Music

Watermelon Slim and the Workers: The Wheel Man

Veteran blues reviver, field hollers alternate with harmonica or slide guitar. Always real!


Watermelon Slim and the Workers

The Wheel Man

Label: Northern Blues
US Release Date: 2007-02-14
UK Release Date: 2007-03-26
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Also known as Bill Homans, as far as government agencies are concerned, the acutely talented Slim is a Vietnam Vet with academic qualifications whose lengthy tenure in a bluecollar day job (readers should appreciate that I am paraphrasing published information sources) was terminated following a heart attack.

Some time back, I reviewed a sampler CD on the Northern Blues label with a title something like “The Future of the Blues.” I did not like its muddle of overproduction, or the implication that the future of the blues was a stylistic pop mishmash with a few old echoes. I mention this only to be clear that the present set is nothing of the kind, but is the work of a talented enthusiast dedicated to doing things worth doing, taking the risk that it might no longer be possible to do them.

Apparently, they are possible, or at least Slim is one of the people who can do them. There might be something to the statement in a blurb on the CD case that Slim’s a white Okie singer whose repertoire includes blues items performed in blues style. The legacy of recordings going back to the 1920s isn’t short on cases of the same -- Tony Russell has written about this in Blacks, Whites, and Blues and elsewhere -- and more recent examples of this have made interesting encounters for a European longtime blues enthusiast. This is, however, mostly blues with only the occasional flourishes of anything other.

The CD’s title means something like Big Wheel. The drawing on the CD case suggests that, like the Texan bluesmen Oscar Woods and the Black Ace (hear the latter’s excellent 1960s album on Arhoolie), when Slim plays slide guitar he’s sitting down with the instrument laid flat across his thighs. There are some Okie or Bob Wills echoes on the opener and title track, despite the presence of Magic Slim, throwing in a few vocal lines and playing electric guitar on an overall stirring performance. Slim’s classy harmonica playing makes the second track well worth a listen, and on the third and another couple of tracks, the quality is much enhanced by the solid, Otis Spann-influenced piano of another guest, David Maxwell. “Black Water” is a more recent kind of blues number, general rhythm and timing more post-B.B. King, but more excellent slide guitar.

And then there’s the entirely solo “Jimmy Bell”, with Slim’s harmonica and a very good vocal in style with the field holler or work song basis of the item. Its source is the field recordings by the obscure Cat Iron, and it’s followed by another of the numbers with Maxwell, Slim doing a Muddy Waters thing on “Newspaper Reporter”, beginning each verse speaking, and ending in a hollering singing. “Drinking and Driving” skids right into Ole Opry, “Fast Eddie” brings back the slide guitar, and then “Sawmill Holler” is just that, with no accompaniment nor any need of one, and the man’s voice ringing mightily. Inspired inclusion delivered with passion.

A couple of rockin’ blues, this whole thing is like the programme of a good live set, and then the distinctive rhythm of Slim Harpo’s “I Got Love if You Want It”, a number whose initial recording had some sales beyond its native enclave, and which Slim does in his own way, demonstrating his own harmonica playing’s merits. The harmonica wails again on a rockin' “Rattlesnake”, and somebody gets to shine on guitar on “Peaches” at a tempo variously described on different occasions as musically interesting or dangerous to morality. Then there’s the slide guitar working without a steady rhythmic correlation in support of Slim’s delivery of a classic 1920s number, the “Judge Harsh Blues” of the Memphis slide guitar ace Furry Lewis, who toward the end of his life appeared briefly as the sentimentalized “Uncle Furry” in a Burt Reynolds movie which didn’t deny connections between country white musicians (Dixie Dance Kings) and bluesmen.

More power to Watermelon Slim! Though he has plenty enough here!

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