One of my favorite albums of 2017 is, surprisingly, made up entirely of old blues covers. Typically, I’m attracted to artists who produce original music. However, as a performer, I love creating exciting arrangements of other people’s songs. If a cover is simply a faithful reproduction of the original, it holds little interest for me. But if it provides a new take, a different feel, startling insights… wellsir, that can make for some mighty fine music.
Eilen Jewell, who created this album, is an amazing singer, with a sultry voice reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan or Madeline Peyroux. Her music is typically categorized as country, although it contains a variety of other influences. For her 2017 release, Down Hearted Blues, Jewell borrows songs from some of blues’ greatest artists: Lonnie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Little Walter and Otis Rush, among others. The result is both an enjoyable listen and a delightful lesson in music history.
The album opens with Charles Sheffield’s It’s Your Voodoo Working, a song that defies any attempts at listener immobility. This tune is a perfect match for Jewell’s seductive vocalizations. Not to be outdone, the instrumentalists provide some of the finest chops this side of Chesapeake Bay.
Alberta Hunter’s Down Hearted Blues is transformed into a Hank Williams Sr. soundalike, oozing those white country blues in treacly globules of gratification. Here the band is at its finest, making a seamless transition from blues to country. Of all the songs on the album, this title track is the least similar to the original.
Next up is Clarence Johnson and Betty James’ I’m a Little Mixed Up, here delivered as a mixture of bottleneck blues, rockabilly Travis-style picking and a Texas two-step. The original, performed by Betty James in 1961, sets up more of an early R&B feel, but this updating of the song is equally delicious.
For a different beast altogether, look no further than Don’t Leave Poor Me, originally sung by Big Maybelle in 1955. Here we find Latin-tinged percussion, strong vocals and killer distorted guitar. The band is once again impeccable, demonstrating a keen agility to move convincingly between styles.
Finally on today’s whirlwind tour, The Poor Girl’s Story is a song that was recorded by Moonshine Kate, one of the first female country performers to be recorded, in the early 1930s. Jewell and her band take this tune on an authentic old-timey acoustic ramble through America’s musical heartland, complete with unwashed men riding the rails and folks heading west to escape poverty and dust.
In short, Down Hearted Blues is one of the finest albums of 2017. Whether you like blues, country, folk or simply fine musicianship, this one is worth a spin. And don’t forget to check out the originals as well. Jewell said of this album, “We really love to uncover the past. It’s almost like digging for buried treasure.” And here she has already done the grunt work for you. So sit back and enjoy this treasure.