Tuesday, June 25, 2024
HomeMusicReview – Swamp Dogg’s “Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th St.”

Review – Swamp Dogg’s “Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th St.”

Yes, yes, and yes. Finally we have a Swamp Dogg album that fits in the country music world. It’s bluegrass. It’s “blackgrass” if you will. And it’s also decidedly a Swamp Dogg album, which means it’s all served with ample offbeat weirdness and unexpected turns that make the Swamp Dogg experience so undomesticated and entertaining.

For many years now, those who’ve known about the wild world of Swamp Dogg beyond his iconically weird album covers have known that a country or roots record was inside of him just waiting to come out. Originally from Portsmouth, Virginia, the cult R&B legend famously wrote Johnny Paycheck’s “She’s All I Got,” which hit #2 on the charts and became Paycheck’s big breakout hit.

In 2020, Swamp Dogg released the album Sorry You Couldn’t Make It that was recorded at the Sound Emporium in Nashville and touted as his big “country album.” But it wasn’t really that at all. Except for fiddle on one track and some slide guitar here and there, it was basically just another Swamp Dogg album, which wasn’t necessarily bad (except the terrible drum loops), but it was more of a marketing scheme to call it “country.”

But this is a no joke bluegrass album. If you’re going to make an actual bluegrass album, you need actual bluegrass musicians, and that exactly who Swamp Dogg employed. Titans of the subgenre such as Noam Pikelny, Sierra Hull, and Jerry Douglas contributed to Blackgrass, as did country greats with bluegrass chops such as Chris Scruggs, Billy Contreras, and “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan.

It’s also not just electric Swamp Dogg songs done acoustic style like Willie Nelson’s bluegrass album from last year turned out to be. When you hear the opening song “Mess Under That Dress,” you know immediately this is bluegrass, and that it’s also Swamp Dogg from the unabashed humor. The majority of the album’s 12 tracks are straight up bluegrass, and even genre purists would not quibble with that assessment.

There are some curve balls thrown in here too, which you expect from a Swamp Dogg record. “Gotta Have My Baby Back” originally by Floyd Tillman gives off a sort of ’40s country jazz vibe, as does Swamp Dogg’s ode to the relationship hall pass, “Have A Good Time.” They’re like something Willie Nelson would record retroactively. “Count The Days” with guest singer Jenny Lewis sounds more like an R&B-based Swamp Dogg song with bluegrass instrumentation, but this is what makes it “blackgrass.”

But when you get to “Your Best Friend” with Jerry Douglas going crazy on the dobro, it sounds no different than most any contemporary bluegrass off the shelf … until Swamp Dogg shows up to put his signature stamp on it. The song “Rise Up” is a straight bluegrass cooker until Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid comes in and lays some crunchy, overdriven electric guitar straight from “Cult of Personality” on top of it all.

Swamp Dogg once stated, “If you strip my tracks, take away all the horns and guitar licks, what you have is a country song.” If you’ve listened to some of his music, you would probably agree. This is perfectly illustrated by his song “To The Other Woman” sung here by Margo Price, and originally recorded by Doris Duke.

Even though Swamp Dogg relinquishes lead singer duties on a couple of these tracks, his voice sounds outright angelic for 81. It’s almost astounding, especially when you consider the hard living Swamp Dogg has probably done over the years in the process of writing some of his songs. And the writing here is consistently top notch as well, including the injections of hilarity signature to Swamp Dogg. Sure, he pulled some material from his back catalog, but the treatments are all new, and in a bluegrass/acoustic country style.

And even though this is Swamp Dogg’s bluegrass album officially, there are definitely some moments that feel just as much country, like with the final song, the foreboding and dark “Murder Ballad.” Perhaps it’s fair to consider Blackgrass Swamg Dogg’s country album too, for now. But after hearing the results of Blackgrass, you hope he does something similar with electric country instrumentation in the future.

As a country fan, you might feel a little frustrated when you hear that someone from outside the genre is making a country or bluegrass album, either because it feels disingenuous, or when you actually listen, there’s little or no country or bluegrass to be found, just the “essence” of these genres.

But here, Swamp Dogg delivers. And in tracks like “Songs To Sing” and “Murder Ballad,” he puts his experience as a Black man in America into making Blackgrass something unique to Swamp Dogg, reverent to the bluegrass discipline, but just irreverent enough to keep it fun.


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