We've less than one week until the 31st Blues Music Awards and I've only shared a small portion of my ballot, so we're going to have to move things along a bit quicker. I kept telling myself I had all the time in the world to finish these articles and that time has vanished like it usually does. On with the show, this is it. Today's categories are among the nearest and dearest to my heart: the Traditional Blues Album, Male Artist, and Female Artist of the Year.
While the blues continues to evolve and grow and prosper it is at its heart a traditional idiom and an idiom with great tradition. I have grown to love many of the present-day practitioners, but it is the artists who took the music from its embryonic stage and brought it to the world who inspired me to discover and learn about it and those discoveries and lessons are what fire my passion still. Today we are blessed to have some of the originals still with us, still sharing their gift. We also have many great artists who were inspired by those legends and continue those traditions by making new music the "old" way.
Let us first talk about the Traditional Blues Female Artist because something very special has happened with this category. Starting this year, the award will be the Koko Taylor Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year, named after the Queen of The Blues, Koko Taylor. Taylor's final performance was at last year's BMAs (you can order the DVD that contains it) before passing away at age 80. Here are this year's nominees:
Traditional Blues Female Artist
- Ann Rabson
- Debbie Davies
- Fiona Boyes
- Shirley Johnson
- Zora Young
There are some wonderful names on the list and it's going to be special to be the inaugural winner of the award that now honors the great Taylor. By process of greatest familiarity, my ballot came down to two names: Fiona Boyes and Ann Rabson. I went back and forth and in the end selected Rabson. I fully expect to cast a ballot for Boyes one of these years, too.
Let's move on to the men. Here again are the nominees:
Traditional Blues Male Artist
- Duke Robillard
- John Primer
- Johnnie Bassett
- Louisiana Red
- Super Chikan
This was nearly impossible for me to decide. Similar to the contemporary awards, more of the male artists were also nominated for their album than the women. Let's go ahead and look at those nominees while we're at it:
Traditional Blues Album
- John Primer – All Original
- Johnnie Bassett – The Gentleman is Back
- Louisiana Red & Little Victor's Juke Joint – Back to the Black Bayou
- Super Chikan - Chikadelic
- Various Artists – Chicago Blues A Living History
Two of these traditional album nominees are also in the Album Of The Year category. Robillard's album isn't nominated here but is in the Album Of The Year category. The point of this is that there is some serious competition here and with only one vote in each of these categories I found myself distraught. I went back and forth on this so many times.
I didn't know the work of John Primer until I listened to Chicago Blues A Living History. I liked what I heard and noticed his All Original was nominated so I got a copy and I love it. This is what's so great about the traditional category. He's not a household name and he's not doing anything startlingly different; he channels a piece of himself into his music and follows proudly and mightily in the tradition of the giants he played alongside of and those who came before him.
Someone in the Blues Foundation decided it was time to recognize the greatness of Louisiana Red, a task made easier by the sensational output of two records this year. Both albums would have fit neatly in this traditional category but his duet with David Maxwell was nominated in the Acoustic category and his work with Little Victor's Juke Joint finds itself here. Little Victor and a cast of sidemen, known (Kim Wilson, Bob Corritone) and not, helped Red build a portal to a different time and place with a sound and texture rarely heard anymore.
A Living History is the quintessential traditional blues album, taking songs made famous by the legends of the classic Chicago blues scene and pairing them with some of the great remaining Chicago artists. Primer, Lurrie Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, and Billy Flynn teamed up with some great sessionmen and recorded songs by John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Howlin' Wolf among others. The idea is brilliantly executed. These songs never died but they are infused with a new vitality through these new versions.
Voting for Living History allowed me to vote for Primer, Bell, Arnold, Branch, and Flynn as well as their great support musicians. I really hated not voting for Back To The Black Bayou. Of Red's two albums, it's my favorite. I voted for Louisiana Red the artist and bypassed his album for the second time on my ballot which feels a bit strange and maybe even contradictory. As I think you'll see as I bring this all together, my ballot this year became a pulpit from which I extolled the virtue of the many rather than using a battering ram to champion one.