Various Artists

The Voice of the Blues: Bottleneck Guitar...

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Musically this a great batch of stuff, the equivalent of tuning in somebody's really fantastic rootsy radio show. It is also a bit like 14 strangers, some of who have nothing in common, accidentally meeting in a random location and deciding they all get along just fine together. Anyone with a bit of intelligence might begin nitpicking about the philosophy of how this album has been compiled. There is obvious indecision about whether the focus is blues or bottleneck guitar. Or a third interpretation is that this is supposed to be a collection of masterpieces. By putting The Voice of the Blues out front in the title, an immediate blues emphasis is established. That is awkward for some of the material that is included here, including ragtime, old-time country, and Hawaiian. What everything does have in common is the bottleneck guitar, but this may have become a peg to hang the collection of tracks on simply because it is so popular amongst blues listeners, continually being discovered with much enthusiasm by each new generation. Because masterpiece or not, each track has a different degree of involvement with the bottleneck, sometimes major and sometimes minor. "Ground Hog Blues" by Rambling Thomas is for sure a bottleneck blues, with the sound of the quavering slide licks totally dominating the proceedings. "Decatur Street 81" by the Georgia Browns is something of an instrumental masterpiece, but the bottleneck is there only as a hard-working member of the trio, adding simple and carefully worked-out parts to the overall sound. This track could have just as easily been folded into a compilation of hot harmonica music. If this is taken as some kind of overview of bottleneck guitar techniques, it is haphazard and incomplete. Most of the music is from the '20s and '30s, yet there is also one track from the '50s, and it is a gospel guitar number at that. Is this on the album just because it was lying around, or because it was the only bottleneck guitar masterpiece recorded in the '50s? The answer is surely no to the latter question, but it is great to have Sister O.M. Terrell on hand anyway, playing a wrist-cracking, jumping National steel style that brings to mind Mississippi Fred McDowell a few years prior to puberty. This track combined with the excellent Irene Scruggs track on the flip side provides an extra attraction within this collection of songs. Material by female country blues artists is rare, and listeners will certainly be interested in hearing more by both gals. The second side does have a slight problem in the overwhelming quality of one particular track, Roy Smeck's "Laughing Rag." This is guitar playing of such outrageous virtuosity that the songs before and after would limp off with their heads between their hands if they were able to assume human form. The worst hit is the track immediately before, because despite the lack of much interesting slide work other than a bit of mild chording, it is hyped as "one of the rare ragtime works ever attempted by a bottleneck guitarist." Uh, what is it that Roy Smeck is doing, then? Hint: It is called "Laughing Rag." Sam Butler kicks off the side with another fine example of the kind of playing consumers who think this is all going to be slide blues are probably looking for. These same listeners should still enjoy the cornpone "She's a Hum Dum Dinger From Dingersville" by Jimmie Davis, as it has an especially sweet bottleneck guitar part to it and a tempo change to boot. The conclusion is a version of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" by Blind Willie Davis that works beautifully.

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