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The Classic Years 1927-1940
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  • There are some box sets that seem like overkill, beyond the pale for all but the very most hardcore fans, and others -- a little more obvious in their justification -- that never achieve much currency beyond the ranks of the serious fans and as easy Christmas ideas for their relatives. And then there are the ones that, based on the sheer credibility of the artists involved -- Eric Clapton, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra -- become practically standard-issue for any serious music listener; you expect to find at least one, and more likely two of them on a lot of shelves. The Classic Years 1927-1940 ought to fit into the latter category, despite the fact that Blind Willie McTell never had a hit record in a recording career lasting nearly 30 years -- he also didn't make Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest guitarists of the twentieth century, even though he could play circles about three-fourths of those who did. Some music and musicians just speak too well for themselves and their genre and style, and in this case all 84 cuts have value, and a lot more value than JSP Records is asking in its retail price. From McTell's earliest session, in October 1927 to his November 1940 session for John Lomax, he is superbly represented here by his voice, guitar, and songs, and unlike many comprehensive compilations of pre-World War II blues, there are no apologies needed for the quality of most of the sources or the resulting tracks. However it happened, JSP has assembled a series of generally superbly clean and bright masters (with some exceptions, especially in the mid-'30s sides, some of which have surface noise) going back to the late '20s, which, in their current digital state, showcase McTell's dazzling finger-picking style on the 12-string guitar. Listeners will swear there's more than one guitarist playing, but there isn't on the early sides, and what he gets out of the one guitar makes it sound almost like a trio, covering rhythm as well as lead parts, but without any feeling of artifice. And when he gets teamed up with fellow blues virtuoso Curley Weaver (who also escaped Rolling Stones' net) in the 1930s, it's a collaboration between two geniuses that can spin your head if you listen closely enough to the playing. Coupled with the tracks on which Ruth Mary Willis sings or shares vocals with McTell, there's more than enough variety here to make this entertaining for 30 minutes or three hours at a sitting. Concerning the 1940 Lomax session masters, they have some moderate noise, but they're so well recorded otherwise and so valuable as musical documents and historical artifacts that the slight distraction can be ignored. These sides went unreleased for decades and slot perfectly into the period between McTell's final commercial recordings as a contemporary country blues artist during the era of the last commercial gasp of acoustic country blues and his re-emergence after World War II as a representative of a now-archaic style of blues. What's more, Lomax got McTell to talk as well as play for his microphone. The annotation is very thorough and the mere fact that this set pulls together all of McTell's various sides for Victor, Columbia, and others makes it essential listening for his fans or admirers of 1930s acoustic blues. ~ Bruce Eder
Professional Reviews
Mojo (Publisher) (7/03, p.112) - 4 stars out of 5 - "McTell was one of the very great bluesmen, his music plaintive, robust and always singular..."
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