Grant Dermody & Frank Fotusky
Digging in John’s Backyard
Blues fans should be familiar with harmonist Grant Dermody who released one of 2019’s best blues albums, My Dony, produced by the great roots producer, Dirk Powell. This time out, although Powell just does a superb job mixing the album, this is a duo recording featuring the acoustic blues guitarist, Frank Fotusky, who hails from southern New Jersey, paired with the Seattle-bred Dermody, considered one of the premiere harmonica players in both acoustic and Chicago blues. As the title alludes to “John,” that reference is to the late John Jackson, the Virginia born and bred guitarist who mastered the Peidmont style of blues, popularized by the Reverend Gary Davis, and later in the ‘70s and onward by guitarist John Cephas and the duo Cephas & Wiggins (Harmonica Phil Wiggins). Jackson passed in 2002 but the connections between these players – Dermody, Fotusky, Cephas, and Jackson are fascinating.
First, know that Jackson was playing the Piedmont style in the ‘30s and ‘40s in relative obscurity to the point that he gave it up in 1949, only to be ‘rediscovered” in the ‘60s, around which time he became a mentor and friend to Cephas. Darmody first met Jackson and Cephas in the mid – ‘90s and Cephas played on Darmody’s first two recordings. Although Darmody met and was influenced by Jackson, he never recorded with him nor did Fotusky, who also claims both Cephas and Jackson as mentors. Dermody and Fotusky however, didn’t meet until 2002, after Jackson passed away. They honor Jackson’s legacy, much in the that style of Cephas & Wiggins except that these tunes are a mix of both Delta blues and the Piedmont style. In fact, there is only one Jackson-penned tune in the baker’s dozen, “Boats Up River,” perhaps his most popular song and one also covered recently by Corey Harris on his late 2020 release, Insurrection Blues. Other writers herein include Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Balks, Charlie Patton, Skip James, Leroy Carr; and of the Piedmont style – Cephas and Rev. Gary Davis.
Much of this is recognizable fare such as, ‘Police Dog Blues’, ‘Good Morning Judge’, Hard Time On The Killing Floor’, and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” to name a few, all delivered in authentically raw, style.
Fotusky opens with “Hey Hey Daddy’s Blues,” full of his finger picking style, and accompanied by that virtuoso harp, that sets the tone for what consistently follows as the two alternate vocals, not necessarily sequentially but in the long run equally, and in some cases shared. For example, Grant leads on “Peach Tree Blues” and “Police Dog Blues” while Fotusky follows with two – “Good Morning Judge” and “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.”
It’s as if you’re on the front porch or living room with just the two voices and two instruments resonating acoustically, with no amplification – as pure as it gets – relaxed, simple, and ultimately comforting. Even the tunes with a darker tone like “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” transport one back to, at least for this writer, some of first acoustic blues heard in late high school or early college, bringing a nostalgic quality that in its own way is comforting. Also, this writer spend considerable time hosting shows with Cephas and Wiggins (C &W) in the ‘80s and the closing tune here, Grant’s vocal on the traditional “Alberta” is a tune I’ve long associated with C & W, as well as its close cousin, “Roberta,” which was always a set staple, if not the closer. It’s rare to find acoustic blues as genuine as this being played by today’s players. Yes, everything about this recording is not only respectful of the form. It’s without frills or embellishment, as it should be.
- Jim Hynes