Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?
In the 1960's, when hundreds of English lads paid tribute to their favorite blues musicians by forming their own bands, some went on to mint millions (Stones, Clapton) but there were lingering questions about one race musically exploiting another. Not that this was a new story or that this won't get played out again and again in the future... Also, it wasn't as if all of these white blues musicians where a bunch of money grubbin' scumbags who looked to cash in on their skin-tone, using the repertoire of slave descendents- some of these bluesmen really did have a genuine feel for the music and were naturally attracted to it. But just as white rappers have to contend with questions about appropriating a musical form developed by another race, so do white bluesmen have to prove themselves too.
I got to thinking about this subject in light of recent albums from a trio of singers/guitarists: John Hammond Jr.'s Push Comes To Shove (Back Porch), Kenny Wayne Shepherd's 10 Days Out (Blues from the Backroads) (Reprise) and Bob Margolin's In North Carolina (Steady Rollin'). Hammond (age 64) and Margolin (age 57) have been around long enough to earn their stripes and respect- the former helped revive the careers of several Delta legends in addition to pursuing his own career where he's put out albums since the early 60's while the later earned his pedigree backing up Muddy Waters for most of the 70's. Hammond doesn't have a remarkably expressive voice but he definitely has the FEEL of the blues, which counts for a lot- no wonder Tom Waits likes his company. The same can be said of Margolin, even if he doesn't get to hang out with Waits.
Shepherd is a different affair. He's not only from a younger generation (age 29) but has also racked up his share of Grammys (well, they do give out blues awards there every year) and even more incredibly, gold albums. It never occurred me to note him as anything more than a relatively-popular curiosity in the field until he traveled the South to record some of his musical forefathers on his latest album. No doubt the fact that though it's his name on the album, the stars of the show are his guests including B.B. King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Hubert Sumlin, Henry Townsend, Pinetop Perkins, who all sound in fine form. Think of it as a great blues mixtape, held together by Shepherd's tribute mission (compare that to Hammond Jr's old days).
And don't get me started about George Thorogood...