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Good music, no real theme on compilation

Gulf Coast Blues, Volume One
Gulf Coast Blues, Volume One
By various artists

Black Top Records: 1990

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This review first appeared in the January/February 1991 issue of Living Blues magazine.

This is the first in what Hammond Scott, founder of Black Top Records, promises will be a series of albums focusing on blues artists from the Gulf Coast region.

While the quality of the music on this release is top notch, Scott's liner notes shed little light on his reasons for lumping these artists together, save that all are from what he defines as the Gulf Coast – "... loosely defined on the west by San Antonio, Texas and on the east by Atlanta, Georgia ..." Atlanta isn't even all that coast to the coast!

A study of music by geography is of interest only if character traits specific to a particular region are discovered, along with the ways those musical traits developed and migrated. Otherwise, such a study is merely anecdotal. Scott has not with this album musically defined the Gulf Coast region.

Yet, given that there is no pressing argument that a Gulf Coast blues exists (and how could there, with this region encompassing both New Orleans and Mississippi, two distinct, and strong, geographically based musical tradition), this is still a strong album, based solely on the material.

Of the four artists presented in this volume, two – Joe "Guitar" Hughes and Grady Gaines – have appeared previously on Black Top releases. This is a Black Top debut for Carol Fran and Teddy Reynolds.

If anything, these four demonstrate the diversity of musical styles to be found along Scott's Gulf Coast, from Fran's zydeco/Cajun-influenced swing through Hughes' Texas-lean blues, and from Gaines' raucous R&B to Reynolds' contemporary Chicago sound.

Reynolds is the most pleasant surprise of the batch. His slightly nasal tenor vocals are reminiscent of Fenton Robinson, his piano playing restrained yet passionate. He presents a sophisticated sound that manages to retain its honesty and earthiness.

Fran, who is joined by her husband, guitarist Clarence Hollimon, is likewise a welcome addition. Her two-song set is just a teaser, for Scott promises a full album of her own shortly.

"Everyday is Not the Same" is a rollicking bit of swamp pop featuring Hollimon's sharp, incisive guitar solos and Fran's exuberant soprano vocals. (Of special interest is the fact that Clifford Antone's house band – George Raines on drums, Sarah Brown on bass, and Derek O'Brien on guitar, along with Mark Kazanoff on saxophone – back Fran and Hollimon here.) On "Emmitt Lee," Fran growls, snarls and hollers her way through a broken-hearted love story, while Hollimon punctuates and underlines.

Hughes is a solid guitarist and enthusiastic singer, and his two tracks here did not appear on his earlier album. Gaines blows a mean saxophone, and the two-part instrumental "Lonesome Saxophone" gives him plenty of room to stretch out. (Also notable is Anson Funderburgh's guitar work on the second part of "Lonesome Saxophone.")

If Hammond Scott can identify a unifying theme behind this new series (beyond the cynical example of publicizing his stable of artists), the Gulf Coast Blues could turn into something special.

In the meantime, it's a fine album and a strong introduction to Carol Fran and Teddy Reynolds.