Seth James has all the trappings of a West Texas cowboy and looks the part attired in his white Stetson. He is a life-long working rancher. Somehow, though James picked up the same kind of roadhouse blues bug as that mostly retired singer from Ft. Worth, Delbert McClinton. Yes, it’s more than coincidental that much of James’ Different Hat carries that same Delbert vibe. The album was produced by Delbert’s longtime producer, Kevin McKendree, and recorded at McKendree’s studio, the Rock House in Franklin, TN. Besides, James has studied McClinton for years and Delbert urged him to cut his tune, “Gold Plated Fool” and began writing another tune with James that appears here.
Some of the Delbert compadres are aboard for the session as well with McKendree on keys, Bob Britt on rhythm guitar, Lynn Williams on drums and Glen Clark on harmony for “Solid Gold Plated Fool.”. Other conspirators are Yates McKendree on drums and lap steel, Steve Mackey on bass, Wendy Moten on backing vocals. Multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke and Roland Barber provide horns while Austin Hoke (cello) and Laura Epling (violin, viola) add strings. Guests include Bekka Bramlett (backing vocals on “Burn It Down”), Lee Roy Parnell (slide guitar on “Raisin’ Kane”), and Anson Funderburgh (guitar on “She Likes to Run”).
The album commences with “Mamarita,” a NOLA kind of tune written by Al Anderson, Pat McLaughlin and Shawn Camp. It‘s a bouncy, buoyant welcome to an album that’s a mix of originals, co-writes with McKendree, and well-chosen covers. “Big Trouble” has that pounding McKendree barrelhouse piano and horns as James in his original pays tribute to an underground Texas guitar great. His cover, “Ohoopee River Bottomland” has McKendree’s clavinet and keys setting a funky groove with Wendy Moten inserting those “oohs” at just the right moments as James tells the story in a kind of Tony Joe White “Polk Salad Annie” way. That funky style infuses the James-McKendree horn-driven “Getting’ It On” as well. James’ original “She Likes to Run” features the unmistakable guitar chops of fellow Texan, Anson Funderburgh. You’ll hear some Memphis soul in the single, “World Full of Strangers,” touching on reuniting with friends after a year apart.
The stomping “He Don’t Love You” (And He’ll Break Your Heart}” is a lesser-known Robbie Robertson Motown groove with more strong contributions from Moten on backgrounds. James tackles a couple of JJ Cale tunes, first the Lee Parnell guest spot in “Raisin Kane” and “Wish I Had Not Said,” imbued by backgrounds from James’ wife, Jessica Walker, is a ballad-like tune, and one of James’ best vocals with more Memphis and Muscle Shoals flourishes. “Pleasing Linda Lou:” is a co-write with Adam Hood, adding to the Ft. Worth folklore that brought us Delbert, The Vaughan Brothers, and Stephen Bruton. “Burn It Down” is a funky rouser, featuring James’ guitar lead and the harmonies of Bekka Bramlett.
James takes full songwriting credit for “Moonpies” although he had planned to finish writing it with McClinton. Another great vocal from James has him painting New Orleans character sketches. It has the kind of piano-based funk we associate with the late Dr. John, self-described by James as “…pretty bizarre, musically. It’s kind of half Howlin’ Wolf, half Burt Bacharach.” For the closer, “Real Bad Deal,” James throws a curve ball, only his emotive vocals backed by sparse drums and minimal piano and organ. It’s the only song he’s ever recorded without playing his guitar and somehow the extra space makes the delivery more potent.
Seth James delivers a well-conceived, flawlessly executed album that will appeal to fans of Delbert and just about anyone who appreciates high quality blues.
- Jim Hynes
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