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Music Review: Sleepy John Estes & Hammie Nixon – On 80 Highway

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I have to admit, that no matter how much I love the blues, there are times when some of the older styles of the music can get boring. After one or two songs there just isn't enough variety in either the music or the vocals to maintain my interest. I think, like any genre, unless the person performing has something unique they can bring to what they are doing, there won't be anything of interest for the audience to listen to.

The really good players, no matter what style they play, are always distinguished for me by the force of their personality. When performing a style of music that's as simple as country blues, a performer without charisma, or who isn't willing to invest as much of his or her character as possible into a song, won't be able to deliver a performance that will hold an audience's attention. This becomes especially noticeable when you listen to people like Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon.

Delmark Records of Chicago has just released a collection of never before released recordings that Sleepy John and Hammie recorded back in 1974 just prior to the two them heading off for a tour of Japan. On 80 Highway is a collection of standards and original Estes tunes that are perfect examples of just how good the music can be when performed by people who are willing to let themselves become part of the song.
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In fact, it's quite amazing how much energy is generated by just the two performers. John Estes on guitar and vocals and Hammie Nixon on harmonica, kazoo, and vocals are able to generate more enthusiasm and excitement between the two of them then a good many full rock bands. Now part of that is the interplay between the two, both during the songs, and the in between chat that has been included on the record. It's impossible not to get caught up in the fun the two men are so obviously having doing the music and just hanging out together.

Of course that sort of rapport only comes about after years of playing together, and the two men have been recording music together since the late 1930s. John began his recording career back in 1929 and hasn't stopped playing music since even though his recording career took a break in the fifties when country blues fell out of favour with the rise in popularity of rock and roll and electric blues. It wasn't until the folk/blues revival of the early 1960's that his career started up again and he was able to hook up with the American Folk Blues Festival tour of Europe.

Estes and Hammie not only performed and recorded together but they also rode the rails together when trying to save money. It was on one of those occasions, when they had cashed in the tickets given them to attend a recording session, that Hammie lost his last good eye as a piece of gravel in the gravel car they were hitching on flew up and hit him in the eye. While it's true that for some duos playing and being together for numerous years didn't make them close – supposedly Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee didn't talk to each other for the last few years of their career together – but I can't see how you could continue to make great music the way John Estes and Hammie Nixon did without the camaraderie you hear on this recording.

Even the old chestnuts, and there isn't an older chestnut than "When The Saints Go Marching In", on this album sound fresh in their hands. Perhaps it's because I've never heard it played on kazoo before, but I think it's also because of the character they are both able to imbue the song with. I've heard countless people sing this song, as I'm sure you have, but this has to be the first time that I've heard someone sing it who sounds like they might actually believe what they are singing.

One of my favourite bits of this recording isn't actually them singing a song, its their introduction to "I'll Be Glad When Your Dead". It starts off with some rambling nonsense about John's name – he mumbles something unintelligible for a few seconds – and continues on into Hammie accusing John of stealing every women that he ever wanted to marry. It doesn't sound like much to see it put baldly on the page like that, but there's something about the interplay between the two men and the infectious nature of their laughter that makes the ensuing song that much more alive.

They are also more than just a humorous act, as they show on their passionate renditions of "President Kennedy" (Take 13 & Take 14). These two tracks are in homage to the late John F. Kennedy and what makes them so special is the simplicity of their lyrics and the heartfelt way in which they deliver them. There aren't many songs that I can honestly say I've heard sung more "straight from the heart" than these two versions included on these sessions. The simple line "everybody was sad, we lost the best President we ever had" doesn't sound like much when read, but hearing Estes sing them you hear how much Kennedy had meant to those his presidency had brought the hope of a better tomorrow to.

Mixed with the country blues numbers on the disc are some gospel tunes; "Holy Spirit" and "Do Lord Remember Me" as well as the previously mentioned "Saints Go Marching In", and it's in those songs you find a clue to what makes John Estes and Hammie Nixon so good. Listen to the heart felt belief in every word of what they are singing, it's nothing elaborate or ornate, it's just a simple, honest, and sincere belief in their God. What makes their secular blues songs so powerful is the fact they are able to bring the same passion that fuels their belief in God to songs about loving to eat potatoes; "Potato Diggin' Man".

There's nothing complicated or sophisticated about Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon. They play songs that probably countless other people have played on very basic instruments. Yet, there is a quality to what they do, a spirit that they bring to the music, that makes it alive in a way that you're not liable to hear from many other performers. If you've ever wondered what the fuss is all about when people rave about old time blues, because any that you've heard had bored you silly, give a listen to On 80 Highway and I think you'll really appreciate it for the first time.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.