Buddy Guy embraces North Mississippi hill-country blues on Sweet Tea



By Steve Newton

Buddy Guy has always gotten by just fine with the time-tested, Chicago-style blues he’s famous for. In the ’60s and ’70s, his work was a huge influence on the likes of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan; later on it paid off with the widespread popularity that followed the release of his Grammy-winning 1991 album, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues. But for his latest CD, Sweet Tea, Guy totally changed musical gears, passionately embracing the elongated bar lines and one- and two-chord modal forms of the North Mississippi hill-country blues, as practised by R.L. Burnside, James “T-Model” Ford, and the late Junior Kimbrough. It wasn’t the Louisiana-raised Guy’s own idea to head back to his southern roots, though.

“My record company did that for me, man,” the guitar legend explains from his home in the suburbs of Chicago. “They called me up and said, ‘We want you to go to Mississippi and play this.’ And I didn’t like the idea at first. I’m like, ‘Man, I done met everybody from Mississippi already, you know, like Fred McDowell, Son House—I played with a lot of those Delta guys.’ But they sent those demos to me, and when I heard the stuff, at first I didn’t like it, then I smiled, then I tapped my feet, then I found myself with goose pimples, so I said, ‘Wait a minute, Buddy, you never get too old to learn, man.’ I thought I heard it all when Muddy [Waters] and them came out [to Chicago] and amplified the harmonicas and guitars and things. But my mind tells me, now: ‘Buddy, you better keep goin’ back down in there diggin’, so you might dig up a pot of gold.’ ”

In his quest for Mississippi hill-country treasures, Guy helped himself to Kimbrough’s hallowed stash in a big way, including four of the latter’s tunes on the nine-track Sweet Tea. He got help from sure-handed rhythm guitarist Jimbo Mathus, a founding member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and also drew on the experience of indigenous hill-country drummers like Sam Carr and the one-named Spam, from T-Model Ford’s band.

“Everybody recorded in the studio but me,” Guy reports. “I was in the hallway. I was so excited, I said, ‘Look, man, let me get what I can out of these guys, ’cause I understand one of the drummers had a mild stroke or somethin’.’ And this is like a Grammy or a gold record to me, to get the chance to play with some of those people who invented this music. And my mind just blanked—all I wanted to do was play and make sure we get some of that stuff on tape, just like I did when I played with Muddy and [Howlin’] Wolf and Little Walter in Chicago. You know, every time Eric Clapton see me he says, ‘Man, I played with a lot of people, but I never got to play with Little Walter, and that hurt.’”

Sweet Tea was conceived and organized by Dennis Herring, a producer of best-selling albums by the Counting Crows and Jars of Clay, who relocated his L.A. studio to his home state of Mississippi in 1997. “I’ve always been a huge Buddy Guy fan,” Herring is quoted as saying in Guy’s current Zomba Records bio, “though I felt that in recent years his records had gotten very ‘studio-like’. So in the back of my mind was the wish for Buddy to make a record in a setting that was older, more real, that would capture the energy and intensity he still has. And I wanted to see an outside artist come in and expose this hill-country style to a whole new audience.”

The only tune on Sweet Tea that doesn’t come off as a full-blown homage to the music of rural Mississippi is Guy’s sole original track, “It’s a Jungle Out There”, which gets the familiar 12-bar blues workout. A steaming indictment of today’s rat race, it’s likely to make an appearance when Guy plays a jazz-festival gig at the Orpheum on Saturday (June 30), with guests David Gogo and Tony D.

“Every day I get in my car and get on the expressway I experience just what I wrote about there,” Guy explains. “I be drivin’ down the highway, and if you drivin’ 60, somebody pass you like you’s drivin’ 20! And don’t nobody care, man, with their cellphones and things. When I got my driver’s licence, you was supposed to see the car in your rear-view mirror before you could pull over. But now when they put a blinkin’ light on you it means ‘Get out the way!’ ”

Buddy Guy sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On whether he would consider doing another album of North Mississippi hill-country material: “I don’t never say no. You know record companies—I’m not as good as none of those guys, man. When they think I’m good enough to keep recording me, I think I’m good enough to go and try anything they want me to. So I’m open. If they call me and say, ‘Go back down to Mississippi,’ I’m on my way.”

On his hope to spread the word about hill-country music through his new album: “So many of those people died, and their records didn’t get exposed as much as I would have loved seein’ their records get exposed. So hopefully, for the sake of the blues I love so well, I can live long and stay in good-enough health and make that happen.”

On how the 65-year-old bluesman is feeling these days: “I’m feeling fine. You know, every once in a while when you get my age some illness’ll get ya. I had what they call the gout for a coupla weeks there and it was very painful in my toe. But I had ’em laughin’. I told ’em, ‘It’s not gonna stop me from playin’, ’cause I can still play standin’ on one leg.’ ”

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