The Real Stuff

Roots Stew
Big Jack Johnson and the Oilers (M.C. Records)

By Beth Jones

Roots Stew is the ideal title for Big Jack Johnson's third release on MC Records. It's a distillation of influences beginning with his father's fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and guitar playing, through Saturday nights of the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, five nights a week in the house band at Conway Twitty's Mississippi roadhouse, and 40 years spent with the Jelly Roll Kings. You can hear a little of all of it in the music he's making today.

This one will grab you from the very first note, as Johnson comes out swinging with "Jump for Joy". He turns in some fine mandolin work on "Beale Street" and "Cherry Tree". Then, in "Too Many Rats," he complains that all those rats hanging `round his house are chasing his kitty away. I got the feeling there may have been a second, less literal meaning to the lyrics, but you can decide that for yourself.

His cover of "Since I Met You, Baby" is like no other you've ever heard. The liner notes describe it as a kind of Hawaiian lap steel that's "part country, part Polynesian and part Elmore James," and I certainly can't come up with a better description. And when he teams up with Wild Child Butler on harmonica for the acoustic "I Wanna Go Home," you can close your eyes and almost believe he's sitting right across the kitchen table from you.

Johnson, a W.C. Handy 2000 Award nominee, says his father called it "breakdown blues." Whatever name you want to give it, it's low-down and real, and you know it when you hear it.