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

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On 80 Highway is a virgin issue, although it was originally laid down on July 19, 1974, nearly 35 years ago. It kept well in the can, and we’re fortunate to now be able to enjoy listening to it.

It was recorded just prior to Sleepy John’s and Hammie’s original trip to Japan, only the second such visit by an American bluesman. Japanese blues doesn’t garner much press in the rest of the world. However, there are many ferociously loyal fans there, as demonstrated by one Estes track making the Japanese Top 100 chart, which helped allow Estes to secure a new home.

Sleepy John Estes put out some of the most pure and unadulterated Country Blues music ever released. The purity and simplicity of his arrangements and singing are reminiscent of when many of these songs were first written and sung. Traditional songs are, by definition, songs that have been around forever and passed down from generation to generation. They’re usually much more pure in form, content and arrangement than most songs written and composed later in history. Instrumentation is also spare, with Estes on guitar, and Nixon on harmonica and vocals, with a remarkable performance on the lowly kazoo.

Estes never had a really powerful or remarkable voice. But the years made their mark on it, as it does with all of us. It’s easy to see this as a reason this music hasn’t been released before now. But this CD is still a welcome addition to the Estes collection, particularly since it’s the first “new” Estes material pressed in more than 30 years.

Another strong point on this CD is the natural interaction and trading off lines that occurs between these two musicians, who know every move the other will be making before it’s made. Many hours of playing together honed their accompaniment, and in a couple of the songs — particularly “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and one or two others — they seem to be enjoying their apparent extemporization.

If you’re a blues fan, particularly a Country Blues fan, you’d do well to pick this CD up and listen to it a few hundred times. You won’t regret it. Seventeen cuts at 57+ minutes.

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About Lou Novacheck