This is the story of one of the most remarkable and resilient men in American music, the legendary bluesman CeDell Davis. At 90 years of age he has made the definitive album of his career, Even The Devil Gets The Blues, which just goes to show that some forms of music only get better with the passage of time. It's the culmination of a life's work, a collection of CeDell's best original songs, delta classics, and spoken-word stories from a career that began in the 1930s on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi Delta and continues to this day. Although the process started in the Mississippi Delta several decades ago, this newest album found its origins in Seattle, Washington in the great Pacific Northwest.
Like the Mississippi Delta, Seattle has its roots in a working-class culture that found its musical voice in the garage/indie rock explosion of the 1990s. But Seattle's musical legacy goes back much further, to the early 1920s, when a thriving blues and jazz scene flourished in downtown Seattle. That bluesy, working class ethos is still apparent today, which is why I, as the drummer and producer of this album, decided that Seattle would be the ideal city to make CeDell's newest album.
I used to be the drummer for Seattle's own Screaming Trees and the super group Mad Season, so I asked some of my rock & roll friends to help us make this album. I asked friends like Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, REM guitarist Scott McCaughey, Screaming Trees bassist Van Conner, Arkansas bluesmen Greg and Zakk Binns and Johnny Stephens, Seattle guitarist and vocalist Ayron Jones, vocalist Annie Jantzer, saxophonist Skerik, trumpeter Dave Carter, upright bassist Evan Flory-Barnes, and bassist Deandre Enrico. The idea was to bring these rock, jazz, and blues luminaries together in Seattle to pay tribute to the roots of their respective musical forms. And also, perhaps, to give everyone a history lesson in life from CeDell Davis.
Born in 1926 in Helena, Arkansas, Ellis "CeDell" Davis first learned to play guitar in 1936 at the age of 10. He had just battled yellow fever, followed by a crippling bout of polio, which severely handicapped his hands making guitar chords nearly impossible for the young man. Fashioning a slide out of his mother's butter knife, CeDell became the unwitting inventor of "butter knife slide", a technique imitated by many others, but for CeDell it was invented out of necessity. A rising young star in the delta music scene of the 1940s and 50s, CeDell was snatched up by legendary bluesman Robert Nighthawk to become his right hand man, and the two went on to perform and record for a decade together in the 1950s. After a barroom stampede in which CeDell was nearly trampled to death, he spent a year recuperating from his injuries before returning to make several albums for various blues labels around the world. In the 1990s, he made a series of excellent recordings for the Fat Possum label, where he was hailed by New York Times pop music critic Robert Palmer as the greatest hardcore vocalist of his generation.
In 2001, I was introduced to CeDell, along with my friends Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey of REM. This new band line up, along with producer Joe Cripps and keyboardist Alex Veley, made the excellent album When Lightning Struck The Pine (2002). But in 2005 CeDell suffered a stroke, which forced him to stop performing altogether for several years. That is, until he was found in an Arkansas nursing home by bluesmen Greg & Zakk Binns, who started working with CeDell and getting him to sing again. This resuscitated his career to the degree that they were able to do two European tours and play blues festivals in the American South once again. CeDell's legendary slide playing was gone as a result of the stroke, but this has allowed CeDell to focus on just his voice, while his backing musicians provide the music.
In 2014, CeDell and the Binns recruited me and producer Jimbo Mathus to help make another album for CeDell, and this became the critically acclaimed comeback album, Last Man Standing (2015). This brings us up to the present with Even The Devil Gets The Blues, the most realized album in CeDell's very long and storied career.
The album starts with the sexually charged double entendre Play With Your Poodle, followed by a spoken word story about the first guitar CeDell ever bought - a Silvertone from the Sears Roebuck catalog that cost $2.50. Another spoken word story tells the tale of Crap House Bea, the woman who allegedly poisoned Robert Johnson, and who also watched CeDell's debut performance in Helena, Arkansas. This is followed by CeDell's best-known song, She's Got The Devil In Her, featuring a vocal duet with rising Seattle son, Ayron Jones. The album contains other CeDell originals, such as the rhumba-infused Love Blues and the haunting Got To Be Moving On, both of which feature guest vocalist Annie Janzter and guitarist Mike McCready. Switching between traditionally acoustic instrumentation and full-on electrified blues, the album also includes delta classics such as Can't Be Satisfied, Dust My Broom, Cold Chills, and Catfish Blues, as well as a down and dirty version of Kansas City. The album begins to close with another original, the hilarious Grandma Grandpa featuring a vocal duet with REM's Scott McCaughey, and then another spoken word story with advice on how to live a full life. The album finishes with a rollicking and ferocious version of the blues classic, Rollin' And Tumblin', which features guitar solos from all three guest guitarists.
These songs and this remarkable story are also the foundation of a feature length documentary film also titled, Even The Devil Gets The Blues. Presented by award winning director Tad Fettig and producers Kelly Nyks, Barrett Martin, and Valda Witt, the film is a living history lesson from a blues master who has literally seen and done it all. From his early years making music in the segregated South, to the invention of rock & roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the invention of the Internet, and making music with some of the best rock, jazz, and blues musicians of this era, CeDell Davis has, in almost a century of music, truly lived his life to the fullest.
All of us who helped make this album and film hope you enjoy the musical journey as much as we did. And at the heart of it all is one of the greatest bluesmen the Mississippi Delta has ever produced, CeDell Davis, the toughest man I ever met, and truly the last man standing.
Summer of 2016
*CeDell Davis plays his album release show on October 20th, 2016 at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, New York City. A screening of his film, a Q & A with Mr. Davis, and a raucous set of delta blues from his live band will take place that evening. Details at https://nationalsawdust.org