Blues music in all of its forms has always been intertwined with the music of the church.
Older blues musicians have often told stories about how, as youngsters, they learned that the blues was “the devil’s music,” and encouraged to engage in more sacred musical forms.
Fortunately, they didn’t always follow that advice, and we have been enjoying various takes on the devil’s music for generations.
Some blues musicians found their calling by combining the sacred and the secular in their music, strapping a blues-styled guitar behind a sanctified message. Artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Son House, Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, and Blind Willie Johnson (a featured artist here) were blues and gospel performers as well as evangelists. The 1920s blues and hokum singer/songwriter Georgia Tom emerged in the early ’30s as the Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey, who almost single-handedly created modern gospel music, and is sometimes referred to as the “father of gospel music.”
In the ’30s and beyond, gospel and jubilee quartets (Blind Boys of Alabama, Blind Boys of Mississippi, Soul Stirrers) carried the same message, while Tharpe gave gospel music an early rock and roll twist with her electric guitar.
All of this is a long-winded introduction to a fine new album by Robert Hill and Joanne Lediger that offers a contemporary look at gospel blues with six covers of traditional songs, one masterful Tom Wait adaptation, and four originals by Hill. He and Lediger have been performing together for the last fifteen years; Hill a slide wizard and Lediger a passionate vocalist. Hill’s daughter Paulina also joins on vocals.
That’s just the right combination for this fascinating selection of powerful songs. The opener is the dramatic call and response of the traditional “John the Revelator,” first recorded in 1930 by Blind Willie Johnson, and in the ’60s by Son House. Lediger’s intense vocals are backed by the visceral fire of Hill’s National Resophonic guitar.
That’s followed by “Run On,” an almost raucous, guitar-driven religious critique with an R&B flavor, then “Soul of a Man,” from another Johnson recording, with a very soulful vocal turn by Hill, backed by Lediger, in a strikingly passionate version.
That’s followed by a terrific bluesy version of Tom Wait’s “Way Down In the Hole,” with Paulina’s vocals leading Hill’s guitar on a wicked journey. Some of you may remember it as the theme from the excellent HBO series “The Wire.” The show highlighted a different version of the song in each of its five seasons, from 2002-2008.
Two Hill originals follow — “Jesus by the Riverside” and “Pay One Way or Another” — both nicely crafted to fit the classic context of the album. “Pay” is an especially tough, rhythmic creation on how “nobody gets out of this world for free,” driven hard by Ed Alstrom on the Hammond B3.
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is another soaring Blind Willie Johnson tune, and “A Devil’s Fool” is another original that shuffles joyously into the blues again, this time using Robert’s vocals and some piano to kick everything along.
There’s still more Johnson coming with “Samson and Delilah,” this time a rocking version with tough Paulina Hill vocals. “Preacher’s Blues” is another Hill original, with foot-stomping rhythm and old-timey feel. “Jesus On The Mainline,” based on the Mississippi Fred McDowell ’50s version, is a fitting closer for this session, as all three vocalists join in a mini-choir version. Once again, Hill’s sublime guitar work lifts this song out of the ordinary and into instant classic status.
And that’s typical of the entire album — it’s a joyous effort to polish up some great traditional gospel blues, add some new ones, and produced a smartly crafted set full of lyrical and musical wisdom. The playing and singing are inspired. Don’t be deterred by the “gospel” label. This is not heavy-handed religious music, but music that highlights the intense historical connection between blues and gospel; between the sacred and the secular, and how they both shine when their worlds collide.
It’s all a devil of a good time.
Here’s a 2019 live version of the track “Soul of a Man”:
Musicians: Joanne Lediger: vocals Paulina Hill: vocals Robert Hill: guitar, vocals, harp, keyboards Steve Gelfand: bass Frank Pagano: drums Ed Alstrom: Hammond B3 on “Pay One Way or Another”
I’ve seen Rory Block perform many times. I’ve listened to her albums even more. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at her talent.
For decades, she’s been a one-woman force in the preservation of traditional county and acoustic blues music. She’s done that with power and authenticity and an obvious passion for the music she performs. Despite her faithfulness to this great American music, her voice and guitar style are unique and instantly recognizable as her own.
She does all of those things on her latest album, “Ain’t Nobody Worried,” but with a twist. This is the third album in her Power Women of the Blues series, and the first two — “A Woman’s Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith” and “Prove It On Me” — were pretty much traditional blues, all expertly done.
This time out, Block pays tribute to more contemporary women of American music, from Mavis Staples to Koko Taylor. Why? As she puts it: “I do these songs because I play the music I love the most.”
All are done with her distinctive acoustic guitar and vocal work. Where she wanted something extra, she recorded additional guitar and percussion herself. And did her own backup vocals.
She opens with a spirited version of the classic Staples Singers gospel-flavored “I’ll Take You There,” then turn sensuously secular with “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the soulful Gladys Knight hit, and then layers her distinctive style onto “My Guy,” the Smokey Robinson opus given wings by Mary Wells.
Then she adds eight more tracks that range from Tracy Chapman’s groundbreaking “Fast Car” to the Etta James masterpiece “I’d Rather Go Blind” to Bonnie Raitt’s glorious “Love Has No Pride” to Koko Taylor’s deeply tough blues, “Cried Like a Baby” to some serious Motown on “Dancing ln The Streets” by Martha and The Vandellas.
Block also includes her own “Lovin’ Whiskey,” the song she says launched her career, plus a cover of “Freight Train,” by the very talented and influential guitarist Elizabeth Cotton.
(You can find the complete track list, with Rory’s comment on how and why she chose each song below the video at the end of the post.)
Those few paragraphs above don’t really do justice to this excellent Rory Block album. You know, “words can’t begin to describe,” and all that. The results are impressively imaginative, highly creative and, best of all, thoroughly enjoyable.
Here’s “Cried Like a Baby”
Track Listing and Comments by Rory Block “I’ll Take You There” — The Staple Singers (featuring Mavis Staples) Not much explanation needed. This is one of the all-time great and powerful crossover gospel songs with an immense rhythm track, graced by the matchless voice of Mavis Staples. Mavis proved that gospel is a force in pop music. “I’ll Take You There” was the first track we recorded and is the first track on this CD. It just felt right.
“Midnight Train To Georgia” — Gladys Knight and The Pips Who can say “Midnight Train to Georgia” wasn’t one of the most soulful songs of its time, and who didn’t try to learn to sing listening to Gladys Knight’s superlative rich vocals? Who didn’t try to learn backup vocals and dance moves from the Pips? This song was a must-do, and the second track we recorded.
“My Guy” — Mary Wells Mary Wells nailed this perfectly crafted song by Smokey Robinson, giving it passion, charm, and a wry sense of humor. I recorded it in the same key as the original, but then was dismayed to find my natural vocal range was deeper, so I thought about slowing the track or re-recording it. In the end,I sang it in a somewhat jazzy head voice and went with it. I could have given it a bit of growl in a deeper key, but maybe it didn’t need growl. After all, it is a spirited and fun song, and I had a great time singing, especially on the outro.
“Fast Car” — Tracy Chapman Remember when this song came on the radio and blew our minds? lt was a trendsetter, with a stereotype busting, cutting edge approach that was almost unheard of at the time. It was, however, (if I can pat myself on the back), an idea I had always cherished -taking an acoustic song and suddenly applying an earth shaking drum track when least expected, taking the song, with its emotionally honest and arresting story, to another level altogether. Tracy was one of the first to really turn this approach into pure gold.
“Cried Like A Baby” — Koko Taylor I met Koko Taylor on the road in Germany. I opened for her and her tighter-than-ever band for several shows on that tour, including a TV show that ended up as a laser disk (remember those)? She dubbed me `’Little Miss Dynamite,” a name I deeply appreciate and cherish. No one could nail the power of a sexy full-out blues wail like Koko. On the outro,I ad lib one of my conversations with her, including her worldly wisdom and advice.
“Love Has No Pride” — Bonnie Raitt Greenwich Village in the `60s was a hotbed of immense musical talent, with the likes of Bob Dylan living just two doors away from The Allan Block sandal shop, Joan Baez performing in local venues, Bonnie Raitt making waves with her heart wrenching blues, and the list goes on and on. My first boyfriend, Stefan Grossman, was friends with many of the pivotal players in the burgeoning scene. One of his good friends was a great songwriter and musician named Eric Kaz, who, together with Libby Titus, wrote “Love Has No Pride.” We always thought it was the best song ever written, performed by Bonnie, the best singer on earth.
“I’d Rather Go Blind” — Etta James This song led the way for the concept of this recording, establishing the theme celebrating great women of song. I just kept saying, “I can’t wait to sing `l’d Rather Go Blind.” This song is one of the most haunting and moving portrayals of heartbreak ever written, sung by the amazingly gutsy blues voice of a woman who meant every word she sang. Etta, we got the tissues out.
“Lovin’ Whiskey” — Rory BIock This is the song I thought no one would care about. This is the song that got me on an airplane. This is the song that launched my career. This is the song I didn’t want to put on the record. This is the song that earned me a gold record and has remained my most popular and requested song for over 3 decades. I have heard repeatedly that it’s because it’s about the hidden struggles of the heart, and knowing we are not alone. More people say that it helped them through the hardest times of their lives than any other I have written. Murphy’s Law, you never know. Oh yes, great guitar player Bud Rizzo played the original heart-wrenching solo. I decided to follow it note for note, for better or worse, on my acoustic version. I also stuck with the original drum pattern that I somehow constructed on one of the first drum machines ever invented. It made no sense in that it wrapped around so the “one” beat was in a different place every verse, but it somehow worked… and you know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
“Dancing ln The Streets” — Martha and The Vandellas Great song, great performance from Martha and her Vandellas, great groove, solid gold, what’s not to love? Had to do this one for the pure joy of it.
“You’ve Got A Friend” — Carole King This song came on the radio in one of the hardest periods of my life. Waking me from a deep sleep in a state of despair, hearing the vulnerable and unpretentious voice of Carole King made me sit up straight in bed and say “Maybe I can do this!” lt was a life changing moment. She was the voice of every woman
“Freight Train” — Elizabeth Cotton This could be the most influential guitar style ever created. Libba Cotton once was Nanny to the Seeger children, until she was overheard sitting in another room singing this haunting tune. I celebrate her, not because this song became gold, but because in the most unassuming way, quietly and without a lot of fanfare, her guitar picking became one of the most influential guitar styles of all times.
What can you say about George “Buddy” Guy that hasn’t been said many times over? Even saying that he has a fine new album isn’t exactly big news. He’s created plenty, if you think 50 is plenty.
The living legend turned 86 this year, and he still sounds great at the peak of his blues powers. (Okay, the album was probably recorded when he was a mere 85 or so.)
An abbreviated list of his accomplishments: The recipient of the 2015 Grammy Lifetime achievement Award, Buddy Guy’s incredible career spans over 50 years with just as many albums released. Career highlights include 8 Grammy Awards, 38 Blues Music Awards, the most any artist has had, a Kennedy Center Honors, NARM Chairman’s Award for Sustained Creative Achievement, Billboard Music Awards’ Century Award for distinguished artistic development, Presidential National Medal of Arts, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, plus, more.
And that doesn’t include his status as a major influence; as one of the last of the great bluesmen still standing.
And also, this is a magnificent album of 16 songs (yes, that’s 16 — finally, someone fills a CD with great new music, thank you very much).
It all kicks off with the rich and powerful sound of “I Let My Guitar Do The Talking,” which probably sums up his entire career. Then the title track continues that thought with the philosophical “Blues Don’t Lie” (“Life is gonna happen, whether you’re ready or not….”). “The World Needs Love” follows, the only track written by Guy alone; it’s a scorcher with a wicked guitar solo and a heartfelt vocal pleading of his case.
The next tracks bring in some of the supporting cast assembled here. “We Go Back” is a haunting reminiscence featuring Mavis Staples; the churning rhythms of “Symptoms of Love” adds Elvis Costello and producer Tom Hambridge (much more on him later) on background vocals, and “Follow the Money” adds James Taylor in a sly critique of dollar daze.
The songs here seem to dig deeper into the blues as they move along. “Well Enough Alone” evokes the mojo hand and a black cat bone smothered in stinging guitar, and “What’s Wrong With That” brings in Bobby Rush for a playful look at their good old days: “I like my bacon crispy, my pancakes cooked up right….”
The music takes a topical turn with the plaintive “Gunsmoke Blues,” featuring Jason Isbell, in an anthem to a litany of shootings (“A million thoughts and prayers won’t bring back anyone….”). Then the mood shifts back to a rocking “House Party” with Wendy Moten joining in the vocals as the band shuffles into a traditional blues groove.
The album closes with a few covers and more tough blues. (“Sweet Thing” is classic B.B. King, “I’ve Got a Feeling” is a bluesy take on the Beatles chestnut, “Backdoor Scratchin’,” “Rabbitt Blood” and “Last Call” add even more down-home feel, until Buddy closes with a deep blue cover of the Slim Harpo classic, “King Bee.”
Put all of that together, and it makes for a truly excellent Buddy Guy outing. The original songs, mostly co-written by the ridiculously talented Tom Hambridge are sharp and incisive, contemporary and timeless, and just plain good blues. (Hambridge also plays some drums. Check the full credits below to get the complete picture.)
When the songs are topical, they’re not oppressive. When they are solid blues, they are the real deal. It’s hard enough to write this kind of music, it’s even harder to make it feel like it’s been dredged from the depths of the blues — and having Guy sing and play guitar doesn’t hurt either.
Sure, there are many, many fine Buddy Guy albums that you can listen to. But this is one of the finest — traditional and contemporary, surrounded by choice Buddy licks.
“The Blues Don’t Lie” is living proof that the blues still don’t lie.
Here’s the leadoff track:
I Let My Guitar Do The Talking
The World Needs Love
We Go Back (featuring Mavis Staples)
Symptoms Of Love (featuring Elvis Costello)
Follow The Money (featuring James Taylor)
Well Enough Alone
What’s Wrong With That (featuring Bobby Rush)
Gunsmoke Blues (featuring Jason Isbell)
House Party (featuring Wendy Moten)
I’ve Got A Feeling
If you’re interested in the complete track credits, with all those crack musicians, down to which guitar Buddy played, here they are:
I LET MY GUITAR DO THE TALKING (4:27) (Tom Hambridge, Buddy Guy) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Mic Shau Music/adm. By BUG Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Signature Blonde Strat, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums Reese Wynans – B3 Michael Rhodes – Bass Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar Max Abrams & Steve Patrick – Horns
BLUES DON’T LIE (3:54) (Tom Hambridge) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP) Buddy Guy – BG Signature Blonde Strat, BG Sunburst Strat, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums, Tambourine, Background Vocals Reese Wynans – B3 Michael Rhodes – Bass Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar Michael Saint-Leon – Low End Guitar Mike Hicks – Background Vocals Max Abrams & Steve Patrick – Horns
THE WORLD NEEDS LOVE (5:30) (Buddy Guy) Published by Mic Shau Music/adm. By BUG Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Blonde Strat, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums Glenn Worf – Bass Kevin McKendree – Piano Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
WE GO BACK (featuring Mavis Staples) (4:40) (Tom Hambridge, Richard Fleming) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Richard Fleming Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Blonde Strat, Vocals Mavis Staples – Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums, Percussion Glenn Worf – Bass Kevin McKendree – Wurlitzer, B3 Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
SYMPTOMS OF LOVE (featuring Elvis Costello) (3:37)
(Tom Hambridge, Richard Fleming) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Richard Fleming Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Blonde Strat, Vocals Elvis Costello – Background Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums, Percussion, Background Vocals Glenn Worf – Bass Kevin McKendree – B3 Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
FOLLOW THE MONEY (featuring James Taylor) (3:42) (Tom Hambridge, Gary Nicholson) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Sony-ATV Cross Keys Publishing/Gary Nicholson Music (ASCAP) Buddy Guy – Martin Acoustic Guitar, Gibson J-200 Acoustic Guitar, Vocals James Taylor – Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums Reese Wynans – Wurlitzer Michael Rhodes – Bass Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
WELL ENOUGH ALONE (4:13) (Tom Hambridge, Richard Fleming) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Richard Fleming Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Signature Blonde Strat, BG Signature Blue Polka Dot Strat, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums, Background Vocals Reese Wynans – B3 Michael Rhodes – Bass Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT? (featuring Bobby Rush) (5:26) (Tom Hambridge, Richard Fleming) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Richard Fleming Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Blonde Strat, BG Signature Blue Polka Dot Strat Bobby Rush – Vocals, Harmonica Tom Hambridge – Drums, Tambourine Reese Wynans – B3 Michael Rhodes – Bass Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
GUNSMOKE BLUES (featuring Jason Isbell) (3:09) (Tom Hambridge, Richard Fleming) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Richard Fleming Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Signature Blonde Strat, BG Signature Blue Polka Dot Strat, Vocals Jason Isbell – Vocals, Electric Guitar Tom Hambridge – Drums Reese Wynans – Piano, Wurlitzer Michael Rhodes – Bass Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
HOUSE PARTY (featuring Wendy Moten) (3:00) (Tom Hambridge, Richard Fleming) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Richard Fleming Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – Guild Starfire, Vocals Wendy Moten – Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums Reese Wynans – B3 Michael Rhodes – Bass Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
SWEET THING (3:00) (BB King, Joe Josea) Published by Universal Music Careers (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Signature Blue Polka Dot Strat, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums Glenn Worf – Bass Kevin McKendree – Piano Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
BACK DOOR SCRATCHIN’ (3:54) (Tom Hambridge, Gary Nicholson) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Sony-ATV Cross Keys Publishing/Gary Nicholson Music (ASCAP) Buddy Guy – BG Blonde Strat, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums Glenn Worf – Bass Kevin McKendree – B3 Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
I’VE GOT A FEELING (4:02) (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) Published by Sony/ATV LLC (ASCAP) Buddy Guy – ’58 Sunburst Strat, Sitar Guitar, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums, Percussion Reese Wynans – Fender Rhodes Michael Rhodes – Bass Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
RABBIT BLOOD (4:43) (Tom Hambridge, Richard Fleming) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Richard Fleming Music (BMI) Buddy Guy – BG Blonde Strat, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums Glenn Worf – Upright Bass Kevin McKendree – Piano Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
LAST CALL (3:33) (Tom Hambridge, Bill Sweeney) Published by Tom Hambridge Tunes (ASCAP), Bill Sweens Music (ASCAP) Buddy Guy – BG Blonde Strat, Vocals Tom Hambridge – Drums Glenn Worf – Upright Bass Kevin McKendree – Piano, B3 Rob McNelley – Electric Guitar
I’M A KING BEE (2:44) (James Moore) Published by Embassy Music Corporation (BMI) Buddy Guy – Martin Acoustic Guitar, Vocals