J.W. Warren: Life Ain’t Worth Livin’

[17 August 2005]

By Lou Friedman

Blues, 'Bama Style

Most people have never heard of George Mitchell. He wasn’t a musical superstar, never had a string of hits, no Grammys, didn’t have a single thing to do with the iPod. In fact, Mitchell’s instrument of choice was a Wollensak. Okay, what’s a Wollensak? (Glad you asked.) It was to portable reel-to-reel taping what Xerox is to copiers. Way back when, to record someone outside a professional studio, one would take this reel-to-reel machine, plug in a microphone, and record away. These primordial machines did nothing for technology, but were the only source for saving audio at the time.

Mitchell became a lesser-known Lomax…as in John and Alan Lomax. The father-son duo would go out into the fields of Mississippi and other southern outposts and find sharecroppers (a polite term for slaves) who had musical talent, but were never recognized before. After committing them to tape, John and Alan would find ways to get these musicians ‘‘discovered’’ (a polite term for exploitation). The Lomax duo didn’t just cover blues, they were also practitioners in world music, from Africa to Ireland to Poland.

Mitchell also wound up looking for blues artists to record, but pretty much kept to the areas of Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. He was the first to record R.L. Burnside (Arhoolie Records wound up using the tapes), and also discovered other blues gems hidden out in the fields. Mitchell’s work had gone basically unnoticed for a number of years until Fat Possum. Label founder Matthew Johnson also was one to go searching for talent in the fields of Mississippi (or in shacks), but instead of a Wollensak, he talked the artists into either using his home studio (Money Shot) or to allow Johnson and sidekick Bruce Watson to set up more modern equipment on site.

So Johnson knew, respected, and appreciated what Mitchell did. And unlike Lomax (who Johnson disdains), Mitchell’s work was never done in an archival context. Mitchell just wanted to find talent, and get that talent known. And as the original artists of Fat Possum either died or retired, the label needed something of substance that wasn’t a slick, polished, faux-bluesian wannabe. And though the label has delved into some parts of indie-garage rock with a blues bent (The Black Keys, Heartless Bastards), when Mitchell’s series was up for grabs, Johnson wasted no time saying yes.

Looking back, all of the previous FP releases under the George Mitchell banner have been nothing short of great, and many times amazing. The Mississippi Fred McDowell/Johnny Woods collaboration (Mama Says I’m Crazy) and Burnside’s tapes (First Recordings) are nothing short of brilliant, while lesser-knowns such as Furry Lewis, Jimmy Lee Williams and Joe Callicot also were served well by Mitchell. The latest in the series, from Enterprise, Alabama-born J.W. Warren, titled Life Ain’t Worth Livin’, is another solid entry from Mitchell’s stable.

Little is really known about Warren’s background. He was one of 11 kids, and the only one in his family to take up music. He served in the military for 14 years, and then went into farming. He learned to play guitar during that time, and started playing at house parties in southeastern Alabama. He died in his home in Ariton, Alabama from a heart attack in August of 2003. That’s pretty much it for the man who made the dozen songs on Life Ain’t Worth Livin’ come to life.

Warren uses his voice, his guitar (sometimes with a slide), and a low-key foot-stomp to drive each song. Like most Fat Possum artists, it sounds like Warren has about seven fingers on his right hand; how else does he keep such perfect rhythm on the low end strings while playing the melody and solo on the higher end? Many years of woodshedding (a blues term for continuous practice) helped Warren hone his craft. Nowhere is his wonderful style more evident than in the opening track, “Hoboing Into Hollywood”. He sounds like he’s sitting in a boxcar of a train, door open, one leg dangling while the world passes by as he plays and sings. You feel like you’re right there with him as he ventures out west. “Sundown Blues” is a definite porch song (for non-blues folk, imagine sitting on the front porch in a rocker while Warren, right next to you, does his thing). “Trucking Little Woman” sounds like a Robert Johnson outtake, and “Little Louise” marks the appearance of Warren’s slide work, and works as a cross between McDowell and Callicot.

The rest of the disc has the versatility and variety that Warren possesses. His stories are never dull, his guitar work is nothing short of appropriate to the song; intricate at times, sledgehammer down and dirty at others. Of course, this is not an album that will go screaming to the top of the charts…not even the blues charts. However, those looking for a throwback to earlier times when the blues was nothing more than a guitar (preferably acoustic) and a voice, this is heaven. Actually, all of the George Mitchell series discs are heaven in that regard, but this little-known Alabaman named J.W. Warren has proved on Life Ain’t Worth Livin’ that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as early McDowell and Burnside. It’s an honest album from an honest artist put out by an honest label…a rarity in the field of blues nowadays.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/warrenjw-life/