Buddy Guy Goes South For 'Sweet Tea'
To record his intrepid new Silvertone/Jive Records album "Sweet Tea," due May 15, bluesman Buddy Guy says, "They sent me down to Mississippi and said, 'Buddy, get on top of this!'"To record his intrepid new Silvertone/Jive Records album "Sweet Tea," due May 15, bluesman Buddy Guy says, "They sent me down to Mississippi and said, 'Buddy, get on top of this!'"
What 1993 Billboard Century Award honoree Guy got on top of at producer Dennis Herring's Sweet Tea studio in Oxford, Miss., was the elemental, hypnotic blues style of the North Mississippi hill country -- a quantum leap, formally speaking, from the brawling Chicago blues that the Louisiana-born guitar wizard has played since he began his Windy City career in 1957.
Yet backed by a sympathetic group of mostly regional musicians, Guy thrillingly navigates the rough-hewn songs of such North Mississippi bluesmen as T-Model Ford, CeDell Davis, Robert Cage, and the late Junior Kimbrough. Applying his formidable chops and soulful voice to this unlikely repertoire, Guy has crafted what may be his most exciting and dramatic record since his 1991 Silvertone bow "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues," which re-established him internationally.
According to Michael Tedesco, director of Silvertone Records North America, "Sweet Tea" was an attempt to break the mold for Guy's albums, which for a decade has involved pairing the singer/guitarist with established rock, pop, and blues performers and songwriters. From the star-studded "Damn Right" to Guy's last studio album "Heavy Love" (1998), which featured a guest appearance by axe Wunderkind Jonny Lang, there has been little deviation from the formula.
"You always feel like you want to really present a challenge," Tedesco says. "I knew that by putting him in a context where it was going to be significantly less commercial from an obvious perspective, you might in fact get something that was just so unique and refreshing that you may in fact wind up selling more records than you might [have if you had] made a more conventional record."
Even as Tedesco was seeking a new direction for Guy, producer Herring -- who has worked with such rock acts as Cracker, Jars of Clay, and Counting Crows -- hit upon an inspiration of his own.
Four years ago, Herring relocated from Los Angeles to Oxford. That city is also the home of Fat Possum Records, which has made a name for itself over the last decade with a series of primal but widely praised blues albums by Kimbrough, Ford, Davis, Cage, and the latter-day alternative-rock favorite R.L. Burnside.
According to Herring, a local restaurant he frequented, Proud Larry's, played music by the Fat Possum artists regularly. He recalls, "I just kinda got enthralled with [the music]. I got to thinking that somebody big should come and do it -- somebody who would show the whole blues world this kind of music, where it's not like a little sect. One day, it kinda dawned on me -- it should be Buddy."
Herring began lobbying Tedesco to record a North Mississippi-styled project with Guy, and the executive tried to interest his star. Guy admits that he was reticent at first: "I'm like sayin', 'Wait a minute, I don't know,' so Michael said, 'We just want you to go down there and meet this guy Dennis.'"
Armed with a dozen tracks culled from Fat Possum albums supplied by label partner Bruce Watson, Herring brought his pitch to Guy. "I told him, 'Look, if you want to do the big crossover record, or the you-and-the-famous-people-on-every-song kind of record, I'd totally get why you'd want to do that, and that would be great -- and I'm not gonna do it,' " Herring says. "'But here's something I'd love to do with you, and I think it'd be great. I don't know if it'd be commercial or not, but I don't care.'"
Though Guy was familiar with Burnside, who had opened shows for him, he was not sure he could play the curiously structured hill country blues at first.
Guy says, "I'm like, 'What the hell is they playin'?' But I'm a music freak, man. When I hear it, I'm gonna pick up my guitar and say, 'Shit, I could put this in there, and that'll work!' [That's] the way I was looking at this thing when I went down there. That's what they asked me to do. They just said, 'Don't go change, Buddy, and be Junior Kimbrough or somebody like that. Go down there and play Buddy Guy with these guys.' "
Moreover, Guy says he enjoyed the challenge of working in a blues style that was essentially foreign to him. "I didn't like the idea at first, but every morning I'd wake up, [and] I'm sayin', 'Wait a minute, that didn't sound bad at all. I'm learnin' somethin'. Whatever it is they're playin', Buddy, you did somethin' on top of that, and it is a little different. Hey, get ready to be like you in a boxin' ring -- keep punchin'!' "
As he assembled a backup band for the album, Herring decided to use Ford's regular drummer -- who goes by the name of Spam -- as a kind of anchor. "He was really the soul of the project, for me," Herring explains. "I came around to this way of thinkin', where all of the arrangements would be based on Spam's beat -- sort of that modified stomp that he does."
For certain tracks, Herring had to play to the beat of different drummers -- Sam Carr of the noted Clarksdale, Miss.-based juke-joint band the Jelly Roll Kings, and Pete Thomas, formerly with Elvis Costello's Attractions. The producer notes, "Every time I switched drummers, Buddy got off on it."
Engineer Ethan Allen suggested Clarksdale native Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers for the project. The guitarist's side group, the Knock-Down Society, often essays Delta blues material, and he has frequently sat in with the North Mississippi All Stars, the rising young trio who perform souped-up hill-country blues.
"I didn't want Buddy to have to even really worry about learning Junior's riffs or a T-Model Ford riff," Herring says. "So I needed somebody who could play all those riffs and be super-legit about it -- somebody who didn't sound like some studio guy who had learned 'em but somebody who could really play 'em, who cared about 'em. Jimbo's enthusiasm for this music was crazy-good."
Filling out the core group was Davey Faragher of Cracker and John Hiatt's band. Herring says, "I decided to make the bass player the ringer in the whole project. [It had to be] someone I had a long relationship with, who I could say anything to, if I really needed to talk to somebody in technical musical terms. So that's why I got Davey to play bass."
Also serving as a sideman was pianist Bobby Whitlock -- not only a Mississippi resident but a veteran of Eric Clapton's Derek & the Dominos.
Guy toured extensively in February and March, and he'll also hit the road after the album is released. Chicago's WXRT will broadcast a May 16 show at Guy's club Legends, at which the guitarist will perform "Sweet Tea" live, with special guests sitting in.
Guy will also make his customary blues festival appearances, including one at the Chicago Blues Festival, which kicks off June 8. And Guy will tour with his blues elder, B.B. King, in August and September.
Additional reporting provided by Jill Pesselnick.