Muddy Waters is one of those blues legends who, when I began my discovery of the blues, lived up to the hype in my ears. Like I said when I wrote about Lurrie Bell recently, there are too many legends in the blues — even if you narrow it down only to Chicago — to name one artist as the greatest or most important but it’s damn near impossible to understate Waters’ importance to the blues and to all of 20th century music. Covering Muddy Waters is a lot like covering The Beatles; everyone has done it and it always seems easier than it looks yet the results are almost always a disappointment.
“Hard Days Blues” isn’t one of Waters’ best known songs, but it’s a really good one. When Waters cut this one for Chess in November of 1948, he was limited by Leonard Chess to himself, Leroy Foster, and Ernest “Big” Carter: two guitars and bass. Waters’ booming voice and slide work deliver powerfully despite the limitations imposed on what he could do with the arrangement.
The Cash Box Kings had the opposite obstacle when they decided to tackle “Hard Days Blues.” There was a room full of talented musicians, many of whom can play multiple instruments. How do you take a song that has a very simple rhythm guitar part, a slide guitar line, and a standup bass line and expand it to take advantage of all the talent in the room? Should you expand upon the original or should you play it straight?
The Kings opt to open up the playbook, adding drums, piano, harmonica, and mandolin to the guitars, bass, and vocals. Oscar Wilson doesn’t have that same big, beautiful voice like Muddy Waters but he’s engaging and pleasant. The band behind him is absolutely on fire. Joe Nosek’s harp wails with that vintage, distorted, Chicago sound Barrelhouse Chuck bangs out some piano fills that would make Pinetop Perkins proud. Billy Flynn’s mandolin adds such great seasoning to what Joel Paterson does with the lead slide lines. It’s one of those joyous occasions where you don’t ask yourself if the cover is better than the original but rather marvel at the way CBK have taken the song and made it their own.