VizzTone Label Group VTHW-001
15 songs – 62 minutes
The blues world is an interesting place – both because of the musicians who make the music and the diversity of sounds that emerge when different musical styles seemingly collide. The latter’s the case for this different and extremely interesting production, which combines some of the biggest names in North Mississippi Hill Country blues with a trio of Europeans who’ve melded French folk music with the American sound they’ve come to love.
Muddy Gurdy is composed of a trio who reinvented themselves after a successful folk career in France under the moniker of Hypnotic Wheels. The unit includes Tia Gouttebel on guitar and vocals, Marc Glomeau on percussion and Gilles Chabenat, who provides vocals in addition to playing the hurdy-gurdy, the instrument that provides half of the band’s name.
Commonly played on the Continent, but not often heard in the Western World, the hurdy-gurdy is an instrument driven by a hand crank that functions like a violin bow as turns a rosined wheel against its strings. An attached keyboard enables the musician to alter pitch to play melodies. It’s often compared to a bagpipe because of its multiple drone strings, and it was immortalized in song by Donovan in his 1968 hit, “Hurdy-Gurdy Man.”
The group produced their first blues-hurdy gurdy album as Hypnotic Wheels in 2014, and have planned this release since 2015, when Glomeau struck upon the idea of traveling to Mississippi to cement the union of musical styles that often had been compared to one another, but never fused before.
Muddy Gurdy was recorded live and on location without augmentation at homes in Como, at the Highway 61 Museum in Leland, Dockery Farms in Cleveland and Club Ebony in Indianola and includes contributions from a quartet of younger generation Hill Country stars, all of whom contribute vocals: Sharde Thomas (fife), Cedric Burnside, Cameron Kimbrough and Pat Thomas (guitars).
Produced by Chantilly Negra and recorded on an eight-microphone preamp and mixed on computer by Pierre Blanchi, the release includes tunes written by all three of the Missisippians and covers of songs penned by several legends.
“Tia In The Rocking Chair” opens the set, and is exactly as titled: 46 seconds of peace, quiet and the sound of Gouttebel rocking gently in her seat on a porch. It’s a great mood setter for R.L. Burnside’s “Goin’ Down South,” which follows. From the first notes of this one, you realize quickly that this trio understand their medium and deliver it with great feel. Chabenat’s hurdy-gurdy mimics guitar lines in a warm, haunting manner as he trades licks with Gouttebel’s guitar atop a repetitive drum pattern. Gilles and Tia share vocals, and the hurdy-gurdy adds new, deep sounds to the traditional feel.
The instrument takes on the air of a violin as Cedric takes to the mike for his uptempo original “That Girl IS Bad,” which would keep folks up and moving on any juke dance floor, driven by syncopated drum patterns and his acoustic runs on slide. He also handles vocals for dad R.L.’s “See My Jumper Hanging On The Line” and Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ And Tumblin’,” delivered much like the acoustic 1940s original, but taken to a different level because by the hurdy-gurdy sound.
Fife and drum master Otha Turner’s “Station Blues” is up next, aided by granddaughter Sharde. Her voice graces his one as well as her own “Shawty Blues,” a moving ballad about chasing a dream but being misunderstood by the older generation, and a hurdy-gurdy and fife-powered take on the traditional “Glory Glory Hallelujah,” delivered in Hill Country style.
Cameron Kimbrough’s at the mike next for a cover of his original, “Leave Her Alone,” which has a more modern feel with him on electric guitar, and a droning take on granddad Junior’s “Gonna Love You.” Pat Thomas, son of the legendary James “Son” Thomas, joins the action for his ballad “Dream” before Tia holds her own on vocals for an uptempo cover of Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “She Wolf,” Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Shake ‘Em On Down” and Charles Singleton’s “Help The Poor” before a 3-minute, 45-second outro entitled “Highway 61,” which includes sounds of crickets, traffic and a solitary singer/picker delivering “Standing At The Crossroads,” brings the disc to a close.
If you love Hill Country blues, you’ll love this hour-long CD, which is available through most major retailers. The two art forms combine seamlessly and the production will have you feeling like you’re kicking back with the musicians on a warm summer’s eve. If you prefer your tunes urban and electrified, however, this one is definitely worth a listen but might be outside your comfort zone.