Grant Dermody and Frank Fotusky – Digging in John’s Backyard | Album Review

Grant Dermody and Frank Fotusky – Digging in John’s Backyard    


CD: 13 Songs, 45 Minutes

Styles: Tribute Album, Duo Album, Blues Covers, Acoustic Blues

Tribute albums are mixed blessings. On the one hand, they’re great ways to pay homage to one’s favorite musical artists and influences. On the other hand, they face three obstacles from the start: 1) the original songs are automatically better or at least more well-known, 2) they may not sell as well as the original works, and 3) the covers either have to be note-for-note wonders or so innovative they might as well be their own compositions. The thirteen selections on Digging in John’s Backyard, from Grant Dermody and Frank Fotusky, are inspired by their shared connection to the late John Jackson, the Virginia-bred country blues guitarist and master of the Piedmont style who gave up in 1949, only to be “rediscovered” in the 1960s.

Oddly enough, the sole track attributed to John Jackson on this CD is number seven, “Boats Up River.” The others are covers of songs by Leroy Carr (“Papa’s on the Housetop”), Sonny Boy Williamson (“Peach Tree Blues”), Carl Martin (“Good Morning Judge”) and several more. The traditional melodies of “You Better Lie Down” and “Alberta” are also included here. Yours truly thinks it would have been better to include more original material by Mr. Jackson. This duo shows much reverence for him, but their vocals and guitar delivery lack vibrance. If blues is a color, this would be pastel – mellow and gentle, but unfit for barrooms or rec rooms. The peppiest tunes on here are “Peach Tree Blues,” “Boats Up River,” and “Shake It and Break It.” The real highlight is Grant Dermody’s harmonica, however. It’s as hardscrabble-country-blues as you can get. From start to finish, it tells us how John Jackson and these two got famous.

Grant’s journey on the harp started with the wide-open, amplified Chicago sound. He first started studying and playing acoustic blues – Piedmont and Delta-style – when he was hired to teach harmonica in the mid-1990s. It was then that he first met John Jackson and John Cephas. The two master bluesmen from Virginia would become great friends and mentors. Dermody never got to record with John Jackson, but John Cephas played on Grant’s first two albums, modestly refusing any pay for his participation. Frank’s connection to Jackson has a similar trajectory: he was drawn to John’s music, eventually got to meet him, and they became great friends. It’s interesting to note that Grant and Frank didn’t meet until after John passed away in 2002. They finally got together to record as a duo and to honor their friend, mentor and spiritual guide.

Via Digging in John’s Backyard, they’ve unearthed some real gems.

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