Avalon Sunrise

Legendary songsmith Mississippi John Hurt receives loving tribute on Avalon Blues

"Tribute albums in general are a tricky prospect," says Alvin, who himself co-produced the splendid 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Tulare Dust. "Often, you get the feeling that there was no care given to whether the performers were influenced by, or even liked, the subject of the record. It's just, 'Who can we get to play on this record?'

"But more than that, when Peter called me I thought, 'Well, how the hell do you do a song better than Mississippi John Hurt?' And the answer is, you don't. Some songwriters don't perform the 'definitive' version of their songs; you get the feeling that there are other possibilities in the music. But Hurt's songs are fairly complete in their composition and in his performance style, so at first I was a little bit hesitant."

When Alvin and Case went into the studio to perform "Monday Morning Blues," however, his fears were dispelled. "That's when I understood what Peter was after. There's a real attention to Hurt's spirit that runs through the record. Some of those people blew me away; I'd done shows with Ben Harper, but I had no idea he could finger-pick like that. His version of 'Sliding Delta' is damn near note-for-note. And even somebody like Gillian Welch, who I don't really see as being directly influenced by Hurt's playing, took that song [the spiritual "Beulah Land"] to another place. Not in a bad way," he says quickly, "in a really careful and loving way."

His only personal disappointment, Alvin admits with tongue firmly in cheek, is that Lucinda Williams got a song he really wanted to do. Williams turns in a devastating performance of Hurt's heartbreaking "The Angels Laid Him Away."

"Oh, man, Lucinda got the cherry," he says. "There's no question about it."

Case, in the meantime, was pressing on with increased assistance from the assembled crew, and from other interested performers who'd gotten wind of the record.

"After I got a little bit into the project," he says, "people started calling me up. In some cases I wasn't really familiar with what the connection was. Like with Bruce Cockburn, I had no idea how big a fan he was, but I was amazed by his track ["Avalon, My Home Town"]. It's an incredible performance, which was why we put it right up near the front of the album. Or John Hiatt's ["I'm Satisfied"]; John's been a friend for a long time, but I had no idea how important Hurt was to John's music. I feel like in a way he did the closest sound-wise to Hurt's own style, on the whole record.

"Victoria Williams' song [a highly stylized rendition of "Since I've Laid My Burden Down," featuring wah-wah banjo, no less] was the farthest away anybody got, sound-wise. But even so, it's still very close spiritually to Hurt's music. Victoria knows a lot about gospel and blues, of course, and she's taken that song to quite a different place. It's one of my favorite tracks on the album.

"I knew Beck was into Mississippi John Hurt from an interview I'd read, so we called him. And we had to get Taj [Mahal] on it. Alvin Youngblood Hart is a big fan, obviously; he's done amazing interpretations of old blues material, old Skip James and so on, and I really love his take on 'Here Am I.'"

Despite the unassailable credentials of the gathered performers, Hurt's unique and complex contribution to American music would have been a daunting shadow for any producer to work under. But Case, in particular, was entering personally uncharted waters.

"You never know how things are going to come together," he says. "I'd never done anything like this before. I don't know if I'll do it again, man. It's a lot of work. I'm a singer and songwriter, not really a producer. But the first cut that came in was Chris Smithers' 'Frankie and Albert,' and when he sent in that one, I loved it so much it gave me the confidence to go ahead. It was really fresh, but it was true to John Hurt's style."

That's a description that applies evenly to all the performances on Avalon Blues, which is that rare "tribute album" that delivers the goods from start to finish. Unconventionally relying not on star power or stylistic modernizing, but on the strength of good songs carefully performed, Avalon Blues delivers a double blessing. Firstly, it accurately represents Hurt's diverse catalog by presenting familiar tunes (Beck doing a near-classicist version of "Stagolee") alongside lesser-known ones (Ben Harper's whispering "Sliding Delta"), gospel songs (Alvin Youngblood Hart's joyful "Here Am I, Oh Lord, Send Me") beside sexy blues numbers (Steve and Justin Earle's salacious "Candy Man"). Secondly, and equally as importantly, it treats each performance with a minimal production touch, allowing the beauty of each composition to emerge on its own.

"The real test," says Case, "was when I went to sequence it. That was the moment of truth. To me, it really sounds like one evening, where a lot of people sit around and pass a guitar. There's the feel of a late-night session and you're hearing people do different things, but with a single purpose in mind. Which is appropriate, because the extraordinary thing about John Hurt, besides the music, was his personality, his unique spirit. I think this album really tries to capture his love and his gentleness and his humor."

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