Never Mind the Catfish


All I know, it was around ’90, ’91. Somewhere in there. Me and future wife were stepping out down-home style at the VFW in St. Pete, Florida. The band had just finished its set, and on came Z.Z. Hill’s “Love Is So Good When You’re Stealing It.” That meant the DJ was getting ready to turn on “the ugly light” overhead. Z.Z. was his way of warning all the people who hadn’t checked their wigs, didn’t know what their dance partners really looked like, or were exchanging fluids with somebody other than the person they came in with to get their shit straight before things got ugly.

It would be easy to say that one who hasn’t experienced soul-blues while seated at a gussied-up card table at a Southern Elks Club can’t understand it. But then I’d have to live with some authenticity seekers fucking up my groove when I actually do go to the VFW and Elks anymore, asking me stupid shit about catfish sandwiches and whatnot. Besides, I’d be lying. On the other hand, if I tried to avoid all that hassle by calling Rhino’s Chitlin Circuit Soul! the next best thing to being there, I’d be facing subway-intellectual discussions of Latimore the next time I hit Manhattan. Or—heaven forbid—martini-bar “Annie Mae’s Café” nights, complete with leisure suits and fried chicken liver pâté appetizers.

And I’d still be lying. You have to be conscious of audience with this disc, which flies against the kind of Jon Landis kneejerk history that skips text, form, and feeling for virtuosic window dressing. So many folks still think blues went straight from Muddy, Buddy, and the Three Kings to Hendrix, Clapton, et al., that they may be surprised that a lot of people in the Black South call the music on this CD “blues” at all. Synthesized horns and drum machines outnumber guitar solos, and the only shuffle is Johnnie Taylor’s “Cheaper to Keep Her.” So maybe the educational value of this soul-blues tidbit (forgetting for the moment that education in the pop-cultural sense is often just fashion adjustment) is its ability to rearrange preconceptions. By showcasing some exemplary singing and songwriting, by linking eternal themes to unique turns of phrase that can knock you dead without a Thunderbird chaser, it goes down to the kind of crossroads that lead right to the interstate.

So listen and learn. That the subtle gutturals on Bobby Bland’s “Members Only” are less readily associated with soul-blues than any number of arena-rocking guitarists on the one hand or Aaron Neville on the other is beyond criminal. For example. So is the fact that Millie Jackson is better known for her shit-talking than for the forthright contralto she displays on “If You’re Not Back in Love by Monday.” Bland’s refined broken-hearts-club ballad and Jackson’s beauty-shop wisdom underscore soul-blues’s blue-collar appeal. The everyman/woman of tunes like Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman” is more likely to be working second shift at the plant or processing checks at your local branch than drinking Sterno. As such, he/she is usually wrestling with some version of the Big Three: Love, Sex, and Why Someone Else Is Getting My Share of Both.

Like their separated-at-birth siblings in country music, this opens them up to predictable charges of mawkishness, overproduction, and Vegas excess, which fly only if you accept the argument that their audiences are art objects, and not workaday folks looking for good entertainment. Or if you still have problems believing that black artistic triumphs are products of the same perspiration-inspiration proportions as everyone else’s—90-10, approximately. In either case you likely won’t consider refined takes like Bland’s, or Latimore’s stately minor-key “Let’s Straighten It Out,” as examples of the same kind of bluesy longing that fueled Robert Johnson, or mark the anniversary of Johnnie Taylor’s death as faithfully as you do John Lee Hooker’s.

And you definitely won’t see their connection to the folks here who give it to you raw. I like to bring up Clarence Carter’s fuck anthem “Strokin’ ” (or Marvin Sease’s “Candy Licker,” not included here) whenever I hear some tight-assed, talented-10th-wannabe nigro complain about moral turpitude in hip-hop. Bobby Rush talks through a kinky sex scenario at the end of “Sue,” dancing coyly around the upshot before delivering a tongue-in-cheek ending. And Ronnie Lovejoy’s caught-cheatin’ “Still Wasn’t Me” is a keeper just for lines like “You didn’t find my drawers inside nobody’s hat.”

Then again, if you do see these connections, then you probably don’t need this collection, which is why part of me wonders just who will enjoy this disc the way it should be enjoyed. It will be a cool appetizer at my next family get-together, where I’ve witnessed half-hour discussions on Tyrone Davis alone, but probably won’t get nominated for a second run-through. My sister-in-law will want to hear the rest of Betty Wright’s “Tonight’s the Night,” faded here after her humorous introductory rap. And my uncle the Baptist deacon—the music expert in the family—will wonder why Rhino left out Denise LaSalle and Dorothy Moore.

So if Blues Brothers fans walk away from Chitlin Circuit Soul! with a few new tunes to hum on their lunch break, that won’t be too bad. Big battles are won a yard of real estate at a time. On the other hand, if they simply file this next to Kenny Wayne Shepherd and leave it at that, then maybe Rhino should marshal its troops for another run at Pork Chop Hill.