Only the end of January and already an album that might end up as one of our favourite roots releases of the year. The Harris Brothers, Reggie and Ryan are from Lenoir, North Carolina and have been playing together for around 20 years. On the album Reggie plays guitar, sings and kicks and taps the titular suitcase for percussion while Ryan handles double bass and vocals. Live Reggie also tackles electric guitar, fiddle and banjo but their absence here doesn’t detract from what is a superbly played and extremely enjoyable set of blues, ragtime and country songs.
All ten songs here are cover versions of old tunes or traditional songs but there’s no denying the depth of experience and emotional contact that the brothers bring to these old chestnuts. Dig around the web and you can hear a snatch of audio where Reggie describes his extended musical family and influences and you realise that here we have the modern equivalent of those keepers of tradition who were recorded by the likes of Alan Lomax and John Hammond in the mid twentieth century. However The Harris Brothers are no museum pieces, instead sounding vital and delivering their versions in crystal clear audio that will delight anyone who digs the tradition.
It’s hard to pick out any highlights as all of the songs are simply superb. Clarence Greene’s Johnson City Blues which opens the album is eclipsed by the following Rag Mama Rag (by Blind Boy Fuller) where the guitar playing is exemplary. Knoxville Rag (by Etta Baker) continues with the instrumental delights. Roll & Tumble Blues just rolls and tumbles and anyone listening to this need never listen to any of those amplified versions so beloved of late sixties boogie and blues bands, this is the real deal. Reggie’s guitar here is splendid, scraping and sliding while the vocals capture the feel down to a T. The picking on Twelve Gates to the City recalls the late Pops Staples’ mastery as the brothers tackle Gospel blues, and again they do it right. Coming up to date they hit the Chicago sound with a cover of Muddy Waters’ Honey Bee with the guitar stinging in the right places while what appears to be a live cover of J. J. Cale’s If You’re Ever In Oklahoma takes Cale’s laid back version and jazzes it up with some blistering amplified guitar runs set to a Mose Allison shuffle. Even a song that for local audiences might be associated with skiffle like Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train is given new life as the listener is drawn to the guitar intricacies and the warm vocals.
So a fine, indeed a very fine album that will delight anyone who’s been listening to the likes of Pokey LaFarge or who digs the sounds of Catfish Keith, Taj Mahal or Ry Cooder, in fact if you like traditional American music you should listen to this.
Rag Mama Rag