Hammond Gets Waits' Blues

Veteran bluesman opens up with a set of Tom Waits covers
Posted Apr 12, 2001 at 12:00am
Despite sticking to a formula that works, it would be misleading to say John Hammond had been in a holding pattern for the past thirty-eight years. As one of the premier blues performers of the past three plus decades, the term "preservationist," which is yielded frequently, doesn't quite encompass the breadth of Hammond's recording and performing career. Rather than rehash the blues, he's embodied them, a decidedly unglamorous pursuit, particularly considering that Hammond's muse darted down the path of country blues as opposed to the flash and sparkle of its more widely accepted cousin.

Yet the country blues is to the electric blues what bluegrass and mountain music are to country: a root rather than a branch. And while Hammond has strapped on the electric and pulled together a time or two, for those who know his work, it's an image of him sitting with an acoustic guitar and harmonica rack, eyes clenched that best captures his essence.

So it was no small surprise when Hammond decided to tackle an album's worth of covers of songs written by Tom Waits for his latest project, Wicked Grin, which Waits also produced. The resulting recording is a revelation at a time in Hammond's career conducive to a milestone and that rare fusion where the fingerprints of both men are visible without smudging one another. In tact are Hammond's bluesy groan and his staccato style of picking. But this time around, his interpretations are washed in the frightening, gothic tones that have made Waits' body of work a rich underworld of American music. The result is a set of tunes that prove Waits' songs to be like those of the best American songwriters: timeless, malleable and real. It also proves that there's still a new thunder to be found in the country blues.

These songs sound as though they came naturally for you.

Yes for the most part. But this was a major adventure for me. I've admired Tom and known him for about twenty-six years now. In 1992 he wrote a song for me, which completely boggled my mind, that he'd think enough of me to write a song for me. And then it progressed when he asked me to play on Mule Variations and that's when the seeds were sown. It's so much fun to play with him because he's such a great musician as well as a great songwriter.

Did you find it difficult to put together a short list of songs?

To be honest with you, I'd never heard a lot of these songs before, and I did them from my own inspiration. And having the chance to work with Larry Taylor and Augie Meyers and Steven Hodges, these guys have played with Tom before; we just gelled as a band so immediately that it was easy. There were songs that I never thought I could've done that I just did. It flowed through me. There was a lot of magic involved in this and Tom was inspirational to work with. I got this energy that I didn't know I could do these things. As a result of this album I feel like a bigger person.

And there's a new tune here too.

He wrote "Fannin Street" for me and it's the oddest one you can imagine. He played it for me on my guitar, and I said, "Tom I don't think I can do anything like that." And he said [imitating Waits' voice], "Oh yes you can, man. 'Fannin Streets'' right up your alley." So I did it. He really has that ability to inspire me and take me outside of myself.

Do you think of him as a blues songwriter?

He's definitely connected to blues. You can hear it in his songs. Everything about him, he's definitely connected to jazz and blues and old timey music and modern out-there atonal music.

You've grown so accustomed to performing with just a guitar and harmonica, will this change the formula?

That's what I've been doing for forty years, but if this tour goes well it could just change everything in a very good way for me. I had a band together from 1967 to 1970 on and off so I had a chance to play electric guitar and be the front guy. But I never made any money. But playing with these guys has been terrific.

After four decades, do you tire of the claims that blues is dead?

It's here to stay and it has been since the early days. In 1957, I bought an album called The Country Blues, a Sam Charters collection. It opened me up to something I had never heard before. I only heard what was on the radio. Having heard Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, I was a blues freak. But hearing the country blues and where it came from just totally re-inspired me. I got a guitar in 1961 and started playing professionally in 1962. And its been working for me since.

"I know I've Been Changed" has more of a gospelly vibe than a blues sound.

It's a traditional gospel song that [Waits] had heard from the Staples Singers that they'd recorded for VeeJay in the Fifties. He wanted to do this song and I said hey no problem. I remember my first major gig was at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles opening for the Staples Singers. It was the purest sound and the most spiritual thing I'd ever heard. Pops was my friend for years and years and he gave me such encouragement. Tom knew I was into that sound, so it's just me playing guitar, Tom, Larry on bass and a lot of handclapping. Did he sing his ass off or what?

Written by ANDREW DANSBY for RollingStone.com News

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