Barbara Blue – From The Shoals
Big Blue Records – 2023
13 tracks; 65 minutes
Barbara Blue has had a long career, from her native Pittsburgh,and now rejoicing in the title of ‘The Reigning Queen Of Beale Street’, recognition of a long-standing residency in Memphis. However, for this album she recorded in another famous center of Southern music, Alabama’s Muscle Shoals. The material is mainly Barbara’s own, assisted by Davor Hacic (aka Hutch) on eight songs and by Mark Narmore on three; there are also two covers. The musicians include heavy hitters like the rhythm section of Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie on drums and David Hood on bass, Clayton Ivey is on B3 and Wurlitzer, Mark Narmore is on piano, guitar duties are shared between Hutch and Will McFarlane, horns are Brad Guin on sax and Marc Franklin on trumpet; Kimbelle Helton adds backing vocals. Barbara handles all lead vocals and Jim Gaines produced the album.
There is some fine playing throughout the album and Barbara shows that she can handle soulful material, ballads and more upbeat songs. Barbara avoids over-singing or screaming and stays within her vocal range, with just a hint of grit in her delivery which works particularly well on the more soul-based songs, such as the two covers which appear together at tracks 3 and 4. “Tell Mama” is a classic and this version does not stray far from Etta James’ 1967 version, the familiar horn arrangement present and correct, Barbara delivering a vocal that is less strident than Etta’s but which works fine; three years earlier Jimmy Hughes wrote and recorded “Steal Away” (not to be confused with “Slip Away”, though both songs have similarities) and Barbara reprises the song well.
The album opens with Barbara’s tribute to “The Shoals”: “There’s a powerful magic that makes the music of The Shoals, it reaches deep down and grabs you” and references some of the greats who have recorded there, like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, all played to a funky tune with horns and a striking guitar solo. “Nutthouse Blues” is a seven minute long blues referring to Jimmy Nutt’s studio where the album was recorded with solo opportunities for the four keys and guitar players, the horns sitting this one out.
“Severed” is a soulful ballad with gospel-tinged B/V’s, co-writer Mark’s piano and slide guitar well to the fore before a rocking riff leads us into “Curse Of Beauty” a strong song which benefits from the return of the horns as Barbara seems in thrall to this attractive person. We return to the emotive ballad style with a warm “Lost Young Love” but Barbara rings the changes with the down-home and risqué “Slide Man”, appropriately featuring lots of slide guitar. Another lengthy slow blues “Too Far” finds Barbara emoting about someone for whom “your happiness will always be too far”, the extended guitar solo really catching the mood of desperation, as does the sax solo that follows. The next tune lightens the mood as the two guitars and horns exchange riffs and Barbara sounds grateful that she was “saved from the darkness” but accepts that “Nothing Lasts Forever”.
The last three songs carry significant emotional weight. “Never Stopped Loving You” does what the title suggests, the heartfelt lyrics well supported by a stately guitar solo, the last section of the song shifting into more soulful territory courtesy of the backing vocals. We then get two longer cuts which make reference to the history of the region: “Song Of The River” has a spoken vocal about someone being taken away from their home and having to walk 600 miles to get back to their river, set against stately slide guitar and a chanted vocal harmony from several members of the band; the album closes on a tougher note, a chugging rhythm, lots of moody slide and doom-laden lyrics about those who died on the journey through Mississippi, the “Trail Of Tears”.
Barbara Blue deserves to be better known. This is another strong album and the fact that it is being distributed by Chicago’s Earwig Records will perhaps give it a wider level of promotion.