“John Henry went to a hellbustin’ man said, ‘I’m tormented deep in my soul.’ Well that hell buster prayed John Henry’s sins away, and they tell me that the thunder did roll.”
Todd Mauldin first heard Tom T. Hall’s “More about John Henry” in 1972 when he was “just a little guy.” The lyrics stuck with him, and when he met Jack Doyle (aka convicted felon, The Right Reverend Jack D. “Machine Gun” Doyle III Esq., Jr.) and formed a two-piece blues band a couple years ago, they lifted their name from the song.
Like the boys themselves, their songs are character-driven stories, generally about men who have gotten themselves in awful messes and are in need of some “hellbustin'.” The music is completely stripped down and straightforward.
“We’re about as subtle as a lead pipe,” says Mauldin, who plays guitar and sings while Doyle keeps the beat on a stomp box and blows the harmonica. With only two musicians, there’s no room for anything fancy, just raw, straightforward, Northern Mississippi-style blues.
In the world of musicians, one tends to hear a lot about uniqueness and classifications. If one were to believe every egotistical musician that opened his or her mouth, one might be led to believe that each band (and perhaps even each song by each band) was a genre-defying juggernaut that mere language could never aspire to describe. It’s with this expectation in mind that I am surprised and endeared to discover that The Hellbusters are not only very aware of their influences, they actually make a conscious effort to model their songs in a specific way to emulate that one particular branch of the blues.
“We borrow directly from the guys that perfected it,” says Mauldin. “It” meaning pure country Delta juke-joint blues, heavily rhythm-oriented and played with a slide. Probably the most notable paragon of this kind of music was the late R.L. Burnside. As another point of reference, if you’ve seen the recent film Black Snake Moan, this is the kind of blues featured.
Chicago-native Doyle has been playing harmonica for “probably 30 years.” He’s been in love with the blues since seeing a performance by legendary blues man Howlin’ Wolf when Doyle was just 15.
Mauldin, New Mexico-born and Battle Mountain raised, is relatively new to performing. He started playing guitar less than four years ago. After attempting to learn several times throughout his life, this time it just “made sense.”
One constant in Mauldin’s life has been writing, from comic books to poems and short stories. And so when he started writing songs, he had plenty of material to draw on. A lot of his work dealt with feelings of guilt and regret, and it came together into The Hellbusters’ aptly titled debut album Guilty that the duo recorded in four hours at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis.
Liner notes call their sound “Outlaw blues … George Thorogood meets R.L. Burnside in a dark alley just as Henry Rollins walks up with Kim Wilson and somebody starts counting off.” Sounds like a painful beating, especially if Rollins breaks into one of his patented lectures.
The album is available through the band’s website, Hellbusters.net.
Mauldin and Doyle say they’ve been surprised by its success, seeing orders come in from as far away as New Zealand.
The two have managed to keep as busy as they can while maintaining careers and families and the like. At the end of the day, though, the Hellbusters are just a no-frills, old-fashioned blues act with a modern sensibility.
“I just try to tell the audience what I’m feeling, and maybe they feel it too. That’s how we keep score,” says Mauldin.