Rocking Chair Blues: Howlin’ Wolf - “Tell Me”

In this final installment of the Between the Grooves series dedicated to Howlin’ Wolf’s Rocking Chair album, George de Stefano states that Wolf's music is so compelling because it seems such a direct, unmediated expression of his singular personality.

“Each man sang a different blues”, observed Leroi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) in his classic 1963 study, Blues People. (Jones does acknowledge women singers in the book, but the generic blues artist is always male.) The blues, though connected to “the general movement of the mass of black Americans into the central culture of the country”, found its “impetus and emotional meaning” in the individual and “his completely personal life and death” .

Jones doesn’t mention Howlin’ Wolf in his book (inexplicable omission!), but his observation about the blues being foremost a music of individual expression certainly applies to Chester Burnett, an extraordinary artist whose blues, though influenced by such Delta originators as Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson, are entirely his own. Howlin’ Wolf’s music is so compelling because it seems such a direct, unmediated expression of his singular personality.

In Blues People Jones distinguishes between the early country blues, which he calls “folklore”, and the classic blues of the 1920s and 1930s, which he calls “entertainment”. Wolf, however, bridges both forms. He started out as a country blues singer steeped in the folklore of the Mississippi Delta but became a successful entertainer working in the recording industry and the commercial performance scene, in the United States and abroad (Muddy Waters’ career followed the same trajectory). One of his first studio efforts was a cover of Charley Patton’s “Saddle My Pony”, the title an obvious give-away of the song’s rural origins. But as his Memphis recordings from the mid-1950s make evident, Wolf was crafting modern, electric blues around the same time that rock ‘n roll was emerging, a guitar-driven and danceable style that--its southern roots notwithstanding--was unmistakably city music.

The 12 tracks that comprise the Rocking Chair album are electric Chicago blues songs that harken back to the rural south, most notably “The Red Rooster”, the record’s most down-home number. The album, as I noted in the first installment of this Between the Tracks series, has the stylistic unity and focus of a recording conceived as a whole, despite having been assembled from singles recorded from 1957 to 1961. The songs are about love and sex, the key concerns of the blues. As sequenced by Chess Records--most likely by producer Ralph Bass-- the album “reads” like Wolf’s erotic diary, recording the excitement of a new love affair, the transgressive thrills of cheating, the joys of monogamy, and, in the album’s darkest number, fear and anguish as impending death forecloses a life spent in the pursuit of pleasure.

“Tell Me”, the album’s last track, is a return to darkness after the unalloyed joy of the preceding “Howlin’ for My Baby”. The song expresses an archetypal blues theme: that of nameless “trouble” threatening the singer, driving him to pack up and hit the road: “Tell me, what in the world can be wrong / Woke up this morning / Trouble knocking on my door / I wonder what the trouble / Big trouble at my door”. Wolf never says who or what is knocking at his door. He complains that his lover “don’t want me anymore”, but that’s the only specific woe in what otherwise sounds like an unnameable existential dread: “There ain't nothing but my troubles”.

One of only two of Wolf’s own compositions on Rocking Chair, “Tell Me” is also one of the album’s oldest tracks, recorded in 1957 (before Chess made him record Willie Dixon’s material) and released as a single with “Who’s Been Talkin’”. Wolf’s country-style harmonica at the song’s beginning and middle is simple and direct, serving as a second voice like B.B. King’s guitar “Lucille” echoes his vocal lines. The innovative proto-rocker Willie Johnson plays lead guitar and Earl Phillips is the drummer; the session that produced “Tell Me” was their final one with Wolf, with whom they had a tempestuous relationship (Johnson’s heavy drinking often incurred Wolf’s wrath, and both men bristled at their demanding boss’ rules of proper comportment, on and off stage). Otis Smothers is on second guitar, Hosea Lee Kennard’s the pianist, and Adolph “Billy” Duncan riffs on tenor sax.

Wolf’s burly vocal throbs with worry and the urgent need to escape the trouble that won’t let him be. “Trouble is knocking”, he sings, repeating the line four times, as the song fades. The last thing we hear, as “Tell Me” and Rocking Chair come to an end, is Earl Phillips’ drum accents mimicking the sound of someone, or something, rapping at Wolf’s door. It’s the trouble, which Howlin’ Wolf both evokes and transcends through his sublime and “completely personal” artistry.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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