Andy Cohen,
Built Right on the Ground
(Earwig, 2010)

It would take a misanthropic member of the human species indeed not to like this charming, low-key solo recording. Built Right on the Ground -- taken from the album's opener, a song by old-time bluesman Teddy Darby -- describes Andy Cohen's musical personality, which is shaped by deeply rooted blues, folk, hillbilly and early jazz, not to mention nimble guitar picking of the sort that Cohen causes to sound deceptively simple.

Cohen has been around for decades, keeping (or anyway never rising above) a low profile, better known to his fellow musicians than to a larger musical public. Boston born, he lives these days in Memphis, where he gets better at what he's already done well, which is to carry on and refine the venerable guitar styles of Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee and the like, while putting a lot of himself into his music and turning to stride and boogie-woogie piano now and again. I've heard a lot of boring, second-rate acoustic musicians try to do the same. Cohen is neither boring nor second rate, and Built Right is just that: a pleasant, comfortable, sturdy place to be.

Another thing Cohen isn't, God bless him, is a singer-songwriter. This CD features but one original, an instrumental called "Jim Dickinson Stomp" after the legendary roots-music producer and performer who died in 2009. The other 14 cuts are creatively reimagined songs and tunes, some relatively well known, others not so, from the likes of Memphis Minnie (her famous "Me & My Chauffeur"), Jimmie Rodgers ("My Old Pal" and "Miss the Mississippi & You" from Rodgers's pop, non-blues repertoire) and Meade Lux Lewis (the boogie-woogie piano classic "'Honky Tonk Train").

Perhaps the most obscure choice is another piano number, "Shake-a-you-Boogie," this one learned from Blind Jim Brewer, a now-deceased Chicago bluesman and songster who played the folk clubs when I lived in that city; as a plus, William Lee Ellis's liner notes provide a hilarious accompanying anecdote. The album closes with the finest version of the late Bobby Charles's "Tennessee Blues" that I ever expect to hear, sung in a duet with Cohen's wife Larkin Bryant.

Cohen delivers the words in a charismatic growl of a voice, the kind that I associate with the most entertaining raconteurs. He has, moreover, the presence of mind to retrieve Woody Guthrie's acidically humorous "Mean Talkin' Blues" from the memory hole. Though written in the 1940s, it is so scarily precise a portrayal of the mind-set of many 21st-century Americans -- you'll find them at your nearest Tea Party, or maybe closer -- that your breath will still and a chill will fall upon your heart. But in a good way.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 January 2011

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