Catfish Keith – Mississippi River Blues | Album Review

Catfish Keith – Mississippi River Blues

Fish Tail Records

14 tracks

I first became aware of Catfish Keith about a dozen years ago at the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival.  He was exuberant, reserved yet confident and one hell of a picker.  He played his regular gig and then demoed the National Reso-Phonic Guitar they were raffling off, so I got to see him and hear him several times that weekend and many times since.  This is his 16th album, a remarkable feat for any artist,  and features a couple of originals and a dozen other songs that Keith has reworked or put his spin on.

Recorded in summer 2016 at Luke Tweedy’s Flat Black Studios in Iowa City, Keith records his first song ever on the Resolele, a resophonic ukulele prototype made by Pete Howlett.  Managed by his wife, Penny Cahill, Catfish Keith has performed and toured the globe for almost 30 years.

The album opens to “It Won’t Be Long Now,” a Frank Stokes  song that predates Memphis Blues.   Catfish picks at his Santa Cruz Catfish Special and seems to enjoy both the song and guitar.    He howls the vocal lines with aplomb. “Just Can’t Keep from Cryin’ Sometimes” is a Blind Willie Johnson song and done on a National Gold Dueco Baritone Tricone.  It’s got a beautiful, stinging tone that Keith draws out of it.  The Mississippi Shieks’ “Please Baby” is next.  He plays two guitars and sings two parts and pulls it off nicely.  The first original “Telling You Pretty Mama” is inspired by Blind Blake.  Back to the Santa Cruz guitar, Keith picks and runs up and down the fret board sweetly.  It’s got a pretty, down home sound and the song and lyrics are great. Johnny Horton’s “Sleepy Eyed John” is the uke resonator and sounds cool.  He approached it like playing a banjo and it sounds really nice.  The vocals here are the best of the first five songs, too! “Reefer Hound” done on a 12-string is done as if he’s been blowing reefer, sounding a little high and spooky to cool effect.  The guitar is primal and the vocals are interesting.  The title track is Jimmie Rogers and the cut is dedicated to his wife’s deceased brother who left us in 2014.  Nice finger picking and down home style, Keith recreates it and yodels as he did at Billy Cahill’s funeral.

J.B. Lenoir’s “The Whale Swallowed Jonah” is up next.  The Faribanks F-10 Nick Licas has a neat tone and Keith picks with abandon. “Cancion Mixteca” follows, a traditional Oaxacan waltz.  Keith does it as a slide instrumental  on the Tricone and it has a deep and beautiful sound as he glides across the streets with three beats to a measure.  “Jumpin’ Jack Rabbit” is played on his National Radio Tone Bendaway and it has a straight up and cool sound.  Vocally one of the better cuts, Keith sings with passion on this second original.  “Candyman” is next up, Mississippi John Hurt’s classic.  Playing the Special again, it’s got a rich tone and Keith does it justice. “weed” is the second vut of that subject, his arrangement of Bea Foote’s tune.  The 12 string is played with hesitation to make the sound sound tentative and secretive.  Keith again impressed here. “Mama Don’t You Sell It, Papa Don’t You Give It Away” is poetry from Oscar Buddy Woods.  Keith and his Tricone make this one special.   “Shake Sugaree” is a beautiful number sung with emotion and played with equal effect.  The set concludes with it, a fine ending.

This is a fine acoustic guitar album.  The picking and playing are exceptional. My one big complaint throughout is that there are times when Keith sounds like he’s trying to sing like an 80 year old Delta Blues Man. It begins to sound forced and fake, like he’s trying too hard and that he’s out of his wheelhouse.  In his natural voice the songs flow evenly and sound much better.  Maybe it’s just me.  The playing throughout is marvelous.  Few can make a guitar do what Catfish Keith does. This is a fine acoustic blues album that fans of that style will rally to!

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