Buddy Guy Conjures Intimacy On Acoustic Set

A few years back, producer Dennis Herring was struck by a nagging question about blues legend Buddy Guy. Why, record after record, was Guy chasing crossover success? He seemed to be toiling away, tryi

A few years back, producer Dennis Herring was struck by a nagging question about blues legend Buddy Guy. Why, record after record, was Guy chasing crossover success? He seemed to be toiling away, trying to push a brand of blues-rock fusion on folks who just weren't buying it.

What he ought to be doing, Herring reasoned, is making traditional blues albums that more accurately reflect not only his stature in the blues pantheon -- as one of its few living icons -- but also the full range of his abilities within the genre.

A fairly relentless drive to put this right seems to have sparked yet another revival in the blues great's long career. After a roughly 15-year lapse in studio recordings, 1993 Billboard Century Award honoree Guy re-emerged in the early '90s with a string of albums on the Silvertone label.

While each, especially the Grammy Award-decorated 1991 effort "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues," helped bolster his reputation and rekindle his career, Guy's two most recent sets for the label, both produced by Herring, demand more attention and respect.

In 2001, Guy and Herring delivered "Sweet Tea," which found the now-66-year-old artist giving his slick, signature Chicago blues style a momentary rest. Instead, he embraced the hypnotic and raunchy North Mississippi hill country blues sound mastered by the likes of such revered but little-known bluesmen -- and Fat Possum artists -- as R.L. Burnside and the late Junior Kimbrough.

Critics instantly hailed the set as a triumph -- one that revealed a side of Guy most thought they'd never see and unveiled talents that many didn't realize he possessed. It was like hearing an old dog master new tricks.

On June 3, Silvertone issued Herring and Guy's second collaboration, "Blues Singer," an all-acoustic set that is the first Guy album hell-bent on emphasizing his underappreciated singing skills over his guitar heroics. Throughout the album, Guy uncharacteristically plays without a guitar pick. By plucking the strings of a '50s Harmony archtop guitar with his thumb and fingers, he adds a tone and intimacy we've rarely heard from him.

It's a playing style -- strictly enforced by Herring during the album's recording -- that helps make "Blues Singer" a striking listen. Together, "Sweet Tea" and "Blues Singer" inform the listener that if you think you had Buddy Guy figured out, you simply don't know the half of it.

And "Blues Singer," which features appearances by Eric Clapton and B.B. King, could not have arrived at a better time.

Congress declared 2003 as the Year of the Blues. A Martin Scorsese blues miniseries and a related Antoine Fuqua film celebrating the genre are both expected to feature the artist prominently when they're released later this year. Thus, Guy looks certain to garner more respect and many new ears this year.

Herring, who has worked with Counting Crows and Camper Van Beethoven, started lobbying Silvertone and Guy's management a few years ago on the "Sweet Tea" concept, feeling it could lift the artist out of the "crossover rut" in which he felt Guy was entrenched.

Initially, the bluesman was hesitant. He was -- and remains -- interested in having hits. And this project was not mainstream-friendly in the slightest. What's more, he was not familiar with the North Mississippi scene. Yet, after some persuasion, Guy was sold on the project.

Making the album and recording the Louisiana native at the producer's Oxford, Miss.-based Sweet Tea studios, Herring says, was a chance to "take the Chicago guy and pull him back down in the mud, where he came from."

And with "Blues Singer," Guy gets even muddier. The album is more devoted to the early Delta blues sound and style than anything Guy has ever cut, including the acoustic sets he recorded with blues harpist Junior Wells. And that is very much by Herring's design. "I wanted the record to be real primary, even making Muddy Waters seem kind of like the modern side of the blues," he says.

Yet he was careful to ensure that the album retained the trancey, rural North Mississippi sound that Guy mastered on "Sweet Tea." And that's appropriate, considering that it was during the "Sweet Tea" mixing sessions that "Blues Singer" was born.

While listening to that album's lone acoustic track, the set-opening "Done Got Old," then-Zomba chief Clive Calder remarked to Herring, "It would be great to make a whole album like this with Buddy."

Herring took the project from there. As was the case with "Sweet Tea," he chose a number of the songs Guy covered, including the John Lee Hooker tracks "Crawlin' Kingsnake," "Black Cat Blues" and "Sally Mae."

The disc is notable for the intimacy felt throughout its 12 tracks. Part of that comes from the fact that half of the record is simply Guy, his voice and his acoustic guitar. But it is also partially born out of the fact that the takes were cut in the Sweet Tea control room. There, Guy played alone or with his bandmates, including Squirrel Nut Zippers guitarist Jimbo Mathus -- who also played on "Sweet Tea."

Still, nothing proved more integral to the album's low-key feel than the absence of the guitar pick. Herring says, "It forced him to be a little more purely melodic, or economical; a little more self-editing. When he would pick up a pick and start playing, he would fall into some of these automatic things that I heard him do before. And I liked the idea of this record having this completely different feel to it."

Guy says, "My fingers were so sore on that album, man, I was almost crying; and every time I'd pick up a pick, he'd be in the engineer's room, and he'd say, 'Nah, nah, nah, you got the pick.' "

The album "snatched me back a bit," Guy adds, reminding him of just how few of his heroes and peers -- like Fred McDowell, Son House and Waters -- are left. He cracks, "Once, I went to sleep and woke up and I was the young guy. Then, all of a sudden, I went to sleep and woke up and I was the senior citizen!"

Although he admits that he has a hunger for a hit, he's just as quick to admit that -- after those long years outside of the studio -- he jumps at the chance to record, regardless of a project's commercial potential.

Whether electric Chicago blues, the North Mississippi trance of "Sweet Tea" or the acoustic Delta material on "Blues Singer," he is furthering the music he loves. That is perhaps more important to him than a hit record. He says, "Anything to help the blues -- if it's beating a tub, man -- just call me: I'm ready."

Excerpted from the July 5, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services section.

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