Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee: Absolutely the Best

Sonny Terry & Brownie Mcghee
Absolutely the Best
Fuel 2000

Country blues is the primitive, acoustic grandpa to much of what passes for blues these days. While theories abound regarding the origins of the blues (predominately the idea of the call-and-response “field holler”), this reviewer sees enough similarities between rural black and rural white music to conclude that the twain borrowed prolificly from each. This is particularly observable in Piedmont blues — the other major regional brand of the genre apart from the more familiar Delta style. While the latter was slower, darker, and emphasized bottle-neck work, the Piedmont style (named for the rolling hill country at the east of the southern Appalachians) emphasized rhythm and finger-picking dexterity. Piedmont bluesman shared much in common with white hillbilly stringbands.

Among the practitioners of the Piedmont style were Blind Willie McTell (“Statesboro Blues”), Rev. Gary Davis, and Blind Blake. Pinkney Anderson and Floyd Council were two lesser known artists of the genre from whom Pink Floyd derived its name. By far, however, the two leading exponents who brought country blues into the modern era were collaborators Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Fuel 2000 had no mean task in assembling a cursory retrospective of two men whose career together spanned 32 years. But Absolutely the Best turns out to be just that — an album that cannot be passed up by any serious roots enthusiast.

Sonny Terry (b. Greensboro, North Carolina, 1911) was the greatest harmonica player that ever lived. Line them up — Jaybird Coleman, Frank Palmes, Sonny Boy Williamson, even what’s-his-name of Blues Traveler — none can or could match his feel and inflection. Though not a flashy guitarist, Brownie McGhee (b. Knoxville, Tennessee, 1915) had flawless timing and rhythm, coupled with a rich, deep baritone that was accessible to listeners of all tastes. The playful dynamism these two men generated, at least through most of their tenure, is beautifully captured on these recordings.

The disc opens with Terry & McGhee engaged in friendly banter before launching into their classic “Walk On”. Immediately one perceives a vibe that was easily in grasp for a Hank Williams or a Carl Perkins. On the well-known “Trouble in Mind” Terry adds off-key harmonica and vocal whoops to the end of each bar. The electrifying (though unamplified) “Drinkin’ the Blues” features three dramatic key and tempo changes — unheard of in standard country blues fare. Yet the innovations do no harm to the blues themselves. It’s still lonesome and introspective.

What distinguishes this collection, however, is the inclusion of three tracks Terry & McGhee recorded with Lightnin’ Hopkins (Texas) and Big Joe Williams (Mississippi). This improbable line-up engages in inter-regional country blues that’s as sloppy as a livermush and egg sandwich, and every bit as meaty and tasty. The quartet rolls through the spiritual “Right on That Shore” as if they had died and passed into glory. On “Early Mornin’ Blues”, a seminal example of the Delta style, Big Joe’s tremolo quivers ominously while Terry’s harmonica flits quietly around the scene like a nervous bird. When Lightnin’ Hopkins adds his smoky rasp to the dialogue, Big Joe chimes in with his crudely rigged nine-string acoustic guitar, so haphazardly wired with pick-ups that it looks like it’s going in for an EKG. “Blues for Gamblers” features the fearsome foursome lobbing idle threats at one another, the only thing missing being the sound of cards being shuffled and beer bottles falling to the floor.

The final two tracks of Absolutely the Best are accompanied by harmonica only. “Dirty Mistreater” is sung by McGhee; the stark finale, “What a Beautiful City” has Terry singing and punctuating himself with the blues harp, a subdued and solemn reminder that these two were unable to go on together to the end. To get the full story, one only need refer to Bill Dahl’s exhaustive liner notes which accompany this outstanding volume.