Like any reasonable music lover, I listen to and have opinions on a lot of different styles. I have every Styx album ever made. I think Oscar Peterson is the greatest jazz musician ever to walk the Earth. I really dig Zeppelin, especially Zeppelin IV and Physical Graffiti. I swore that there would never be a rap producer to equal Dr. Dre (or Pete Rock or DJ Premier for that matter), but I’m fairly certain that ten years from now we will all acknowledge that Kanye West is the best of them all. I love the Black Keys, and will argue that Dan Auerbach is a 66-year-old black man in spite of clear evidence to the contrary.
But of all my non-classical music interests, the one I find the most irreplaceable is the North Mississippi Blues stylings of Mississippi Fred McDowell. McDowell was born in Rossville, TN, but the majority of his adult life was spent in Como, MS where he worked as a farmer and played music on the side at dances and picnics and shit. This low profile is one of the appealing characteristics of his career; on his final studio album (and first for Capitol Records), whose title is also the title of this blog post, McDowell mentions that “if you ever need someone to play for you, you know, call for Fred McDowell.”
McDowell is quite possibly the greatest slide guitar player ever, with a crystal clear sound and tremendous dexterity. But what I love about his music is his voice. He sounds like a guy who picked cotton in unforgiving conditions for most of his life and played the blues on the side. His voice is everything the blues ought to sound like: rough-edged, steely, and howling. The interplay between voice and guitar is another fascinating and inventive feature of his style. Here’s the song “Someday” performed in 1971 at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village:
McDowell’s assertion that “I make the guitar say what I say” rings true to the point that he doesn’t even use all the words…he just lets the guitar speak for him. Talk about synergy…
There’s probably no better title for a blues song than “Everybody’s Down on Me.” In this song, McDowell talks about love, friendship, and betrayal, and then lays down a hypnotic, heartbreaking, and a little pissed off tune that I could listen to on loop for the next 10 hours.
So next time you’re wanting to take a listen to something amazing, just call for Fred McDowell. He does not play no rock and roll.