Back in the early days of the blues, the Mississippi Sheiks were about the hottest thing going, riding a string of hits like "Things About Comin' My Way," "Stop and Listen," and the enduring "Sitting On Top Of The World" to fame and commercial success. Formed during the 1920s by fiddle player Lonnie Chatmon and guitarist Walter Vinson, and often featuring the talents of guitarists Sam Chatmon and Bo Carter, the popular string band recorded some 70 sides between 1930 and 1935 for a handful of labels, their repertoire including Delta blues, ragtime, hillbilly, and gospel music.
Inspired by Bob Dylan's inclusion of a couple of Mississippi Sheiks' songs on his 1993 album World Gone Wrong, Canadian musician and producer Steve Dawson would delve a little deeper into the Sheiks' catalog, becoming enamored of the band and their rich, diverse sound. A couple of years back Dawson and his wife decided to compile a tribute album to the Mississippi Sheiks' music.
After Dawson made the rounds of his phonebook, he had gathered up contributors like the North Missisippi Allstars, John Hammond, Jim Byrnes, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dawson didn't restrict himself to just blues musicians, and Things About Comin' My Way also includes interpretations of the Sheiks' music by artists as diverse as Bruce Cockburn, Bill Frisell, and the Sojourners, among others.
Tribute compilations always run the risk of becoming hit-or-miss affairs, the differences in the musical contributors often working at odds with each other. Things About Comin' My Way succeeds exactly because of these differences, though...because the Mississippi Sheiks were a well-rounded and commercial band trying to record and perform in whatever style they could sell, their music displays a diversity and fluency missing from, say, a contemporary like Charley Patton.
Thus, you have the North Mississippi Allstars winding up the wayback machine with a retro-styled reading of the Sheiks' "It's Backfirin' Now," complete with washboard bangin', brother Luther's guitar-twanging, and daddy Jim Dickinson's fractured banjo pickin', the song sitting comfortably in the grooves here next to the spry acoustic country sound of blue-eyed bluesman John Hammond spanking his National steel guitar to "Stop and Listen."
Folk band Oh Susanna (featuring vocalist Suzie Ungerleider) take on the dark tale of woe that is the Sheiks' "Bootlegger's Blues," with reclusive pop genius Van Dykes Park adding a lush string accompaniment to the song, fleshing out the sound and adding to its period authenticity. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are one of the true traditional string bands performing these days, so it's only natural that the talented trio should imbue "Sitting On Top Of The World" with a world-weary joy and tasteful string-picking.
Some of the lesser-known talents on Things About Comin' My Way contribute inspired performances to the collection. Banjo picker Danny Barnes, better known as part of the Austin, Texas band the Bad Livers, delivers a laid-back but twangful reading of "Too Long," while guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps adds a jazzy edge to the bluesy ballad "Livin' In A Strain." Canadian music legend Jim Byrne brings 40 years of hard-won experience to "Jailbird Love Song," his appropriately gruff vocals complimented by Steve Dawson's rattletrap fretwork and fiddler Jesse Zubot's raging catgut. Dawson's own contribution, "Lonely One In This Town," showcases his fine vocals and skilled slide-guitar playing.
As tribute compilations go, Things About Comin' My Way surpasses any musical expectations, the collaborating artists taking half-forgotten songs from long ago and breathing new life and vitality into them. Aside from the aforementioned musicians, other contributors like jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, jug band maestro Geoff Muldaur, blues guitar wizard Bob Brozman, and gospel trio the Sojourners all deliver electric performances here as well.
The result is a loving tribute to one of the influential, albeit too often overlooked treasures in American roots music, the Mississippi Sheiks. Kudos to producer Steve Dawson and the participating artists for a job well done and, of course, to the Mississippi Sheiks for the great music they left us.