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.”