Bluff City Backsliders,
Bluff City Backsliders
(Yellow Dog, 2002)

Attempts to revive the jug-band tradition fail more often than succeed, the effort seldom more than well-scrubbed, too well-intentioned imitations of the originals ("race" 78s recorded in various Southern cities mostly in the 1920s). One notable exception is Jim Kweskin's 1960s outfit -- even better than you probably remember it, as I learned awhile ago on getting reacquainted with those once-popular, now-neglected recordings.

Another happy exception is this self-titled disc, released on the tiny but always satisfying Yellow Dog label out of Memphis. Though issued four years ago, it's still available, and it's worth seeking out.

As their name indicates, these guys -- eight local blues, jazz and folk musicians -- also hail from Memphis or thereabouts. They do it right, fusing an assortment of roots sounds from that golden age of Southern music between the World Wars, adding the discreet rock 'n' roll touch here and there. The songs are all good ol' good ones, old-shoe traditionals such as "Saint James Infirmary," "Careless Love" and "Boll Weevil Blues" along with might-as-well-be traditionals from the repertoires of early bluesmen, including Charlie Patton, Sleepy John Estes and Blind Willie McTell. The band is tight but never uptight. The Backsliders put enough of themselves and their own sense of the music into what they're doing that the sound they create, though charmingly old-time in feeling, rises above mere archivalism.

The album opens with the band's fiery take on Howlin' Wolf's ".44 Blues" (or at least Wolf's collation of found materials under that title). Wolf's style was so distinctive that one follows in his tracks only if one is supremely -- or foolishly -- confident. Because they are not fools, the Backsliders put no time into pretending to be Wolf, or even a lupine cousin, and the propulsive sound that is the consequence kicks and teases, winks and leers, and would bestow grit and grace to any beer joint, dance hall or street corner. Nothing that follows it does any less. As the saying goes, you have to be damn good to make it look easy.

by Jerome Clark
15 July 2006

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