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Music Review: Barrelhouse Buck McFarland – Alton Blues

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I love learning history. I particularly love it when history and music collide. I get all Indiana Jones and reach for my debit card as I go racing through the Amazon jungle in search of lost treasure. I'm pretty hardcore that way. Indy deals with snakes in a motherfucking temple. I deal with more choices than my Visa will allow and impatience as I wait for my treasure to arrive.

My study of the blues has been every bit a history lesson, and I have been rewarded with real some good booty. Each discovery opened a new web of possible roads to travel. I've told the story a million times, but with the release of Barrelhouse Buck McFarland's Alton Blues, it bears repeating.

My path to the blues began with a fascination with the Rolling Stones. In listening to the early Stones records, I came to realize many of their earliest cuts were covers of Chuck Berry songs and blues standards. I stepped from the Stones to Chuck Berry, and from Chuck Berry to the Chess label. Through the Chess label, the possibilities exploded into myriad avenues and I continue to walk down them, one by one.

This journey has introduced me to more than a new genre and its lineage. My understanding and knowledge of periods of American history has deepened by being exposed to the blues. I have also added volumes of knowledge of music history, a priceless experience because music continues to be one of the great passions of my life.

Alton Blues is a historic treasure of a record and it almost never got made or released. This album is culled from sessions recorded in 1961, eight months before Barrelhouse Buck McFarland died, and 46 years later it has finally been issued. Alton Blues captures the sound of a Depression-era bluesman recorded on comparatively modern equipment. In addition to the glorious music on this album, there is a five-minute spoken word track, featuring Buck telling stories of his days traveling and playing music with, among others, Petey Wheetstraw. Fortunately, Robert Koester understood what an extraordinary opportunity this was and he resisted the temptation to tinker with or modernize McFarland's sound.

He recorded for Decca and Paramount in the '20s and '30s and there is no record that he recorded anything else until these sessions in 1961. It is difficult to imagine when listening to these recordings that any of his power or passion diminished in the years between those early sides and what was recorded during these later sessions. It is equally difficult to believe he passed away eight months later.

McFarland's voice combines the falsetto of a Skip James without the spookiness and the rasp of Ray Charles without the smoothness and definition. As for his piano style, his left hand is the rhythm section banging out the kind of insistent rhythm a bass and drum kit would have provided for his vocal and right-handed piano melodies.

“Four O'Clock Blues” and the other tracks with vocals are reminiscent of early John Lee Hooker sides in that the sole instrument, guitar for Hooker and piano for McFarland, focuses more on rhythm and timekeeping than impressing listeners with chops and solos.

The technology used to capture these sessions are undeniably better than when he started, but even today's technology would probably collapse in any attempt to capture the power in a song like “Barrelhouse Buck.” Limitations in recording and mastering technologies have dulled the jagged sound of Buck hammering the keys. If you listen carefully, you can tell this is a song designed to bring the house down at the end of a weekend set in a rowdy bar. Both takes of “Alston Blues,” named for his St. Louis suburb hometown of Alston, Illinois, have a shuffling groove to them. Cuts like “Alston” and “Buck's Blues” earn him the “Barrelhouse” moniker. These are parlor blues, saloon blues. “Alston” and “Buck's Blues” are portals to another time and place.

I don't want to discourage anyone from reading about history, but albums like this remind us books are not the only source to learn about the past. Remember, grasshoppers, Indiana Jones put down the books every once in a while, too. Personally, I prefer my spin on adventure to his. All he ever wanted to do was find old things to put in a library. Alston Blues is much more than an ancient artifact. Don't put it in the library. Put it in your CD player and on your iPod and let the past live again. History is cool, with or without those motherfucking snakes.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • Daniel Osborne

    Hi, Josh:

    Having listened to Barrelhouse Buck McFarland’s “Alton Blues” and read your highly enjoyable review, I have only one comment: it’s Alton (not Alston); I know, because I was born and grew up there.
    Cheers,
    Daniel Osborne
    [Personal contact info deleted]