Recorded just three years before his death in 1977 (Elvis Presley wasn’t the only musician of note to die that year), On 80 Highway is a collection of 17 studio tracks by blues vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter Sleepy John Estes. Accompanied by longtime cohort Hammie Nixon on vocals, harmonica, and that most underrated of instruments, the kazoo, Estes offers rough and evocative interpretations of traditional songs, as well as a couple of his own songs.
First the obvious: this CD most likely will not appeal to a wide audience; it’s not going to set the charts aflame and it’s probably not going to posthumously catapult Estes into the spotlight. You won’t hear these songs during a particularly heart-wrenching and overwrought emotional moment on one of the many current indistinguishable television dramas, nor will any of these songs make the cut on the next Guitar Hero video game. But for fans of blues music or those simply interested in the rich history of how traditional songs are reinvented and reworked, On 80 Highway is a welcome release.
In many ways the album falls neatly within the boundaries of the blues, both in terms of subject matter and style. Songs like “Holy Spirit,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” and “Do Lord Remember Me” cover familiar religious ground, two versions of “President Kennedy” are reminders as to how the blues could be both topical and political, and songs like “Corrine Corrina’ and “Mary Come On Home” are laments for the gal who got away. The specter of death is overtly invoked in some of the songs – Estes’ aggressive take on “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead” in particular – while Estes’ own “Brownsville Blues” also hints at mortality. And in true blues fashion, there’s also at least one bawdy and suggestive track as well, in the form of “Potatoe (Dan Quayle alert!) Diggin’ Man.”
The traits that defined Estes as a unique bluesman are apparent throughout the session. His guitar playing, never considered to be outstanding or top-notch, is passable but rough, with the occasional bum chord being noticeable. In many ways this warts-and-all approach actually enhances this release; it captures the singer at a particular moment of time, seemingly unconcerned with such technical shortcomings.
Though Nixon provides excellent textures to many of the songs – his harmonica and kazoo playing ranges from subtle and reserved to frenzied and manic, and also compensates for the singer’s sometimes shaky guitar work – Estes’ unique voice is what really carries these songs. Estes’ approach has often been described as “crying the blues,” which is still an apt description. His voice carries an emotional weight to it; in his mid-70s at the time of this recording, Estes’ voice is plaintive, weathered, and worn.
The album also offers interested fans another chance to revisit Estes’ often-tragic life. Completely blind at the time of this recording, Estes lived in poverty and anonymity in Brownsville, Tennessee for much of his life. Because he tended to sing like an old man, even in his youth, it was assumed that he had been dead for years as he seemingly dropped off the blues map (Samuel Charters and blues historian Bob Koester, who provides liner notes for this release, are credited with “finding” Estes in 1962 and getting him to resume recording and touring). After a long professional recording and touring career that started in the 1920s, Estes died of a stroke in 1977.
While some blues aficionados might argue that On 80 Highway doesn’t carry the power and emotional qualities of Estes’ earlier songs (his recordings for Victor Records, Decca, and Bluebird still sound relevant today), it’s still a welcome release for one of the blues genre’s most enigmatic and fascinating figures.