The Mississippi Sheiks were a short-lived but popular acoustic string band that recorded approximately 70 songs during the first half of the 1930s before receding into history. Built around guitarist/singer Walter Vinson and fiddler Lonnie Chatmon, with other musicians (notably Lonnie's guitarist brothers Bo Carter and Sam Chatmon), the Sheiks left their influence on numerous folk, country, blues, and even rock performers in later decades -- their best-known song, "Sitting on Top of the World," was recorded by a long list of artists including Howlin' Wolf, Ray Charles, Chet Atkins, Cream, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead. For this tribute album, producer Steve Dawson gathered a cast of sympathetic artists to interpret songs associated with the group, giving them much leeway but keeping the proceedings from veering too far from the original spirit of the music. Dawson himself plays a variety of guitars on several tracks, and takes top billing on a perky version of "Lonely One in This Town," but largely stays behind the scenes so that the artists' personalities might meld with the new arrangements of this seven-plus-decades-old music. The performances range from the solo guitar of bluesman John Hammond and slide master Bob Brozman to the gospel of the Sojourners and the sultry, jazzy vocalizing of Madeleine Peyroux. The opening number, "It's Backfirin' Now," is given a rootsy jug band treatment by the North Mississippi Allstars and Bruce Cockburn, with trombone and Hammond organ among his accompaniment, brings a sweet and lazy New Orleans feel to "Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down." It's appropriate that the Carolina Chocolate Drops -- perhaps the closest of contemporary bands in style to the Sheiks -- get to make "Sitting on Top of the World" their own: these African-American traditionalists have a deep understanding of, and innate camaraderie with, the Sheiks' music. Not surprisingly, Geoff Muldaur -- whose own lengthy catalog is filled with tunes that draw from the Sheiks' brand of old-timey string music -- and his own Texas Sheiks nail "The World Is Going Wrong." Even jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, whose eclecticism has always been his hallmark, finds common ground with the long-gone Sheiks, dueting with trombonist Steve Moore on "That's It," a good-time melody that manages to capture the essence of the Sheiks' sound while placing it squarely in today's more complex world.
AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin