A sweet success

Buddy Guy’s raw blues guitar-playing style comes through on his new CD

By the time Buddy Guy began work on his new CD, Sweet Tea, he knew he was overdue for a new studio record. It had been three years since his previous effort, Heavy Love, and he was eager to get something finished.

The problem was that when he arrived in Oxford, Miss., to begin the project, Guy was worried he wouldn’t be able to create the kind of record wanted by both his producer, Dennis Herring, and his label, Silvertone Records.

Herring (known for his production work with pop acts, including Counting Crows, Cracker and Jars of Clay) had moved to Oxford in 1997 and had become enthralled with the music of artists recording for the iconoclastic blues label Fat Possum Records. Herring thought Guy might be the kind of prominent artist who could introduce the music of Fat Possum artists to a larger audience, and he approached Guy’s label, Silvertone Records, with his concept for Sweet Tea.

Silvertone bought into the idea, but Guy was hesitant about the project. He had never heard Fat Possum artists such as Junior Kimbrough, Robert Cage, T-Model Ford and Cordell Davis until Herring gave him a tape of their songs. And he was thrown off by the Fat Possum sound, a rough and raw style of blues that ignored conventions, such as the 12-bar structure that has come to typify the genre.

“What I did is I left from Louisiana and went through Mississippi to come on up here [to Chicago],” said Guy, who moved from Lettsworth, La., in 1957. “I thought I’d gotten whatever I could get out of Mississippi with Muddy [Waters] and Son House, Fred McDowell and B.B. [King] and them. I said, ‘I got everything out of Mississippi I’m looking for.’

“Then, all of a sudden, something pops up like Junior Kimbrough, and I go ‘Wait a minute, man. I didn’t get it all.’ It was something I was missing, and I just heard it. And people back then were playing the music [in the style of] whatever sounded good. They didn’t go by the books. And when I heard it, I said ‘Wait a minute, I knew I grew up playing like that.’ But after you’ve learned the beats and the bars and different things, it kind of throws you. So I said, ‘Wait a minute, Buddy, you’ve got to go back to where you come from.’ “

Though Guy wasn’t sure if he could really reconnect with the raw, less experienced playing of his youth, Herring convinced Guy to give the songs a try and convened a session at Sweet Tea Studio in Oxford.

“I thought I was messing up, because those guys had that traditional sound, and I said ‘Buddy Guy is going to mess this up,’ “ the 64-year-old guitarist said. “[Herring and Silvertone] assured me that all they wanted me to do was play Buddy Guy. Don’t try to play like those guys from Mississippi who originated that stuff.

“At first, I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t like it. All of a sudden, I was patting my feet and smiling, and I said ‘Buddy Guy, you’d better, as Bobby Bland said, turn on your light and go.’ I just turned my guitar on and said ‘Man, give them the best that you’ve got.’ “

Not only did Guy give the material a good try, he came up with a CD that has been greeted as his finest work since Damn Right I Got The Blues, the outstanding 1991 album that marked Guy’s return to record-making after going more than a decade without a record deal.

The CD opens with a cover of Kimbrough’s “Done Got Old,” which finds Guy, accompanying himself only on acoustic guitar, working through such unvarnished lyrics as “I can’t walk like I used to/I can’t love like I used to/Now things done changed/I done got old.” The weary, yet intense vocals capture the feelings of sadness, resentment and defiance that come with a proud man facing up to the limitations of aging.

It’s an odd—even ironic—way to open Sweet Tea, because the rest of the CD proves there’s still plenty of life in Guy’s playing and singing, as he plugs in his electric guitar and attacks the remaining eight songs with vigor and spontaneity.

Another Kimbrough track, “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me,” smolders behind Guy’s stinging guitar and his pleading vocals. “Look What All You Got,” a T-Model Ford cover, kicks up the tempo, as Guy takes the song’s brisk shuffle for a lively ride. A cover of Davis’ “She’s Got The Devil in Her” rocks hard behind a rolling beat and Guy’s extended solo.

In fact, the lone misstep on Sweet Tea is a cover of Kimbrough’s “I Gotta Try You Girl,” which, at over 12 minutes, runs on far too long.

Part of the appeal of Sweet Tea comes from the raw, visceral feel of the songs. While recent Guy CDs like Heavy Love, Stepping Out and Feels Like Rain have gotten good reviews, many critics felt the records had too much studio sheen and didn’t display the unpredictable hot-wired guitar playing that has long typified Guy’s live performances.

Guy himself isn’t sure if his recent CDs have been too slick, but he doesn’t dismiss the idea.

“I never know until an album comes out whether it’s a little too polished or not polished enough,” Guy said. “If I knew that, I would probably have had hit records out there before now. When I go into the studio and take a song or something from somebody, I [am] always just trying to get the best that I [have]. I don’t think the person himself is real polished. It’s technology. It’s technology [that] is so polished right now.”

Guy, who has been called “the best guitar player alive” by Eric Clapton, did agree with the suggestion that past records did not let his playing shine the way it does on Sweet Tea.

“Buddy Guy was playing some of the notes you hear on this CD on some albums, but [producers] weren’t letting that come through," he said. "They would take that away from me. Sometimes, I’ve made records I’ve heard, and the keyboard and whatever else is louder than me. That’s what made Albert King and B.B. stand out—you hear their guitars. And Eric Clapton. You hear their guitars. But Buddy’s hands were tied when it comes to that. But thanks to these people, who put me into this, they let the guitars come out and brought out exactly what I was playing."