various artists,
Box of the Blues
(Rounder, 2003)

2003 was definitely the Year of the Blues, due primarily to the hoopla attending the broadcast of Martin Scorsese's fine mini-series, The Blues on PBS, and the resulting release of a raft of tie-in CDs, DVDs and videos. Rounder apparently saw an opportunity to cash in on the current popularity of the genre, and well they might have, having been one of the champions of the form for many years.

The result is this Box of the Blues, a four-disc set of 60 tracks from the label, eight of which have not been previously released on CD. If you wonder how a label other than Chess or Alligator can unleash a box like this, you've forgotten the depth and richness of Rounder's (and Bullseye, their subsidiary label) blues catalogue. As I scanned the list of tracks, I was reminded anew of the investment that Rounder has made in the blues (as well as many other kinds of American roots music). This assembly of blues artists is a splendid one, with everything from the best of Delta blues through Chicago blues right up to the cream of the current crop of bluesmen and blueswomen. It's a veritable encyclopedia of the form.

The discs are roughly divided into four themes. The first, "61 Highway," pays tribute to the early artists. Here you'll find Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, Johnny Shines, Babe Stovall, Otis Spann, Cephas & Wiggins, David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Blind Willie McTell, Big Joe Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Robert Nighthawk (a track from his classic 1964 Live on Maxwell Street, one of the best blues albums ever) and others. It's a great introduction to the form, from Delta stylings to the threshold of Chicago blues.

The second CD, "One More Mile," shows how later artists developed the form by adding electric instruments and expanding the bands' sounds to solidly create Chicago-style blues. Keep in mind, however, that while the first disc is pretty much the early artists, the following three discs are less thematic. They're a delightful grab-bag, and many of the artists from one could easily slip into another. At any rate, on the second disc you'll find Carey Bell, Johnny Copeland, Jimmy Rogers, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, J.B. Hutto, Champion Jack Dupree, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and more.

"Change In My Pocket," the third disc, gives us 15 great tracks from some of the more contemporary blues players like Corey Harris, Duke Robillard, George Thorogood, Smokin' Joe Kubek and the distaff side as well, with cuts from the amazing Rory Block, Marcia Ball, Michelle Willson and Candye Kane.

The ladies are well represented on disc four as well, with Ruth Brown singing the first track on "A Good Day for the Blues," which collects the best of Rounder's soul and soul-blues recordings. This disc rocks out with the likes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Clay, Solomon Burke, Charles Brown, Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the late great Ted Hawkins, who I was delighted to see included, despite his occasional protestations that he was not a bluesman.

The sound is stellar throughout the set, the CD-sized box is sturdy, and the 52-page booklet has detailed discographical data and comments on each of the tracks, as well as a concise history of Rounder's involvement with the blues. Like many of Rounder's too-infrequent box sets, the retail price makes it practically a giveaway. Taking the quality of the music, the presentation and the price into account, this is a tidy box of treasures that belongs in every blues fan's library.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 24 January 2004

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