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December 2013

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James Cotton
Cotton Mouth Man
Alligator Records

James Cotton

It wasn’t that many years ago that I was sitting in the ballroom of the Doubletree in Memphis, listening to Dick Waterman’s KBA acceptance speech for his involvement in B.B. King’s 80th birthday book. Dick admonished us that day to not be fair-weather blues fans, to get out and hear the blues every chance we got without regards to the conditions or weather, to support the genre. After listening to James Cotton’s Cotton Mouth Man CD on Alligator Records, I think it’s imperative that we add James’ name to the list of those blues artists you have to see.

Produced by KBA and Grammy winning producer Tom Hambridge, Cotton Mouth Man melds the talents of James' stellar band: Darrell Nulisch on vocals,Tom Holland on guitar, Noel Neal on bass, and Jerry Porter on the drums, with guest appearances by Gregg Allman, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Warren Haynes, Delbert McClinton and Keb’ Mo to produce an old school disc that is very decidedly modern in its approach and sound. Cotton Mouth Man is a killer record and one that every self-respecting blues fan should have in their collection very soon!

The title track, “Cotton Mouth Man,” is our opening track and has Darrell at the mic with Joe on guitar. We’re somewhere deep in the Delta at a juke joint to hear the legendary cotton mouth man on harp and Darrell is telling us all about it. “His harp does all his talking…he’s wicked and he’s wild…gather around him children…still got one more mile…cotton mouth man!” James’s harp is front and center and he’s blowing some of the best harmonica I’ve ever heard. He might even convert me to a harp fan at this point!

Cotton vocally introduces our next cut, “Midnight Train,” and Gregg Allman has the lead vocal for this one. “That midnight train…took my baby you see…sure do miss her…she meant the world to me…when its midnight…I hear that whistle blow…but I’m never…never gonna see that midnight train no more.” The love of Gregg’s life has left him and she’s for sure not coming back. Lamenting her departure allows James to fill in Gregg’s sadness with melancholy tones from his harp while Gregg is left alone to ponder the sadness of his loss.

“Mississippi Mud” is up next and Keb’ Mo tells us all about the hardships of trying to grow a crop in the Mississippi mud. “I found out early…you got to stay behind the mule…I learned things in the field…that I never learned in school…it’s in my soul…and in my blood….that old Mississippi mud.” Living in the Delta is a hard life and many a bluesman has learned his life lessons there.

“He Was There” finds Nulisch back at the mic and telling us about Cotton’s decision to leave the truck driving life behind. “Now he went to Chicago…in 1954…and blues was blasting…out of each and every door…those were good times…man oh man….fine looking womens…all around the bandstand…it’s all true…I ain’t blowing hot air…you can’t make this stuff up…James Cotton, he was there.” It was a heady time in Chicago blues history and James was just one of many Delta bluesmen who made his way north to the Mecca. Warren Haynes takes the mic for the lead on the cut, “Something For Me.” Warren’s got his eye on the prize and he’s letting the girl know, “Way down in Memphis….long time ago….you’re pretty flower...I’m a virgin bee…honey…you got something for me!” It’s pretty clear what’s on Warren’s mind and he’s about to lose that stinger of his very shortly.

Our tempo slows down a bit and Ruthie Foster takes the vocal for “Wrapped Around My Heart.” The break-up was painful and Ruthie’s still having trouble dealing with the loss of this love in her life. “I was counting on your love, babe…right from the very start….now I’m drinking by myself….until my dying day…you’ll stay wrapped around my heart.” James’s harp is again at the forefront and the entire disc features some of the best harmonica I’ve ever heard on one disc ever.

“Saint on Sunday” finds Darrell telling us about the multiple personalities that his baby his for him. “She’s a saint on Sunday…but a devil when the week-end comes!” Sounds like the best kind of baby to me and Darrell’s not complaining. “She’s the preacher’s daughter…and her mama’s child…bless my soul…that woman’s wild…Saturday night…there’s not enough wine…when it comes to loving…she can’t get enough.” Sounds like a winning combination, Darrell, I’d hang onto her. Delbert’s turn at the vocals is next and he’s telling how tough life can be in “Hard Sometimes.” “It gets hard sometimes…when you’re gone…when I’m all along…when I can’t get you out of my mind…it gets hard sometimes.” Temptation is all around Delbert but he finds himself lost in the thoughts of the woman he loves and misses her terribly when she’s not at home.

Our next cut, “Young Bold Women,” has New Orleans flair to it and Darrell is lamenting the charms of younger women. “Young bold women…that’s my favorite type…young bold women…make everything all right.” Sounds like Darrell is catching on quick and enjoying the charms of young bold women. “Bird Nest on the Ground” is the one cover on Cotton’s album and it’s meant as a tribute to his mentor, Muddy Waters. “As long as you love me…I got a good thing…I got a pretty little girl…and she love me…do what I say…she gave me the key to the city…and I’ve got everything going my way. You know I done got lucky…found me a bird’s nest on the ground.” Chuck Leavell is at the piano lending his flavor to the tune and Cotton’s harp fills have to be heard to be believed.

Keb’ Mo is back on the tune, “Wasn’t My Time to Go.” “Father went first…then my sweet mother….then it was just me…my sister and my brother….before too long they were up and gone…had to make my way…on my own…I guess it wasn’t my time to go.” This tune hits way too close to home for me, but I appreciate the fact that we’re all on this earth until God calls us home, until then; it isn’t our time to go.

Cotton Mouth Man closes with “Blues Is Good For You” and “Bonnie Blue.” Nulisch is back at the mic telling us that, “doctor done told me...playing the blues is good for you…just keep on blowing…til you’re one hundred and two.” We’ll all be lucky to live that long, but maybe there’s something in the doctor’s prescription for living life. “Bonnie Blue” finds Cotton at the microphone, something he doesn’t do very often given the effects of throat cancer surgery from many years ago. But “Bonnie Blue” is the name of the plantation where Cotton grew up and it’s his opportunity to reflect on a life in the blues well lived. “I never learned to read and write…the blues is all I know to do.” James grew up learning from the best --- Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. He took the lessons learned and has gone on to have an amazing career in the blues that has spanned almost seven decades.

Kudos to the brilliant production work of Tom Hambridge and the amazing cast of guest artists who sat in with James’ band to produce a brilliant record. Cotton Mouth Man has been nominated for a Grammy and a couple of Blues Music Awards --- and deservedly so. It’s easily one of the five best CDs of the year and well deserving of all the praise it’s receiving. Well done, Mr. Cotton!

--- Kyle Deibler



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