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April 18, 2007

Blind Willie McTell – The Devil Can’t Hide from Me

Filed under: Music — RadioFly @ 10:42 pm

[Fuel 2000; 2004]
Blind Willie McTell has spent his entire life and the decades since its end being briefly rediscovered and subsequently re-forgotten quicker than the White Stripes can butcher one of his tunes. Nonetheless, McTell’s unique combination of finger-picking, slide guitar, and expressive southern drawl appears on all the big-time blues compilations. These few songs make up the entirety of most music fans’ knowledge of Georgia’s greatest bluesman. Perhaps this is due to the fact that no McTell recording has gained prominence on the level of Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues or Lead Belly’s King of the 12-string Guitar (a title that many of McTell’s fans would disagree with). The Devil Can’t Hide from Me may fit the bill, however, as it is a dazzling session on par with either of those two compilations.

Recorded by the Library of Congress’s Alan Lomax in Atlanta in 1940, McTell was at the apex of his greatest creative period. Though Blind Willie’s most famous tune, “Statesboro Blues,” is absent, he delivers more than enough to make up for that. The grizzled Georgian starts right up after a brief dialogue with a great slice of his soon-to-be-extinct country blues twang before moving into a comical exchange in which Lomax attempts to coax McTell into playing “Ain’t it Hard to be a Nigger, Nigger?” McTell declines, instead playing perhaps his best song, “Boll Weevil,” a startlingly catchy cut that features slide guitar good enough to make Duane Allman jealous.

The impromptu session moves quickly along, showcasing everything that gave McTell his reputation throughout the southeast, starting with his vocals. Blind Willie sings not in the gruff tones of his Delta Blues brethren but rather in a smooth southern drawl. Lyrically, McTell both recalls his dodgy past as a traveling bluesman (“Dying Crapshooter’s Blues”) and soulfully foretells his future as a preacher (“Amazing Grace”). As the recording progresses, two things make themselves clear as constants. The first is Willie’s elegantly nimble guitarwork. The second is Lomax’s constant badgering of McTell to play certain songs to the extent that he seems likely to bust out “FREE BIRD!!!!!” at any moment. McTell, un-phased, always parlays his requests into interesting dialogue before taking control and playing whatever he damn well pleases.

As with all of the great blues musicians, it is impossible go wrong with anything that Blind Willie McTell put on record. Nonetheless, The Devil Can’t Hide from Me still stands as the seminal complete session from McTell, showcasing both the music and life of one of the blues’ best and most interesting legends. If this record has one flaw it’s that it doesn’t come with a sunny front porch and rocking chair that you’ll want after your first spin of “Boll Weevil.”

For more information on Blind Willie McTell, check out the upcoming book, Hand Me My Travelin’ Shoes.
For those interested in other Georgia bluesmen, Curley Weaver and Buddy Moss are the finest.

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