One of the mysteries of the music business is how it is possible for two different people can get up on stage and play the same type of music with one of them sounding contrived and false, and the other like the music is coming from some place deep in their soul. Some people put it down to life experience while according to others it's just simply a matter of age.
But I've heard twenty-year-olds sing with a passion and conviction that sounds like it's coming from under a mountain of burdens, and one only need look at Pat Boone to show that age and experience have nothing to do with the amount of anyone's soul. I've never been able to figure that one out, but it is obvious that some people open their mouths to sing and from the first note out of their mouth you understand what it means to bear witness.
Watermelon Slim is such a performer. The moment you hear his voice you can feel the depth of the emotion that he brings to his music. It doesn't matter if it's just your standard woman done, done me wrong Blues tune, you know that he's speaking not about some one night stand that he had at a truck stop, but about universal loves that have gone bad. Every guy and every girl who's ever been treated bad by some pig of the opposite sex can relate to what he's saying.
On his latest release from Northern Blues Records, The Wheel Man, he doesn't just sing about love gone bad or how fine it can be when it is fine, he sings about everything under the sun that's bound to strike a chord with people everywhere.
You don't have to have worked at a sawmill to get what "Sawmill Holler" is about, all you ever have to have done is work any job where the purpose is just to earn the money that puts the bread on the table and keeps the wolf from the door. Maybe it doesn't hurt that Watermelon Slim has worked as a long haul trucker, a sawmill hand, a journalist, and more jobs of that kind than is good for a human being, including the hardest one of all, a soldier.
It was in a hospital in Vietnam, while recovering from being wounded, where he taught himself how to play and he's on record as being the only Vietnam vet to have recorded an album of protest music against the war. But from the seventies to 2002 he worked those countless thankless jobs until he had a near fatal heart attack. That made him decide to change the way he lived and make every day a "good day to die" in that he would do what was right for him to be doing, making and playing music.
I don't know about the rest of you but I've never been more grateful for somebody having a heart attack. Every song on The Wheel Man from the opening title track, a homage to his small time criminal days featuring a wicked guitar duet with Magic Slim who provides guest vocals and lead guitar, to the end fourteen tunes later is a rough hewn gem that's been carved out of the rock face of every working person's life.
But don't be mistaken; this ain't no salt of the earth blue collar snobbishness happening here. Not only does Watermelon have an M.A. he's also a card-carrying member of MENSA – the genius organization. These songs may be emotionally powerful and hit you hard in the gut, but they also have a mind that's as sharp as cut glass behind them.
"Black Water" has to be one of the best songs I've heard written about post hurricane Louisiana and all the other states that were hit by the storm. Hearing Watermelon say that there's a bunch of pol's (politicians) up in Washington who don't give a damn about poor boys, is as damning as any speech or protest I've heard yet about the aftermath.
On songs like this his lyrics remind me of another famous Okie, Woody Guthrie. They're simple, direct, and to the point without being simplistic. He doesn't assume his audience has the intelligence of a five year old or that they only care about themselves. Even his woman has done me wrong songs aren't what you'd expect from a blues band. They all have an edge the majority of those songs are usually woefully lacking.
Musically the best way you can describe this band is an out and out fun. Slim's lap guitar is the centre that the rest of the band revolves around to create a sound that feels like it's been around for ever, but is as fresh as yesterday's laundry. Nothing about Watermelon Slim and The Workers sounds stale and dated but they have rooted themselves so deep in the traditions of their music you don't doubt for a moment their integrity as musicians.
Perhaps that's the answer to my question from the beginning of the review – it’s a matter of respect for what you are doing and where it came from while putting your own soul into it. Watermelon Slim and The Workers are most definitely putting their heart and soul into every note they play on The Wheel Man. They play every song like it could be their last, and every note like there could be no tomorrow.
Hopefully there will be, more tomorrows that is, so we can keep getting great music from them. The world sure needs more of this music more often.