Reducing Buddy Guy: The Half-Caf, Venti Blues
By BEN RATLIFF
IN Buddy Guy's new album, "Blues Singer," the consummate living performer
of urban electric-blues, one of the most exuberant performers in American
music, is put before you instead as an apparition with an acoustic guitar,
the clichéd lonely bluesman. For a few songs, like "Hard Time Killing
Floor" and "Can't See Baby," he's all alone. For the rest of the album,
he's backed by an acoustic bass, an artfully rudimentary drum sound and a
second acoustic guitar, instead of his regular electric band.
What's going on here is an old game; perhaps now we all understand its
rules. Mr. Guy, at 66, is acceptably authentic. When a record producer
wants to transmit that essence in a working-class music, the musician's
persona and work may end up simplified. The artist is complicit in this
simplification, and even has the power to turn it back on us.
But let's just get the truth out in the open: Mr. Guy, born in Louisiana
and moved to Chicago in 1957, is no rustic, no ghost, no harmless old man
but a complex, self-conscious artist. And, as "Blues Singer" (Silvertone)
shows, a professional every bit as much as Muddy Waters, whose 1963
recording "Folk Singer" provided the inspiration for Mr. Guy's new album.
"Blues Singer" happens to be a good record. Whittled down to tasteful
drawing-room levels, Mr. Guy doesn't evince much of what made him a guitar
hero, the primary source for Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. But here it's
his singing that's more interesting: Mr. Guy alternates between a low voice
punctuated by booming notes, a keening high wail and a gnarled, tired
wheeze. He has been recorded by the producer Dennis Herring and the
engineer Jaquire King so that his voice has presence, cavernous echo and a
slightly overmodulated signal, suggesting antique recording techniques.
But beyond issues of merit, "Blues Singer" has another significance: its
reference to the earlier album. "Folk Singer" was made in an attempt to
cross over to the folk audience -- young middle-class people who bought
records -- and so it pushed Waters back to the acoustic instrumentation he
had been using 20 years before; it also toned down his exuberance in the
interests of classiness.
Mr. Guy played on "Folk Singer" when he was in his 20's, but that wouldn't
seem reason enough to pay homage to it. "Folk Singer" isn't one of Muddy
Waters's best records. It was, however, an important early example of what
has become a serious trend: reviving older vernacular-music performers for
a more moneyed audience. Thanks to the album "Buena Vista Social Club,"
these revival missions are something of a cutting-edge science; Ralph
Stanley, the bluegrass pioneer, has undergone one, as have several Cuban
musicians in the orbit of the "Buena Vista" project; Johnny Cash has aimed
his last four albums at a younger audience.
In this process, a performer within a music identified with working-class
audiences gets symbolically lifted out of his old context and groomed for
the upper-middle-class culture circuit: NPR, PBS, Starbucks (via the
sampler CD's it sells by the hundredweight), the newspaper you are reading,
and certainly the Grammy awards. Most of these records are good. But their
implications are complicated. The performer can become removed from the
traditions he has naturally built up with his own audience; in some cases,
the process reduces him, shrinks his meaning.
Each of these genres has a long, convoluted history, involving innovations
in musical technique occasioned by practical matters of performance,
dance-steps, myth, exploitation, wicked humor. But you can't throw someone
with Buddy Guy's vitality at a general audience anymore and expect them to
embrace him fully. If you turn him into a ghost, however, you have a
chance. This isn't to say that "Blues Singer" doesn't represent a
legitimate style of the blues. It's just symptomatic of the times, that
Buddy Guy is choosing it now.
Here's a musician who owns a popular Chicago nightclub; in performance he
rides on waves of bravado, playing long, muscular improvisation; for the
last decade he has worn slick polka-dot shirts under farmer's overalls -- a
brilliant joke, if I read it right, on what black people want of their
bluesmen versus what white people want.
In the case of Ralph Stanley, whose self-titled album, produced by T-Bone
Burnett, was released last year on DMZ/Columbia, you have a singer who
knows hundreds of songs dating back to the beginning of the 20th century,
many of them currently in circulation among the bluegrass culture of the
Clinch Mountain region precisely because of his influence. But they weren't
the right songs. For his major-label revamping, a result of his exposure in
the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", he was given songs that he didn't
know, centuries older in provenance. It made him seem older and more
severe; in contrast to Mr. Stanley's real-life identity, a gentleman-farmer
who drives a Jaguar around southwestern Virginia when he's not on the road
with his band, he became an Appalachian Methuselah.
As for the constellation of Buena Vista Social Club records, starting with
the album of that name and spreading out to individual releases by the
musicians and singers in the band, there have been several different
strategies. In the simple version, the producer Ry Cooder used
old-fashioned miking and old-fashioned music, creating a weirdly nostalgic
exercise for Americans about pre-revolutionary Cuba. In the advanced
version, as for the singer Ibrahim Ferrer's new album "Buenos Hermanos"
(Nonesuch), Mr. Cooder has ingeniously constructed a Cuban music that never
existed, with Hammond organs, accordions and cooing, 1950's American-style
One risks sounding like a scold and a purist for bringing up these issues.
Again, these are good records. They may be listened to for a long time --
much longer, say, than Mr. Guy's first commercial-breakthrough comeback in
1991, "Damn Right I Got the Blues," which relied on the contrivance of
guest appearances, by stars like Eric Clapton and George Thorogood. Nobody
wants to make a guest-heavy record anymore, and for good reason: they're
impossibly naïve, speckled with touches that are too extrinsic to the main
performer's vision, and which tend to date quickly.
But as I watched Mr. Ferrer perform at the Beacon Theater last month, I
worried that a portion of the audience might think his touring band's
musical farrago was idiomatic Cuban music. Just as I worry now that new
listeners might imagine Mr. Guy as a haunted old man.
Perhaps not too many will. At this point Mr. Guy seems so aware of the game
that he toys with it: this is one of the reasons I respect "Blues Singer"
so much. Aging and frailty are subjects Mr. Guy has adopted for singing the
blues, and in his hands they remain subjects, not inescapable facts. On his
version of "Black Cat Blues," he plays up the character, putting on an old
geezer's voice. (On Mr. Guy's last album, "Sweet Tea," a concept album in
which he played the raw music of the Mississippi hill country, he sang a
lugubrious song called "Done Got Old.")
This process -- making such artists seem old, simple, moribund or encased
in the past, and therefore more marketable -- will not go away, as long as
one race, one economic class, one set of stories and values,
self-consciously performs for another. Everybody wants to know what the
other side sounds like; future producers will become even more skilled than
Mr. Herring, Mr. Burnett and Mr. Cooder at repackaging the other side and
selling it as a lifestyle accessory. But an album like "Blues Singer" shows
that an artist has some freedom within this game -- that he needn't simply
roll over and ghost himself out.