The Vancouver Province
Vancouver roots record producer and ace guitar player Steve Dawson first stumbled on the Mississippi Sheiks when Bob Dylan recorded a couple of their tunes on his World Gone Wrong album from 1993. From there he picked up the odd Sheiks 78 going through old record stores and garage sales. He loved them from the start.
"In that genre, to me their material really stuck out," says Dawson. "Ensemble-wise, I think the way they play is really interesting and I like the way their recordings are really urgent sounding. You can tell they're playing really loud and that comes from their playing these big, crazy events where there were no PAs."
A couple of years ago, Dawson and his wife came up with the idea of putting together a tribute album honouring the Mississippi Sheiks and started calling and emailing a number of people to see if there was any interest. There was.
That said, the initial idea of pairing various performers had to be scuttled as the logistics of getting people together at the same time in the same place were numbing. Among those who came on board are the North Mississippi Allstars, bluesman John Hammond, Jim Byrnes, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Oh Susanna, Kelly Joe Phelps and lots more. Initially Ry Cooder was excited about the project, Dawson sent him some music to choose from but Cooder ultimately backed out without explanation.
Because the material is American, as are many of the performers, no Canadian grants from the likes of FACTOR were available for what has come to be called Things About Comin' My Way: A Tribute to the Music Of The Mississippi Sheiks. After finding private investors the bulk of the record was recorded in a marathon, two-day session in Seattle. Madeleine Peyroux couldn't make the session but is nevertheless on the album.
"I had opened for her at the jazz festival," says Dawson, "and I got back in touch with her. She was one of the ones who didn't know that much about the Mississippi Sheiks but she knows a lot of music from that era and I knew that she would really nail it. But she was in L.A. recording and the day before the session she suddenly phoned and said she couldn't leave, it just didn't work out scheduling-wise.
"So I got her to sing the song to me over the phone and I recorded it, she was playing ukulele. Then the whole band sat around and we listened to it as if she was in the room and fell in behind her. And then I sent her the track as an MP3 and she sang on it in New York and she sent me the track of her singing and that was it. It's pretty wicked that you can do stuff like that."
The 17 tracks by 17 different artists on this lovingly made compilation are wildly differing yet somehow cohesive in their acoustic rootsiness. Feels range from the near skeletal starkness of Kelly Joe Phelps' "Livin' in a Strain" to the much fuller sound of the North Mississippi Allstars' "It's Backfirin' Now." Highlights in between include Bruce Cockburn's "Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down" and, especially, the Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Sitting on Top of the World." This is a treat and let's hope they sell a million.