God Knows I Tried
Fat Possum/Epitaph 80320-2
The spate of American music deaths in 1998 left me feeling that this might be the end of the world as we know, and I didn't feel fine. But I don't think any hit me like the death of Junior Kimbrough, who I've been missing intensely ever since. Perhaps it's because the 67-year-old Kimbrough began recording so late in life, and thus has relatively little music out there on compact disc to begin with, but I've always felt he left us way too soon.
From the field-holler vocals of "You're Gonna Find Your Mistake" to the instrumental journey through the pitch-black "All Night Long," God Knows I Tried stalks out of the heart of the Mississippi highlands to prove it. What's really remarkable is that most of the sides on Junior's first posthumous release are from sessions that coincide with earlier albums, meaning that in one way or another they are leftovers, outtakes. Yet the album can hold its own against most of the previously-released material.
Junior's blues, which I think are best described as Afrodelic, serve up incantations in which trance and groove become one and the same, with the rhythm section answering his guitar and vocal jabs like tribal percussionists. His rhythmic guitar seems to be meandering all over the place, like a man with too much corn whiskey in him or a man who's been working too long out in the Mississippi sun, but his lines always turn out to be precise and deliberate. The stop-and-go of "How Do You Feel," the jagged edges of "I Gotta Try You Girl," the way solos rise out of "Keep on Braggin' " to bark and bite, or out of "Tramp" to talk and squawk, these are all Junior at his most conversational. And, frequently, his most demonic - Kimbrough's blues don't so much talk back to the devil as put him out of a job.
Kimbrough was in a class of his own, with a sound as distinct as anyone in blues ever created. The closest thing I can compare it to is John Lee Hooker in his freewheeling, improvisatory, early days, but the comparison has more to do with minimalist intensity than with the actual styles the two men forged. I hope there's more Junior where this came from, and I hope it measures up to his impressive legacy. But the shortness of this set makes me think that may be asking too much, so get 'em while you can.
- John Morthland