Grant Dermody and Frank Fotusky (from the album Diggin’ In John’s Backyard as an independent release) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Tribute albums are often a mixed bag. No matter how adept the attempt, it’s inevitable that comparisons will be made to the original offering. There are exceptions however. When the artist that’s being covered is relatively obscure, those attempting to put their own stamp on the sound need not be as concerned with being measured against the same standard. Instead, it offers an opportunity to not only emulate those earlier efforts, but to lay claim to them as well.
Blues harp player Grant Dermody and guitarist Frank Fotusky had all the right intentions when they decided to team up and salute the late John Jackson, a Blues guitarist who was known for pursuing — and perfecting — a rustic country style known as Piedmont Blues. Sadly, his work didn’t get the wider recognition it deserved. He retired from making music in 1949, only to experience a limited revival at the start of the ‘60s.
Both Fotusky and Dermody had the good fortune to meet Jackson in their early years, and each absorbed his profound influence on their careers. Consequently, the pair’s new album, Diggin’ In John’s Backyard, reflects the music of the man both considered a mentor.
To be sure, only one track in this baker’s dozen sampling of classic country blues was written by Jackson himself, that being his would-be classic, “Boots Up River.” Nevertheless, the remainder of the set is clearly in the same vein, and given the fact that any number of archival artists are represented — Blind Blake, Skip James, Charlie Patton, Rev. Gary Davis, and Sonny Boy Williams, among them — the authenticity in their approach is all but assured. The songs all share a similar style, and the fact that Dermody and Fotusky are solely responsible allows the pair to maintain a rugged, rootsy resolve. While several of the songs may be known to a novice — “Good Morning Judge,” Alberta,” Death Have No Mercy,” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in particular — these unembellished arrangements take on a treatment and tone that’s far removed from the edge and intensity manifest in most rock reboots.
Consequently, Diggin' in John's Backyard stays true to the seminal sound of vintage Blues, while also investing the music with a dedication and devotion that’s manifest in an approach that’s both sobering and sublime. Ultimately, it’s more than simply a tribute. Rather, it’s about honoring tradition and the need to look back while bringing music forward towards the future. (by Lee Zimmerman)
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