Paul Cowley – Stroll Out West | Album Review

Paul Cowley – Stroll Out West

Self – Released

12 Tracks – 51 minutes

Paul Cowley is a blues musician who grew up in Birmingham – England, not Alabama. He discovered the blues late in life when in his early 40’s he first heard Lightnin’ Hopkins’ album Coffee House Blues. He said, “It was like flipping a switch.” He was particularly further influenced by acoustic country blues performed by songwriters and storytellers such as Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell and others.

In Birmingham, he sharpened his skills on the guitar, meanwhile being instrumental in the formation of a blues club, The Sutton Blues Collective, which booked artists such as Guy Davis, Doug MacLeod, and Watermelon Slim. After ten years, he decided to pursue the blues life for himself. He moved from Birmingham to southern Brittany in France, where he chose a very rural space with a granite barn. That barn with its great acoustics became his recording studio for his most recent five albums. According to his web site, he has released a total of eight albums, the first dating back to 2005.

The title of his new album Stroll Out West comes from a line he heard from Robert Petway’s Catfish Blues. He felt that the title referenced his own gradual westward moves in life. He regularly tours around France and does a few extra shows in England and Belgium. The album is mostly just the smooth singing voice of Paul and the fine work with his guitar. Pascal Ferrari mixed and mastered the album and does add some backing instrumentation with bass, percussion and additional guitar on seven of the twelve songs. The final mastered tracks were delivered to Paul on New Years Eve 2022 and sets the stage for Paul’s next step in 2023. Seven original songs are mixed together with five covers that Paul rearranged to fit his style.

The opening track describes his idea of the perfect woman on “My Kinda Girl”, as “one who will help me when I am down”.  He declares he is “On My Way” as he looks to the future. According to his notes, the next song is a “mischievous not malicious song about a neighbor” who is “Nosey”.  “World Gone Crazy” describes the current world political scene in a descriptive manner that probably many around the word feel today.  Everything is “upside down, inside out” and he observes that it is “mankind’s continued sleepwalk into its own demise”.

Skip James’ classic “Special Rider Blues” is the first cover. Paul’s interpretation slows the song down and adds slide guitar into the mix to make it his own. Paul says that he was enamored by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Tracks of My Tears” for decades. He turns the tune into a quiet acoustic version while maintaining a soulful approach to the song. Pascal’s drum adds some welcome rhythm.

Paul credits his friend Jim Crawford, a fellow musician with whom he occasionally performs as providing the inspiration for “Songs of Love”. He says that those songs “just come down from above”. Paul’s father passed away in 2021, which led him to the realization that ” Life Is Short” and “just how fleeting and precious life is”.

“Stagger Lee” has significantly different versions written over the years and performed by many different artists. What is known about the song is that at Christmas 1895 in St. Louis, Billy Lyons was shot down by “Stag” Lee Shelton. A song titled “Stack-a-Lee” about the murder was first mentioned in an 1897 newspaper as being performed by Prof. Charlie Lee, the piano thumper. However, it is generally known that there were many folk songs circulating about the event at the time with other variant names.  The first publication of the song occurred in 1911 and the first recording of the song was by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians in 1923 using the title “Stack O’ Lee Blues”. While the true origins of the song are certainly nebulous, the well-known song has long enamored many musicians over the decades. Here Paul chose to use a 1928 version by Mississippi John Hurt as the basis for his arrangement.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, a line from Robert Petway’s “Catfish Blues” provided the title for this album. Paul mixes some slide and electric guitar into his version of the song. Paul finishes the album with Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues” providing some great slide guitar. The song famous for its description of the blues as “a low-down achin’ chill” is an apt finish for the album.

Paul’s warm vocals blend his affinity for smooth understated acoustic guitar to provide some of the finest country styled blues I have heard in a while. While he has never been to Mississippi, he certainly has studied well at the feet of the masters.

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