I fell in love with the blues in the early-mid 90s, when a friend turned me on to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.” Before then, I was really only into metal and classic rock. If it didn’t have pointy guitars and Marshall stacks, I wasn’t particularly interested… outside of a few bands like Pink Floyd and Hendrix, etc. I was aware of blues – through classic rock & radio – but not an active listener. In college my tastes expanded a little, but it was still more interested in the metal side of music. As I started to really get into guitar, my ears expanded, and “Texas Flood” hit me hard. What struck me was that it was so powerful, but not about doom and gloom. It was human, it was real life, it covered a range of emotion. It never connected with me that music could be so powerful and positive at the same time. So, that was my gateway. After that, I moved pretty quickly into blues and only blues, which also took years to get out of… but it was life changing. Blues is still at the core of my playing in part because I fell so hard for it right when I was developing as a player.
Here are some of my favorite and most impactful blues records… some are albums everyone (hopefully) has, some might be a bit off the beaten path. What are your favorites?
Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – Pressure Cooker
I love this record because Gatemouth is such an eclectic player, and such a melting pot. He mixes up blues, jazz and country into his own unique style. Interestingly, I picked up a compilation of his earlier works and it’s very much in the style of T-Bone Walker. I was fortunate enough to get to see Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown do a live acoustic show in New Orleans at the LMNOP music conference around 1999. He was as great acoustic as he was electric, and it’s side of him I’d never heard before.
I also recommend “Blackjack.” If you want a bit more of his Louisiana style (and fiddle playing), check out “Gate’s On the Heat.”
BB King – Live In Japan
While BB is my favorite of the 3 Kings, and my favorite blues musician. Across his wide catalog of stutio and live albums, Live in Japan is my favorite. Perhaps my love of it is fueled in part by a memorable late nigh drive from Buffalo to Chicago in a snowstorm, BB’s incredible voice coming through the car stereo, the band cooking, pure love radiating out of our van’s speakers. I also love the adventurous nature of the record, with jams like “Hiraki #88” and “Jammin’ at Saneki hall” spicing things up from the array of hits and classics. His “Hummingbird” on this album also blows me away. If you’re only familiar with Completely Well or Live at the Regal, give this a serious listen.
Freddie King – Live at the Electric Ballroom
What is there to say about Freddie King, the Texas Cannonball, other than he’s one of the Three Kings. His tone is incredible, his phrasing is incredible, his voice is incredible. He’s pure blues, but funky and soulful. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” is one of my all-time favorite blues songs. It’s a great overview of Freddie King, and an album everyone should have.
Muddy Waters – The Best of Muddy Waters
While I love pretty much everything Muddy has ever done, this was the album that opened my ears to acoustic blues, despite coming into the genre via electric guitar. Of course, Muddy was the guy that built that bridge across the country and blew the genre wide open. The Best of Muddy Waters is where you can hear the ache and cry of humanity, and for a suburban white kid from Wisconsin, get a glimpse into a completely different side of America. It’s a slice of history. It was raw, dirty, and dangerous… but also tender, loving, and soulful. This is the record that helped me understand where the music came from, and started my journey digging backwards in time.
Buddy Guy Live – The Real Deal with GE Smith and the SNL Band
Buddy Guy had quite a run of great albums in the 90s. This live album, captured at his club Legends, is a highlight to me. The interplay he has with the band is fantastic, and it’s fun to hear him go back and forth with GE Smith and Johnnie Johnson. He’s one of those performers who makes great records, but really shines live. The stories, the interaction with the audience… it all adds up to a great listen. His tone is classic 90s Buddy Guy and the band sounds fantastic. Their version of “My Time After A While” is the highlight.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood
For me, the record that started it all. This was the album that showed me powerful music didn’t have to be about demons and warfare. It could be about humanity, positivity, real life. It opened my eyes not just to blues, but to the rest of the world of music.
Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings
There’s probably not much to say about this incredible compilation, other than everyone should own it. I learned so many of these songs. I want to call out that to me it’s not his amazing guitar playing, it’s his voice. That’s what’s so haunting. The edgy, provocative lyrics were also pretty mind-blowing. To think these were performed in the 1930s! That takes guts. Its’ a lot more risque than some guy dorpping F-bombs nowadays.