After a flirtation with surf music on 1998's Pavones Sunset, veteran bluesman Bert Wills returns to his tried-and-true formula with Tell Me Why. Ranging in styles from swamp country and Texas swing to Chicago and Piedmont blues, this collection of roots music conjures up echoes of everyone from Jimmy Reed and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown to Guy Clark and Rod Bernard.
There are two primary schools of thought on how to play the blues on guitar: One is to spit up all the notes and hope some of them stick, à la Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray, not to mention the Jonny Lang/Kenny Wayne Shepherd hordes that have seemingly arisen, phoenixlike, from the ashes of SRV's fallen chopper. Call 'em the Shaq Diesels of the blues -- all power, no finesse. The other school is exemplified by Wills, who paints his tunes in subtle and economical shades of tone. This clever and cunning approach, favored by T-Bone Walker, Jimmie Vaughan and Duane Allman, values what isn't played almost as much as what is. These players know that both have power.
Tell Me Why fires off an opening two-song salvo of Windy City blues before the Harley-riding bluesman unsheathes the National Steel for a wry jaunt to the East Coast. "It Don't Bother Me" is a little jewel of Piedmont rag. The opening lines of the tune -- "I've got worries / I've got woes / I've got holes in both my clothes" -- hint at Wills's stoic humor, an important ingredient in the very best blues. On another, more serious acoustic number, the haunting bottleneck blues of "Roun' and Roun'," Wills sounds like Guy Clark -- if Guy Clark had sold his soul to the devil some midnight at the crossroads.
The signature beat of the Texas blues is interspersed freely throughout this session. There are Reed-like shuffles ("If You Can," "Precious One"), Gatemouth-like Texas swing shuffles ("The Bounce") and one plain ol' shuffle shuffle, the funkiest of the funky "Ooh Wee." By the way, this is as good a time as any to give the drummer (J.D. DiTullio) some: On the shuffles, this drummer is deeper in the pocket than last year's lint.
Wills doesn't possess the finest pipes around, but that's beside the point. This is a man who knows how to sing the blues. Much like his guitar work, his singing stays within well-defined spaces; it's neither flashy nor overly emotive. His voice at times sounds like Jack Bruce after two and a half packs of filterless Camels, but Wills's phrasing is what sets him apart. For many modern-day guitar slingers, vocals are at best an afterthought or, as with another contemporary hollow-body aficionado, Rick "L.A. Holmes" Holmstrom, dispensed with altogether. In fact, one sometimes wishes more of these guitar wizards would not sing, but Wills is most definitely an exception.
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Take a listen to the vintage Houston-style blues of "Mr. Conductor" for an object lesson in how to sing and play the form. Wills never bellows, never adopts a generic "blues accent," never worries his lines; because of all of the above, his singing rings true blue. As for the guitar work, it is a hallmark of the finest Houston players to shift effortlessly between blues and jazz. Clarence Hollimon and Wayne Bennett, to name but two, would not simply alternate blues and jazz tunes but would stop on a dime, mid-blues, and launch themselves onto jazz tangents of breathtaking beauty. Wills proves himself almost their equal.