Trudy Lynn,
I'll Sing the Blues for You
(Connor Ray, 2016)

Mighty Sam McClain,
Time & Change
(City Hall, 2016)

Mighty Sam McClain, who died in June 2015, was among the last of the old-school soul singers. While he never had a popular hit, he worked steadily, won a shelf's worth of blues-community awards, and released the occasional album. (I reviewed his Too Much Jesus [Not Enough Whiskey] here on 16 February 2013.) Since Time & Change is identified on the cover as "Last Recordings," presumably there will be no more.

Much of the album conveys an autumnal air, a looking backward at things -- this being soul, romantic relationships -- vanished and irretrievable. The title song, written with Pat Herlehy, is the stand-out, in good part because the love-lost theme is only the surface narrative. Beneath it is the larger truth that faces all who make it to their later years: that your life has not gone as you would have wished or predicted and that you survived (and survive) by accepting as much and moving at fate's direction. A strong vocalist, McClain yet knew how to keep his voice in check in order to tell the story, not to draw attention to himself. The result is 11 compelling performances of well-crafted tunes, mostly co-writes with Herlehy.

In its heyday in the 1960s, soul, which fused the once-incompatible genres of blues and gospel, was music for teenagers. McClain's music, however, addresses the challenges of adults. The narrators are persons who are far from new to the misfortunes that have befallen them even as they confront the reality that heartbreak hurts at whatever age it strikes. McClain's performances are never less than riveting and resonant. Those of us who had the chance to hear him, and those who will hear him for the first time on this disc, will miss him.

I'll Sing the Blues for You Trudy Lynn promises, and so she does. Based in Houston, Lynn is an older African-American woman immersed in the music and steeped in its history. I'll Sing is my idea of what a blues album ought to be. The band is there not to broadcast bombast but to support the singer to the best of its ability. And the singer is not there to show off, either; it's clear that Lynn has powerful pipes, but as a fully mature observer she understands that life is not lived at shatter-the-windows volume. The best blues evokes the way we make it through the world and the way we make sense of what happens to us. Which is to say that there is a hugely charming conversational quality to Lynn's delivery of a song, in the fashion of a friend who's confiding lust and loss, pain and resignation.

Along with her superior singing she is well-read in the deep blues catalogue and able to draw from it in full command of the material. Here are fairly obscure numbers from Big Mama Thornton, Memphis Minnie and Lowell Fulson, among others. Actually, Minnie songs show up twice. One is her late-career "Kissin' in the Dark," a celebration of ... well, you can figure it out for yourself; a worldly listener will decode the metaphor without undue strain. More important, it happens to be a very fine song, and because it's seldom covered, Lynn's choice is all the more welcome. She even fashions a bluesy reading of the hard-core country "Honky Tonk Song," a Mel Tillis composition associated with George Jones.

Call me cranky, but in my blues listening I prefer the real deal, not the tiresome drivel pounded out by rock-guitar knuckleheads who act as if they're creating some updated variant of the genuine article. Lynn wouldn't recognize artifice if she saw it. If blues is truth, she's as honest a living blues singer as they come.

music review by
Jerome Clark

14 January 2017

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