Jorma Kaukonen

Blue Country Heart (Columbia)

On Blue Country Heart, Hot Tuna guitarist Jorma Kaukonen goes country, singing heartfelt versions of songs by Garth Brooks, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw. Guest vocalists include Martina McBride and Faith Hill, who help Kaukonen shed his blues-steeped image.

Just kidding. Sure, Blue Country Heart was recorded in Nashville, but that's about the only thing it has in common with contemporary country music. The disc's 13 songs all date from the '20s and '30s, when white hillbilly singers like Jimmie Rodgers, heavily influenced by black blues players, were defining what would come to be known as country music. Kaukonen, who in his pre-Jefferson Airplane days fell in love with the music of Piedmont blues master the Reverend Gary Davis, is right at home with Blue Country Heart's old-time country material. If you remember Hot Tuna's 1972 FM radio hit "Keep On Truckin'," you have a good idea of what the album sounds like.

Accompanied by some of Nashville's finest musicians — mandolinist Sam Bush, dobroist Jerry Douglas, bassist Byron House and banjoist Béla Fleck — Kaukonen strolls through such ancient numbers as the Delmore Brothers' "Blue Railroad Train" and "Blues Stay Away From Me," Jimmy Davis' "Red River Blues," and Rodgers' "Waiting for a Train" and "You and My Old Guitar." Kaukonen saves the best for last: Washington Phillips' "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today," a haunting Ry Cooder-esque spiritual.

As usual, Kaukonen's guitar playing (on a 1936 Gibson Advanced Jumbo acoustic model, we're told) is superb — his thumb bounces effortlessly from one bass string to another while his fingers pick out intricate melodies on the treble strings. His nasally voice has softened over the years into a more expressive — and more interesting — instrument. (Listen to his pleasantly relaxed take of "Tom Cat Blues," a bawdy number by the now virtually forgotten Cliff Carlisle.)

Maybe Kaukonen can be accused of jumping on the O Brother bandwagon, but whatever his motivation for recording Blue Country Heart, the result is delightful.

 
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