Whoever told James Byfield that Blind Lemon Pledge was a great stage name probably didn’t do him any favours. Despite the handicap Lemon, if I may be so familiar, became a feted blues player but with his sixth album, Backwoods Glance, his attention has turned to the wider field of Americana to produce what is probably his best record yet.
At first hearing you’d take these songs for traditional and then you realise that very few traditional songs have a middle eight. These are all original songs but James has captured the varied tones of old American music perfectly. He opens with a blues, ‘Polly Come Out’, featuring Tom Cline’s Dobro as many of these tracks do. He follows that with ‘The Hills Of West Virginia’, not the Phil Ochs song, but a lament about the lost mining industry. He takes a back seat for ‘Sisters Of The Coal Mine’, playing guitar and harmonica while Marisa Malvino takes the lead vocals. James wrote it with Marisa in mind as part of a cycle of songs about the southern Appalachian mining industry. This is a complex story of a strike and a mine disaster followed by a rebellion by the womenfolk.
‘Moon Over Memphis’ is a romantic ballad but James quickly returns to the plight of the working man with ‘Lynchburg Town’. He says that ‘Fayetteville’, another mining song, is the heart of the album. It has a decided Dylanish feel but I’m inclined to say that Bob never quite reached the reality of this song which features a lovely violin part by Cal Keaoola. It’s not all gloom, however. ‘Silver Wings’ is a song of enduring optimism and dreams of stardom; ‘Sweet Celine’ is a happy song in 12-bar format and ‘Ma Belle Cherie’ strays into the bayou with more fiddle and Dobro.
The slow, gospel groove of ‘Give My Poor Heart Ease’ brings to a satisfying close an album of authentic modern Americana. It’s available to stream in the UK at the moment but I’d like to think it will get a physical release before too long.
Artist’s website: http://blindlemon-pledge.com/
‘Fayetteville’ – official video: