My ol' buddy, Virgil Brawley, up and planted himself awhile back in Mountain View, Arkansas, a city calling itself the "Folk Music Capitol of the World" and which has the requisite Ozark Folk Festival to celebrate such. The city prides itself on preserving the music and culture of a era passed by. The land of hammered and mountain dulcimers, flat picked guitars, mandolins, and lap Dobros kicking out folk and Bluegrass music. I say this because Brawley's a born and bred Mississippian who fell into the blues stew at an early age. Even though he fell into the Ozark culture readily and joined in on the pickin' and grinnin' sessions of the locals and learn a bit of mandolin and slide on the Dobro, he had no intention of abandoning his passion for the blues.
After rounding up like minded musicians, he re-established a blues trio he calls the Syllamo Trio, named after a local creek. I've reviewed Brawley's CDs here on the blog by his previous band, the Juvenators, the most recent being Bottle Tree from 2009, which followed Golden Hearts, Live From The Mercury Room, and Mojo Burning. The Juvenator stuff, mostly original, had an eclectic vibe to it, but all rooted in the blues. On the trio's recent release, Marcella, he drags the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues to the Ozarks. You know, the blues where the groove is the move. Heavy on rhythm and percussion with a steady guitar riff leading the way. This is the music aligned with Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnsides, and Junior Kimbrough. I'm reckoning that playing with and hangin' out with T-Model Ford seeped into Brawley's soul at the crossroads down their somewhere.
The trio channels the Hill Country style and molds it to fit the 11 original songs written by the band. This ain't yo' mama's blues trio with a diddly widdly diddly guitarist professing to be the second coming of Stevie Ray. Nor is it 12 bars and a cloud of shuffle dust. Nope. The music here romps and stomps the blues through vintage amplifiers meant to be cranked into Pat Hare distortion territory. They shake the shimmy on most of the tracks with Brawley leading the way on guitar and vocals, but it takes a talented drummer and bass guitarist nailing down the bottom to keep the right groove going. Bassist Albee Tellone, who's formative years were spent in New Jersey playing with a young dude named Bruce Springsteen, keeps the rhythm train solidly on track. He wrote a book chronicling his experience with "The Boss", which can be found on Amazon. Daren Dortin throws down a impressive array of drum beats that keeps the groove oriented tracks from monotony. He swings whacks and slaps not normally heard within the confines of this style of blues, or really any style of blues. He pulls some of that Nawlins' second line stuff (IMHO) out on "Sho' Nuff", which has an uncredited organ swirl working through the song, which I might just describe as Hill Country Soul. Not sure, but I think he even threw some disco licks down before the CD ended. I don't normally pay a great deal of attention to what the drummers doing on blues recordings, unless they annoy me, but I found myself drawn into what he was doing behind the drum kit on these track. He throws down some second guitar along the way, most notably the three string cigar box nastiness on "Syllamo Waters", which gives the tune some driving dirt. Daren's a veteran of the Memphis blues scene, having produced and co-hosted the famous Beale Street Blues Caravan.
They don't do the blues/rock thang, but some tunes such as "Boogaroo" rock, romp and stomp the old fashion way; the Hill Country Blues way. When Virgil cranks his old Alamo amp up on more than a few tunes, such as 'Apple Tree" or "Waiting' On A LDC", the grit groove gets to happening. When he ain't cranking it, he's getting the nasty from an Ampeg Reverberocket on other tunes like "Trouble", which gives his slide guitar just the right touch of reverb. "Lookin' For You" sounds so rauchy that it makes me believe that Brawley poked a pencil through his speaker. The tune has a great example of what he does with a guitar solo, also, which is to say jump in, make the right statement and get back to the groove.
Brawley has established himself an a confident and competent songwriter over the course of his career. More than a few musicians have covered tunes from his pen over the years. His songs tell tales; short stories if you will. It's like sitting on the front porch with a grizzled ol' blues man talking about life in general and in many cases being mistreated, like on the title tune "Marcella" with its chicken pickin' guitar riff and a tale of woe: "Come home from work half starved to death/All I smell is your whiskey breath". "Sho' Nuff" is more about being love stuck, "Lookin' For You" is self-explanatory, "Mailman" looks for good news, not the blues, and "Trouble" reeks of bad luck. Took me awhile to figure out that "Bucket" was about his dog, and the double entendre he twists around in "Cadillac". Also, he can sing the blues. He don't do no "white boy blues growl" as many are apt to do, but sings in a smooth, natural, down home voice with just enough range to keep things out of the realm of boredom.
The Syllamo Trio breaks away from the same ol' crap syndrome that have flooded the market for way too many years. Marcella gets back to the basics of where blues came from. Back to the roots, but also brings it forward due the way these three gents incorporate the old with the new. It's a keeper. Find it here. 'Nuff for now.
I've written quite a bit about the Navasota Blues Festival since I began this blog. I told tales about writing musician bios for the programs back in the early days of the fest and just how special this event has always been. This one, the 20th Anniversary edition, should prove to be exceptionally special with the return of the stupendously talented Ruthie Foster.
Ruthie was there in the beginning years of the festival. It never mattered who preceded her on the stage, she ALWAYS came out and totally upset the house. Anyone who witnessed a Ruthie Foster set knew that they were in the presence of greatness. Her star turn had yet to shine, but few doubted that it would. I've heard very, very few match her vocal talents. She supported the festival, not only with her musical talents, but she also rolled up her sleeves by serving on the board of directors. She helped the festival get off the ground as the festival helped jump start her career. Since those early days, she has risen to international acclaim in not only the blues community, but also throughout the music industry. Her talents swept her around the world and took her far from the stage honoring Mance Lipscomb in Navasota, Texas, BUT she's back and August 15 should prove to be one heck of a homecoming. Trust me. Don't miss it.
It's a homecoming of sorts for another artist who was there in the beginning. After an absence of a number of years, Sonny Boy Terry will be returning with what he feels is one of his best bands. Which is saying a lot. During those early years of the festival he was being mentored by Houston blues legends, such as Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Uncle John Turner (Johnny Winter drummer) and Johnny Copeland. Since then, he's become Houston Blues and no one blows a blues harp better than he can. I'd say that he will definitely rock the house.
A highlight for me from the 2014 shows was Doug MacLeod. He's returning to play some of the best damned acoustic blues one could possibly ask to hear. He's from the old school and has tales to tell about playing with George "Harmonica" Smith and Pee Wee Crayton back in his formative years. The CD he had in tow last year, Exactly Like This, won every blues award out there over the past year. Like Sonny Boy, he learned from the old masters.
Someone that I'm particularly looking forward to seeing is Jonn DelToro Richardson. I reviewed the CD, Time Slips On By, that teamed him with blues mandolin whiz, Rich DelGrosso awhile back. You can find it here if you look around. Jonn has been one of my favorite blues guitarist since way back in the day when I attended a jam he ran at the Cactus Moon in Humble. He floored me then and he astounds me now. He can do the do and I know that he'll knock it out of the park Friday night.
Christian Dozzler's another one. He's become quite a blue institution in the DFW area since moving from his native Austria. He's played with the who's who in that area for years. Saw him play keyboards opening for Little Charlie and the Nights years ago, but based on an old CD I have of his, I know he has one helluva tone on the blues harp. Should grease the wheels well for Ruthie Foster's set.
Michael Birnbaum has opened the festival with guitar lessons in Mance's style for many, many years now and always plays a set of the master's music. After meeting Mance at the legendary Ash Grove back in the mid-'60s, he's been one of Mance's leading proponents. He travels from California every year to show his respect and share his talents, many times with his talented daughter in tow. He has Mance's style down pat. Better than pat, actually.
I remember when the late blues musicologist, Tary Owens, brought Orange Jefferson down from Austin and introduced him to the festival crowd a long time back. Owens felt that he was one of the few that still had some authentic blues to display with both his vocals, harmonica and saxophone. He never disappoints the crowd. Not sure if he's missed being booked since then.
I missed the E Flat Porch Band and Justin Johnson's cigar box blues last year, but heard enough about them that I'm planning to make an early appearance to catch them. Folks tell me that Johnson's cigar box workshop was well worth it and it takes place pre-fest at the world renown Blues Alley on Friday.
Can't say much about the Betty Fox Band, because I simply don't know much about them. I'll have to catch up with them. I didn't plan on writing up this long of a post. Mainly planned to make sure my readers knew the festival was coming up and that Ruthie was onboard and just give out for the link Navasota Blues Fest and let everyone get the official stuff. Anyway--'Nuff for now.
As of May 30, 2008, I retired as a high school teacher with 29 years of sharing my knowledge of journalism, English, and world geography with Texas teenagers and eventually some of their kids (including three of my own).
This blog will provide a piece of the answer to the question I've been asked for the millionth time, "Well, what are you going to do now?"
#1 Son, John Bush, designed the title artwork several years ago and it is remarkably appropriate for this blog. Try this as a contact e-mail: rkbush51 at att dot net.