ALT 45 Records 1004
12 songs – 54 minutes
Based in northeast Mississippi in an area that produced Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe Williams, Big Joe Shelton delivers a hard-hitting collection of sparkling originals on this self-produced album, a welcome follow-up to his well-received 2013 release, I’d Never Let Her Down.
Despite the racial divide that existed in the small Southern town where he grew up, Shelton was deeply influenced by Williams, who was a friend as well as an instructor, as well as the music emanating from musicians of color who played on the street, at picnics and tent minstrel shows.
A 2012 Blues Music Award nominee for song of the year and someone who’s been honored with inclusion on the Columbus/Catfish Alley marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, Big Joe is a powerful vocalist and solid old-school harmonica player. A regular performer at festivals across the region, he’s a recipient of a fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission, spent time in his youth in Chicago and has taken his music to England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Bulgaria.
He and his Black Prairie Blues Ambassadors — named for the fertile region from which they’re based — have been together for years. They’re led by Ben Farrell, a rock-solid guitarist who lays down driving, propulsive solos atop steady rhythm provided by bassist Ed Swan and percussionist Bob Damm. The quartet gets a helping hand here from Bobby Shannon on keys, Doug Thomas on sax and Susan Alcorn Lobato on pedal steel guitar, all of whom appeared on Big Joe’s most recent release.
All 12 tunes on this one are based on images of people, places and the culture that Shelton gathered from his travels across his beloved Mississippi and beyond. Farrell fires out of the gate with a repetitive, uptempo guitar hook to kick off the opener, “Put The Chairs In The Wagon,” delivered from the position of someone who’s spent too much time in Memphis and who needs to head back home down Highway 61.
The title tune, “Ridin’ A Chicken,” is up next. It’s a clever number with a Latin feel in which Big Joe describes seeing a woman whose legs are so skinny she appears be aboard a fowl. It evolves in praise for gals with more meat on their bones. Another fiery guitar line opens “Got So Hot,” a modern, stop-time number about sitting in the shade and chilling down at the swimming hole as the area bakes under the hot Southern summer sun.
“I Done Got Tired,” which addresses the unnecessary need for fighting and hating, follows before the steady-tempo, medium-slow shuffle “Just Let Me Bleed” describes being harangued by someone who loves only herself and continues cutting deep when there’s no need. Shelton picks up the harp for the first time on the disc to open “Inhale Blessings,” which strongly suggests that folks change their bad attitudes and start treating neighbors like brothers.
Big Joe puts aside the serious subject matter on “No Man’s Land,” a horn-propelled jump about going shopping with his wife for new lingerie and finding himself at the receiving end of unwanted glances from blue-haired ladies in their 80s. “Pool Hall Red” is a tender country blues tribute to the first musician Shelton heard in his youth. It puts his harp skills on display after being absent for most of the CD, while “Lorraine” — set up with a gospel feel and handclap chorus — pays tribute to the singer’s mom.
Big Joe’s harp provides the underlying lead for “Too Wet To Plow,” an almost psychedelic rocker about the aftermath of a flood, before “Time To Go Home” restates the ideas expressed in the opener. The album concludes with “My Future Lies Behind Me Now,” an understated ballad about time slipping away as the singer approaches his end of days.
Available online through CDBaby or Amazon, Ridin’ A Chicken provides a rich tapestry of tunes for anyone with a taste for traditional blues, full of loving glimpses of the past as well as thoroughly modern, timeless themes.