Last fall, we gave you a preview of the Music Maker Relief Foundation‘s (MMRF) 25th anniversary compilation album in the form of a track from longtime MMRF supporter and board member Taj Mahal and promised we’d bring you more on the album upon its release. Although the names of many of the artists on the 21-track Blue Muse may not be as familiar as Mahal and Eric Clapton — the latter captured here doing the slow blues instrumental “Mississippi Blues” with MMRF founder Tim Duffy during a 1995 jam and then discussing with Duffy where the piece is originally from (Willie Brown) and how Stefan Grossman included it on one of his blues guitar tutorials (from which Duffy learned it) — that doesn’t make the songs of any lesser quality, with other highlights including a gritty, hypnotic “I Got the Blues” from Alabama Slim that sounds like it could easily have come off Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea in addition to borrowing a few lines from Otis Rush’s “Double Trouble”, a “Hambone” that finds John Dee Holeman joined by Taj Mahal on the hambone playing (body-slapping), Boot Hanks and Dom Flemons‘ (Carolina Chocolate Drops) “I Wanna Boogie” with Hanks on guitar and vocals and Flemons on hambone, and the slow folk-country blues of a “Widow Woman” on which Drink Small‘s deep, scratchy vocals are somewhat reminiscent of the late Paul Pena.
Considering that the foundation has already supported more than 450 artists through 12,000 grants during its first two and a half decades, one won’t be surprised by the diversity of geographies and musical styles represented here, with artists from Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Virginia, Georgia and as far as Washington state delivering songs that include blues, folk, soul, gospel, country and more.
Also bearing mention are a jazzy “Route 66” from one-time Elmore James house band leader Eddie Tigner, Robert Finley‘s soulful, sandpaper vocaled “Age Don’t Mean a Thing” featuring Jimbo Mathus on guitar, Algia Mae Hinton‘s solo, slow country “Snap Your Fingers”, Willie Farmer‘s Hill Country number “I Am the Lightning” (to which you can take a listen here, one of many good tracks off Farmer’s upcoming March release The Man From the Hill on Big Legal Mess Records) with its harder edged guitar and thumping drums, a fiddle-laced “Polly Put the Kettle On” with Dom Flemons on vocals and harmonica and Guy Davis on guitar, the earliest of the recordings (from Music Maker’s first artist, Guitar Gabriel) in the simple, countryish “Landlord Blues”, and the joyous noise of Cary Morin‘s uptempo gospel “Sing It Louder” delivered with a feel-good, New Orleans flavor.
Helping to round out the compilation are country numbers from Captain Luke (an “Old Black Buck” with Cool John Ferguson on guitar), Martha Spencer & Kelley Breiding (the guitar and vocal duet “Sweet Valentine”), and Sam Frazier Jr. (a husky-voiced “Cabbage Man” that again includes Flemons on guitar); and a swaying, ethereal “Loose Diamonds” from Ironing Board Sam (with Mathus on guitar and piano) that you can feel lifting you toward the heavens on the way to the disc’s two closing gospel tracks, The Branchettes’ a cappella “I Know I’ve Been Changed” and Theotis Taylor‘s “Something Within Me”, the title track from Taylor’s album of long-lost voice and piano recordings from 1979 to which new studio arrangements were added.
While the CD itself would probably be sufficient enough a celebration of MMRF’s first 25 years, it’s actually part of a nice multimedia series that also includes both an upcoming book and exhibition of photographs captured by Duffy through the years, and an original graphic novel from Z2 Comics (Tales of the Music Makers) that relates the stories of the MMRF and some of the southern musicians it’s served through the decades including the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Taj Mahal, the Como Mamas, Guitar Gabriel, Blind Willie McTell friend Cora Mae Bryant, Etta Baker, Robert Finley, Adolphus “the One-Man Blues Band” Bell, and others.
In addition to two previously unpublished stories from famed comic strip author Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) written in 2003 — the first Pekar stories to be published since December 2010 — and a sampling of black and white photography, the novel also includes an exclusive downloadable soundtrack of its own featuring mostly different tracks from some of the same artists heard on Blue Muse, including Alabama Slim, Dave McGrew, Drink Small, Guitar Gabriel, and Algia Mae Hinton, as well as other MMRF artists such as Little Freddie King, Adolphus Bell, Cora Mae Bryant, Cool John Ferguson, Cootie Stark, the Como Mamas, and Essie Mae Brooks, with Captain Luke’s “Old Black Buck” being the only track to appear on both collections.
Whether you’re just getting around to checking out what MMRF has to offer for the very first time or a longtime fan of the organization and its recordings, the Blue Muse compilation and these other events and publications celebrating the foundation’s 25th anniversary are all well worth your time and attention, and are guaranteed to bring you back for more from these great artists for as long as MMRF continues to help make it possible for them to perform!