I’ll admit that I groaned when I heard this year’s Oxford American CD playlist would focus on something as broad and generic-sounding as “the blues.”
Please, not another dutiful, box-checking, made-for-public-TV primer that attempts to cover all the bases in the vast canon of American blues and instead delivers a soulless pile of old-school acoustic and plugged-in Saturday-night-bar fare. (If John Belushi floated down from heaven for an encore of “Sweet Home Chicago,” I’d step outside for a smoke.) And when I saw the ever-sainted Bonnie Raitt prominently featured on one version of the cover I feared the worst.
So what a relief to find this smartly curated 23-song collection provides a fresh and engaging take on the blues that out-performs countless other compilations. The trick on something like this is to pull from different genres, to entertain casual listeners, engage music lovers and offer a few surprises to those who think they’ve heard it all.
“New York is Killing Me,” by Gil Scott-Heron. While he’ll be forever remembered for the spoken-word “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” this old-timey number with a killer syncopated, synth bass drum speaks to talent that stretches far beyond what most of us know about the man.
“Stuck in the South,” by Adia Victoria: “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout Southern belles, but I can tell you something ’bout Southern Hell” says it all.
And my favorite: “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” by Ida Cox with the Coleman Hawkins Quintet. I just love that they eschewed a scratchy version from the 1920s in the name of “authenticity” for one she recorded in 1961 with the famed tenor sax player.
Even when it ventures in the valley of familiar titans like Muddy Waters, the collection avoids the obvious in favor of a rollicking number that teams up with Big Mama Thorton for “Black Rat.”
And the closing track on the CD is an instrumental by North Carolina blueswomen Etta Baker and Cora Phillips, which came to the magazine via the Music Maker Foundation in Hillsborough.
Much of the credit, as it turns out, goes to 2006 Myers Park grad and Charlotte native Maxwell George, who’s managing editor of the Little Rock-based magazine. (His parents, Tommy and Debbie George, own the Pasta & Provisions stores in Charlotte.)
At $15.95 the price may strike the casual buyer as a trifle steep, but it’s worth every cent. Besides the music, there’s the magazine, filled with smart, trenchant descriptions of each tune along with longer stories that promise some payoff.
For North Carolina readers, there’s a profile of Rhiannon Giddens, a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops; a story about the history of the Piedmont Blues; and a profile of little-known bluesman John “Guitar Shorty” Fortescue of Elm City.
Heck, even the ads featuring blues festivals are pleasant diversions that will have you thinking about your own discoveries yet to come.