Grady Champion,
Bootleg Whiskey
(Malaco, 2014)

Back in the early '90s, a rapper named DC Gold heard the music of Sonny Boy Williamson and got his life turned around. Gold learned to play harmonica, as his new idol did, and transformed himself into a blues musician, taking back his real name, Grady Champion. It was a good move, resulting in a string of fine albums, a bagful of awards and a strong following on the club and festival circuit.

Now Grady Champion, billed as the Mississippi Blues singer, has signed with Mississippi's Malaco Records and released one of his best albums yet. Bootleg Whiskey showcases Champion's range, spotlighting him in a set of hard-rocking blues, ballads, r&b and a touch of gospel. The title song is an updated '40s jump blues novelty number about a man who goes to a small town, asks his friend who lives there to find him the action and winds up with "bootleg whiskey in a cheap motel." It's funny, bluesy, old school and down home, simultaneously with an r&b kick that could have come from Louis Jordan. "South Side," a medium-tempo blues, is about a phenomenon that Champion observes: whatever town you're in, the action is on the south side. The album contains the obligatory songs of men and women done wrong, of love lost and found as well as a song celebrating the mystery of it all, "Who Dat?"

And then there's "White Boy With the Blues," a gospel-tinged number. The song opens with an organ-led church band riffing, which leads into "Amazing Grace," sung by the Crowns of Joy. After a chorus, the vocal group settles into the background and the organ continues to lead the melody as Grady enters with a recitation about a chance encounter the singer had when he was a kid with a young white boy, whom he befriended but could never really get to know. He tells the boy's story, leading up to his death, his funeral and the effect this boy's lost life had on the community when the Crowns of Joy come back in with "Precious Memory," as a leadout.

In this song, the full magic of the album is revealed. It's a deceptively strong song about friendship, lost kids, times a little tougher than the people who have to live in them, racial relations, harmony and unity. Mostly, though, it's about the spirit. You can't say that the tune is about a spiritual experience because in truth it is a spiritual experience.

"White Boy With the Blues" by itself is reason enough to buy this record. The fact is, though, Bootleg Whiskey offers 10 more very good reasons.

music review by
Michael Scott Cain

29 November 2014

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