Mark T. Small,
Smokin' Blues
(Lead Foot, 2014)

As titles go, Smokin' Blues is what you'd expect to see on an instantly disposable, tossed-together-with-a-shovel sampler in the small CD section of a Kmart-like box store. As the first review CD to show up in my mail in the New Year, though, it gives me cause for hope that 2014 will be a happy year in roots music. Yes, I know, it's not rational to come to so sweeping a conclusion on so little evidence, but in this extraordinarily bitter Midwestern winter I'll take what I can get.

Mark T. Small is an acoustic blues guitarist who possesses, unusually, a background in bluegrass and Appalachian music. Most white bluesmen I hear are rockers at heart, unversed in the traditional genres from which blues emerged in the late 19th century, when white and black players borrowed and learned from each other. An exemplary flat- and finger-picker, Small feels something like a blues Doc Watson. What old ballads and country songs were for Watson, the blues strain of African American music is for Small, who teases out the common thread that ties the original folk blues of the 1880s to the r&b of the 1960s.

At the same time he nods to the Grand Ole Opry's Sam McGee ("Railroad Blues") and concludes with an enchanting "America Medley" of "America the Beautiful," "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "Yankee Doodle." You might think immediately of John Fahey, but Small cites the influences of Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Blind Blake in his arrangement.

The album opens with the standard "Step It Up & Go," which in Small's rendering has the swagger of a rockabilly tune beat out on acoustic guitar. Like most of Smokin's dozen cuts it's a solo outing, but on two numbers older men with ties to blues' long history accompany him. On "Walkin' the Dog" it's Shor'ty Billups, who played with Rufus Thomas, Etta James and Wilson Pickett. Elmore James Jr. joins Small on a version of Sr.'s classic "Early in the Morning." My favorite piece, however, is the spiritual "Lamp Trimmed & Burning" -- I associate it with Blind Willie Johnson; Small cites Mississippi Fred McDowell -- in a reading that moves and rivets even alongside the originals' stiff competition.

It needs to be stressed that Small's approach is very much his own, so deeply schooled in the genre's various styles that he's fully capable of fashioning his own. His vocals are Mark Small's, in other words not like some imagined rural Southern black man's. Though immersed in history and tradition, what we get here is Small music, and that feels like a big thing. And if after hearing it you want more, there's also Blacks, Whites & the Blues, which I reviewed here on 26 November 2011.

music review by
Jerome Clark

8 February 2014

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