Butler a few verses. Another instrumental gives Wilson a workout on the closer, “The Hully Gully Twist.” The album alternates between the sides with Wilson and Butler (check the track list below), each with its own flavor, but all musically compelling.

There are more, of course, all opening a similar vein of smoothly flowing acoustic blues. If you enjoy this traditional approach to the blues, you’ll love this gem of an album that sounds incredibly fresh and honest.

And if you’re any kind of blues fan, you owe it to yourself to sample this classic music.

Big Jack Johnson recorded live at the Curry Ranch in Venice, Fla., in summer of 1999:

01 – Baby What You Want Me To Do (feat. Kim Wilson)
02 – Run Blues Run (feat. Wild Child Butler)
03 – The Hucklebuck (feat. Kim Wilson)
04 – Aching All Over (feat. Wild Child Butler)
05 – Part Time Love (feat. Kim Wilson)
06 – Alcohol (feat. Kim Wilson)
07 – See Me Coming (feat. Wild Child Butler)
08 – Going To Norway (feat. Wild Child Butler)
09 – The Hully Gully Twist (feat. Kim Wilson)

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