John Lee Hooker – The Country Blues Of John Lee Hooker | Album Review

John Lee HookerThe Country Blues Of John Lee Hooker

Craft Recordings

LP Release

Side A – 7 Tracks/22:20

Side B – 6 Tracks/19:46

One of the true legendary figures in blues music, John Lee Hooker’s career spanned more than six decades, with his first recording getting cut in 1948 for Modern Records. One generation of blues fans discovered Hooker through his collaboration with Canned Heat, the Hooker & Heat package. For others, the film The Blues Brothers was their first encounter with the king of the boogie beat. Nine years after that, he released The Healer with guests including Carlos Santana and Bonnie Raitt, earning a Grammy Award and achieving a level of acclaim and success that endured until his passing in 2001.

While these were all high points in his career, people often forget that Hooker started out as an acoustic performer. He honed his skills as a young man playing house parties and working on Beale Street in Memphis before relocating to Detroit in 1943, where he played in clubs on the city’s famous Hastings Street, eventually making the switch to electric guitar in order to generate the requisite volume needed to be heard from the stages he was working. In 1959, Riverside Records went to Detroit to record Hooker alone with just an acoustic guitar, taking him back to the start of his career. This reissue is cut from the original master tapes on 180-gram vinyl, complete with a reproduction of the original album cover and liner notes.

Hearing Hooker in this unadorned format is a revelation. While he was never a master technician on guitar, Hooker consistently lays down a strong rhythmic foundation on most tracks. On others, he picks out brief flurries of notes in response to his vocal musings. The opening track, “Black Snake,” features Hooker’s deep, weathered voice over a strummed accompaniment, exuding a primal sexuality that is also present on “Wobblin’ Baby,” which glides along at a brisk pace. On “She’s Long, She’s Tall, She Weeps Like A Willow Tree,” he sings the praises of his love interest. The imagery is familiar but Hooker injects plenty of feeling into the tune. Trains have always been a part of the blues legacy, and Hooker sings dejectedly about the one that took his baby away on “Pea Vine Special”.

Hooker recorded “Tupelo Blues,” about the great Mississippi flood of 1927, the worst flood in US history, several times during his career. The version here is a brooding, understated masterpiece as Hooker slowly tells the tale, adding a few moans to punctuate the sense of the rising devastation. On the following track, “Prison Bound,” the anguish is far more personal as he says good-bye, facing a life sentence. “I Rowed My Little Boat” returns to the flood theme, the storm raging, the children crying, and Hooker struggling to find safety.

“Water Boy” takes the listener into the vista of chain-gang labor, Hooker pleading for liquid relief from the effects of the brutal heat and work. Another standout track finds Hooker dealing with another common theme “Church Bell Tone,” laying down a performance of deep textures that expresses his anguish over the death of a loved one. Hooker works his magic on two classics, “Bundle Up And Go,” and “Good Mornin’, Lil’ School Girl,” which at the time of the recording had not been played time and time again. On the final track, “Behind The Plow,” one can sense that Hooker is harking back to his life at younger age, revisiting a hard way of living on a farm where nothing is easy.

Sonically, the album places Hooker and his guitar right there in front of you, especially if you are listening on a quality hi-fi system. You can hear the details of his fingering and picking while his voice envelops your consciousness, the timing and rhythm in a constant state of flux to suit Hooker’s moods. A top-notch re-issue in all aspects, this one should be heard by any John Lee Hooker or acoustic blues fans that still make a place in their world for vinyl albums.

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