Houston Highwayman

Local Jimmy "T-99" Nelson sets the blues straight

Yet Nelson envisioned something more, a complete album made on his own terms. At first there were setbacks. He bankrolled a 1996 session in Houston, but that project remains on the shelf. He has also endured a seemingly interminable legal battle over Roy Ames's 1992 CD release of old "T-99" material on the Collectables label.

Those disappointments have been significantly abated, however, by Nelson's full-force glee over his affiliation with local radio personality Nuri A. Nuri and former Roomful of Blues trombonist Carl Querfurth, his co-producers. Their three-way collaboration led to Rockin and Shoutin the Blues, surely to be a strong contender for a W.C. Handy Award.

In addition to Nelson's golden-era vocalizing and songwriting, the CD features the man many musicians regard as the greatest blues-and-jazz guitarist living in Houston: Clarence Hollimon. The Fifth Ward native's impeccably clean and melodic sound graced some of the finest recordings by Bobby Bland and Junior Parker, and he has worked on stage with everyone from Big Mama Thornton to Charles Brown to Carol Fran (his wife since 1982).

Onetime cement finisher who took his nickname from Texas Highway 99: Jimmy "T-99" Nelson.
Onetime cement finisher who took his nickname from Texas Highway 99: Jimmy "T-99" Nelson.

"Clarence is a helluva inspiration to me," says Nelson. "Clarence [during a studio break] was sitting in a corner with his legs crossed and his head down doodling 'When You're Smiling' on the guitar. I said, 'Hey, let's do that!' Š no music in front of me, no lyrics. From the head, you know." The result is a free and easy jazz-inflected jewel, one of several fine covers on the new CD. Featuring tasty chops on tenor sax, a brilliantly minimalist guitar solo and precision piano work, this upbeat number communicates Nelson's essential good cheer.

Along with Querfurth, the session band includes Roomful of Blues hornmen Richie Lataille and Doug James, plus other New England-based musicians. Querfurth describes the veteran unit as "a real comfortable group" that evokes "a jazzier kind of blues with a relaxed feel." Recorded in Rhode Island last fall, the CD includes fresh treatments of such chestnuts as "How Long Blues" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," plus a rollicking remake of "Boogie Woogie Country Girl."

But Nelson's additional lyrics on the closer, "Sweet Mr. Cleanhead," make it the choice cover of the bunch. In a swaggering display of macho sexual bravado, he raps about "hitting these six vitamin E's and four blue pills [Viagra]," among other updated references. He also warns women to "make sure you've got six condoms" if he's invited over. It's a comically boastful strut enlivened by sharp timing and delivery.

"Hurt Three Ways" is an original with a cool walking-bass line, while "New Shack Lover" peaks with a slightly tipsy keyboard romp, simultaneously raw and refined. But the lead track, "House of the Blues," is the new song most likely to get people's attention. A rocking shuffle, it's got all the essential elements: Nelson's poeticizing about "funky blues and Texas barbecue," tight horns, punctuated beats with smart fills between verses (especially some honking sax solos) and Hollimon's fluidly improvised riffs on guitar.

Backed by far-reaching promotional support from Rounder Records, Nelson's new CD will receive the widest distribution of any recording he has ever done. "I'm getting back in the groove again," he says. He's also making a featured appearance with headliners The Otis Grand All Stars at the Great British R&B Festival (Manchester, England) at the end of August and is working on details for a northeastern U.S. tour this fall. Indeed, '99 is a sweet time for "T-99."

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