Heartache by the Pound
Kirk Fletcher is in a bit of a paradox. While he has all the tools of the best bluesmen and the acclaim to prove it as a five-time BMA nominee and one hailed by such outlets as Guitar World Magazine and Guitar.com, he seldom rises to the top of conversations regarding the best contemporary bluesmen. Much of this may trace to the fact that he is not with a major blues label like Alligator, Delmark, or even Vizztone. Fletcher was once one of the leading artists on the now defunct Delta Groove label but that’s been in the rear-view mirror for a while. That’s a populist perspective but those knowledgeable are aware of Fletcher’s recent output which includes 2018’s Hold On which entered earned a Blues Music Award (BMA) nomination for “Contemporary Blues Album.” “My Blues Pathway followed in 2020, earning him further BMA nods for “Contemporary Blues Album” and “Instrumentalist – Guitar.” That’s a long introduction for Fletcher’s most recent offering, Heartache by the Pound, mostly written in Switzerland during the pandemic with his longtime friend, legendary bassist Richard Cousins (The Robert Cray Band), and mostly recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama
At the three days of sessions at FAME, Fletcher was joined by a truly all-star backing band comprised of keyboardist Reese Wynans (Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, Buddy Guy),drummer Terrence F. Clark (Robert Cray Band, Joss Stone), bass players Travis Carlton (Sara Barellies, Larry Carlton) and Randy Bermudes (The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Charlie Musselwhite), backing vocalist Jade MacRae (Joe Bonamassa, Jimmy Barnes), trumpet player Mark Pender (Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes), and saxophonist Joe Sublett (Taj Mahal and the Phantom Blues Band). Fletcher says, “I got back to my gospel and blues roots. I really wanted to do a blues record, so I sat down and allowed the songs to take over. I’m a bluesman, and I write about life. That’s the concept. FAME is the mother church for soul music. It’s the same building where all these fantastic people like Otis Rush and Aretha Franklin have recorded. I wanted the vibe. I needed to bring these songs there.”
Subsequent sessions in L.A. with two different bands and an organ trio session in Italy as well as sessions in Nashville where Fletcher is now based, round out the credits for five co-writes with Cousins, one solo original, an Albert King cover, two from Dennis Walker and one more obscure tune credited to Tarheel Slim. Fletcher produced the album which begins with the bright, soulful shuffle of “Shine A Light on Love” with Fletcher’s deep resonant voice and keening, full-toned guitar set against that usual FAME backdrop of B3 organ and blaring horns. The single “Afraid to Die, Too Scared To Live” is a deep southern soul blues that speaks to the plight of a Black man living in today’s America, paid off by deep cutting incendiary guitar lines. On the other hand, the title track induces smiles with its nostalgic lyrics and in-the-pocket playing that will evoke the Muscle Shoals classics. As we listen to these first three, all co-writes with Cousins, that Robert Cray flavor is certainly present as well.
It’s no accident that Fletcher covers Albert King’s “I’ve Made Nights By Myself” as close listens often reveal lots of Albert’s riffs in Fletcher’s guitar style, not just here but throughout. Two more standouts written with Cousins follow beginning with the slow smoldering “The Night’s Calling For You,” best exemplifying the power and nuance of Fletcher’s emotive vocals and guitar soloing that never wastes notes and induces chills. “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up in the Blues” naturally goes up-tempo with the band cooking at full throttle, invoking a gospel feel in the choruses, replete with background vocalists.
As the blues fans know, Dennis Walker wrote much of the material for Robert Cray and others on the vaunted west coast Hightone label. Fletcher taps into two of his tunes – the upbeat, churning “Wrong Kinda Love” and the smooth- running soul ballad “I Can’t Find No Love.” True to its title, Fletcher rocks hard on Tarheel Slim’s “Wild Cat Tamer” with the horns punctuating seemingly every lyric before Wynans steps in with a rollicking barrelhouse piano solo, followed by a scintillating twangy solo from Fletcher. The album closes with Fletcher’s tender ballad, “Hope for Us,” another impeccable, convicted vocal delivery and soaring, spiraling guitar soloing.
Too many bluesmen with the kind of guitar chops that Fletcher possesses, feel compelled to let the guitar do all the talking to the point of being overbearing. The key to success, on the other hand, is the quality of the songs. Fletcher has it all, the songs, the chops, the vocals, and a natural feel for the music rather than exaggeration just for “the show.” And, yes, Fletcher belongs at the top of that conversation that discusses our best contemporary blues artists.
- Jim Hynes