Etta James has worked in countless styles throughout her long career, and she is equally at home singing gospel, R&B, soul, jazz, and even rock & roll, but her roots have always been solidly planted in the blues, and she is arguably the finest living singer active in the genre. Perhaps because she doesn't sing only the blues, however, when she does, it sticks out as something special, and with Blues to the Bone she goes down to the river and dives in completely, turning out a solid album of no-frills, gutbucket performances. Her voice has deepened and coarsened over the years, making it the perfect vehicle of authenticity and authority as she tackles classics of the genre like John Lee Hooker's "Crawling King Snake," Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom," and Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning," backed by a garage blues combo led by her sons, Donito and Sametto James. James' versions bring new dimensions to each of these hoary old chestnuts, which have generally been sung by men, and her smoke-tinged alto makes each her own, instilling them all with a wise, desperate, and confident intimacy. She gives Jimmy Reed's "Hush Hush" a solid reading, while her take on Willie Dixon's "Lil' Red Rooster" is a tension-filled, atmospheric gem. The most striking track here, however, is James' version of the Elmore James tune "The Sky Is Crying," which emerges as epic and poignant. Much of contemporary blues spins on its own excesses and on a hundred years of accumulative clichés, but when an artist like Etta James comes home to sing the blues, the world has to rejoice and take notice, because in her hands the old clichéd phrases become vital and new again.
AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett