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Willie Farmer Keeps the Blues Running Like a V8 Ford


From the first few notes of the lead track, "Feel So Bad," you know everything you need to about Willie Farmer's 2019 release, The Man From the Hill (Big Legal Mess). The first epiphany comes from the guitar tone. Farmer's amp exudes a wonderful crud, a dirty squawk that seems to boil up out of the ground itself, like crude. After a few volleys of on the strings to clear the air and put your mind in the zone, George Sluppick's rock-solid drumming kicks in and we're off, journeying through an album marked by the pitch-perfect, no nonsense production we've come to expect from Big Legal Mess.

People talk about garage rock a lot (too much?) these days, but this is true garage blues. That's not to suggest it's especially frenetic. Rather, from the tone alone, you can feel in your bones the scene of Farmer's auto repair shop in Duck Hill, Mississippi. And Farmer's playing also conveys both the rough hewn strength and the sensitivity one develops from growing up on a farm.
  • Aaron Greenhood
  • Willie Farmer
And that same sensitivity comes through in Farmer's singing. It has echoes of his heroes, whom he first heard playing on WLAC out of Nashville as a youngster.  "That’s how I listened to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf," he has said. "That’s how I got my first album by Lightnin’ [the Fire Records LP Mojo Hand]. I got the address off the radio and they sent it.”

And yet Farmer's voice has a vulnerability to it that marks it as his own. Yes, he has the bold, declarative howls of the bluesman, but it's tempered with a plaintive catch that lends layers of meaning to every word he sings. His playing, too, is distinctive, with stronger echoes of the North Mississippi hill country than his influences would suggest. And his lyrics have an extra bite that undercut any blues cliches you may feel you've heard by now. As the funky "Fist Full of Dollars" kicks in, truly sounding like garage rock indeed, he seems to brag, "I've got a fist full of dollars." But then he adds. "It just won't do. I need real money! To see my way through..." Any musician or crafts-person working a trade will know exactly what he's talking about.

There are some sonic surprises as well. "Fist Full of Dollars" is rounded out with matching harmonies from Liz Brasher, and the gentle, loping shuffle of "At the Meeting" is fleshed out with the harmonies of the Sensational Barnes Brothers, who take you straight to church like some lost track from the early Staple Singers.

To give away any more surprises would verge on dropping spoilers. Suffice it to say that this album is the perfect foil to the overproduced tracks of every genre that seem to flood the airwaves today. Take a break from all that, get yourself in a jalopy, and drive it on down to Willie Farmer's garage.

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