Mike Stevens
& Raymond McLain,
Old Time Mojo
(Borealis, 2004)

Mike Stevens is an innovative harmonica player, and Raymond McLain is a longtime bluegrass multi-instrumentalist (McLain Family Band, Jim & Jesse's Virginia Boys). On Old Time Mojo the two, sans backing musicians, revisit at-first-sight drearily familiar titles from the bluegrass, trad-country and Southern-folk songbook. "Dueling Banjos"? "Blues Stay Away from Me"? "Wabash Cannonball"? "Footprints in the Snow"? Huh? What, one growls, is this anyway?

Stevens has a big, full-force harmonica sound. One expects as much from a blues player, but Stevens's interests are in the sort of music one would have heard on the Grand Old Opry from the 1920s through the 1950s. While hardly unknown -- African-American songster DeFord Bailey was known for his old-time rural harp playing -- the harmonica did not occupy a place of any special prominence on the Opry. Apparently, the Canadian-born Stevens, who often performs there, means to change that.

Usually singing in a pleasant tenor voice, McLain handles the other instruments and provides distinctive, sometimes strikingly unexpected arrangements. The two dare to revive the frequently covered folk song "In the Pines," the Louvin Brothers' "Cash on the Barrelhead," Bob Wills' "Take Me Back toTulsa" and more that you thought you had heard quite enough of, thanks. Stevens & McLain, bless 'em, persuade you otherwise. The one semi-surprise -- not a whole one since Jim & Jesse once recorded a successful bluegrass version -- is the roaring, full-blooded banjo-and-harmonica romp on the Chuck Berry-penned bar-band staple "Johnny B. Goode."

Two musicians of lesser gifts could easily have embarrassed themselves and us, but these guys, who have brains, imagination and chops aplenty, do no such thing. Not even close. I'll bet they're even more entertaining in concert.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 16 July 2005

[ visit Mike Stevens' website ]

[ visit Raymond McLain's website ]

Buy it from Amazon.com.