Come May in Memphis and it’s my educated guess that 64-year old singer/guitarist Johnny Rawls will be picking up yet another blues award from The Blues Foundation. The Mississippi native has just had his “Tiger In A Cage” released by Catfood Records out of El Paso, Texas, and it’s a damn fine barn-burner of old-school soulman-styled rhythm’n’blues.
As produced by Jim Gaines, who is also no stranger to having massive amounts of little statuettes on his fireplace mantle due to his work with the Steve Miller Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana, Journey, Huey Lewis and Blues Traveler, “Tiger In A Cage” is one of these rare projects where every note in is place, every riff is carved out of stone, and every solo is perfectly complementary to the song it serves. With a musical bed by The Rays (guitar/bass/drums/keyboards/accordion/alto, tenor and soprano saxophone/trumpet/trombone/percussion) and vocal backing by The Iveys (a hot acoustic Americana band out of Tornillo, Texas where “Tiger In A Cage” was recorded), the icing on his cake is Eden Brent who duets with Rawls on “Southern Honey.”
Then there’s the matter of this man’s voice. Warm, expressive, believable, weathered in hard knocks and phlegmy with too many late-night cigarettes, last-call shots of alcohol and trying to be heard over the sound systems of the thousands of roadhouse blues joints he’s worked over the last 40 years.
He wrote nine of 12. I couldn’t have picked three better covers for his voice myself than Sam Cooke’s “We’re Having A Party,” Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Is Lifting Me Higher And Higher” or the Rolling Stones’ “Beast Of Burden.” Wait, I take that back. When it comes to Jackie Wilson [1934-1984], certainly in the conversation of all-time greatest vocalists, I would’ve rather heard Rawls cover “Baby Workout,” “Reet Petite” or “Lonely Teardrops.” But why quibble?
Aforementioned producer Jim Gaines is also behind the big board in the control room for his wife’s CD. Sandy Carroll just may be the “Last Southern Belle” but her Catfood offering is as tasty a morsel of Americana as can be. Recorded in West Tennessee and Muscle Shoals, Alabama with bassist David Hood, guitarist Will McFarlane and drummer Steve Potts, Carroll, who plays keyboards, writes in an incisive auto-biographical style, sings with a plaintive sexuality. On other tracks, she’s positively husky and brings to these lyrics the kind of gravitas that only one who has actually lived them can properly communicate.
“Tattoo That I Can’t Undo” speaks for itself. The title cut has to do with the rather dated perception of a young Southern ingénue being admired for the wrong reasons. (She admits to being one.) In “Southern Woman,” she writes “dress her in sequins/Party like a deacon/Say her prayers every night/Think you got her figured/She can pull the trigger/Scare you to death alright.” Profundity comes in large doses with “The Nothing In Your Eyes.” Man, the gal can write! And Gaines’s production is swampy, laid-back, cool and satisfying.
It took Sandy Carroll 30 years of living away before she succumbed to the pleasures of the south and moved home again to Tennessee. “I was stunned,” she tells “Filled With Sound,” to find some things were the same and I was delighted to find that other things were the same. The voices of the gospel still ring loud and clear and the nearby Shiloh battlefield of the Civil War remains untouched and spiritually haunted. However, the dangers of the past lurk underneath the surface. The rest of the world sometimes sees the south lumped together like one of those confederate trenches in Shiloh: ignorant, Bible-thumping, racist, illiterate people. It is unfair. I’ve seen prejudice and dishonor all over this earth. It is not specific to a region south of the Mason-Dixon line but the stigma of our past and the myth of the south lives on…some truth but not all truth.” (She touches on these sentiments in “The Boys of Shiloh,” “Water Run Deep” and “Hallelujah Hill.”)
Bottom line? Sandy Carroll is a world-class singer-songwriter whose artistry dwarfs most of what’s coming out of Nashville these days.