On his classic 1967 album A Man And The Blues, Buddy Guy sang:
I think I’ll move back down South, where the weather suits my clothes
I done laid ’round this big city so long, man…oooh, until I almost done froze
On his new album Sweet Tea (Silvertone/Jive), Buddy Guy moves his music “back down South”–turning loose his incendiary guitar and powerfully expressive voice on a set of dirt-road rural blues originating from the hill country of North Mississippi.
This style of hill-country blues is separate and distinct from the Mississippi Delta blues pioneered by pre-war performers like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton, and later amplified (literally and figuratively) by such Delta migrants to Chicago as Muddy Waters and Robert Nighthawk. In contrast to the familiar 12-bar blues pattern, the North Mississippi style is characterized by elongated bar lines and one- or two-chord modal forms. There is a kind of trance-inducing drone quality to these blues that seems to draw upon the music’s deepest West African wellsprings.
This album could be subtitled “Buddy Guy Sings Fat Possum,” for seven of its nine songs are taken from the repertoires of hill-country stalwarts like Robert Cage, T-Model Ford, and the late Junior Kimbrough. The musical careers of these men—along with those of R.L. Burnside, Paul “Wine” Jones, and Robert Belfour, among others—were either initiated or revived by the iconoclastic Fat Possum Records of Oxford, Mississippi. Today, Fat Possum’s catalog encompasses both raw field recordings (Junior Kimbrough’s Most Things Haven’t Worked Out, Johnny Farmer’s Wrong Doers Respect Me) and startling collaborations by country blues elders with contemporary remixers and rappers (R.L. Burnside’s Mr. Wizard, the various-artists collection New Beats From The Delta).
Jim “Jimbo” Malthus is a founding member of Squirrel Nut Zippers and the sure-handed rhythm guitarist on Sweet Tea. A native of Oxford, Mississippi, he notes that until the first Fat Possum albums arrived in 1991, “people that lived 20 miles from R.L. Burnside in Mississippi didn’t know about his music. I used to deer hunt in Holly Springs [Burnside’s home town] every year of my life, and I never knew about any juke joints around there.”
From the solo acoustic moan of “Done Got Old” to the last searing strains of his own composition “It’s A Jungle Out There,” the droning force of the hill-country style and the alternately ecstatic and agonized delivery of Buddy Guy make for one intense combination. Bassist Davey Faragher locks in with Jimbo Malthus on the hypnotic rhythms and heaving chord changes, pushed relentlessly by one of three drummers on the album—either the indigenous blues veterans Spam (of T-Model Ford’s band) and Sam Carr, or Los Angeles import Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello & the Attractions, John Hiatt).
Together, they can make the 12-minute workout “I Got To Try You Girl” seem to go by in half the time, and take Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp” to a place beyond not only his original 1967 version but those of Otis Redding and Salt-N-Pepa as well. The razor-sharp mix by album producer Dennis Herring and Clay Jones creates an almost palpably humid atmosphere, with Buddy’s voice and guitar cutting through it like summer lightning in the Mississippi night.
Born in the hamlet of Lettsworth, Louisiana on July 30, 1936, Buddy Guy has lived in Chicago since 1957. But the sound of Sweet Tea “takes me way back,” he says. Back to Lightnin’ Slim, who sat on the porch of the Lettsworth general store and played the first electric guitar Buddy ever heardback to his own early years on the rough Baton Rouge club circuit, as a fledgling guitarist in the bands of “Big Poppa” John Tilley and blues harp master Raful Neal.
“It reminds me of some of the things in the beginning—the Smokey Hoggs, the Sonny Boy Williamsons, the Lightnin’ Hopkins,” Buddy recalls. “All those people just playin’ for a drop of the dime in the hat. The Saturday night fish fries—you had fun, you woke up the next morning with a headache, you just drank the wine or the beer, grab the guitar and go doin’ it again.”
Yet Sweet Tea is not necessarily the album this artist would have made on his own. Beginning with Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues in 1991, the four-time Grammy Award winner (including Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1991, 1993 and 1995) has recorded contemporary songs by John Hiatt and Denise LaSalle alongside blues classics by Jimmy Reed and Charles Brown. His five Silvertone albums have featured guest appearances by friends ranging from Travis Tritt and Paul Rodgers to Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. (Guy’s fourth Grammy Award—Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1996—was for “SRV Shuffle,” an all-star jam track from A Tribute To Stevie Ray Vaughan).
But Sweet Tea would be a brand-new bag for Buddy Guy, conceived and organized by his long-time fan Dennis Herring. In 1997, this well-respected producer of best-selling albums by Counting Crows and Jars of Clay had relocated his Los Angeles studio back to his home state of Mississippi.
“I just found myself getting steeped in that sound,” explains Dennis, who grew up in a small town near Tupelo. “I saw a T-Model Ford show, just him and Spam, that blew me away. You’d hear that music everywhere, almost in a subliminal way, like part of the water—yet it was a kind of music that even the general blues audience hadn’t really been exposed to.”
Herring continues: “I’ve always been a huge Buddy Guy fan, though I felt that in recent years his records had gotten very ‘studio-like.’ But about three years ago, I heard him on a live radio broadcast and he sounded so incredible”
“So in the back of my mind was the wish for Buddy to make a record in a setting that was older, more real, that would capture the energy and intensity he still has. And I wanted to see an outside artist come in and expose this hill-country style to a whole new audience. Finally, it all just clicked.”
“Buddy was a little out of his element at first,” Jimbo Malthus recalls. “He would say [referring to his classic Chess Records sessions of the early Sixties], ‘Well, the Chess brothers would make you have at least four verses before you cut a song.’ Whereas a lot of this stuff is more repetitive, more of a feeling than a particular lyric or verses, and sometimes very idiosyncratic. It would have been daunting for anyone who wasn’t familiar with the style, but Buddy just jumped right in.”
“Every time he came in the studio, it was like a gift he was pouring out. We played five or six hours straight, every night, all in one big room.”
The Sweet Tea sessions took place over ten days in July 2000, with band and producer rehearsing the songs—but not too much—for a few days before Buddy’s arrival.
“I was feelin’ just like I felt when Muddy Waters and them would call me to come in and make a session with them,” says Buddy about the deceptively casual but relentless playing of the Sweet Tea band. “I never did go in and rehearse with the Wolf, Muddy or Little Walter. They would have these other guys ready to make this session, and they would say, ‘Well, I know who’ll play it right. Call Buddy.’ And sometimes they would get me out of bed and I would go in.”
“So when these guys was brought in, I’m listenin’ at this and sayin’ “Wow, I can play this—I feel good behind this!” And whatever the song was, the guys played great.”
Buddy employed his trusty Fender Stratocaster on “80 or 90 per cent” of Sweet Tea. He loved the selection of vintage amplifiers assembled by Dennis Herring.
“He went back and pulled out some of these old amps,” Buddy enthuses. “I said, ‘Man, leave that right there!’ That’s the way amplifiers used to be—all you had to do was just go in the studio and plug it in. Those things got a tone, a tone like you can’t find in amplifiers anymore now. When Dennis brought those amps out down there, the hair stood on my head.”
In 2001, Buddy Guy is still the king of Chicago blues. But Sweet Tea shows how much more of the blues—how much more music—lives within in him, more than 40 years into his amazing career.
“You never lose things like that,” says Buddy Guy of this vivid, vital, down-home sound. “That’s the way music was before it got too much tech and too many people. People just learnt it, man, and you’d just go on and on.”
“If you came up in that time like I did, you don’t lose that, ever.”