When I recorded my new record Dead Mall Blues on 12XU with Walter Daniels, (one of the TWO NEW RECORDS I have out right now, the other being my solo LP The Man Who Rode the Mule around the World on Voodoo Rhythm Records) it didn’t seem weird to me. Walter and I both listen to a lot of acoustic music, and both play acoustic all the time. Not like I’m playing through a Marshall stack cranked to 11 when sitting on my couch. All of our previous records have been electric affairs, though.
Part of the reason I wanted to record Dead Mall Blues was because Walter had never really been recorded in an acoustic context. He’s a great player with his own style that comes across whether he’s plugged in or not. When playing electric he does a lot of crazy stuff with feedback, but if you take away the amp, he’s just as interesting to listen to.
So, recording an all-acoustic record didn’t seem that weird to me, but now that the record is out I get a lot of strange reactions. “This is really different from your other stuff!” is something I’ve heard more than once. And maybe it is, because I’ve never been recorded playing strictly acoustic before, but it never seemed different to me because I’ve always listened to lots of acoustic music along with everything else.
I’ve listened to a lot of old blues records, I love the older country blues artists and obviously they were a big influence on me. Yet after many years of listening to older blues recordings I began to branch out from the “original” bluesmen to some of the more contemporary players from the 60s and later, and these records were a big influence on Dead Mall Blues, too. You could call these “modern” acoustic records because they were recorded maybe fifty years ago, instead of eighty! Time to give this artists some credit. I mean, once you’ve listened to hundreds of hours of blues records, and you still want MORE sounds, you’re going to have to move up a couple of decades.
When the “blues revival” hit in the 1960s, a lot of blues players were “rediscovered” by white college kids, and about as much time had passed then as has now passed since when these 60s second-wave blues pickers first recorded. Mississippi John Hurt recorded for Okeh in 1928, and his “rediscovery” in 1963 was only 35 years later. Meanwhile an act like Koerner, Ray, and Glover first recorded in 1963, and here we are 51 years later and they are still in relative obscurity, even for many blues fans (and that’s a small group, as I’ve previously discussed!). How about some appreciation for a little bit of that 1960s white-boy blues? It doesn’t diminish the original bluesmen’s music at all to admit that these later guys could make a mean record, themselves. And not all of this stuff is strictly blues, either, there’s a lot of folk and country influences mixed in, too. I do play banjo on Dead Mall Blues, and we cover Hank Williams in addition to Blind Willie McTell.
I can’t speak for Walter, but after the jump there’s a list of some of the “contemporary” (i.e.: recorded in maybe the last 50 years) LPs that were also a big influence on me the making of Dead Mall Blues:
The Holy Modal Rounders
For a band that performed on a popular TV show like Laugh In (even though they were too high to remember doing it), and had a song on the soundtrack of a hit movie (Easy Rider, for which they never saw a dime), the Holy Modal Rounders received little recognition in their day.
While their later LPs often featured a full band of weirdos, on the first two Rounders LPs Stampfel and Weber performed strictly as an acoustic duo, and these are my favorite of their records. Mixing blues and county; guitar, fiddle, banjo, lots of psychedelics (the Rounders were the first group to use the word “psychedelic” in a song!) and an irreverent attitude that is still infectious and hilarious half a century later, the Rounders material holds up to my ears just as well as the original blues and country artists they were riffing on at the time. Definitely get the first two LPs, and then all the rest, including the electric albums, collaborations with Michael Hurley (another overlooked genius), and watch the documentary. Mandatory.
Fahey is probably the artist here who has enjoyed the greatest resurgence in recent years, including loving and extensive box set reissues and critical acclaim. He is now credited as having spearheaded the “American primitive guitar” movement, which made the idea of guys playing solo guitar instrumentals a “thing,” and has become a bit of an icon in certain circles. Of course, most of this acclaim has come posthumously, and didn’t do much to help him during his often-troubled time on planet earth. The one time I got to see him, he was playing a free show in a record store to a handful of people. But if you’ve read this blog at all, you aready know that there is no justice in the music world. No justice!
You can read extensively about Fahey elsewhere, so I don’t need to go into too much detail here, but since we do a Fahey song (Uncloudy Day) on Dead Mall Blues, I had to mention him. I learned alternating-bass fingerpicking primarily from Fahey records, and his early albums are mandatory listens. Once you walk through the door Fahey opened, you’ve got a number of Fahey acolytes like Leo Kottke, Peter Lang, and many others who are also worth checking out.
Koerner, Ray and Glover
If you like blues music and haven’t heard the acoustic trio of Tony “Little Sun” Glover on harmonica, and “Spider” John Koerner and Dave “Snaker” Ray on guitar and vocals, you are missing out. These guys have a handful of records as a trio and solo that are worth finding.
Their 1963 debut Blues, Rags, and Hollers, and the follow-up The Return Of are a lot of fun. Glover happened to write one of the the first books on blues harmonica in 1965, and also co-wrote the only biography of Little Walter. Spider John’s solo LP on Elektra (never reissued!) is a powerhouse, too.
Contemporary label Nero’s Neptune has a couple of recent releases of Spider John solo recordings that are also worth seeking out. Koerner, Ray, and Glover are great, and I think enough time has elapsed that they can be appreciated as up there with the original bluesmen they sought to emulate.
Larry Johnson is one of those guys that I didn’t find out about until recently, and when I did I was MAD because, why hadn’t anybody told me about him before! An unfortunately rarer-than-it-oughtta-be example of a black guy playing acoustic blues post-1930-something, Johnson is looking dapper as hell on the cover of his 1970 LP Fast and Funky on Blue Goose.
Johnson’s lightning-fast ragtime blues was pretty out of place at a time when the top R&B sounds were the Jackson 5, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder. I can’t really say that musically this album was a big influence on Dead Mall Blues, because frankly, I can’t play guitar this good! But as a “contemporary” (as in, recorded in the last 50 years) acoustic blues record, Fast and Funky is a personal favorite. On the opening track, Johnson’s vocal are lazy and soulful, while underneath the guitar is popping and thumping all over the place. This rendition of Charley Jordan’s 1930s standard Keep it Clean might be the definitive version of a song that’s been covered to death. Kills me every time.
Backwards Sam Firk
I already wrote a lengthy blog post awhile back devoted to Backwards Sam Firk’s The True Blues and Gospel, so I don’t need to repeat myself. Suffice it to say that the record is a favorite, and its laid-back shuffling vibe was something I wanted to emulate on Dead Mall Blues.
I also wrote about Mickey Baker’s album Mississippi Delta Dues in a previous post, so I’ll just direct you there. The acoustic duo cuts (sans orchestra) with Baker, Stefan Grossman, and some tasteful percussion were definitely a sound that influenced Dead Mall Blues.
There are no Youtube links, but the whole album is on Spotify.
You should seek out a copy of the 1973 LP on Blue Star, though, because what are you, some kinda chump?
It could be easy to hate John Hammond, Jr. Born to a rich family looking like he coulda been a character actor in Goodfellas, the dude could have spent his life squandering his inheritance and leading a life of dissipation. Instead he became a serious musician and has spent it roaming the world playing acoustic blues on a National resonator guitar.
As a descendant of the Vanderbilt family and a having father like famed producer and talent scout John Hammond Sr., you could be forgiven for thinking he was maybe a no-talent hack who coasted on his daddy’s music-business connections and family dough. But instead, he’s the real deal who developed a singular guitar and vocal style and recorded with many blues luminaries. Like Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic, he came from a privileged background but went on to do something positive for American music, unlike our current crop of wealthy but mind-numbingly dull and boring tech billionaires and Wall Street assholes.
Hammond is a great singer and guitar player, but his style is also so individualistic and idiosyncratic that it really can’t be duplicated. Like the Holy Modal Rounders, he’s got some albums with full bands (and some great players backing him up) but I really like his acoustic stuff best. Check out the live album Solo and try not to hate him just because he was young, good-looking, talented, and had rich parents!
If you like British mope-folk like Nick Drake (and who doesn’t?), but want more twelve-string guitar pyrotechnics to go along with your mope (who wouldn’t?), you should check out Michael Chapman. His 1969 debut Rainmaker has both great vocal and instrumental numbers, and if you want more, he’s got a million albums after that. Tompkins Square issued a CD compilation in 2011 of all his accumulated instrumental goodness. I dig it with a big spoon!
I thought I had checked out all of the Fahey disciples in the Takoma stable, but it took me awhile to find Peter Lang. If you already like John Fahey and Leo Kottke, he’s like the John Fahey and Leo Kottke you haven’t heard yet!
His debut The Thing At The Nursery Room Window does a good job of splitting the difference between the restrained arrangements of Fahey and the technical fireworks of Kottke. His live album Prime Cuts is also great – it is pretty thrilling to hear him do the high-wire walk and pull off his compositions in front of an audience.
There’s plenty more, but that’s a short list to just get you started. Maybe you’ve got some favorites of your own that I didn’t mention or haven’t heard yet. If so, leave some suggestions in the comments. I’m always looking for more records.