I love the blues. Blues was my favorite music for many years and I have played it, listened to it, supported it, and written about it. I also realize its historical importance as one of the four table legs that hold up the last 100 years of American music, the other three being jazz, country, and early rock. There is, however, a question that gnaws at me about the blues from time to time and, since this is my gig, I wanted to pose it to you, my faithful Gear-Vault readers and that question is this: why won’t the blues evolve?
I receive a great many blues CDs to review for the different magazines and websites I contribute to and 90% of them seem to be some sort of attempt to re-create verbatim the type of playing that blues players were laying down 50 years ago. There seems to be little support for artists who want to go beyond the well-established museum style of blues playing and bring this wonderful music into our current century and, just maybe, give it a place in the current marketplace. There seems to be this attitude that the old ways of the blues need to be preserved or they will be lost and this leads to umpteen records released each year that are all about sounding like Muddy, Buddy, B.B., Wolf, and the rest of the greats did decades ago.
Now, before you get upset, please realize that I am making my case for this in an effort to help this music survive, not kill it. What I want to see is blues music become commercial again, to be on the radio and television, and to assume its rightful place in the world, not to be some roped-off corner of the musical universe that is only open to those that imitate not innovate. Consider the fact that rock, jazz, and country have moved beyond what was going on in the 1950s and are still viable forms in the modern-day.
These music styles each have a traditionalist segment of their supporters, but also have current performers in their midst doing things that appeal to today’s audience. I mean, you might not love Nashville radio country, but at least there are country music radio stations playing music in most markets. When was the last time you encountered an all-blues radio station? I live in Chicago, the home of the blues, and stations here, if they play any blues at all, are lucky to dedicate an hour weekly to the blues in a special show and hardly ever play blues in regular rotation. Why is this so? To me, it’s because there are only so many people can take of the same old thing.
The funny thing about this preservationist attitude in the blues scene is that it is trying to preserve music that was quite cutting-edge in its day. Anyone standing on a stage in the ’50s with a Fender guitar and amplifier was as modern as could be. Muddy and Wolf weren’t trying to re-do music from 50 years in the past; they were doing their music their way for the audience that was standing right in front of them. Now, I get so many CDs of the old rumpty-rump shuffles and slow blues that I honestly can’t tell most of them apart. Why can’t someone play slide guitar over a hip-hop groove? Why are there no blues songs with lyrics about what modern people are feeling, rather than another twist on “Dust My Broom” or other classics from the past? I think there is plenty in modern life to give people the blues so why is no one writing about it and, if they are, why is no one supporting it? Music, like our verbal language, has to evolve and remain current and relevant to the people who are going to be listening to it to maintain a spot on their musical radar, end of the story.
What I hope posing this question accomplishes is to start some discussion about what is going on in the blues scene and to give anyone who has a desire to put out a unique take on the blues to have the confidence to put their vision out there. I encourage anyone who might be doing something different from the blues to post a link to their music and let the world hear it. Let’s start getting the blues the recognition and the modern audience that it deserves and really help to keep it alive and get it off the sidelines of the marketplace. That is, to me, at least, the best way to honor the legacies of the great performers who got this whole ball rolling. Innovate something; that’s what they did.
Nice article… As my point of view would’ve been too long to expose in a comment, I made a response article on muzicosphere. To sum up, I think that the Blues has evolved, but the fans didn’t and that’s why a vast majority of the blues scene keeps on re-creating the same kind of blues over and over. And those who don’t do that won’t be labeled blues. You’ll find the article here http://tinyurl.com/llotos
Hope you’ll enjoy…
My friend Woody Russell from Austin Texas is currently recording a Blues Cd that he is doing his own way.
Woody has great respect for the past Blues artists but is taking Blues to the next step in his own way and it is awesome.
You can check Woody out on his web site.
Well stated concerns about “modern” blues. I represent a modern blues artist from Austin, Texas by the name Woody Russell (woodyrussell.com). I believe he is doing exactly what you suggest in your comments about bringing the context of the blues forward, while still honoring the beauty of its traditions. In fact, he is recording a new album right now and one of the tracks offers lyrics about “email” and “light rail”… current topics to be certain. His playing, and definitely his writing, is also forward thinking – in my opinion – in the sense that he infuses his brand of the blues with more non-traditional chord voicings for the blues formula. We also consider he web presence to be an ever evolving, forward thinking concept where he continues to offer fans a lot of insight into his music, his writing and recording process through video and audio discussions.
With all that noted, however, Woody and I have had long discussions about the fact that his variations on the blues may not appeal to many purists, and with all due respect to them, he is cool with that. Nonetheless, he honors the blues, soul and jazz music from the past, all of which has informed his own playing, singing and composing.
In closing, I don’t believe he is alone in this quest, but is perhaps more of an exception than the norm. There are extraordinary blues artists who are pushing the music forward with new technique and content wrapped up in the funky backbeats, shuffles and boogies that make the blues a form that generations of listeners have loved. After all, a cheeseburger is still fundamentally tasty chow, no matter how you dress it up.
Mike, I hope you and your readers will take a moment to check out http://WWW.WOODYRUSSELL.COM to hear and see a bit of what this “modern”, and very current, blues artist is offering fans of what he considers is on of the finest forms of American music. If fans become site “Members”, by creating a free profile, they gain access to a lot more information and free Mp3s.
Look for “Up Against It”, his new album slated for release in late spring/early summer 2010.