Jo Ann Kelly

Key to the Highway

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People have begun to discover just how good a blueswoman the late Jo-Ann Kelly was. That's led to a trawling through the vaults, which have turned up albums like this, of obscure compilation and unreleased cuts. Key to the Highway covers what's arguably her most prolific period, as her star was ascending and was at its critical height (although it should be noted that the 1974 end date in the title is very elastic -- there are six cuts from 1975, and two conversation pieces from 1988). While all too often material has remained unreleased for a good reason, everything here is prime. Kelly's definition of blues is definitely loose, including Hank Williams' "You Win Again," with some strong piano from Bob Hall, and even Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get a Witness" and Rufus Thomas' "Walking the Dog." However, in her hands, blues is exactly what they are. While generally accompanied, the stunning a cappella "Levee Camp Holler" shows the power she had, enough to put her up there with the top rank, and where her fretwork shows through, as on "I Can't Be Satisfied," she was a superb guitar player, with a slide technique to make Bonnie Raitt envious. The audio here might not be the best, somewhat crackly and aged, but in many ways that simply adds to the authentic patina of blues. She shows that you don't have to be male and African-American to have the blues. And a record like this simply increases her legacy.

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