Boston's blue bloods
Ronnie Earl, Mighty Sam McClain, Paul Rishell & Annie Raines
Cellars by Starlight by Ted Drozdowski
The late pianist Roosevelt Sykes, also known as the Honeydripper, said, "The
blues is a talent. You can't learn it. You got to be born with it."
Certainly the Boston area artists Ronnie Earl, Mighty Sam McClain, and Paul
Rishell and Annie Raines all sound born to the blues. For Earl and Rishell and
Raines, their respective journeys -- from Queens, Connecticut, and, well, in
Annie's case, just outside of Boston -- to the apex of their art have been
accomplished through a combination of study and intuitive soul. Same for
McClain, though as an African-American born in the Deep South who began singing
in church as a child, he seems closer to the Sykes credo.
Even if Roosevelt's notion of blues in the blood is a bit of an
oversimplification, there clearly is something in the combination of technique
and unfiltered emotionalism in these artists' work that sets them apart. And
this year they've all won deserved recognition. In May, Rishell and Raines and
Earl received W.C. Handy Awards, the blues industry's version of a Grammy
(Ritchell describes it as looking "like a giant testicle"). And McClain has
gotten not only recognition but cash for the frequent use of his
spiritual/blues "New Man in Town" on Ally McBeal. McClain and Earl have
also just released outstanding new CDs on the Telarc label.
For Earl, a veteran guitarist who's spent almost 25 years on the road in
Sugar Ray and the Bluetones and Roomful of Blues and as a commanding solo
artist, the award for Best Blues Guitarist (his second) and his new disc arrive
at a poignant time. "I haven't been able to play since January because of
depression," he confides. "To me, the music on Healing Time is the music
of depression, because I was struggling with it as I recorded."
Healing Time does seem to have a bit more melancholy in its melodies
than Earl's previous albums. But its blues-jazz hybrid is no less beautiful.
From the opening organ/guitar spiritual, "Churchin'," to his potboiling take on
Muddy Waters' "Catfish Blues," Earl again displays the gracfe and soul that's
the heart of his playing.
The session's guest star is the jazz-organ legend Jimmy McGriff. "That alone is
worth the price of admission," Earl offers. "He phrases like nobody else, and
that's not even talking about his tone." Tone is also one of Earl's strengths,
so it's a pleasure to hear the two musicians mesh.
"It felt a little dangerous to do `Catfish Blues,' " Ronnie continues.
"Muddy Waters' music is untouchable. But I thought that if I did it with B-3
[on this track, by Boston's Bruce Katz] it would be different enough that I
gave myself permission.
"My favorite song I wrote for my wife, `Bella Donna.' On that I might be one of
the first blues guys to play classical guitar on an album."
Earl jokes that he may also be among the first to do nothing to promote his
latest release. "I dropped out of the rat race. I don't have a band. I don't
have a manager. At age 47 I've been able to pull away and say no." But not
before the pace of his previous major-label deal and constant touring drove him
to exhaustion. He was also diagnosed as diabetic last year. Now he's battling
depression, too -- it's as if his life were almost as full of blues as his
music has long been.
Nonetheless, he's been drawing on the support of his wife, Donna, and his
spiritual convictions. And his interest in performing is returning. He recently
appeared on local stages with soul singer Irma Thomas and Chicago blues giant
Otis Rush. He's also planning an all-blues album, and he'll return to
headlining at the Regattabar in September. Meanwhile, he's been teaching, and
he plays every Wednesday for a group of retarded adults in Chelmsford. "They
don't know Ronnie Earl from Savoy Brown. It's beautiful."
He adds, "I hope other people get some healing from my record. Depression is a
very isolating illness. I hope that maybe by me talking about it, some others
who are going through this might realize they're not alone.
"For now, I'm always looking to play better, always looking for the perfect
slow blues. I used to pray that God would give me the ability to play blues, so
everything else is gravy for me. That's all I ever really wanted. So when I'm
feeling unfulfilled, I remind myself: it's important to have gratitude."
So does Sam Mcclain, another deeply spiritual man who has turned his
blues into a musical ministry of sorts over the past few years. Even "New Man
in Town," which became a theme for a new character on Ally McBeal last
season, was actually about accepting Jesus. But the songs on McClain's new
Blues for the Soul never trip over their believer's foundation.
For fans of no-holds-barred soul music -- the kind of emotionally naked
performances that Otis Redding and Bobby Bland delivered in the '60s -- Mighty
Sam's recordings and concerts continue to be manna. With the voice of a lion
that's rolled in the red clay of the American South, his music today reflects
the joy he's found in life. It also reflects his conviction that his '90s
ascent from the gutters of New Orleans to the comforts of his New Hampshire
home and family and international recognition for his work has been due not
only to his own labors but to divine intervention.
"I worked for a long time not seeing many sparks," he points out. "Now I'm
seeing sparks, though I'd still like to see a bigger spark. But I have my
artistic freedom, and control of my own career, and I have found in [his wife]
Sandra's family the family that I've always wanted. When I hear someone call me
`Grandpa Sam,' I feel tears of joy and thankfulness come into my eyes." McClain
himself had a rough childhood: he fled home in his early teens because of an
abusive stepfather. And he was separated from his mother for decades -- they
reconciled only a short time before she passed away early this year.
"Deep in my heart," McClain reflects, "I really think I'm right where God wants
me to be, and that my time's comin'."
McClain himself has been nominated several times for Handy awards, but they've
so far eluded him. This year he lost in the traditional soul/blues category to
one of his inspirations, Bobby Bland. "That's okay. Bobby was sure here before
me, and he's earned it. And I don't want to jump in nobody else's spot. I don't
want someone as special as Bobby Bland to have to die so I can become a
The McBeal windfall not only has been a financial blessing but has
reinforced his belief that his hard decades of struggle -- during which he
plummeted from the top of the Southern R&B charts in the '60s to rock
bottom and then slowly inched back up into the ranks of the most respected in
his field -- were right. So right that he's about to write a song about the way
he feels now called "Standing in the Middle of My Dreams."
"I'm just following my spirit into my music, and it's amazing how people
respond to what I'm singing about. They hear me talking about God and share
things with me about their family and their lives and troubles that I can't
believe. That's because they know I'm real -- about the blues and about God."
Guitarist Paul Rishell and harmonica ace Annie Raines travel a more
secular path. Through their profound understanding of what makes the music tick
and their excellent musicianship, the duo have forged a sound that touches the
deepest parts of the blues' history and character. The past few years have
taken them increasingly to Europe and to teaching residencies and festivals
around the US. And a growing audience has, in turn, taken Paul and Annie's
blend of old-style country blues and the post-war Chicago sound pioneered by
the likes of Muddy Waters to heart.
This May, the music also took Rishell and Raines to the Handy Awards, where
they performed. "We were nominated for the acoustic-album category but figured
we wouldn't win," Paul says. "We were wondering why we were there anyway,
because playing the music is its own reward," Annie adds.
After they played for the Handy crowd, Rishell and Raines opted to spend the
rest of the program at the far end of the auditorium, where the nervous jitters
of the other nominees milling about wouldn't spill into their calm. "Everybody
was kind of frenzied, so we wanted to have some space," Paul explains. "We
could hear the ceremonies droning on in the distance. Then somebody came up to
us and said, `You better run to the other end of the auditorium. They're
announcing your category.' "
"Then it dawned on us that we'd actually won," says Annie.
"Hell, I haven't run since I was 16 years old," says Paul.
Nonetheless, they made it to the podium to receive Acoustic Album of the Year
for Moving to the Country (Tone Cool), their 1999 release.
"The thing is," Paul acknowledges, "half the record's electric anyway. So I
don't know exactly why we got it. But it's fun to win."
Also practical, as Annie points out. "It can be used to give promoters and
presenters something to run with, and we're now on the verge of having booking
and management, which we hadn't before." Their recent gig at a festival in
Davenport, Iowa, was attended by a bigger and more enthusiastic audience than
usual -- a common symptom of award fever.
"But getting an award or a manager isn't going to change what we do," says
"If anything," Annie adds, "having people help us may give us more time to work
on the next album and the kind of music we want to do."
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