Watermelon Slim and the Workers
The Wheel Man
Northern Blues Music NBM0038
In the past few years, one of the biggest, most talked-about, emerging blues artists has been Watermelon Slim. Okie, Vietnam veteran, holder of blue-collar jobs, Watermelon Slim honed his hard-edged blues the old fashioned way: in small clubs and juke joints, but also at antiwar rallies, just playing the straight-ahead, raw blues from the heart before demanding but also straight-ahead, raw audiences who could tell who was real, and who was just faking it, as soon as they heard it. They heard the real thing in Watermelon Slim and his band, the Workers, and they rallied.
So it didn't take official, credentialed approval to recognize the talent and the soul in Watermelon Slim. But he has that also. Consider this testimony from Jerry Wexler, legendary producer for Atlantic, someone who certainly knows his blues: "Watermelon Slim incarnates the deepest and truest roots of American music. Combine Jimmy Rodgers, the whole Carter family and Bob wills with Blind Lemon, Sonny Boy Williamson and Wilson Pickett - and there you have Slim - a one-of-a-kind pickin' 'n' singin' Okie dynamo." Who also took off early from the recording sessions for The Wheel Man so that he wouldn't be late for the bowling league!
But it's only appropriate to mention Slim's roots are not only in the great Black blues players but in white country as well, the equally-despised White Trash music that Black artists in the South referred to as "white blues." For soul is born of hardscrabble and crosses all ethnic and racial boundaries. It's either there, or it ain't - no doubt about it.
And Watermelon Slim has it, shouting his rough-throated vocals as he plays slide dobro and harp while backed by an electric band - combining country and city, gravel roads with superhighway loops around the big city. Roots. With every listen. But also, a feel for today, for the here and now - intensely, and afire, with all the raw urban intensity of a dumpster on fire and the sleeping country boy scrambling out of just to save his life!
Indeed, there is an engaging rawness to the music of Watermelon Slim and the Workers, a seemingly impromptu artlessness joined with directness and elemental approach that betrays just how polished the Workers really are. In this last, the Worker's playing is very much akin to the best in 1950s rock 'n' roll.
The Workers - who are Michael Newberry, drums, percussion, backing vocals, and arrangements; Ronnie "Mack" McMullen, electric guitar and backing vocals; Ike Lamb, electric guitar; and Cliff Belcher, bass and backing vocals - ably aid and abet, but also complement, the also seemingly unstudied artlessness of Watermelon Slim's dobro and harmonica playing (but as the sleeve notes to the CD emphasize, Slim is, in fact, a demanding perfectionist). His choice of the slide dobro as his guitar axe of choice gives both a country feel to his electric blues, as well as a nicely-metallic ring to his sound that gives more than just the timbre of standard slide electric guitar. His harp incorporates both the first Sonny Boy Williamson (John Lee Williamson, the pioneer modern blues harpman of the 1930s and 1940s) and Big Walter Horton as influences, developed in tandem with Slim's own preference of playing for emphasis in the highest registers.
Special guests featured on The Wheel Man are Magic Slim, duet vocals and electric guitar solo on the opening title track; and on acoustic piano, Dennis Borycki and the famed David Maxwell, who played in Muddy Waters's band in the 1970s.
Magic Slim is an apt presence on "The Wheel Man" track, being as elemental in his blues as Watermelon Slim himself - he being one of the last remaining Black roots exponents of the traditional Chicago electric blues, a music he grew up in when whites didn't noticeably listen to it. Call Watermelon Slim's own approach to the blues what you wish- countrified electric blues, or electrified country blues, where city and country approaches come together, but one thing's certain - it's pure soul, a deeply-felt love and respect for the Black blues from a white Okie who knows how to feel and live them personally.
Of the 14 tracks on The Wheel Man, 11 are originals from within Watermelon Slim and the Workers themselves, nine penned by Slim, "I've Got News" written by drummer Mike Newberry, and "Peaches" co-written by Slim and Newberry. The remaining three are Cat Iron's tale of a preacher man, "Jimmy Bell;" Slim Harpo's Louisiana Swamp Blues classic, "Got Love If You Want It;" and Memphis country blues master Furry Lewis's "Judge Harsh Blues," about being in trouble on taxes.
Nine of the tracks feature Slim with the Workers on straight-ahead electric, while three feature Slim alone doing the country blues: "Sawmill Holler," a work song sung a cappella in the style of a field holler; "Jimmy Bell," with Slim accompanying himself on harp; and "Judge Harsh blues," with Slim playing country-style slide dobro. "Got Love If You Want It" adopts Slim Harpo's original rhumba arrangement and playing to the Workers' elemental dynamism, along with Watermelon Slim's playing Slim Harpo's harmonica licks on amplified harp. (On the original, Slim Harpo played electric guitar with a band, and played his harp axe mounted in a harmonica rack.)
Of the remaining tracks, "The Wheel Man" and "Newspaper Reporter" are Watermelon Slim's statements about being a bluesman, with their images adapted, much as he likes to do, from the metaphors and occupations of workaday, real-lived life. This same metaphorical approach informs Slim's on two songs of women problems, "Drinking & Driving" and "Truck Driving Mama," with more standard metaphors of the blues infusing "I Got News" and "Rattlesnake," this latter a fast-paced, almost punk-like, blues of a poisonous woman.
But the jump, "I Know One," and the medium-tempo "Peaches", celebrate good love (and good lust), "Fast Eddie" is a philosophical meditation of necessary caution developed around gambling, while the gloomy, moody "Black Water" is another philosophical meditation of life's travails that also incorporates populist political statements about poor people and uncaring politicians. All these songs in their uniqueness, different approaches, and variety making The Wheel Man justly a smorgasbord of delectable offerings.
The Wheel Man is another top-quality CD from Canada's Northern Blues Music label, which has emerged in the last few years as a significant player on the contemporary blues recording scene, providing some of the best blues and demonstrations of musical virtuosity to be found in North America. Many a Canadian and U.S. blues artist owes their coming to wider audiences to the assiduous efforts of Northern Blues Music to promote and develop the genre through a series of first-rate recordings of first-rate talent in a world of commercial recording too much dominated by crass concerns of market over artistry.
Although only having come to prominence in the last couple of years, Watermelon Slim has emerged as one of contemporary blues' best, most accomplished exponents. The Wheel Man was selected by blues magazine MOJO as "Top Blues Album of the Year," the second year in a row that Watermelon Slim has received this honor, with The Wheel Man garnering sterling reviews in Harp Magazine, MOJO and the All Music Guide.
As Northern Blues Music exulted, 2007 is indeed the Year of the Watermelon. All year round! No need to confine it just to August to enjoy that savory-sweet, mouth-watering, Watermelon blues taste!
George Fish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fish photo by Greg Ballinger.