Omar Kent Dykes & Jimmie Vaughan,
On the Jimmy Reed Highway
(Ruf, 2007)

The eternal question: why tribute albums? A few are worthwhile, true, while most are pointless, of interest only to those listeners unfamiliar with the artist being celebrated.

Happily, On the Jimmy Reed Highway works well enough to establish its own identity independent of the celebrated. It helps, obviously, that Texans Omar Kent Dykes and Jimmie Vaughan have been playing the blues circuit all of their adult lives, and by now they're into serious middle age. They have absorbed Reed's music into skin and bone, to take its place among innumerable other influences to be reshaped inside their own informed imaginations. So they make even the warhorses -- "Baby, What You Want Me to Do/Bright Lights, Big City" (a medley here), "Big Boss Man," and "Aw Shucks, Hush Your Mouth" -- sound like something other than songs that have appeared on about a thousand blues anthologies.

Born Mathis James Reed in Mississippi in 1925, Jimmy Reed was a leading figure on the post-war Chicago blues scene and probably -- if one discounts Chuck Berry, only intermittently a bluesman -- the most commercially successful. Between 1956 and 1961, 11 of his records made it to the mid and upper reaches of the pop charts; in other words, lots of white kids were listening to him, too. Not a deep bluesman, Reed was a genially relaxed one, singing in a conversational style with a slightly slurred, easygoing vocal, punctuated by his stringy harmonica sound, the rhythm section laying down inviting, dancer-friendly swing and shuffle beats. He died in 1976, only 51 years old, of the effects of alcoholism and epilepsy. Reed's idiosyncratic approach, suspended somewhere in blues evolution between the rural Delta and the big Northern city without really belonging quite in either, still stands largely alone. His records remain eminently listenable, even if he has fallen undeservedly into an obscurity from which Dykes and Vaughan seek to rescue him.

It might be added that Reed has also inspired two of the best songs about a blues singer. (Songs about blues singers, in no short supply, are a genre unto themselves). One is Kevin Gordon's "Jimmy Reed is the King of Rock 'n' Roll" (on his Down to the Well, 2000) -- interestingly, more in the style of a folk ballad than a blues -- and the title song here -- very much a blues. "Jimmy Reed Highway" is one of two originals, the other being "You Made Me Laugh," each written by Dykes with Steve Callif, both fitting comfortably into the company of the rest, which are either written by or associated with the master.

Highway has a warm, downhome ambience and a cheerfully relaxed vibe. Kent Dykes -- "Omar" is a nickname; he's the Omar of the venerable and excellent Texas blues-roots band Omar & the Howlers -- handles the vocals with his patented amiable growl, sometimes in partnership with another Texas veteran, Lou Ann Barton, who offers up her not-to-be-resisted languid, honey-dripping drawl. Vaughan, brother to the late Stevie Ray and a founder of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, gets the guitar just right, which is to say that the Reed sound is a reference, not a definition. I have no doubt Jimmy Reed would approve.

review by
Jerome Clark

26 April 2008

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