Various Artists - M for Mississippi soundtrack album (2008)

Various Artists - M for Mississippi soundtrack album (2008)
By Reverend Keith A. Gordon

Sometime in late-2006, Roger Stolle of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art in Clarksdale, Mississippi and Jeff Konkel of Broke & Hungry Records came up with the idea to record a compilation CD to capture the current state of today's thriving Mississippi blues community. With the help of filmmaker Damien Blaylock, the project expanded into a documentary film and accompanying "soundtrack" CD, both titled M for Mississippi.

Enlisting the help of producer Kari Jones of Mudpuppy Records and guitarist/engineer Bill Abel to record it all with his mobile Big Toe Porta-Studio (his equipment stuffed in the back of a Volvo station-wagon), the five blues fans set out on a journey across Mississippi's famed landscape to document the essence of today's Delta blues. The resulting CD is a revelation, an excellent collection of blues music that features both relatively familiar bluesmen like James "T-Model" Ford and Robert "Bilbo" Walker as well as talented but lesser-known artists like R.L. Boyce and Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson.
M for Mississippi

Big George Brock & the Houserockers' open the disc with the title track, the rollicking "M for Mississippi." Above a shuffling rhythm and fleet-footed cymbal-bashing, Brock's slurred-and-sassy vocals are complimented by the soulful notes flying wildly from his harmonica. It's a perfect start for both the documentary film and this accompanying CD, an introduction, of sorts, to the blues treasures that lie within.

Fronting a simple band of guitar-bass-drums, big-voiced singer Wesley "Junebug" Jefferson channels his inner Howlin' Wolf on the slow-paced but deceptively dangerous "The Wolves Are Howling." Guitarist Anthony Sherrod threads a wiry, menacing riff throughout while the rhythm section provides a subtle-but-strong backdrop against which Jefferson blasts out his resounding vocals.
Lightning Strikes

Accompanying by the younger guitarist Lightnin' Malcolm, veteran bluesman R.L. Boyce brings his hypnotizing guitar tone to bear on the original foot-stomper "Ain't It Alright." The two guitarists combine their instruments to create a jagged, shaking wall-of-sound, their wildly differing styles playing off each other to great effect. Boyce's vocals are pure Hill Country earthiness, evoking memories of a spinning juke-joint dancefloor.

Terry "Harmonica" Bean is one of the more engaging of the bluesmen interviewed for the M for Mississippi film, and his entry here does not disappoint. A one-man band with a penchant for the almighty boogie, Bean's "I'm A Bluesman" is a humorous and insightful biographical tale that choogles along to an infectious John Lee Hooker barroom beat. Explosions of expressive harp playing roar in contrast to Bean's hurried vocals, his guitar hand keeping a steady riff with the occasional single-note lead.
The Bentonia School

Guitarist Jimmy "Duck" Holmes is one of the better-known artists on the M for Mississippi compilation. Holmes is the last in a line of blues guitarists influenced by what is called the "Bentonia School," which features unusual guitar-tunings and chord-structure not found in the traditional Delta style. Handed down from Henry Stuckey and Skip James to Jack Evans and, subsequently Holmes, the technique provides an otherworldly feel to a song. Holmes' "Slow Down, Slow Down" fits the bill, his lonesome vocals matched by jangling, oddly-alluring guitarplay.

The unpredictable and flamboyant showman Robert "Bilbo" Walker does a fine job in covering Sam Cooke's soul classic "Bring It On Home." With his typical rattling, vibrating fretwork and powerful voice, Walker adds a bluesy, rocking edge to the R&B standard. Although he's not the most polished of vocalists, Walker breathes life into any song he performs, his larger-than-life personality matched by the heart and soul that he pours into every performance.
T-Model Ford & a Cadillac

James "T-Model" Ford is another reasonably high-profile blues artist here, the Fat Possum Records veteran working his trademark Delta blues style for all it's worth on "Hip Shakin' Woman." Backed by his grandson 'Stud' on drums, Ford's droned, mesmerizing vocals are accompanied by blistering rhythms and his raw, cutting fretwork. If this one doesn't get your feet moving, nothing in the blues ever will.

"Cadillac" John Nolden cranks-n-spanks the harmonica Sonny Boy-style on the raucous "Give It All To Me, Baby." Accompanied by guitarist Bill Abel, Nolden's emotional harp play is balanced by Abel's percussive fretwork. The pair manages to make a heck of a lot of noise for just two guys, the song's ramshackle soundtrack a perfect canvas for Nolden's rough-hewn, soulful vocals.
The Reverend's Bottom Line

For those who mistakenly believe that Chicago is the last bastion of blues music (yeah, you all know who you are!), M for Mississippi proves that there's still a lot of life left in the Delta. Although both the film and this compilation CD feature an abundance of aging bluesmen, they both also confirm that the blues spirit is alive and well on the fertile Mississippi landscape.

If you're a fan of either the traditional Delta blues style or the more rhythmic Mississippi Hill Country style, you should definitely check out this vital and essential CD/DVD project. While you may be familiar with Bilbo Walker or T-Model Ford, chances are that you'll hear something that you'll find as fresh and welcome as rain on the cotton fields. Both this M for Mississippi CD and the companion DVD are essential additions to any Delta blues music collection.

(Broke & Hungry Records/Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art/Mudpuppy Recordings, released November 18, 2008)
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