march 2011

tracy nelson
Tracy Nelson: The years have also brought her closer to the real-life experiences she observed from afar as a younger woman, making, in some cases, the pain in her stentorian grievances all the more palpable, along with an undaunted resiliency limning her cries.

Nothing Less Than The Truth

By David McGee

Tracy Nelson
Delta Groove Music

Since emerging on the national scene with the beloved Mother Earth in the mid-‘60s, Tracy Nelson has made a few detours into country, but it’s hard to keep a good blues woman down, and sure enough, even her country records are informed by the blues, which is what she was doing when she cut her debut album for Prestige in 1964, with Charlie Musselwhite in her backing band. Recording fairly steadily since the ‘90s, she’s never made a bad record. Victim of the Blues, though, is a highwater mark for this beloved roots artist, as she uses the occasion to revisit some blues fundamentals in song. In doing so she proves that (a) time has enriched her voice and (b) experience has deepened her emotional investment in this material. Victim of the Blues exudes life, sounds lived and lived in, and makes of the heart a home.

Age has deepened Nelson’s voice, but hasn’t robbed it of its warmth or richness. The years have also brought her closer to the real-life experiences she observed from afar as a younger woman, making, in some cases, the pain in her stentorian grievances all the more palpable, along with an undaunted resiliency limning her cries. In a slow, tortured blues, such as Muddy Waters’s “One More Mile,” she sounds weary but undefeated (a mindset Mike Henderson’s spiky, spitfire guitar solo complements to the hilt), as she looks ahead to a homecoming reunion with her lover. It’s far from the only time on the album when she anticipates the sun shining through her back door some day. “Weary but undefeated” also describes the backstory of Victim of the Blues. Last year the century-old farmhouse she was living in with her longtime partner Mike Dysinger burned down. The only thing that was left standing was her studio and its contents, which included this album. As horrific a personal catastrophe as the fire was for Nelson, there is something providential in this album being saved, seeing as how it contains some of her finest recorded performances.

She’s not messing around here. The songs are from blues and R&B giants--Muddy, Willie Dixon, Ma Rainey (naturally), Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Joe Tex; contemporary bluesman Earl Thomas contributes the shimmering beauty “Lead a Horse To Water” that is nothing less than Nelson’s personal code in song, as she emphasizes in her authoritative delivery of lyrics such as “I never said that I know it all/but I’m wise beyond my years/I paid attention in case I didn’t mention/I never lived my life in fear/I never said I been everywhere, but I sure enough been around/My mother didn’t say life would be fair/she said what goes up must come down.” Set to a slinky R&B groove, the song also features a powerhouse vocal group shadowing Nelson--John Cowan, Reba Russell, Terry Tucker, Vicki Carrico, James “Nick” Nixon--and adding a southern gospel flair to the singer’s unflinching testimony. Danny Small penned the album closing benediction, “Without Love (There Is Nothing),” an Irma Thomas classic given a stately but soaring arrangement straight out of the church, and Nelson, with lacerating self-recrimination, belts out its story of learning about the sustaining power of real love the hard way, after throwing it away for material gain.

Inspired to sing the blues in her youth by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Nelson has made it a point to cover one or the other on her albums. Herein she offers a swaggering, thumping rendition of the album’s Rainey-penned title track, the vibrato in her voice articulating the depth of sadness in her soul over losing her man, in a shambling, down-home, country-inflected arrangement featuring Henderson on banjolin--the only thing the track is missing is the hiss from one of Rainey’s Paramount 78s. Percy Mayfield’s howl against ostracism and alienation, “Stranger In My Own Home Town,” is delivered with an aggressive thrust powered by Jimmy Pugh’s robust B3, which in turn is complemented by Henderson’s wailing slide solo, as Nelson sells the message with a wry and--in the way she fades out softly at the end of the verses--even puzzled take on the dilemma in question. By her own admission in the liner notes, the singer has been waiting more than 40 years to cut “The Love You Save,” Joe Tex’s great, surging R&B sermon chronicling horrific personal trials (“I’ve been pushed around/I’ve been lost and found/I’ve been given ‘til sundown to get out of town/I’ve been taken outside and I’ve been brutalized/and I had to always be the one to smile and apologize”) that shrink in importance next to the number of love affairs capsizing all around him. When Tex sang the song in 1966, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the personal abuses and humiliations he enumerated spoke to the reality of black Americans, especially those in Tex’s native south, but the greatness of his song is less in its stark litany of personal humiliations and much more in the bigger picture Tex saw in the absence of love at even the most fundamental one-on-one level, and the unstated question--suggested by the gospel backdrop--as to whether God’s love had fled as well from the world. With all this cultural and theological freight informing the song, no wonder Nelson was reluctant to tackle it; but she does it justice by rendering it as her personal statement of salvation through love, bringing it back to one of the album’s  recurring themes. The band, with Pugh’s sad, humming B3 in the forefront, evokes the gospel-rooted Tex sound and underscores its pronounced, unceasing hurt with Henderson’s snarling guitar interjections, as Nelson works the pulpit with humbling authority in unburdening her soul of the world’s weight. Her message is clear, unambiguous and sounds like nothing less than the truth.

Tracy Nelson’s Victim Of the Blues is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024