For a band that has had such a unique and pivotal impact on the history of contemporary music, The Mississippi Sheiks are a little-known name.
Canadian musician, songwriter, and producer Steve Dawson aims to change that. On this album, he brings together a wide assortment of musicians to reinterpret and represent 17 tracks by this seminal string band.
Between 1930 and 1935, three brothers and a friend - all sons of slaves - had a string of hits. They recorded nearly 100 songs, encompassing Delta blues, hillbilly, ragtime, and gospel. Within the underbelly of the Great Depression and generations before integration, they were a huge success across races and cultures.
No less than Muddy Waters said, "I knowed the Mississippi Sheiks. Yessir, walked 10 miles to see them play. They was high-time, makin' them good records, man." That really says it all.
However, if most people recognize the work of Sam, Lonnie, and Armenter Chatman and Walter Vinson today, it is because of one song that has persisted - Sittin' On Top Of the World. Even then, recondition would be because of covers by everyone from Bob Dylan to The Grateful Dead - everyone from Howlin' Wolf to BB King - everyone from Van Morrison to Ray Charles - and for many in this era from the Jack White version first heard on the Cold Mountain soundtrack.
In fact, it was Dylan's covers of two Mississippi Sheiks tracks on his 1993 disc World Gone Wrong that turned a young Dawson on to their music. Dawson has gone on to a fine career as a widely-talented artist.
In fact, an unexpected bonus of this collection is the showcasing of Dawson on nine of the 17 tracks. His tasty, wide-ranging licks and chops are key lead ingredients in some of them . There is the wonderful mid tempo groove that he gives to the treatment of the collection's title track fronted by gifted and unique fellow Vancouver resident Ndell Onukwulu.
He also drives a fun frolic through Jailbird Love Song sung by Jim Byrnes, a veteran actor and blues musician also based in Vancouver. At other times, Dawson serves as an A-grade ensemble player, as on the distinctive covers done by Bruce Cockburn (Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down) and Danny Barnes (Too Long).
Part of the collection's rare charm is its ability to straddle between the unique charm of the compositions themselves and the talents of the participants.
There are some indigenous treatments like Del Rey's We Both Are Feeling Good Right Now.
There are also some complete morphs, such as the transfixing read of I've Got Blood In My Eyes For You by Robin Halcomb.
More typical are clearly derived but still distinctive covers. John Hammond (Stop And Listen), Bob Brozman (Somebody's Gotta Help You), and Kelly Joe Phelps (Livin' In A Strain) all play their guitar and sing in their signature manners, and all shine.
There is something for every taste on this album - from the good-natured romp by the North Mississippi Allstars in It's Backfirin' Now to the twisted gospel tale He Calls That Religion done up with all the harmonies by The Sojourners.
That said, this album is above all else a welcome reminder of two things - the tremendous impact of The Mississippi Sheiks and Dawson's considerable and wide talents as a player and side man.