God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson almost didn't happen. Though producer Jeffrey Gaskill assembled the award-winning collection You Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan in 2002, the narrowing focus of the recording industry made it necessary to undertake a Kickstarter campaign for this set to become reality. (The crown jewels for top contributors were ten cigar box guitars made from three boards acquired from one of Johnson's residences.) Gaskill first heard Johnson's haunting, knife-like slide guitar and moaning gospel-blues in 2003, then made two investigative trips to Texas to learn more. There wasn't much: Michael Corcoran's excellent historical liner essay here admits that what we don't know about Johnson "could sink the Titanic." The Blind Boys of Alabama, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Rickie Lee Jones, Luther Dickinson (with Sharde Thomas, granddaughter of blues godfather Othar Turner, and Amy LaVere), Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, Maria McKee, and Sinead O'Connor (with Relish). God Don't Never Change is not necessarily about unique interpretations of Johnson's work, but his influence on these specific artists. Of Waits' two appearances, his reading of "The Soul of Man" is most effective, backed by Kathleen Brennan and son Casey. Williams (who issued two acoustic blues-inspired records on Folkways before her Rough Trade date in 1984) delivers the title cut and the oft-covered "Nobody's Fault But Mine" convincingly with her own band. The Cowboy Junkies sample Johnson's own growl on their spooky, melodic read of "Jesus Is Coming Soon." His ghost not only introduces the cut but duets with Margo Timmons on the refrain. The Blind Boys' take on "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" remains true to their iconic gospel sound, but Jason Isbell's slide adds poignancy to that sweetness. Tedeschi, Trucks, and Mike Mattison on backing vocals offer a gutbucket "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning." Tedeschi displays ample evidence of Johnson's influence as a singer as well as guitarist. Sinéad O'Connor and Relish offer an emotionally resonant, Celtic take on the Delta gospel-blues that rocks with "Trouble Will Soon Be Over." Maria McKee does a revivalist's read of "Let Your Light Shine on Me," and plays everything herself. Jones restores the searing lyrics that the 1792 hymn "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was based on. Accompanied only by her guitar and Lee Thornburg's dubbed New Orleans-style funeral brass, her version is thoughtful rather than raucous, but remains raw and immediate. Most of the artists here are caucasians interpreting an African-American artist. That's not an oversight. When Gaskill produced the Dylan tribute, the only white performer was the man himself, dueting with Mavis Staples. This is the mirror image of that recording: like its predecessor, God Don't Never Change reflects the enduring, mercurial influence of the artist, but also the weight the Christian gospel imposes on questions of the human condition as it encounters suffering, joy, mercy, loneliness, death, and resurrection.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek