Big Bill Morganfield's Ramblin' Mind

Web Feature: CD of the Week


One listen to singer/guitarist Big Bill Morganfield's new CD, Ramblin' Mind, and you're bound to be convinced that this is a man born to play the Blues. The album offers a variety of bluesy styles from Delta sounds to Swing to Electric Chicago Blues, all expertly performed by Morganfield and a guest list that includes harmonica man Billy Branch, guitarist Bob Margolin and the great Taj Mahal. Add to that Morganfield's illustrious pedigree — Morganfield is the son of none other than McKinley Morganfield, the 20th century musical giant better known as Muddy Waters — and you might think this is a fellow who learned to play slide guitar before he could crawl.

But despite his father's legendary status as a bluesman, Morganfield, a former English teacher, says that he wasn't particularly interested in the Blues while growing up.

"I'm of the age group of people that listened to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Temptations, the Dells, Otis Redding, even Grand Funk Railroad," says Morganfield from Fresno, Calif., where he is on tour promoting his new CD. "You know I came up in that generation ... I like Led Zeppelin. I like that stuff, man, and that was the kind of music I was listening to. I was''t listening to very much Blues. When I listened to it I thought, 'Aw this is such easy, kinda simple music.

There's not much going on here.' I didn't quite understand it. And then, once I started trying to learn, I realized it was a lot deeper than that. Even though my daddy was an icon in it — that was his work and I was interested in the sense that I wanted to know what he was doing — I really wasn't a big fan of that music."

Sometime after his father's death in 1983, Morganfield developed an interest in the Blues and took it to the stage. But early on, Morganfield found himself taking a direction that conflicted with his own musical aesthetic and growing sense of tradition.

"My first attempt was contemporary Blues," he says. "And it wasn't by choice, it was just by ignorance, you know. I couldn't quite get deep into the other kind of Blues, so it came out contemporary. I was trying to get deeper than that, but that was about as deep as I could get it."

After a few months, Morganfield became so dissatisfied with his musical direction that he gave up performing publicly all together and devoted his time to woodshedding and learning the art of songwriting.

"I decided that I wasn't ready yet, that I needed to go back to the drawing board," Morganfield says of his early foray into the Blues. "So I went back and locked myself away. I wouldn't accept any more jobs or anything and locked myself away for about seven years, and it took that long to get my skills where they needed to be. I felt I had one more shot sometime in my life, and I wanted to make the best of my next shot, because that was going to be it."

When the opportunity presented itself for Morganfield to return the stage, the guitarist reluctantly agreed to perform a 45-minute set in Chattanooga, Tenn. "I went out, and it was just really great," he says. "The first show was sold out and people went nuts about it. And I said, 'Ok, maybe I can go further with this now.' "

Since Morganfield's musical resurrection, his career has been steadily gaining momentum. Morganfield released his debut CD, Rising Son, to much critical acclaim in 1999, and he was rewarded with the W.C. Handy Award for "Best New Blues Artist" for his efforts.

It's likely that his new CD Ramblin' Mind will garner an equally enthusiastic response. Part of what makes Ramblin' Mind such a strong effort is Morganfield's interest in songcraft. Whereas a lot of contemporary Blues artists use songs merely as an excuse for guitar solos, for Morganfield the song is of primary importance.

"I call that watered-down Blues," says Morganfield of some of the music of his more flashy contemporaries. "I don't like watered-down music. It's good to solo, but it doesn't need to go on and on and on. My daddy had a saying, he said, 'Get in there and do what you got to do and then get out.' And that's what I tried to do on this record. I tried to make things very condensed, not watered down, no extra leads or none of that kind of stuff. And as a result, a lot of the songs are very, very short songs. They are very radio friendly. And each one of the songs came out more like it was an actual song and not just like a jam."

Morganfield's less-is-more philosophy is nowhere more apparent than on the album's self-penned title track. On "Ramblin' Mind" Morganfield plays some wonderfully propulsive rhythm guitar against Bill Lupkin's featured harmonica riff. Morganfield never takes a lead, rather he spices the song with tasteful slide guitar licks. But that's not to say that Morganfield doesn't on occasion cut loose. On "Roll with Me," Morganfield takes two trashy passes at a 12-bar Blues. It's not the playing of a virtuoso, but it is a fiery and soulful performance nonetheless.

Morganfield wrote eight of Ramblin' Mind's 14 cuts. For the rest of the album, Morganfield tried to find songs that other artists had not already re-recorded.

"I see people putting records out, and sometimes I can't believe it," he says. "Say, for example, 'Stormy Monday.' Why would somebody record that thing again? It's just been recorded to death. So I didn't want to get into that bag. I wanted high quality songs that hadn't been recorded that much and that hadn't been heard that much."

One of the album's highlights not penned by Morganfield comes courtesy of Taj Mahal and his song "Strong Man Holler." Morganfield and Mahal trade vocal and guitar licks over the slow Delta Blues and in doing so create arguably the album's finest track. For Morganfield and Mahal, recording together for the first time was a way of paying their respects to Muddy Waters.

"In essence he reached out and helped a young guy coming up through the ranks," says Morganfield of Taj Mahal's contribution to Ramblin' Mind. "I remember him telling me a story about how my daddy had held his son, and about how he had really loved and admired my daddy and to do that (perform with Morganfield) for my daddy would be a good thing for him to do."

For the album's final track, Mahal and Morganfield team up again on Muddy Waters' "You're Gonna Miss Me." Playing his father's music is something that Morganfield wants to continue as a part of his repertoire. " 'You're Gonna Miss Me,' was with him in mind," Morganfield says. "I'll always put a little something on the record for my dad."

Big Bill Morganfield's Ramblin' Mind is available from Blind Pig Records>

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