Acoustic Guitar Magazine
Sitting at the kitchen table with his wife, Steve Dawson had an idea: why not record a tribute to '30's string band the Mississippi Sheiks? He could start with people whose albums he'd produced, like Kelly Joe Phelps, or bands he'd met at festivals, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, before reaching out to artists he didn't know at all. He could include a wide mix of styles, a variety of approaches, and a house band to give the album a sense of continuity that's often missing from tributes.
"I wasn't looking for a museum piece," says Dawson, talking from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. "I wanted people who would use the music as a starting point. To me, the Sheiks represent a melting pot of American music. They revolutionized string-band music with songwriting that was way ahead of its time, and even though they were immensely popular, they've faded into complete obscurity. I wanted to get these songs back in the world, using whatever means possible."
A year and a half later, the completed Things About Comin' My Way: A Tribute to the Music of the Mississippi Sheiks, is every bit as good as he'd hoped. The performances range from heart-wrenching (Madelieine Peyroux) to rough-hewn (Danny Barnes) to swinging (Oh Susanna) to somber (Robin Holcomb) to sanctified (The Sojourners), with stops everywhere in between. And somehow, they all remain true to the spirit of the MIssissippi Sheiks. who recorded about 70 songs from 1030 to 1935.
These days, the Mississippi Sheiks might be best remembered for writing "Sitting on Top of the World," but in their heyday, the band ruled the South, counting Muddy Waters among their greatest fans. Led by fiddler Lonnie Chatmon and guitarist/singer Walter Vinson, with help form Lonnie's brothers Sam and Armenter (who recorded solo as Bo Carter), the Sheiks played a wide range of dance music for both black and white audiences. Their chord changes were far more sophisticated than their peers' among blues and jug bands-Lonnie Chatmon could even read music-and when you listen to the Sheiks today, it's easy to hear echoes of Dixieland, ragtime, jazz, old-time, country, country-blues, and Tin Pan Alley.
"The first time I heard the Mississippi Sheiks must have been about 40 years ago," says Geoff Muldaur, whose Texas Sheiks, a one-off band with the late Stephen Bruton, Cindy Cashdollar, and Jim Kweskin, contributed a respectfully ragged cover of "The World is Going Wrong" in 2009. "I was traveling through Nashville and found a 78 of 'Sitting on Top of the World' that probably cost a dime. I thought it was phenomenal, and once I sat down to actually record a Sheiks tune in the '70's, I realized the band was absolutely perfect. They're so simple, just two or three guys, but the sound is so big."
"Listening to the original records, you can tell they're sitting close together and playing really loud," says Dawson, whose collection of 78s includes 16 songs by the Sheiks. "They're playing so hard that Lonnie is fiddling non-stop from beginning to end and Walter is almost breaking his guitar strings. He wasn't a flashy guitarist, but he played these deep, resonant bass runs with a really syncopated, propulsive feel, snapping strings and letting those bass lines dictate where the song was going to go. You can hear the history of how the band came to be, playing at parties and dances and having to fill these big halls with sound. They're playing so loud and hard, they've distorted the recording, and that intensity comes across very clearly.
To turn his concept into reality, Dawson spent three months making telephone calls to friends, contacts, and anyone who would listen. Some already knew the music of the Sheiks and some didn't, but with repetition, his pitch grew smoother and the acceptances started to outweigh the rejections. "When the call came asking if I would play on the album I was standing in front of a record store in Toronto," says Bruce Cockburn, who covered the sly, bluesy "Honey Babe, Let the Deal Go down." So I went inside, bought a Mississippi Sheiks best-of collection, and was totally blown away. They'd written so many songs that I thought were traditional, the performances were great, and even though I'm not normally given to fits of nostalgia, the music took me back to a time when I played in a jug band and would have hunted down albums just like it. I told Steve I was an immediate yes."
Recording began with Jim Byrnes at Dawson's home studio before hitting the road for Ottawa (Carolina Chocolate Drops, John Hammond), Banff (Bob Brozman), and Seattle (Bill Frisell). As momentum built, one contact led to another, with some songs arriving via email, some pieced together from sessions in multiple cities, and some never managing to materialize. Then, after assembling a backup band in Seattle-pianist Wayne Horvitz, bassist Keith Lowe, and drummer Matt Chamberlain-Dawson settled into record 11 tracks in two days.
"I've always liked to record with a live element, but doing that much was stressful," says Dawson, who's divided the past ten years between producing albums for other artists, recording his own, and working as a sideman, primarily on Weissenborn and resonator guitar. "There were so many factors involved, and I had to be very aware of time. But ultimately, it served the project well, because we couldn't afford to get hung up on perfection. We worked out arrangements on the fly and rolled tape from the very first take."
With the bulk of the sessions behind him, Dawson faced his biggest challenge: the long, slow process of creating rough mixes, sending them out for approval, waiting to hear back, fine-tuning the results, and then sending them out again. Along the way, a few more artists trickled in, like Del Rey, who'd taken guitar lessons from Sam Chatmon, and a couple of tracks fell through, leading Dawson to record "Lonely One in This Town" on his own.
Looking back, the project feels like a welcome break after a year of simultaneously recording two solo albums, "Waiting for the Lights to Come Up, and Telescope. "It was unlike anytthing I've ever done, and probably unlike anything I'll ever do in the future," Dawson says. "There definitely wasn't any grand scheme. It was an organic process that evolved over the course of a year and a half as we mived from conception to reality. Mostly, I just wanted to produce this record, have a great project, and get the name of the Mississippi Sheiks out there again. If I could open people's ears to this music, I knew I'd done a good thing."