Nathan James & The Rhythm Scratchers

Nathan James & The Rhythm Scratchers
What You Make Of It

Delta Groove

By Tony Del Rey
May 2012

In keeping with the genre’s inherent anathema to current trends and commercial tastes, most working blues professionals prefer the challenge of reliving a particular style or era from the blues’ long and storied past than break new ground. Had guitar picker and washboard specialist Nathan James taken a similar tack with his release of What You Make Of It, he might have steered a more predictable course.

Instead, James navigates the entire span of early-to-mid 20th century blues by tracing its major currents in chronological order beginning with hill country hollers and rags of the 1920s and 30s, continuing up through 1940s-era juke joint raves and 1950s-tinged electric blues before veering off into 60s soul and R&B.

Comprised largely of originals penned by James in homage to the various periods he chronicles, the material is performed using hand-built gear such as the percussive-sounding “Tri-Tar” guitar and something called a “Washtar Guitboard,” a hybrid instrument that allows James the dexterity of playing both guitar and washboard at the same time. These DIY innovations lend a dash of authenticity to James’ well-intentioned musical retrospectives. Unfortunately they pale in comparison to the trio of recherché song classics included in the album’s set list.

Hokum-styled bluesman Blind Boy Fuller’s old-time country rag, “Black Snakin’ Jiver,” Chess recording artist Jimmy McCracklin’s smoldering 1961 B-side, “Later On,” and Dallas-based songwriter Bobby Patterson’s R&B tour de force, “I’m A Slave To You,” are without peer. These are the progenitors from which everything else on the album derives. Only James’ nod to Memphis soul, “First And The Most,” comes even remotely close to matching these in terms of substance, proving once again that a first-rate musician does not a great songwriter make.

Whether What You Make Of It’s circuitous journey satisfies a demand for simple variety or serves as merely a demonstration of James’ expertise as a music archivist is very much open for debate. Only one thing is for certain: They sure don’t write ‘em like they used to.

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