There was a time when a record label was more than a corporation that stole from an artist. It's not that theft of an artist's creative works and money is a new phenomenon. It's that there was a time when a record label stood for something. Think about this… you're watching the Super Bowl or the NBA All-Star Game and before the game someone sings the National Anthem. That artist will almost always be introduced as "Columbia Recording Artist ________" or "Universal Recording Artist ________." What does a Columbia recording artist sound like? Universal? Exactly, but it wasn't always that way.
A few decades ago, when you heard the Motown, Chess, Stax, or Atlantic, you knew a little something about what you were getting into. No, all Motown artists didn't sound exactly alike, but there were some similarities in style as well as sound. A lot of those classic songs were written by a select group of writers, produced by a select group of producers, and many of the same musicians recorded the music that backed all those great singers. The same was true at Chess, where a lot of that music was recorded in the same studio and overseen by the same handful of people. Artists who became icons as soloists backed each other. No one was getting paid much so if you got a chance to do a session, you sat in. Booker T. and The MGs were the house band for tons of essential music for Stax, songs we all know by heart. Atlantic had house bands, some of whom recorded a little more than an hour from me in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where one of the finest rhythm sections of its day flourished.
What does all that have to do with anything? I've found a modern-day label with that same feel, Blue Bella Records. It's a small (but growing) group of artists, and many of them record in the same studio and play on each others' records, whether in featured or guest roles. There is a Blue Bella sound that permeates the songs on the individual records, whether they're from Nick Moss (who co-founded the label with his wife and serves as chief sonic architect), Kilborn Alley Blues Band, Bill Lupkin, or Gerry Hundt.
There's nothing wrong with labels assembling a diverse roster of artists, trying to bring music to every kind of listener — I'd like to think that's what the major labels and mass media conglomerates are doing, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary — but there is something special about a small label carving out its own niche.
The rollicking "Whiskey Makes Me Mean" is a slice of blues, Blue Bella-style. Willie Oshawny's piano and Bob Carter's drum work are unmistakable, as are the way producers Nick Moss and Gerry Hundt captured their sounds. Hundt's mandolin is the lead instrument rather than Moss' guitar and with Hundt on mandolin, harp duties are handled by veteran Bill Lupkin. These guys are all great players and they've been doing this for years, and in some cases decades. They've played with the greatest names in blues and they know how it's supposed to be done. When they all come together, they carry forward that tradition while carving out something uniquely their own. In a genre that has lost potency because of clones and impostors, it's refreshing and invigorating to hear artists able to strike that balance or influence and originality.