Searching for Odell Harris
Broke & Hungry Records
One of the more interesting, and exciting, aspects of listening to the
blues is when you get the opportunity to hear a musician that has
somehow slipped through the cracks for years and years and has gone
unrecorded and unnoticed. While this was more commonplace in the 1960s
and ’70s, when “rediscovered” bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip
James, Son House, and others were popping up out of the woodwork, it’s a
pleasant surprise when it happens today, given the current easier
accessibility and availability of music via the internet and
music/multimedia stores like Borders, Tower, Best Buy, etc. One would
think that anyone capable of piecing together a coherent song would have
ready access to a recording studio at their leisure, but that’s not the
Broke & Hungry Records, a new record label out of St. Louis headed by
Jeff Konkel, recently released a wonderful CD by highly-touted, but
seldom-recorded Bentonia, MS guitarist Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, one of the
last purveyors of the Bentonia Blues sound first captured on record by
Skip James and Jack Owens. Broke & Hungry’s sophomore effort features
another hidden gem, North Mississippi native Odell Harris.
Harris is a native of the hill country region that spawned Fred
McDowell, R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough and his music owes that
trio a considerable debt, but he was also influenced by Albert King (a
relative by marriage) and soul legend William Bell (a cousin), so his
style is actually a mixture of the hill country rhythms with a serving
of gritty Memphis blues.
In the past, the elusive Harris mostly confined his appearances to the
occasional juke joint or front porch. After a strenuous effort to locate
their man, Searching For Odell Harris was recorded by Broke &
Hungry at a blues joint in Ocean Springs, MS, which is not usually
considered a hotbed of blues activity by any means. However, the vibe
was definitely present the night of recording, despite a raucous,
sometimes hostile, crowd and some false starts along the way (all
recounted in the amusing liner notes by Konkel).
The music is raw-edged and ragged and features a lot of the
loose-limbed, funky hill country sound that sometimes threatens to spill
over into chaos, with a nearly equal mix of solo tracks and band tracks.
The song list is mostly traditional fare, including solo electric
versions of “.44 Blues,” “Sitting On Top Of The World,” and a reworking
of Kimbrough’s standard “All Night Long.” Harris also gives a nod to the
Memphis sound with a hard-driving take on Junior Parker’s “Train I Ride”
and to a sparse reworking of Little Milton’s “On Your Way Fishing,” and
also takes on songs from the catalogs of Jimmy Reed (“Can’t Stand To See
You Go”) and Bo Diddley (“Before You Accuse Me”) with equally satisfying
Harris’ own compositions are limited to two splendid instrumentals, the
loping “Daylight Romp” and the self-explanatory “Hill Funk.”
Guitarist Bill Abel and drummer Lightnin’ Malcolm (both of whom assisted
Big George Brock on his recent Cat Head release) make a great disc even
better with their appearance on several tracks.
After recording this session, Harris has faded from view once again, but
here’s hoping that Konkel makes the effort to find him for a follow-up.
He deserves a medal for this initial effort. Searching For Odell
Harris is as good a release of the real, un-distilled blues as
you’ll hear this year, and should be required listening for blues fans.
--- Graham Clarke