Young-uns, gather ’round: This is what the blues sounds like. Not many
recordings by this dude – who alleges to be the hound dog that singer Big Mama
Thornton, from Warren’s hometown of Ariton, AL (population in 2003: 758), told
to scram in that song that Elvis later ripped off and made famous with the white
folks – found their way to vinyl, and even fewer pop up in the digital realm.
The old blues guys are dying off. Warren died in 2003, as a matter of fact. (The
material on this CD was recorded in 1981 and 1982.) Many of the new blues guys
play a slick blues derived from rock, rather than the raw rockin' blues derived
from these Deep South hill country folk tunes. It's a chicken-and-egg thing,
rock and blues, but certainly blues begat rock in the mid-'50s before the Brits
like Clapton revived blues via rock 10 years later. But there's a difference:
Don't even bother calling guys like Kenny Wayne Shepherd "blues," at least to my
face, unless you're itching for a fight.
Thankfully, guys like folklorist George Mitchell took on the mantle of
preserving the blues for us, driving the South's lost highways and capturing
guys like Warren on tape. Mitchell was the guy, you might remember, who recorded
R.L. Burnside for the first time. He's dipped into his personal archives to
bring out solo acoustic blues gems from Furry Lewis, Joe Callicot, Jimmy Lee
Williams, and Mississippi Fred McDowell in this Fat Possum series of acoustic
sets, most of them recorded at the musician's home.
Life Ain't Worth Livin's a great record, for two reasons: First, both the
uninitiated to folk blues as well as the veteran fans will appreciate Warren's
clean, expressive picking style (and he does pick up the slide for a couple
tunes, too) that so perfectly meshes with his easygoing vocals that spin the
simple, but real stories that come from Ariton, AL life (median household income
in 2000: $21,083, or half the national median).
Secondly – and those who have been listening to blues for decades can attest to
this – it’s a great record because all the good stuff from this generation's
been heard, we thought, except for a few pockets of tape here and there. It's so
rewarding to unearth some fresh tuneage that was recorded competently, when
you're an old blues fan.
Once the rest of the guys like J W Warren are gone, a big chunk of the blues is
gone, too. Like all other styles of music, blues must evolve, too. It's hard to
argue that the polished, smooth, urban blues is better or worse than this
deep-roots stuff. But that's where blues is going, and the primitive Delta blues
that McDowell, Son House, and Robert Johnson popularized and the Rolling Stones,
Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, and John Mayall took to the mainstream in the
1960s will soon – poof! – be gone, to be played only by youthful wannabes.
God bless 'em for carrying the torch, but God forbid they ever have to know the
hard knocks these original players had to endure, from which their music came.
Clearly, J.W. Warren and the other cats in this series of compact discs have
seen some trouble – and lived to sing about it.
Now go out and buy tickets to a B.B. King show and enjoy the spectacle.
~Mojo Flucke, Ph.D.