Women of the Blues
Although 83-year-old Chicago blues veteran Mary Lane has not released an album in twenty years, we did cover her on these pages for last year’s Chicago/ Blues Legends/ Today. That project was helmed by the late Mike Mettalia, who passed away much too soon just last week from ALS. Mike was a harmonica player who led the Midnight Shift band based in Pennsylvania. He had teamed with Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, a guitarist who spent more than twenty-five years in Chicago and was a stalwart on Delmark before relocating to the west coast. Six tracks featured Mary Lane on lead vocal, accompanied by her husband, Jeffrey LaBron on bass. Perhaps that was the impetus to give Lane her long overdue spotlight for this full album Travelin’ Woman.
Yet, there is much more to Mary Lane’s story and this new album than that. Filmmaker Jessica Ynez Simmons has just finished her documentary, I Can Only Be Mary Lane, the engaging chronicling of Lane’s struggles and perseverance as a blues singer on Chicago’s West Side for over 50 years. In addition, blues advocate Lynn Orman believed that this album was so exceptional that she started a new label, Women of the Blues, as an extension of her Women of the Blues Foundation. Orman helped producer and co-writer, Grammy winner Jim Tullio get funding for the record’s release, assisted Simmons in the filming of the documentary and eventually, having been turned down by several labels, decided to make this the inaugural debut for her own label. “Looking at Mary, she is a trailblazer, and she is one of those women who came from the South, one of the last women blues singers,” says Lynn. “How can we not focus on her as one of the great women who played with Robert Nighthawk and played with Elmore James? And she’s still doing it at 83 years old.”
Venerable bluesmen Buddy Guy and Bobby Rush are singing her praises too, with Rush saying “Mary Lane is way overdue for what she planned to do. She is making a statement for all the blues women. At 83 years old, she still has the guts to get out there and sing the blues. This is a strong record, one of the best I have heard. She sounds like she is 33 and not 83 years old.” As you’d expect, high profile musicians gathered to support Lane as well as special harmonica guests Billy Branch, Corky Siegel, Indiara Sfair, and the late Eddie Shaw. Guitarists Colin Linde, Dave Specter, and sax legend Gene “Daddy G” Barge also appear.
Apart from two selections, Travelin’ Woman is a 50/50 collaboration between Lane and Tullio, the latter providing the music (also playing guitar and bass) while Lane supplied the deeply moving lyrics and vocals. “I just came up singing as the music played,” says Mary about the sessions. “I come up with lyrics in my head, and go with the music. So that’s the way I did all of them.” Several take Lane a bit out of her comfort zone. On “Make Up Your Mind,” she’s backed only by Colin Linden’s acoustic slide dobro (he co-wrote the theme with Mary), and “Let Me Into Your Heart” is a soul-steeped blues ballad. “It took me a while to fit some words into the music, but I came up with it,” she notes about the latter. Like the veteran she is, she’s so relaxed and unafraid to improvise lyrics or phrases instantly. And, in the ballad you can hear why Rush described her voice as sounding more like that of a 33-year old singer.
The organ-infused title track has Mary telling her life story in less than five minutes. The piano-driven “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” features Eddie Shaw on harp while “Some People Think I’m Crazy” features Siegel. “Ain’t Nobody Else” has Billy Branch blowing the harp as Indiara Sfair takes the honor for “Blues Give Me a Feeling.” Versatile guitarist Dave Specter takes his turn on “Bad Luck and Trouble.”
Lane recorded her debut album, Appointment with the Blues, twenty years ago on the short-lived Noir label with Johnny B. Moore on lead guitar, pianist Detroit Junior, and her husband, Jeffery Labon on bass (Labon has successfully recovered from a recent stroke to anchor Mary’s No Static Blues Band).
Make no mistake. It’s been a long time coming but it’s finally Mary Lane’s time.
- Jim Hynes