[1 August 2005]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
One of the most overlooked (and subsequently underappreciated) subgenres of music is that of bottleneck blues, more readily known as slide. Evoking images of chain gangs and plantation fields, musky swamps and dusty back roads, bottleneck slide was an offshoot of Delta Blues and an exquisite aural canvas for the deep South of the early 20th century. The sound was organic, falling uncomfortably between melancholy and mean, and attracted many of the greatest blues players of the era. Even second and third generation fret board artisans were drawn to the haunting nature of bottleneck; think of Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix using everything from shot glasses to beer cans in an effort to recreate the sound of their bluesy forefathers. Now, with the release of The Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues, committed aficionados and casual observers can indulge themselves equally in this collection of beautifully gritty treasures from the past (and present).
Serving as a solid primer in Bottleneck 101, the CD boasts 22 varied tracks, each resonating in its own special way. The diversity of the collection dismisses any notion that slide was a rudimentary mechanical trick incorporated to elicit tonal nuances; bottlenecking may have been conceptually simple, but the actual art of sliding was far more complex. Listeners can judge for themselves by comparing the juke and jive twang of Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves On the Water” and Kokomo Arnold’s “Twelves” with the loping storytelling of Allen Shaw’s “Moanin’ the Blues” and Muddy Waters’ “I Be’s Troubled”; the mournful fluidity of Fred McDowell’s “Fred’s Worried Life Blues” with the breezy pick’n'slide of Casey Bill Weldon’s “You Just As Well Let Her Go”.
With a generous helping of tracks, the disc is anchored by the blues’ most recognized purveyors (Sylvester Weaver, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House) while featuring lesser known but similarly gifted artists (Willie Harris and Dan Pickett). The mixed roster complements itself by offering a broader understanding of the scope of bottleneck blues, as played by noted blues luminaries and forgotten practitioners.
As an added bonus, several contemporary artists’ slide explorations are included with classics from yesteryear. Stefan Grossman’s instrumental “Memphis Jellyroll” shares time with the somberness of Martin Simpson’s “I Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” as do strong efforts by John Fahey and Bob Bronzman. Interestingly, these efforts carry much the same impact of songs recorded decades earlier, evidence that the subtleties of bottleneck slide can be faithfully recreated long after most of the blues’ legends have passed on.
With the proliferation of greatest hits packages glutting the marketplace, choosing quality collections that are fairly representative of their respective genres is a challenge. For blues lovers and those interested in a 70-minute history lesson in bottleneck slide, The Rough Guide to Bottleneck Blues makes the decision process quite easy: Buy it and enjoy it.