Steve James,
Short Blue Stories
(Hobemian, 2009)

Veteran folk-bluesman Steve James is a master of the full-bodied, down-home sound of resonator guitar, 12-string and mandolin, with slide featured on most of Short Blue Stories' cuts. If he sounds like a voice from the 1930s, I guess that makes him a prophet gazing into the near future. Before you know it -- in the unlikely event you hadn't noticed already -- all of us may be living in the 1930s.

In any event, James is so good at what he does that a CD bearing his name is all but critic-proof. The playing is intense, and so is the singing, and if neither is "pretty" in any ordinary sense, that is not, after all, what you come to old-time blues for. You come for the laid-bare emotions and the soulful storytelling, and James does not disappoint. You come for the steely, in-the-tradition songwriting, and the man gives it to you. You also get a welcome dash of droll James humor in "Folk Radio," which is about exactly that, where "the deejay has such a soft voice" and you hear "bluegrass and Irish music, country blues and Cajun bands, and folk singers who write lyrics this poor boy can't understand." Happily, all of James's lyrics are entirely understandable.

He also conjures up noteworthy readings of some country-blues classics, "Judge Harsh Blues" (Furry Lewis), "Dough Roller" (Garfield Akers) and "Worried Blues" (Frank Hutchison). I hadn't heard "Factory Girl" -- the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards song, not the traditional ballad -- in decades, but setting it inside a gritty finger-picking arrangement, James convinces me that it is well worth reviving. He also covers "Reckon I Did," by a fellow Texan, the up-and-coming country-folk singer Jonathan Byrd; one wishes Dave Van Ronk were around to put down his own interpretation. That goes, too, for James' "Birmingham Steel," a lyrical non-blues piece that could easily pass for a century-old Southern working-man's lament, but which also evokes the new hard times of 2009.

On all but three of the cuts, James performs solo. On the remainder -- one of them an especially inspired choice, Lazy Lester's witty "The Same Thing Could Happen to You" -- acoustic blueswoman Del Rey fills out the sound with harmony vocals and guitar.

In short, nothing but the good stuff. I can't guarantee it'll get you through the next depression, but as the blues come down like the dark-night showers of rain, it may help you feel a little better.

review by
Jerome Clark

11 April 2009

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new