critic’s pick 275 : the kentucky headhunters and johnnie johnson, ‘meet me in bluesland’

ky headhunters + jjThe release of Meet Me in Bluesland is akin to the surfacing of sunken treasure. The second recorded collaboration between the pride of Metcalfe County, the Kentucky HeadHunters, and veteran Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson, the recording was cut in three days but shelved for 12 years. It has finally surfaced to further fortify the legacy of both acts.

The story behind Meet Me in Bluesland goes likes this. Johnson was just shy of 80 when he jammed with the Rolling Stones (on Honky Tonk Women, no less) at Houston’s Reliant Stadium in January 2003. Then he caught a flight to Glasgow to join the HeadHunters on their home turf. There were never concrete plans to release the recording sessions that resulted as an album. Even after Johnson’s death in 2005, the music remained unissued.

Given how joyous Johnson and the band sounded on their first album together, 1993’s That’ll Work, sheltering the recorded possibility of a follow-up is tough to fathom. Now that we hear the results of those sessions on Meet Me in Bluesland, the record’s late arrival seems indefensible.

That Johnson sounds so vibrant on these tracks – 10 collaborative originals along with a deliriously fun cover of the Berry classic Little Queenie – is hardly a surprise. Though public recognition of Johnson’s sublime boogie woogie playing came very late in his life and career, he plays with the HeadHunters like a bonafide star by blasting out of the starting guide with the giddy but self-effacing Stumblin’ (“let’s go stumblin’ ‘cause you know we can’t dance”). The fun doesn’t subside until the sly slide groove of Superman Blues brings the record to a close 43 minutes later.

The song also underscores the HeadHunters own musical ammo – specifically, the Southern soul-soaked playing of guitarist Greg Martin. Even on the HeadHunters’ more country leaning albums, Martin’s playing has always been a rootsy anchor. Here, even more than on That’ll Work, he sounds like a player unleashed, from his Elmore James via Duane Allman runs on Walking with the Wolf to the chunky, summery groove he establishes on Sometime.

But Meet Me in Bluesland is ultimately Johnson’s party. His relaxed yet still rollicking piano accents color the whole album, especially the cheery rumbles he adds to Fast Train, that sound straight out of the Berry staple Memphis, and his extended solo during Little Queenie that the Stones would have killed for when they recorded it decades ago.

The killer though, is She’s Got to Have It, a lean saga of romantic immediacy that includes Johnson’s last recorded vocal performance. It’s a sagely compliment to one of the year’s most welcome root-rock archival finds.

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