- 14 Jul 21
The Black Keys bring it all back down home with Delta Kream, nodding to the boogie blues boss men who inspired them. “There’s lots of connective tissue there,” Dan Auerbach tells Pat Carty.
I’ll let Dan tell you about it first. Here he is describing what the Mississippi Hill Country Blues is all about.
“It generally tends to be very minimal, usually it's one chord, maybe two,” says he, down the line from Nashville, TN. “And it's very rhythmic. It's all about the rhythm, and those are the key characteristics. It's very dancey, it's made for the juke joints of the area.”
The reason he’s telling us this is The Black Keys’ foot-stomping and arse-kicking new album, Delta Kream, which pays tribute to the records that turned Auerbach on in the first place. We’re talking here about a particular branch of the blues, which the late and very great blues scholar Robert Palmer – in his required-reading text Deep Blues – saw as stretching back to emancipation, when drums were no longer forbidden. “The snare and bass drummers played syncopated cross-rhythms that rarely fell directly on the downbeats and were designed to stimulate uninhibited, improvisational group and solo dancing.” There you have it, if someone like Mississippi Fred McDowell felt the need to groove with one chord for a protracted length of time in order to get the juke joint hopping, then that is what he did. Auerbach also sees it as going a long way back.
“Fred McDowell learned from somebody too, and Howlin' Wolf said he really studied up when he was in Coldwater, and in northern Mississippi, before he made it big. I first heard Hill Country Blues with some of the Memphis Blues that I would consider hill country blues, but mainly Fred McDowell. I used to love those records so much, but that was before I knew that style. I knew he was different. His thing was so interesting and unique. But I didn't realise that there was a whole regional style that kind of had that flavour.”
Mississippi Fred McDowell was a farmer most of his life, playing and singing on the weekend, until interest in the recordings he made with famed travelling musicologist Alan Lomax allowed him to go pro. Interested parties are directed to his 1969 album, I Do Not Play No Rock N’ Roll, and perhaps his most famous song, ‘You Gotta Move’, was covered by The Rolling Stones for their 1971 cracker, Sticky Fingers. His horny-as-a-goat-in-a-monastery ‘Louise’ is included on Delta Kream. Luckily for Auerbach, these were the kind of records that were around his house as a young lad.
“I had a lot of music around me growing up and my family introduced me to a lot of great records, mainly blues. And from there, I started to dig deeper and to search for more. I just started buying all these blues records, and I especially loved Fred McDowell. I’d go to the library downtown and check out VHS tapes of Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork, and I'd watch that R.L. Burnside performance. He was just hammering on one chord, and I would check out a Fred McDowell VHS and I'd watch it over and over again, watch what his hands were doing.”
The American Patchwork Series was broadcast on the PBS network in 1991, five hour-long documentary films put together by Lomax on different strands of American folk music. Auerbach is most likely referring to the episode ‘The Land Where The Blues Began’. Inspired by this research, Auerbach travelled from his native Ohio down to Mississippi.
“I went down a bunch of times, you know, first with my dad, and we went to Junior's Juke Joint in Chulahoma on a Sunday night and we had a really good time, I saw some amazing music, met Kenny Campbell [Kent "Kinney" Kimbrough], who was Junior's son and he played on some of my favourite records of all time, a great guy.”
The Junior here is Junior Kimbrough. Although he’d been playing since the late fifties – and picked up some notice when he appeared in a documentary based on that Robert Palmer book, Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage To The Crossroads, it is a series of albums in the nineties that his reputation rests on, including the almighty Sad Days, Lonely Nights. Kimbrough’s famous juke joint, Junior’s Place, was in Chulahoma, in Marshall County, Mississippi. The Black Keys were recording Kimbrough’s songs as far back as their debut album, The Big Come Up, and dedicated a whole E.P. to him, called Chulahoma naturally, in 2006. It was Kimbrough’s records that persuaded Auerbach that the college life wasn’t really for him.
“I went away to school for a semester, all I did was sit in my room and listen to records over and over again. I had to waste a bunch of money at school before I realised I didn't need to go there, and I've been playing music ever since.”
It was also these records that Auerbach played for his childhood pal Patrick Carney when they were getting their own Black Keys-shaped thing together.
“Pat knew about R.L. Burnside, because of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, he was a fan of theirs, so he kind of knew, but I hipped him to a lot of stuff, played him Junior Kimbrough, played him T-Model Ford, played him all kinds of stuff. He introduced me to stuff too, the first time I heard The Stooges was when Pat Played it for me, the first time I heard T. Rex, Pat played it for me.”
There’s a fair exchange. R.L. Burnside was another blues lifer who became friends with Kimbrough and also featured in that Deep Blues documentary and recorded for the same Fat Possum record label that Kimbrough was on in the nineties. He toured with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – excellent New York punk/blues combo – and together they recorded 1996’s finger-singeing A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, although that’s not the one Auerbach goes for.
“My holy trinity would be Sad Days, Lonely Nights [Junior Kimbrough, 94. Listen to ‘Crawling King Snake’], Too Bad Jim by R.L. Burnside [Also 1994. Listen to ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’] and Pee Wee Get My Gun by T-Model Ford [97. Listen to ‘Sugar Farm’].”
It should be noted here that all three releases were on the Fat Possum label, which was started by Peter Redvers-Lee, an editor with Living Blues magazine, in 1991, with the sole intent of recording North Mississippi blues players. Redvers-Lee never gave a monkey’s for what blues purists thought about what he was at, a sure indication that he’s the kind of fellow the music was lucky to have on its side. Later on, the label would release the second and third Black Keys albums, Thickfreakness (2003) and the following year’s Rubber Factory.
There are more connections too. Mississippi Fred McDowell is supposed to have taught Burnside how to play.
“He was definitely around watching Fred McDowell play, definitely learned some of the songs. There’s also a guy named Eli Green, who played but was never recorded. I think Fred learned from him too.”
There is recorded evidence of Green and McDowell playing together in the form of ‘Bull Dog Blues’ and what’s also true is that Green was a voodoo man who could throw a pack of cards at whatever ceiling he was sitting under, have them all stick, and then call out the name of a card only for it to fall to the floor. It certainly should be true at least.
The Black Keys tackle a song like ‘Crawling King Snake’, which is surely better known in the John Lee Hooker version, in the manner of Kimbrough’s Sad Days, Lonely Nights cover, and they take similar approaches to Big Joe Williams’ ‘Mellow Peaches’ - grafting a heavy-duty chassis onto R.L. Burnside’s version - and to Ranie Burnette’s ‘Coal Black Mattie, which also nods to Burnside’s run at it on Too Bad Jim, although The Keys do shove a stick of dynamite up its jacksie.
“Burnette’s just another musician from the hill country who played these songs,” Auerbach tells me. “I think that he was one of the people that maybe R.L. Burnside learned ‘Coal Black Mattie’ from. There's lots of connective tissue there.”
He ain’t lying, and there’s more connective tissue on Delta Kream too. On guitar is slide maestro Kenny Brown, who played with Burnside for years, and on bass is Eric Deacon who played with both Burnside and Kimbrough. Auerbach explains how the session came about.
“I was working on the new album by Robert Finley [blues/soul merchant whose Sharecropper’s Son has just been released on Auerbach’s Easy Eye label. Listen to the ridiculously groovy ‘Country Child’]. I love playing with Eric, but I'd never recorded with Kenny. He was my hero, played on some of my favourite records of all time, but I've never done a session with him. He and Eric drove up from Mississippi and we were working with Robert Finley and it was so much fun that I knew Pat would have a good time if he came and played. I called and asked what he was doing the next day. He cleared his schedule, came in, and we just started playing songs right away.”
Surprisingly, for a man who doesn’t say much, he carries on, unprompted.
“It was very effortless and free flowing. We were throwing song titles about, me and Eric and Kenny, 'hey, do you know this one?' 'Do you know how to play this one?' that kind of thing. We weren't really making a record. We were just having some fun. I hadn't thought about these songs in years, I'd never even tried to play some of them, but Kenny was there, playing that guitar, and it sounded so familiar. We also had my friend Sam Bacco playing percussion - he was on the Robert Finley session - so I just figured we'll have him come too, and that's the first time The Black Keys have ever used a percussion player on a record. Everything felt old and new, all at same time, it was real nice.”
Sounds like it too, but why put it out now, when the sessions were back in 2019?
A fair and succinct response, I suppose, but he’s not finished.
“It's got a really great reception. I think that people are connecting to it because they've been isolated for so long, stuck inside, stuck on their cell phones and stuck in their bubbles, and it's nice to hear something that's so raw and ramshackle. You can hear the messiness of it all, we even left in all the dumb chatter in between songs, we just figured let it be.”
And a glorious mess it is too.
The Good Ear At The Easy Eye
Outside of The Black Keys, Auerbach has carved himself an admirable reputation as a producer of taste, earning a Grammy nomination for producer of the year, but do accolades like that matter to him?
“I'm honoured or flattered or whatever you want to call it. I make records, but it's nice to get recognised. And I know my record label loves it.”
From country man John Anderson – try ‘Tuesday I’ll Be Gone’ - to Robert Finley; from the blues of Marcus King’s El Dorado to Duran Jones & The Indications’ drummer Aaron Frazer’s great soul record Introducing… from earlier this year, there’s a serious variety of quality fare coming out of the Easy Eye Studio. How does Auerbach decide what to do?
“I only ever do what I'm interested in,” he states. “I'm absolutely blessed where I don't have to do this to make a living. I don't have to work with the ‘young hot band’. I can make a record that's projected to sell ten copies if I want to. It's very freeing. The Black Keys has afforded me that life and I take full advantage of it. I get to reach out to people who I really love, musicians and artists that I admire and it's a real blessing that I get to do it.”
One wonders if tapes and files arrive into the studio’s mailbox all the time, with notes pinned on, begging ‘Please, Dan. Listen to this!’
“Yeah, you got to watch out when you're walking outside,” he jokes. “People will come over and they'll just throw their demos over the fence. We have to do a pickup once a week, a demo pick up, off the ground.”
And they go straight into the bin, or do you listen to every single one?
“Oh yeah, we listen all the way!”
I believe you
“Just like journalists,” he retorts. “You listen to all the records, right?”
Mr White & Miss Quartey
On the day we spoke, there was another release from Easy Eye, a collection of demos from the late Tony Joe White, which Auerbach had worked up into the Smoke From The Chimney album, yet another fine record from the label.
“I've known Jody White for over 15 years, his son who was his manager for a long time. We always talked about doing a record with Tony Joe and I always wanted to, but it just never timed out, he was on tour when I was on tour or vice versa,” Auerbach fills me in. “He unfortunately passed away and I figured that was it. I can't remember how long afterwards, Jody texted me a couple songs, ‘look what I just found’. He started doing some digging into his dad's stuff to figure out what the hell was there and just found all these different reel to reel tapes, all different size tapes. He had to purchase all these different types of tape machines just to transfer the things and figure out what’s on them, and he kept unearthing these little gems and then sent them over to me. And that's what this record is, those songs, just Tony Joe singing and playing either electric or acoustic guitar.”
“He had a barn where he recorded, and I approached it like I would any other Easy Eye record. I assembled the crew based on the music, it's the same band that I would have picked had Tony Joe still been here. We got together in the room and we played with Tony Joe on the headphones, which is kind of amazing. You really are hearing performances on there.”
'Bubba Jones' sounds fantastic.
“Yeah, that's Marcus King on that.”
You've got Bobby Wood, the great county and soul piano player, on there as well.
“I met Bobby Wood in town and he's just an incredible musician, played on some of my favourite records. We've become really close friends, and we do a lot of writing together. I love working with Bobby.”
When I hear his name, I'd think of Dusty in Memphis, and From Elvis in Memphis as well.
“Everybody in Memphis! Yeah, sounds good.”
Auerbach has also got the second Yola album coming soon, and if the singles ‘Stand For Myself’ and ‘Diamond Studded Shoes’ are anything to go by, it’s going to be another great record.
“I think it's just as beautiful as the first one,” says Auerbach, obviously enthused. “This one is a little higher energy, maybe dancier, there's some disco moments on it, but it's still performances from a really great band, Aaron Frazer’s on the drums. It's more magic from her, I think people are really going to be blown away by the record, she's the real deal.”
Auerbach explains how they put it together.
“We worked on all songs from scratch, some of them she had parts already written, some ideas, sections, but we started the session by just working on the songs first without any musicians. We spent a few weeks doing that until we were ready to record.”
It’s been a busy year or so. Has lockdown affected how Auerbach’s been working?
“In the beginning, I wasn't doing big sessions, but we never stopped working. We always kept working in some capacity.”
I get the last question warning at this point from Matthew, the nice record company man, so I leave Auerbach with this one. When and if everything gets back to normal, would he prefer to stay working as he has been, or does he want to go back to the big tours that The Black Keys’ status has warranted since they started having hit records?
“We're definitely going to tour, got to do something to pay for all this,” he laughs. “I think the thing is, we're never going to ‘over tour’ the way that we used to. We had a tendency to not have any help telling us when we should take it easy and, being from the rust belt, and not having any money for so long, it was super hard for us to say no, but for our own sanity, I think that we're gonna keep it kind of relaxed on the touring portion, which will allow me to work in the studio a bunch too, which will be really nice.”
As long as those great records continue rolling out of his Nashville hit plant, no one should have any reason to complain.