It’s been a while since I heard a Paul Cowley album, so it was a real pleasure to receive a copy of Stroll Out West, his new album due for release in February 2023. Paul Cowley is my kind of blues player: respecting his sources but not a slavish copyist, a guitar stylist whose accompaniment serves the song rather than vice versa, owner of a vocal style that combines country blues feel with a slightly Mark Knopfler-ish folk sensibility, and a writer of songs that sit very comfortably in the company of the classic blues tracks on this album. Paul’s guitar, slide guitar and vocals are augmented on many tracks by Pascal Ferrari on various instruments including bass, percussion and electric guitar.
Here’s the track list.
- ‘My Kinda Girl’ (Cowley) is an easy-going, easy on the ear 12-bar, underpinned by a walking bass line and light percussion, with some tasty guitar fills.
- Dropped D tuning gives ‘On My Way’ (Cowley) a more modal but no less bluesy feel, with unobtrusively layered guitars. I might be tempted to learn this one myself.
- ‘Nosey’ (Cowley) has a sprightly old-timey feel that reminded me a little of Fiddlin’ John Carson or Charlie Poole. Nice.
- ‘World Gone Crazy’ (Cowley) is a long meditation on “mankind’s continued sleepwalk into its own demise!” Not as depressing as it sounds, and in any case no one said that a blues song couldn’t address contemporary issues.
- ‘Special Rider Blues’ – while this is recognizably the Skip James classic, Paul puts his own stamp on it by taking it much lower (both on guitar and vocal, breaking up the rhythm and inserting some slide. It’s a very effective interpretation.
- ‘Tracks Of My Tears’, Smokey Robinson’s song for the Miracles (co-credited to fellow band-members Marv Taplin and Warren “Pete” Moore), is a surprising but not unwelcome addition to the track list, even if, as Paul says, it “stretches the credibility of a bluesman”. It really works rather well this way, and after all, no one complained when Buddy Guy recorded ‘Money’…
- ‘Songs Of Love’ (Cowley) picks up the pace and the mood nicely. Since Paul credits Jim Crawford as having inspired this song, it seems appropriate to link below to a live performance by the two of them together.
- ‘Life Is Short’ is another of Paul’s songs, a gentle, sensitive reminder of “just how fleeting and precious life is.”
- ‘Stagerlee’ – also known by the names ‘Stagolee’, ‘Stack Lee’ and other variations, is based on a real killing in St. Louis in 1895. Paul’s version is essentially his arrangement of a version recorded by Mississippi John Hurt: he takes it a little slower and sparser than Hurt’s 1928 recording, with a more consistent alternating bass, but all that does this version no harm at all. In fact, his vocal here is quite reminiscent of Hurt’s characteristically smooth vocalizing, perhaps with more light and shade. While I’ve always sung a quite different version learned from a 60s recording by John the Fish (whom we lost just a few days before I received this album, sadly), I’m very glad to have come across this version again. Nice job, Paul.
- ‘Whatever It Takes’ is the last of Paul’s songs on this album: Pascal Ferrari’s bass and square-on-the-beat percussion give this a little of the feel of early Chicago blues, which is fine by me.
- ‘Catfish Blues’ – while little known of Robert Petway, his seminal version of this song provides the title for this album. While this version preserves some of the hypnotically repetitive guitar feel of Petway’s recording, slide and a hint of electric guitar give it more of the ambience of the Muddy Waters classic ‘Rollin’ Stone’, actually derived from ‘Catfish Blues’. I could cheerfully hear more in this vein.
- ‘Preachin’ Blues’ (also known as ‘Up Jumped The Devil’) apparently nearly didn’t make the album. I’m glad it did, not only because Paul certainly does it justice, but also because there just aren’t enough versions of Robert Johnson’s songs enough in the world, and the eerie lyric of this one deserves to be heard.
Once again, Paul Cowley has dipped into the waters of the Mississippi and emerged with a satisfying blend of classic country blues and his own songs that is uniquely his own.
Artist’s website: www.paulcowleymusic.com/
‘Stagger Lee’ – live:
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