True triple-threat talents are very rare in any music, and to this general rule the blues is no exception. While thousands can play the blues on the guitar, perhaps only 10 percent of those can also write great songs, and a smaller fraction of those can also sing. Fewer still are possessed of a keen social conscience that they are able to work seamlessly into their material. In fact, the list doesn't get much longer than one: Mem Shannon.
If anyone has a right to sing the blues, it's the 42-year-old Shannon. After all, spending 15 years as a cab driver in a tough city like New Orleans, as Shannon did, is apt to provide more than enough material. Which it did, and more literally than one would imagine. On his first album, New Orleans Cab Driver Blues, Shannon interspersed his tunes with covertly taped snippets of passenger banter. This innovation -- when stacked atop Shannon's soul-drenched wail of a voice and funky, syncopated fretwork -- was enough to garner notice from The New York Times and USA Today and to kick-start the first of several national and international tours. Prior to his discovery in the early '90s, Shannon had never left the confines of the Crescent City, though within it he had probably driven tens of thousands of miles and met folks from every corner of the world.
On his latest album, Memphis in the Morning, Shannon packed up his guitar and drove north across the Delta to Memphis. There he teamed up with famed Robert Cray producer Dennis Walker and the legendary Memphis horns for a "Mem"-orable trans-Mississippi showdown. Of the material on offer, the most instantly catchy is his outstanding take on the invasion of the sport-utes, in which he decries the "SOBs in their SUVs." "I remember when I could name every car there was on the road," he sings. "There was Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Lincolns, Buicks and Fords / Now everybody's driving these SUVs and they all look the same / Mountain Monsters and Land Eaters and all kinda ole crazy names " A disgruntled Shannon plans his next car: "I ain't wasting no time / I'm going straight to the top / I'm gonna get me an 18-wheeler." This is Song of the Year territory, folks.
Also outstanding is his rewrite on primary influence B.B. King's "Why I Sing the Blues," which truly breathes new life into a classic of the Nixon era. Throughout the album, Shannon's soul-drenched vocals and melodic, funky hollow-body fretwork are ample meat and potatoes to nourish blues-starved souls, followed by the best blues lyrics since Percy Mayfield's day poured over them like rich gravy.
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