BACK TO THE COUNTRY
Johnny Shines and Snooky Pryor
Blind Pig #74391
Singer-guitarist Johnny Shines is best known for his Chicago recordings on Chess and J.O.B. in the early 50s. Those sides established him as a blues artist of rare power–a forceful singer, poetic lyricist (“You said if I wanted your love darling I’d have to wring the silver out of the moon”), and one of the premier slide stylists of his day.
Shines roars out his verses in a thunderous, vibrato-rich shout that owes much to the field-holler tradition: “People could hear me for half a mile,” he told Living Blues magazine in 1990. “I could call my auntie from over here and my uncle from over there.” It’s easy to imagine him walking from town to town with his friend and mentor Robert Johnson, attracting crowds on street corners and in noisy jukes with his stentorian delivery. Even the relatively crude recording techniques of the early 50s captured the majesty with which he sang, often accompanied by Big Walter Horton’s equally thrilling harmonica. Those sides by Shines and Horton remain among the definitive postwar Chicago blues recordings, and should have propelled both men to stardom.
Horton didn’t make it largely because his personal demons got in the way. Shines’s case is a little more complex. He has claimed that Leonard Chess (who recorded him as “Shoe Shine Johnny”) refused to release his material because it would compete with Muddy Waters’s recordings. After he left Chess and signed with J.O.B., Shines says, Chess pulled strings and prevented him from getting airplay. There were also conflicts with deejay Al Benson, another godfatherlike figure on the Chicago scene.
Disgusted, Shines retired from music in the late 50s. It wasn’t until 1965, when some tenacious European aficionados coaxed him into the Vanguard studios, that he recorded again. He remained the same independent, headstrong man he’d always been, and his talents were undiminished, especially the wit that had brought such unusual poetry to his old lyrics.
Johnny Shines is Hightone Records’ reissue of some sides Shines recorded in 1974, originally released on Advent. At the time Shines thought these recordings were going to put him over the top; he brought several arresting new tunes to the sessions, included a full electric band on some cuts, and did his best to adapt himself to contemporary sounds while remaining true to his roots.
A debilitating stroke several years later virtually eliminated the possibility of a full comeback. But listening to these tracks today one doubts they would have been sufficient to propel Shines to the stardom he craved. The mix of styles is uneasy, and his strongest work is in a genre that simply doesn’t reach most mainstream audiences–intimate, intense solo acoustic blues in the Delta tradition.
But on its own terms this is a fascinating and often brilliant portrait of an eager artist, fresh from self-imposed exile, ready to take on the world again. The opener, “Give My Heart a Break,” signals that queasy stylistic mix: guitarist Phillip Walker, usually the epitome of good taste, provides a rather ponderous boogie-shuffle, while Nat Dove’s fractured piano triplets and frenetic glissandos sound more appropriate to a Little Richard session. Shines seems to be having a great time, and his voice is strong enough to overcome anything, but longtime fans will miss the subtle textures and emotional depth of his best work. In the old days Shines and Big Walter could raise more hell as a duo than this entire band can here.
The electric backing works better on “Just Call Me.” The feel is similar to that of some Chicago sessions Willie Dixon produced in the mid- and late 50s: straightforward urban blues updated by a riffing sax and goosed with a hint of R & B boogie urgency. It’s a somewhat forced marriage of the old and the new, but the tension serves to heighten the emotional impact.
Still, Shines is most eloquent when he sticks to his roots. “Too Lazy,” with lyrics adapted from Charlie Patton’s “Banty Rooster Blues,” is an example of the immediacy Shines brings to traditional material. His resonant voice highlights the lyrics’ irony, and his emotional involvement makes even the most archaic country imagery sound relevant.
“I Know the Winds Are Blowing” follows in the same vein, and despite a muffed chord or two, it’s a vintage Shines performance. The lyrics, rife with portent, convey a brooding sense of the supernatural. That God-haunted aura of foreboding seems to have permeated proletarian Delta life in the early and mid-20th centuries; it’s one of the elements that give folk blues its perennial emotional power.
If Shines has one major flaw, it’s that he sometimes relies too much on the force of his voice at full throttle, forgetting to cool things down and let his lyrics speak for themselves. On “Can’t Get Along With You” he modulates his holler, and the result is a gripping sense of restrained passion. Robert Johnson sang road songs as smoldering testaments to spiritual paranoia and the urge to escape, but here Shines teases that theme into a new dimension. He’s often said that he traveled alongside Johnson with a sense of adventure, delighted with “living in an exploratory world.” Some of that exhilaration is captured on this cut.
Shines’s guitar solo on “Skull & Crossbones Blues” is a marvel of craft, dedication, and inspiration: fleet and percussive by turn, with cascading slide shimmers tying everything together, it bends the melody line like elastic, tightening the tension, then releasing it into a new verse. “Moaning & Groaning” should have been a natural for him, but the vocal prowess that serves him so well elsewhere seems to hinder him at first here: he simply can’t summon the helplessness that would make his moans effective. When he segues into the verses, however, his voice soars majestically, its resonance accentuating the song’s stark sense of isolation–Shines sounds as if he’s wailing from within a vast, silent space.
One wishes Shines could have sustained that level of excellence throughout the recording. He had high hopes for the soul ballad “Just a Little Tenderness”–he still lingers lovingly over it in live performance–but it’s as inappropriate a vehicle as can be imagined. His voice is a raw instrument, utterly lacking in the nuances necessary to put across this kind of material, and his spoken interlude is embarrassingly pedestrian.
Willie Dixon’s “My Love Can’t Hide,” by contrast, seems a good idea gone bad–an attempt to harness Shines’s fierce roar and put it in a late-50s-style urban-blues context. Shines has suggested that pianist Dove was responsible for the song’s failure, but I think it would have sunk under the weight of its own bombast regardless. The bass line lurches ominously, goaded by a growling baritone sax, and Walker’s trembling guitar leads spew venom over the top; Shines groans out extended phrases at the very bottom of his vocal range, then suddenly erupts into an ear-splitting wail. It sounds almost like a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track with Shines’s vocals laid over it.
The ambitious genre bending of Johnny Shines stands in marked contrast to the easy intimacy of Shines’s most recent release. Blind Pig’s Back to the Country pairs Shines with his old J.O.B. stablemate Snooky Pryor in what must be counted as one of the most effortlessly delightful acoustic blues records in a long time.
From Shines’s playful spoken intro to “Trouble in Mind” through the jaunty final chords of Pryor’s “I Make You Happy,” this disk radiates enthusiasm of the most infectious kind. It was recorded in February of 1991. Shines’s guitar playing was seriously impaired by his stroke, so John Nicholas and Kent Du Shane share guitar chores. They fill in admirably, accompanying and soloing with the perfect combination of assertion and deference.
The stroke didn’t affect Shines’s voice, but there’s a phlegmy roughness to it on this album that adds to the songs’ poignancy. Pryor’s harmonica is sparse and elegant, with subtle bends inserted in solos that are otherwise almost like folk in their directness. When Pryor sings, as on “Corrine Corrina,” his slightly strained Delta twang carries with it a soulful urgency, with an elusive bitterness that lends an edge to the back-porch intimacy of the proceedings. He’s not a harp master but a solid workman who seldom disappoints, and he’s capable of a surprising array of tones and textures.
Shines, meanwhile, is in his element: although it must have been heartbreaking for such a proud man to have to delegate his guitar work to others, he obviously came to this session fired up. He contributed two exemplary new compositions as well as some impressive reworkings of earlier recordings. He showcases his voice with characteristic audacity–“Cool Driver,” a reprise of one of his 50s-era Chicago classics, concludes with an astounding sustained wail that’s as awesome as any he’s come up with in his entire recorded career.
The expected Robert Johnson tributes are for the most part successful. Especially welcome is “They’re Red Hot,” highlighting for a change the fun-loving side of Johnson’s muse. It’s a rollicking bit of good-time double- entendre hokum, and its jauntiness is a welcome reminder that traditional blues are as much party music as they are soul-baring exercises in folk existentialism.
The latter is exemplified by Shines’s lovely reading of Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (“Crossroads”), complete with an introductory admonishment to guitarist Nicholas to play it “the way Robert played it.” Shines reigns in his power and sings Johnson’s wracked classic in a flat, almost affectless moan. The starkness of the imagery is made more immediate; Johnson sang the lyrics as the aural representation of a soul twisting in torment, but Shines approaches them with the dead-eyed resignation of a condemned man.
“Come On in My Kitchen,” one of Johnson’s loveliest compositions, fails to ignite, however. Nicholas emulates the master’s slide with admirable dexterity and Shines moans his heart out, but they don’t achieve the haunting fusion of eroticism and fatalism that moved hard-bitten juke-joint audiences to tears when Johnson sang it.
More effective is Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” (“Terraplane”). On the surface it’s a playful ditty full of automotive double entendres: “I’m gon’ get deep down in your connection mama / Try tanglin’ in your wires / And whenever I hit your starter mama / Your spark plug will give me fire.” But it’s also laced with moans of loneliness, pleas for mercy, and claustrophobic images of roadblocks and forced getaways. Shines again doesn’t try to meet Johnson on his own tormented turf, opting instead to step back and let the song’s passion writhe for itself.
This album is perhaps the definitive portrait of Shines as Johnson’s musical heir. In his own “Blues Come to Texas,” Shines portrays the blues as a living, walking being, like Johnson did in “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil),” which he had adapted from “Preachin’ the Blues,” a Son House composition. It’s basically a pastiche of traditional lyrics, but Shines sings it with such unearthly power that it becomes an entirely new creation.
“Moon Is Rising,” another Shines original, is even better. Be warned: this isn’t easy listening, and not only because of the lyrics about betrayal, loss, and murder by poisoning. “Moon Is Rising” tears at the ears and pulls at the soul, with dissonance lurking around the edges and a troubling sense of displacement that leaves one feeling restless, as if something profoundly unsettling were about to be revealed. You won’t be playing this stuff to soothe yourself to sleep.
This disk also evidences Shines’s exploratory urge, the impulse to mix and match styles. “Hey Bobba Re Bop,” a country romp on a Lionel Hampton theme, is an oddity–Hamp’s chic jazziness can’t really be made compatible with the directness of Delta blues, but Shines has fun trying. More surprising, “Evening Sun” (which Shines originally recorded with Big Walter on J.O.B.) doesn’t quite come off. The original was primarily a showcase for Walter’s harmonica solo, one of the all-time marvels of recorded blues; Pryor is no Big Walter, and the extended harp/guitar intro never catches fire. Shines’s ironic lyrics–“I know that you love me / That’s why you’re so unkind”–still bite, but anyone who’s heard the original will be disappointed.
This disk is a relaxed, intimate musical conversation between two jubilant spirits. It’s rough around the edges sometimes, probably best savored in short takes. But it’s fresh and immediate, not the museum piece it could have been. Shines and Pryor have spent a lifetime celebrating and living the blues. They’ve retained a refreshing sense of purpose, dedication, and optimism that makes this recording a lasting pleasure.