The Tennessee Tornado Hits Louisville

By Keith Clements, Sec'y KYANA Blues Society

The mandolin is familiar to bluegrass but not to the blues. Yank Rachell is the last blues musician who still regularly plays the instrument. For two evenings, June 23rd and 24th, Yank and The Stepping Out Blues Band held forth at the Cherokee Pub. Yank is 79 years old and moves slowly with a cane, but when he sat down on his stool in front of the band, he was a young man again, playing his style of Tennessee blues from the 1930's. His dexterous fingers coaxed a hard driving sound from his amplified Harmony mandolin this is unique to the blues. He tunes his instrument lower than standard, getting a deeper quality with a heavier bass sound.

Yank is an original American institution who first recorded "Divin' Duck Blues" on Victor in 1929, 60 years ago. At that time he was traveling between Memphis and Paducah, performing with Sleepy John Estes and Hammie Nixon, who were all natives of Brownsville, Tennessee. During the late 30's and early 40's, Yank recorded extensively with Sonny Boy (John Lee) Williamson, Big Joe Williams and Walter Davis. After a brief stay in St. Louis playing with Henry Townsend, he returned to Brownsville. He then moved himself and his family to Indianapolis in 1957, where he has lived ever since.

The folk and blues revival rediscovered Yank during the 60's, and he traveled around the college campuses, to Newport and to Europe with Sleepy John and Hammie Nixon. Today Yank is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. The 1988 March/April issue of Living Blues has a long interview with Yank, and his latest record on Blind Pig, entitled Blues Mandolin Man, is old time music in a contemporary setting. Last year, Yank was awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship Grant by the Indiana Arts commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Mayor's Office of Indianapolis proclaimed February 20, 1989, "Yank Rachell Day." A documentary of Yank's career, called "Tennessee Tornado," was made for that event and later broadcast on PBS.

At the Cherokee Pub, Yank played to an enthusiastic audience on both nights. On Saturday, he dressed up in his slick suit and wide-brimmed straw hat and put on a show with his band that should have been witnessed by thousands instead of dozens. The band includes Vince Mullin on guitar, 'Stormy' Johnson on drums, and his granddaughter Sheena Rachell on bass. Ms. Rachell did a few vocals on Saturday evening that showed her strong gospel influence.

One of Yank's sons, J. C., sings with a gospel group in Indianapolis and is a close friend of the local blues singer, Sonny Love. Sonny came by for the Saturday show and, since he and Yank hadn't seen each other for twenty-five years, it was quite a reunion.

Yank has a wide repertoire of songs and most of them are his original tunes, including one of my favorites, "Texas Tony." Many of his tunes have become blues standards, such as "She Caught the Katy (Left Me a Mule to Ride)," recorded by Taj Mahal and the Metropolitan Blues All Stars.

I hope Yank returns to Louisville soon, and when he does, don't miss him.