Blues Bytes


September 2021

Ben Wiley Payton
Diggin' Up Old Country Blues
CD Baby

Ben Wiley Payton

Ben Wiley Payton passed away on December 4th last year. The 72-year-old was seemingly in good health, so it was a shock to his friends and fans. I had never had a chance to really hear Payton, even though he played a lot in the Mississippi Delta as well as in Jackson, Mississippi, which is only an hour away. I could never get my schedule lined up to see and hear him. I regret that because his recordings have been relatively hard to track down over the years, but last week I finally was able to find his 2009 debut recording, Diggin’ Up Old Country Blues.

Payton was born in January 5, 1948 in Coila, Mississippi, just east of the Delta in rural Carroll County (also home to Mississippi John Hurt). His family moved to nearby Greenwood when he was a child, and he began playing guitar when he was eight or nine years old. He moved to Chicago to live with his mother when he was a teenager. He bought a guitar and played in R&B and rock groups before joining Bobby Rush’s road band, with whom he traveled around the midwest and southern U.S.

He moved to Africa for a time, playing with a Moroccan R&B group, before moving back to Chicago where he performed with many of the soul and blues artists in the city. Payton stepped back from performing in the late ’70s to get married and help raise his five daughters, limiting his guitar playing mostly to the church. In the early 2000s he started playing again and relocated to Jackson where he became a regular on the city’s music scene. During his time in Chicago he became familiar with Robert Johnson’s music, and upon moving to Mississippi he also began listening to many of the state’s blues artists from the ’20s and ’30s. educating himself about their music and their songs. After a few years he relocated again to the Delta, living in Clarksdale when he passed away.

Despite the album title, Payton wasn’t “diggin’ up” old country blues songs but actually composing brand new songs that didn’t just pay tribute to the old blues songs but also built upon those traditions, actually bringing a fresh new approach to a storied legacy. He wrote songs about everyday life, such as in the lively opener, “Barn Party,” compelling character studies, such as “The Jolly Plowboy,” “Sharecropper Blues,” and “Lou Ida James,” and celebratory songs such as “Shake Me Up Inside” and “Boogie Child.”

On the mid-tempo “My True Love,” Payton borrows the melody from Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues.” There’s also the lovely “Now That You’re Gone,” a melancholy tune reflecting on a broken relationship, followed by the celebratory “Back With My Baby Again.” In similar manner, the reflective “Opportunity” is offset by the more optimistic “Glad To See The Rising Sun.”

Payton’s songwriting and guitar work are superb on Diggin’ Up Old Country Blues. He pays tribute to the early masters while adding a fresh, updated quality to his playing. He also proves to be a warm, expressive singer with a whole lot of soul.

Payton released another album, Caught Up In The Blues, in 2018 that updated his blues even more, incorporating some of the African influences that he picked up in Morocco on a couple of tracks. He was not content to stay in a box, always looking at new music and figuring out ways to include it in his repertoire. He became a popular figure in Mississippi, appearing as a speaker and panelist at several blues events and always trying to dig deeper into the history of the blues.

If you are not familiar with Ben Wiley Payton’s music, I highly recommend him to blues fans. I just wish I had come on board sooner myself. Diggin’ Up Old Country Blues is a wonderful set of Delta blues that will stay with you for a long time.

--- Graham Clarke



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