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I no longer think of contemporary artists recording traditional blues as an oxymoron.

BMA Music Review: Watermelon Slim & The Workers

Editor's Note: This review is the first in a series of albums and artists nominated for 2007 Blues Music Awards (full list of nominees). Watermelon Slim is nominated in the following BMA categories: Album of the Year, B.B. King Entertainer of the Year, Band of the Year, Song of the Year, Traditional Blues Album of the Year, Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year.

When I think of the blues, I think of the haunted wail of Robert Johnson, Otis Rush’s tortured howl and stinging vibrato, Muddy Waters’ deep, cavernous moan, Buddy Guy’s frenetic fretwork and dramatic delivery, John Lee Hooker’s snarl and swirl, Little Walter’s virtuosic harp blasts, and Otis Spann’s righteous right hand.

Unlike the Grammys, I take for granted the nominating committee for the Blues Foundation knows what it is doing. NARAS, the outfit responsible for the Grammys, has proven they know dick about music. The Blues Foundation has to be different. The blues is all they do. If anybody knows where it is at with the blues, it is them and they say Watermelon Slim & The Workers is where it is at in 2006. Their self-titled album is nominated for six Blues Music Awards- the most of any nominee. That built up my expectations, and expectations can be a motherfucker. I started to doubt my taste and question my ears I was not immediately won over by the album. I need not have worried.

I know what you are thinking, and you are wrong. You are probably thinking I conned myself into liking a record I did not like to score a seat at the cool kids’ table. I understand how you could draw that conclusion. I admit the nominations played a role- just not the role you are might think they did. The nominations did not make me like the album but persuaded me not to be too hasty in my judgment of it. My narrow definition of what the blues should sound like was the real problem.

The album opens with BMA Song of the Year nominee “Hard Times” (and if that isn't a quintessential blues title, I don't know what is). The blues has come a long way when you hear lines like “I'm too frustrated to see my psychiatrist.” Slim's lyrics may reflect a degree of modernity, but his marvelous slide work would make the early masters proud.

Speaking of traditional, the acoustic slide work on “Folding Dollar Blues” is stunning and is as good as any I have ever heard, with the guitar sound bearing just the slightest resemblance to The Doobie Brothers' “Black Water.” These are workingman's blues, phrased with flair. Slim has a conversation of sorts with the dead presidents on his money, starting with George Washington working sequentially all the way up to (non-president) Benjamin Franklin as he watches his cash fritter away (Alexander Hamilton was not a president, either, but “dead presidents” is not my term). First the taxman takes his cut, and what's left goes to his woman, leaving him looking for a spare dime.

The coolest moment on the disc has to be “Devil’s Cadillac.” The imagery in the lyrics is fantastic, creating a stylish update of the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil in a bid for blues greatness. Slim and Satan may be racing 90 miles an hour in a Cadillac as silent as the inside of a hearse, but “Devil’s Cadillac” rides at a slower pace. The minimalist, grooving rhythm track leaves a wide lane for some sleek, sinister slide work. For some reason, this song evokes the scene from Pulp Fiction where John Travolta’s Vincent Vega shoots up and goes on a little "trip" every time I listen to it. Weird.

Perhaps the most surprising highlight of the set is their version of Willie Dixon’s much-performed classic “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” This song has been recorded by damn near every blues artist since it was written. If asked, I would have said we needed one more version about as much as we need another season of American Idol. Still, Slim injects some vitality into this standard with a fabulous harp solo and perhaps his finest vocal performance on the album.

The strengths of this album are the musicianship and the songwriting. Slim demonstrates a rare mastery of slide guitar, harp, and dobro. The Workers provide solid, subtle, sonic scenery. They never overpower the songs, nor do they miss a beat. The warm production smooths some of the rough edges which some people might consider a negative for a blues album.  Fortunately, Watermelon Slim & The Workers is warm and smooth without giving in to slickness. Think of it as a good sipping whiskey for the ears.

The weaknesses are few, but should be noted. It took some time to get used to Slim's voice and delivery. He has a decent, but not powerful blues voice. His delivery is sometimes grandfatherly and is not as effective on some songs as it is on others.  At 14 songs and 52 minutes, the album might have been better served were it a song or two shorter. I would probably trim the French language “Eau De Boue,” for starters, but that is just me.

As a newly-minted member of The Blues Foundation, I will have the opportunity to participate in the voting for the 2007 BMAs. I am not sure I will mark my ballot all six times for him, but I sure as hell will not shut Slim out, either. I may always think first of Muddy, Otis, and Buddy when I think of the blues, but I no longer think of contemporary artists recording traditional blues as an oxymoron.

About Josh Hathaway

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