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James Cotton – Cotton Mouth Man – Alligator Records, 2013
East Side SlimBy East Side Slim

James Cotton – Cotton Mouth ManJames Cotton – Cotton Mouth Man – Alligator Records, 2013

It was a cause for celebration when the newest James Cotton CD arrived for review. Actually, just being able to hear new music from James is cause to celebrate – he is without doubt one of the living masters of the blues form. Before we get too far along here, know that Cotton Mouth Man is an exceptional album, and will likely be included in many Best-of-2013 lists - and deservedly so.

A brief history of James follows, as most blues fans are well acquainted with him (most of the song cycle heard on this CD works to tell Cotton’s life story.) James was born near Tunica, Mississippi in 1935. His life wasn’t an easy one, and he left home at 9 years of age – that’s right, 9 – to pursue a life in music. He insinuated himself into Sonny Boy Williamson II’s sphere (Rice Miller), actually living with Miller for several years, and serving a blues apprenticeship. After several years of learning 1st-hand at the feet of several of the masters of the genre, Cotton made the move to Memphis, where he recorded with Sam Phillips and ran his own bands. Somewhere around 1954-55, James moved north to Chicago, specifically to fill the harmonica chair in the Muddy Waters band. He spent a dozen sometimes-frustrating years in Waters’ band (the Chess Brothers would insist on Little Walter recording with Muddy for some time to come, until Cotton eventually broke through). In the mid-60s James decided it was time to run his own band, and he’s never looked back or worked for another bandleader again. A severe health crisis in the 1990s threatened to take his life, although it did effectively take his singing voice. James persevered, and has continued leading his band (typically hiring vocalists) and recording to this very day.

The new CD, Cotton Mouth Man, has the feel of an ensemble effort, mostly due to a small core of musicians being used to record the majority of the tracks – including longtime Cotton band members Darrell Nulisch (vocals), Tom Holland (guitar) and Noel Neal (bass). All-star key-man Chuck Leavell handles all the keyboard-related work here, and Glenn Worf is on-hand for several turns when the upright acoustic bass is used. In addition, several guests were brought into the mix, each of whom adds to the overall “Cotton” feel, rather than detracting via unneeded star power. The guests include Keb Mo, Ruthie Foster, Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, Delbert McClinton, Colin Linden and Joe Bonamassa. See specific track notes for the cuts the guests appear on.
The album was recorded in Nashville by noted (hot) producer Tom Hambridge. Hambridge had a hand in writing most of the tunes here, as well as playing drums on the album. While one might tend to think that this CD could end up being Hambridge’s show, the opposite is true. His admiration and love of Cotton’s music is evident, and Hambridge and his recording crew made Cotton’s life and talent the centerpiece of the effort. Now, on to the songs….

The Songs: (songwriters in parentheses)

1. Cotton Mouth Man (featuring Joe Bonamassa) – (Hambridge and Fleming)
--This barnstorming cut lets you know in very certain terms that James Cotton can still dig deeper and play harder than most folks half is age. This song moves along like a high-ballin’ freight train, and Joe Bonamassa’s lead guitar stokes that boiler even hotter. Special note needs to be made as to the lead vocal of Darrell Nulisch; he’s one of the finest singers around and shows you as much right here.

2. Midnight Train (featuring Greg Allman) – (Hambridge and Fleming)
--The core band on this tune is Cotton’s regular group (including Tom Holland and Noel Neal), but it’s also augmented by two all-stars – Gregg Allman (vocals) and Chuck Leavell (Wurlitzer piano.) Allman’s voice sounds surprisingly clear and youthful (he’s just not that young anymore), digging in and enjoying singing this up-tempo soulful blues. And Leavell? What more can you say – it’s Chuck Leavell! For those not familiar with Chuck’s work, he’s spent time with the Allmans, his own band Sea Level, worked with The Rolling Stones, too many 1st-call session gigs to count – he’s the real deal. Chuck Leavell is who you hear on all keyboard work on this CD. Gregg and Chuck bring a real nice Allman feel to this one. Nice cut!

3. Mississippi Mud (featuring Keb Mo) – (Cotton, Hambridge and Nicholson)
--This slow blues is a tough number recounting the days of planting and growing cotton (the crop, as well as James.) Keb Mo sounds phenomenal singing this sort of material…nothing “pop” about it. Cotton blows acoustic harp here, bending and shading notes – a master at work. Beautiful…

4. He Was There – (Cotton, Hambridge and Fleming)
--This tune turns the tempo back up, while also continuing the story line from the previous track. While “…Mud” recounts Cottons early years, “He Was There” picks up the story when Cotton arrived in Chicago and joined Muddy’s electric blues band and toured the World. Nulisch takes back the lead vocal here, and Cotton astounds with his dexterous and powerful blowing.

5. Something For Me (featuring Warren Haynes) – (Hambridge and Fleming)
--Whoa – talk about blowin’ the roof offa the mutha…. Warren Haynes pays a visit, providing soulful vocals and incendiary slide work. Of course, this only spurs Cotton on to greater heights, and he more than keeps up. In case I haven’t mentioned it, Mr. James Cotton is a force of nature (some might say a Superharp!)

6. Wrapped Around My Heart (featuring Ruthie Foster) – (Hambridge and Fleming)
--Oohhh, Ruthie Foster! As phenomenal as Ruthie is – and she is – it’s been awhile since I’ve heard her tackle a tough, slow blues number. Her performance here brings a tear to my eye and sends chills up my back with each listen…happening right now, in fact. Cotton is full-throated here, not holding anything back on harmonica, and Ruthie sings the same way, to the point where her voice actually cracks. This is likely the most powerful cut on the album, and is the type of performance that reminds us why we all love blues and soul music so much.

7. Saint On Sunday – (Cotton, Hambridge and Fleming)
--Nulisch is back on this rollicking blues (CHUG, chug…CHUG, chug) reminding us all about the type of women most men desire. Saint on Sunday, yes, but on Saturday night, well….oh, my! Leavell works the Wurlitzer hard, and Cotton answers in kind.

8. Hard Sometimes (featuring Delbert McClinton) – (Hambridge, McClinton and Nicholson)
--Delbert McClinton takes the vocal chair on this Jimmy Reed inspired mid-tempo groover. Delbert’s voice is perfect for this tune, with its mix of road weariness and edgy power. Cotton is blowing so hard I was afraid he was going to hurt himself. Needless worry, I know.

9. Young Bold Women – (Cotton and Hambridge)
--This cut is a nice change of pace, with the verses built around a Latin-beat, leading into hard shuffling choruses. Darrell Nulisch sings again (it’s always a treat to hear Darrell singing hard blues, as he does on this album), giving voice to James Cotton’s feelings about a certain type of young women. Maybe that’s what keeps James so young himself…..just thinking out loud…..

10. Bird Nest On The Ground – (Dollison and Higgins)
--Nulisch sings here as well, reminding me of his days fronting Anson Funderburgh’s Rockets. This one oozes a Texas feel, with Tom Holland playing the tight, tasty leads and fills you’d hear from Dallas-honed blues guitarists. Cotton is blowing the windows out, and be sure to listen closely to the real star of this tune – the piano work of Chuck Leavell. I could listen to this sort of thing all day long!

11. Wasn’t My Time To Go (featuring Keb Mo) – (Cotton, Hambridge and Nicholson)
--You have to - yes, have to - listen closely to the lyric of this tune. It recounts the tough life and grim reaper moments of Cotton’s life (James is a cool cat, definitely with 9 lives). He was (gun)shot 5 times….5 times! Keb Mo does an exemplary job of conveying the feeling of Cotton’s life story to the song, and James pulls out all sorts of harp tricks – including some nice Sonny Boy II licks in the last minute or so.

12. Blues Is Good For You – (Cotton, Hambridge and Nicholson)
--Darrell Nulisch’s last go at vocals on this cd, recounting the benefits to one’s health that can be had by playing the blues (and especially of blowing harp.) Blowing harp fills your lungs with air, don’t you know, and playing it “right” is a demanding physical task. What better way to stay in shape, eh? The tune is a mid-tempo blues number, nothing too fancy, just groovy and solid like it’s supposed to be done.

13. Bonnie Blue – (Cotton and Hambridge)
--As most of fans know, James Cotton’s voice was decimated by a bout with throat cancer in the 1990s, hence the use of Darrel Nulisch and other guest vocalists. But, James takes the lead here and for good reason. It’s a beautiful harp-guitar acoustic duet (with Colin Linden on resonator guitar), with James personally recalling much of his early life story, from the early days of growing up on the Bonnie Blue plantation to leaving home at 9 years old to pursue a life in the blues (he lived with and apprenticed with Sonny Boy II – Rice Miller – while in his tens and early teens…can you imagine?) Yes, yes, James Cotton with his home town blues.

The Verdict:

To say this reviewer was pleasantly surprised by how good “Cotton Mouth Man” is might be an understatement. Being an unabashed fan of Cotton’s, I’ve always been a little troubled by the inability of the folks recording Cotton to “get it right” in the studio. The power and emotion of James’ playing is so great, and also incredibly nuanced, that I supposed it can be difficult to accurately get that down onto tape (or digitally in this day and age.) But that is no worry at all here, as Tom Hambridge, Jim Cooley and Nick Autry have captured Cotton in all his glory on this album. Sonically, this sound is superb…this is especially telling in the recording of piano and upright bass. While the songs aren’t all written by Cotton, all of them (with the exception of “Bird’s Nest...”) were written specifically with James Cotton in mind. This band is talented and sympathetic, the songs are tight and respectful to James, and James’ own performance is stunning. You just don’t hear harmonica players of his age play this hard, this passionately…it’s physically demanding and many of them can no longer do it, and some just no longer want to do it even if they are physically able. Alright, it’s time to rate this bad boy…East Side Slim is giving an STLBluesometer rating of 4.50 to James Cotton’s “Cotton Mouth Man”. Now, go out and get you some!

For more information concerning James Cotton, see the following websites:

Lee Howland - aka East Side Slim

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