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Lap-steel no gimmick in Rhodes' hands

The Blues is My Best Friend
The Blues is My Best Friend
By Sonny Rhodes

King Snake Records: 1994

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This review first appeared in the Winter 1994 edition of Blues Revue magazine.

Known as much for his trademark turban as for his first-rate lap-steel guitar playing, Sonny Rhodes is one of blues' great original characters. Rhodes' gritty, hoarse vocals rely more on conviction of delivery than natural talent. His sense of timing never misses, and the rough edge on his voice only adds credence to his tales of life's suffering.

The lap steel is a relatively rare instrument in contemporary blues. It has a shimmery, almost Hawaiian sound – a nice counterbalance to Rhodes' gruff vocals. Rhodes' fills on guitar are imaginative and well thought-out with a minimum of repetition; his solos contain even more ideas, as Rhodes draws on some inner wellspring of themes and variations.

The lap steel is no gimmick; Rhodes is also a first-rate player on standard electric guitar. His use of vibrato and bent notes makes his leads sound as close to a human voice as a stringed instrument can.

Rhodes wrote most of the songs on this album under his given name of C.E. Smith. Most are uptempo, R&B-styled blues with a tale to tell. All lend themselves well to his approach to music, and several of the better may become part of the blues canon. Of course, as the song "President Clinton" shows, writing songs that are too topical carries the risk of seeing them quickly dated. ("It seems like both Houses of Congress/Ain't hardly fighting among themselves" flies in the face of the Whitewater hearings and the health-care battles.)

The entire Sonny Rhodes package – singer, songwriter, guitarist – gets full exposure on this release, giving the listener as good a feeling for Rhodes' blues as one could hope for.