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If by that list Case refers to Hurt's sly merging of the sacred and the secular, the performances here -- by turns rascally and rowdy, then somber, then rejoicing and grateful -- are an across-the-board success.
"[Hurt's music] kind of reminds me of what Prince does," says Case, suddenly laughing at a comparison he seems surprised to hear, even from himself. "There's the Dirty Mind and then there's God. But I've always felt like those were two parts of the same thing. Many years ago, people tried to divide it up: 'You either play blues or you play gospel.' But John Hurt played everything. It's all part of the same life."
Dave Alvin concurs. "A lot of those Mississippi singers, like Charlie Patton and Son House and so forth, came from deep in the Delta, which was a very violent place, and that violence fed into their performing style. John Hurt came from Avalon, which was somewhat on the rim of the Delta and wasn't quite as vicious, and that fed into his style. It's funny. People can listen to John Hurt sing a song about murder and sadness, and they'll say 'Oh, what a lovely song, what a pretty song.' He'll sing about the same things that Patton and Son House sang about, but it's almost like the Buddhist idea, 'Life is suffering: Accept the suffering.' Where other people would sing about those things in a violent and angry way, there's the feeling that Hurt had accepted the pain, and he was going to tell you about it, but in such a way that he almost slipped it in on you."
In a way, Avalon Blues is the thank-you that Case, and a full compliment of contemporary players, never got to deliver in person.
"I never knew John Hurt," Case says almost wistfully. "I got into him only in the years after he died. But as I did the record I got to know people that did know him -- Geoff Muldaur and those guys, Taj [Mahal], Chris Smither -- they all knew John. It's amazing how many people learned how to finger-pick off his old records. His playing was so careful and precise. Taj said to me at one point that a lot of those Mississippi guys from Hurt's generation really whacked their guitars; that was the big style. But Hurt played his guitar more like a kora [a harp-like African instrument, made from a calabash gourd], and he was a storyteller as well. He's got a wit and an edge, but he was also gentle and loving, and there's this amazing kind of groove that it all flows into.
"I didn't really know whether we were going to have an album that people could play all the way through until the whole thing got sequenced, but after I heard it I thought, man, this sounds like a single night of music.
"It reminds me of some of the records I grew up on as a kid. One of those old records where you put it on, and this whole other world just opens up."
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