10 songs/33 minutes
There are two basic modern country blues styles, and they’re kind of obvious: the archivist, a musician who faithfully recreates the classic pre-war styles, e.g. Catfish Keith, Chris Thomas King; and, the interpreter, a musician who uses the pre-war styles as a template for self-expression, often drastically changing the original music, e.g. Kelly Joe Phelps, Taj Mahal, and the undisputed master of the style John Hammond. North Carolina based Jon Shain’s Gettin’ Handy with the Blues lives somewhere between these two schools. Shain takes classic ragtime tunes written or associated with W.C. Handy, mostly originally recorded with a second line style horn section and piano, and turns them into faithful solo guitar country blues workouts a la the genius inventions of Blind Blake or Mississippi John Hurt.
Gettin’ Handy with the Blues is a masterpiece of acoustic guitar finger-picking. Recorded over two days in October at FJ Ventre’s Good Luck Studio in Chapel Hill, NC, this album came about through a collaboration between the artist and the Craven Arts Council and Gallery in New Bern, NC. Shain’s picking of a beautiful National Triolian guitar is flawless. His transcription of these often flamboyant original pieces into very traditional pre-war style guitar arrangements is inventive.
Complicated fingerings of melodies and harmonies that would break a lesser guitarist (this guitarist included), are played with clarity, dynamics and genuine feeling. This skillful execution is in full effect on the vibrant romp through “Beale Street Blues.” There is plucky plucking of bass lines and intricate lacy melody lines. The 12 bar form chugs through variations that echo the ever changing choruses indicative of the original ragtime. The sole instrumental piece on this record, the originally cacophonous horn mayhem of “Fuzzy Wuzzy Rag,” is mutated into a pastoral meditation on melody and form. Brash horn parts turned into elegant runs epitomizes the central conceit of this record.
One of my favorite tracks is “Joe Turner Blues.” I am a sucker for a good slow blues and Shain’s version of the Joe Turner trope is a beautiful mournful statement of infidelity, under-appreciation and associated paranoia. This is Shain’s best vocal performance on the record, expressive and laying it all on the line. Another impressive stand out is the guitar performance on “St. Louis Blues.” Percussive and emotive, Shain works through razor sharp Django like strumming into mindbogglingly precise finger-picking while singing live over this guitar master class.
It takes a lot of guts to cover music that was first recorded and defined by vocal powerhouse OG Divas such as Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters. Shain delivers the 9 vocal pieces here with a steady mid range tenor. Think about a less affected Ry Cooder or a less lived in Mississippi John Hurt. It seems to me that the focus of this record was to imbue the guitar playing with all the fire and power of the source material. Maybe the concentration and attention needed to play these pieces did not allow Shain to put as much blood into his vocals. Shain’s back catalogue shows he is a sensitive artist with a powerful and unique vocal delivery. The singing is clean and supportive of the songs. But, lyrical poetry like “Crazy Blues” or the ubiquitous “St. Louis Blues” so powerfully delivered by Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith respectively just don’t have that original yearning manic vocal drive here.
The majority of the songs on this record are in a medium tempo. This is the perfect tempo to allow Shain to fully develop his guitar arrangements and clearly land every finger busting fingering. However, some of the songs would benefit from a little more speed. “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues” would have more pop and groove with just a pinch more speed. The insistent riff of “Beale Street Blues” would be just that more urgent if it was a touch faster. The relatively tight range of tempo coupled with the limited palette of guitar and voice make a bit of a hypnotic experience listening to this record in one sitting. This is an album that rewards multiple listenings and taking each song individually. When you take each song as its own unique piece the marvelous artistry and craftsmanship in each performance shines through.
Shain goes for broke on this record flexing his finger-picking muscles. The press on this record states that this is his first solo guitar outing. Maybe he will start recording some of his own fantastic songs in this solo guitar format and fully embrace the interpreter side of his muse. Until then spend some quality time letting Jon Shain guide you through the magic and majesty of W. C Handy.