Corey Harris: Greens from the Garden

Corey Harris
Greens from the Garden

PART OF A growing coterie of young, black blues musicians (Keb' Mo', Alvin Youngblood Hart) who eschew urban blues flash for the less fashionable subtlety of country blues, Bates College anthropology grad Corey Harris has made a record that feels like a breakthrough. Barely a month old, Harris's third album, Greens from the Garden, may be the first record since Robert Cray's 1986 masterpiece Strong Persuader to popularize a fresh, personal take on the genre. But if Cray's country-soul-based masterpiece was two steps from classic blues in the finest Bobby Bland tradition, Harris's music reaches for the roots of the Delta and rips them out by the stem.

Much like his obvious forebear Taj Mahal, Harris uses country blues as a takeoff point from which to explore almost the entirety of Pan-African musical expression. Caribbean and New Orleans influences are paramount, as in the New Orleans party music of "Eh La Bas" and the instrumental "Congo Square Rag," both of which employ horn sections, or the reggae of "Wild West." But Harris hardly stops there, taking country blues in even more adventurous directions: "Basehead" madly dances across an African musical continuum that runs from Delta blues to late-'60s James Brown to '80s hip hop. Pulling country blues into the present, the anti-crack song combines piercing guitar leads, gut-bucket rhythms, and James Brown-style background vocals. "You know you step on that crack/Black/You gonna break your back!" the chorus shouts, riffing on the Godfather. "Like Chuck D said, 'Bass, how low can you go? Death row...'" Harris yells, paying homage to Public Enemy. It's extraordinary, and he nearly tops it 15 tracks later with a sublime reggae version of the gospel standard "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."

Emphasizing composition and interaction, while forgoing macho, post-Clapton fantasies of competitive axmanship, Harris expands modern conceptions of the blues. Instead of wailing away on his guitar or dominating the record with some clichéd, blues-bustin' persona, Harris uses Greens from the Garden to showcase his skills as a bandleader, and to make a few musicological points. He spikes the addictive barrelhouse piano of "Honeysuckle" with a fiddle solo--a nod to century-old African-American folk styles. On the acoustic guitar ragtime cut "Nola Rag," he conjures Blind Willie McTell, and he tips his hat to Francophone Western Africa with "Pas Parlez."

Greens from the Garden is the latest brilliant variation on what has become a common late-'90s strategy--renovating a hallowed American idiom that might otherwise exist only as a museum showpiece. Harris's record is of a cloth with not only Cray's Persuader, but also Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, the Latin Playboys' Dose, and Billy Bragg and Wilco's Mermaid Avenue (which Harris played on). And with hip hop and R&B continuing to push toward the future and young black listeners turning away from the blues, Greens from the Garden's take on African-American roots music couldn't come at a better time.

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