ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 13, 2001
By Steve Newton
Singer-songwriter and slide-guitar specialist Ellen McIlwaine is best known as a blues artist, but she’s always been willing to let her muse drift away from the Mississippi Delta or the south side of Chicago. For her latest CD, Spontaneous Combustion, McIlwaine wrote a couple of tunes—“Sidhu (Grandmother)” and “Egyptian Blues (True Mummy Theme)”—that see her embracing the musical styles of the Middle East.
“I’ve been listening to music from Egypt and music from Lebanon for a long time,” says McIlwaine from her home in Calgary. “And my friend’s Lebanese grandmother passed away last year, so I wrote ‘Sidhu’ for her; that’s why it sounds a little bit sad. But I like to do tunes like that, and mix all the styles. In 1972 I wrote a song called ‘We the People’, which was sort of Indian raga style, and there was no world-music category [at that time]. But everyone listens to everyone else now, so it’s not so odd when I do something like that.”
No matter what kind of music McIlwaine has made during her 30-odd–year career, her slide-guitar playing has always been at the heart of it. It’s the only style of guitar she plays, and she’s developed a unique approach to coaxing metal cylinders across frets.
“I don’t do what anybody else does,” she declares, although she’s also quick to name David Lindley, Sonny Landreth, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, and dobro king Jerry Douglas as slide-guitar faves. “But probably the one who influenced me most was Johnny Winter, and he influenced me in the fact that, you know, we all make up our own tunings and go in our own directions. That’s what Johnny Winter showed me how to do.
“People also tend to think there’s only one woman who plays slide guitar,” she adds, “and that that’s Bonnie Raitt. I could name you the list of all the other women, but one of my favourite slide-guitar players—who is also a woman—is Joanna Connor. She plays electric lead or slide, either way, and she’s great.”
Another blues artist McIlwaine raves about these days is her longtime friend Taj Mahal, who sang on a couple of Spontaneous Combustion tracks, including a reggae version of the old call-and-response ditty, “Mockingbird”. McIlwaine’s been wanting to record that song with Taj for a long time.
“I saw him do ‘Mockingbird’ with Etta James on TV once,” she says, “and I thought, ‘Goshdarnit, I’m gonna ask him to sing on this.’ ’Cause I used to volunteer at a children’s hospital, and one time there was a child in a lot of distress, and I didn’t know exactly what I was gonna do—I was still new. But I picked him up and started singing ‘Mockingbird’, and he got really quiet. I looked down at him after a couple of lines, and his little head was goin’ back and forth. So I figured it was a cool tune, and I started doin’ it on stage.”