Fruteland Jackson – Good As Your Last Dollar
Electro-Fi Records– 2019
12 tracks; 50 minutes
Fruteland Jackson has been on the scene for over thirty years and is a writer and educator (a significant contributor to Blues In The Schools programs), as well as a working musician. He has played with many of the great acoustic musicians, mostly sadly no longer with us: Honeyboy Edwards, Homesick James and Henry Townsend, to name just three and, in recent times, is a cancer survivor. Indeed, this is his first release for some time and it is a welcome return. Although based in Chicago, Fruteland went to Toronto to record this album, aided by a solid cast of Canadian players, many regular contributors to Electro-Fi recordings: Jack De Keyser is on guitar, Harrison Kennedy harp and backing vocals, Bucky Berger drums and percussion and Alec Fraser bass; Julian Fauth adds occasional piano. Alec also produced the disc which has crystal clear sound in which you can hear every instrumental nuance. Fruteland wrote half the material, two being reworkings of older songs, with three ‘Traditional’ songs and covers of Johnny Shines, Robert Johnson and Johnny Nicholas.
We open with Johnny Shines’ “Two Steps To Hell”, a real ‘down on your luck’ blues with tales of hard times and “hellhounds on my tail”. The traditional “When Death Comes Creepin’ In” does little to lighten the mood, despite the uptempo accompaniment of mandolin, piano and guitar and Harrison’s excellent backing vocals which act as a counterpoint to Fruteland’s lead. Fruteland’s “Good As Your Last Dollar” is a classic song for a period of economic depression, a time when a man’s word no longer has value, only hard cash: “Cash in hand beats a payment plan and you’ll never fall behind”. Fruteland gives “Careless Love” a Delta makeover with Harrison’s spiky low-end harp buzz beneath the jagged piano and mandolin before Fruteland revisits a song he first released back in 1995, “All The Dad I Had”, in which Fruteland’s father is revealed as a guy who never praised his son’s achievements, but you have to make the best of what you have in life.
Julian’s stately piano leads us into the excellent spoken-word piece “How’s It Going?”, as Fruteland details all his problems, presumably in answer to the question, another song about the economic downturn and its consequences for the ordinary guy. The pace picks up with the full band present on “All Pain, No Gain”, though the theme of “the great depression” is again the core element of the lyrics. The traditional “Just Another Day” is beautifully played with Harrison’s counterpoint vocals again a key ingredient, giving an appropriately gospel feel to the song. The jaunty guitar intro to “Damaged Goods” belies another dark song, this time about failing relationships and their effect on children involved.
The Stones’ version of “Love In Vain” is probably the best known cover of the song but Fruteland returns it to its Robert Johnson roots in a quiet arrangement, Fruteland’s guitar and Harrison’s harp in deep blues conversation. Johnny Nicholas’ “Peace In Hell” is the confession of a condemned man who realizes he has made a mess of this life, so bring on his inevitable journey down below: “I’ll be glad to get to Hell where I can lay by the fire and rest”. To close out the album Fruteland gives us an unaccompanied work song “Blues 2.0”. Although it’s a re-release (‘by popular request’) it fits well with the theme of most of the album here.
This is a fine acoustic album, albeit not the most lyrically cheerful! In the sleeve notes Fruteland links all the songs into one brilliant narrative and anyone who enjoys well-crafted acoustic blues is strongly recommended to pick up the album and admire those notes.