Sleepy John Estes,
On 80 Highway
(Delmark, 2008)

Don't let the copyright date fool you. On 80 Highway was recorded in 1973 just prior to Sleepy John's tour of Japan. Not that the recording date makes much difference; there is a consistency to Estes' work that makes it all sound as if had been recorded about three days after Ralph Peer's first trip to Bristol in search of talent.

Sleepy John Estes is nothing if not traditional. His guitar style comes from the early acoustic guys like Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee. In fact, with Estes and harmonica wizard Hammie Nixon being the only players on the session, the CD sounds remarkably like an early Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee set.

Let me be clear here; I am not accusing these guys of ripping off Sonny and Brownie. They do, though, share certain similarities, and that's not a bad thing when you consider that the qualities they share are a relaxed virtuosity -- both men are masters of their style of playing and neither feels the compulsion to show off. They let the playing speak for itself.

They are also, like McGhee and Terry, virtuoso storytellers, both in music and in speech. The CD features between-tracks chatter between the two men in which they swap stories with a delight and gusto that is contagious. Also there is what you'd have to describe as a sophisticated primitivism to their playing and singing; on the surface, what they're doing seems artless and wispy, but as it plays you begin to realize just how artful it really is.

Both of these guys were masters and it's good to have this CD available.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

17 January 2009

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