TERRY GROSS, host:
The Texas Sheiks offers new versions of old blues, Westerns swing and ragtime music. This group is led by Geoff Muldaur, who's been recording music like this since the 1960s and features guitar work by Steve Bruton, who died of throat cancer in May 2009, and whose diagnosis was the inspiration for these recording sessions.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of song, "The World Gone Wrong")
Mr. GEOFF MULDAUR (Musician): (Singing) Strange things have happened like never before. My baby told me, I would have to go. I can't be good no more, once like I did before. I can't be good, baby. Honey, because the world's gone wrong. Feel bad this morning...
KEN TUCKER: "The World Has Gone Wrong" in a Texas Sheiks version of a song made famous by the Mississippi Sheiks. The slicing swing of the guitars, fiddle, and Geoff Muldaur's sweet-and-sour vocal make the sentiments sound at once fatalistic and celebratory, literally fiddling while the world burns. The vinegar in Muldaur's voice gives lamentation a tang that doesn't let the listener off the hook for all the troubles being sung about. We each bear responsibility, as another song close behind that one asserts.
(Soundbite of song, "All By Myself")
Mr. JOHNNY NICHOLAS (Musician): (Singing) On my way all around the world, when I get back I got diamonds and pearls, all by myself, all by myself. Don't need nobody help me, gonna do it all by myself. Got locked up in jail for a hanging crime, they got boys up there doing more than 99, all by myself, all by myself. Don't need nobody help me, gonna do it all by myself. Got a houseful...
TUCKER: The jaunty rhythms of "All By Myself," a Big Bill Broonzy song, are sung here by guitarist Johnny Nicholas. It has an irresistible swing that's pushed along by the barrel-house piano and plucked acoustic guitar. Speaking of guitar, these recordings really showcase the late Steve Bruton's range. Bruton played behind Kris Kristofferson for almost 40 years, as well as recording with everyone from Bonnie Raitt to T. Bone Burnett. Whether he's playing high-lonesome country guitar, mandolin or some doom-laden steel guitar licks, Bruton performed with a taut muscularity. His presence informs the work of other musicians here, as can be heard in Johnny Nicholas' vocal on the Skip James song "Hard Time Killing Floor."
(Soundbite of song, "Hard Time Killing Floor")
Mr. SKIP JAMES (Musician): (Singing) Hard time is here. Everywhere you go. (Unintelligible) Um, hm-hm. Um-hm. Um, hm-hm. Hard times, harder than they been before...
TUCKER: The other notable presence here is Jim Kweskin, a guitarist and singer with whom Geoff Muldaur formed a jug band in the 1960s. Kweskin made the most of the counterculture. He survived a minor scandal when Mel Lyman, an LSD-fueled cult leader, joined Kweskin's jug band and Jim became an enthusiastic convert for a while. At any rate, Kweskin's voice has remained remarkably supple, full of wry humor, as can be heard on the song, "Blues in the Bottle."
(Soundbite of song, "Blues in the Bottle")
Mr. PRINCE ALBERT HUNT (Musician): (Singing): Blues in the bottle, blues in the bottle. Stoppers in my hand, pretty mamma. Blues in the bottle, stoppers in my hand. I'm looking for a woman who's looking for a man...
TUCKER: "Blues in the Bottle" is a song credited to Prince Albert Hunt and his Texas Ramblers, though I, being a rock critic, heard it first on a Lovin' Spoonful album in the '60s. A lot of the music on Texas Sheiks is pretty familiar. These are probably songs Steve Bruton knew by heart, as well as knowing their history. In the end, he may be, as that early song says, all by himself, as we each are in death. But the Texas Sheiks is superior to the usual tribute album, because the man being saluted can be heard playing the music he loved with an everlasting life.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the new album from Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks. I just recorded an interview with Geoff Muldaur during which he performed several songs. We'll hear that sometime soon on FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross.