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It was back in 1967 that Blues musician and songwriter Scott Ainslie first heard a DC area grave digger – John Jackson – play Blues.
Things have never been the same.
Ainslie is now releasing his fifth compact disc, Thunder’s Mouth – a powerful, rootsy slice of traditional blues, African-American songs, and originals. Here, Ainslie’s guitar, mandolin, and voice are masterfully complemented by Grammy Award-winning cellist Eugene Friesen; Lafayette, Louisiana guitarist Sam Broussard; and T-Bone Wolk, bassist and road warrior with Hall & Oates, who also contributes accordian, keyboard, guitar, and hand percussion to the project.
Opening with J. B. Lenoir’s “Down In Mississippi,” this collection presents a strongly contemporary march in traditional territory. Broussard’s remarkable guitar work throughout the album is the perfect foil for Ainslie’s muscular guitar playing and vocals.
With a gutsy accapella rendition of Delta Bluesman Son House’s wonderful “Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ In Your Face,” followed by “Oil In My Vessel,” an old-time gospel tune from Joe Thompson (one of the last surviving Black old-time fiddlers known), Ainslie sets listeners up for a powerful ride. Ainslie and Broussard also present a dark and wonderfully moving version of “Another Man Done Gone,” a song by Vera Hall that John Lomax recorded in 1938 for The Library of Congress.
In addition to these traditional tracks, Thunder’s Mouth includes four Ainslie originals. Two of them have obvious African roots: a Kora-inspired fretless banjo tune, “If Anybody Asks You About Me,” and “I Should Get Over This,” a heart breaker set to a danceable West African-inspired guitar part, complemented by Eugene Friesen’s remarkable cello playing and T-Bone Wolk’s bass, percussion, and rhythm guitar.
Ainslie’s title track, “Thunder’s Mouth,” comes of split lineage: the title phrase is Shakespeare’s, while the setting and body of the song were inspired by slave narratives from the Nashville, TN area. This is a powerful song whose dark landscape is humanized by Friesen’s cello and haunted by Broussard’s electric slide guitar.
“It’s Gonna Rain,” another original, is the kind of song you wish you had written – a lost-love song set in south Louisiana. It saw its first performance around the 4th of July in 2005, just prior to the arrival of Katrina and the failure of the levees in New Orleans. As Ainslie says, “Six weeks later, without changing a word, it became a song – not about losing somebody, but about losing a city and for my money, one of the coolest cities in the world.”
Thunder’s Mouth was mixed and mastered at Will Ackerman’s Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont by Grammy Award-winner Corin Nelsen.
Scott Ainslie –
Scott Ainslie: Thunder’s Mouth (Cattail Music)
On Thunder’s Mouth, Ainslie – a singer and acoustic guitarist who’s an expert on Robert Johnson’s guitar techniques – applies his winning musical personality to self-penned tunes and non-originals borrowed from Johnson, Son House, J.B. Lenoir, Tom Waits and the John Lomax field recordings treasure chest.
The emotional pull of Ainslie’s music is always strong, perhaps most so on the slave lament, “Thunder’s Mouth,” and on the slow, serious folk blues “Another Man Done Gone.” In unobtrusive but unmistakable support of this Vermonter are cellist Eugene Friesen, Cajun guitarist Sam Broussard and multi-instrumentalist T-Bone Wolk.
– Frank John Hadley, Downbeat 2009
Scott Ainslie –
Scott Ainslie – “Thunder’s Mouth”
Ten days after the September 11 attacks, Bruce Springsteen opened a nationally televised benefit show with “My City of Ruins,” a song that could have been a direct response to the tragedy – if it weren’t more than a year old.
Scott Ainslie’s “It’s Gonna Rain,” the centerpiece of his new collection of originals, blues standards and a tasty Tom Waits tune, seems no less prophetic. Written several weeks before Hurricane Katrina, its tableau of a man tripping over “beer bottles and broken Mardi Gras beads” while he wanders the swamped city searching for a lost lover, is a perfect allegory for the days that followed the disaster.
Another artist might have been tempted to tinker with it, but Ainslie didn’t change a word, as the world intersected with art to transform a story of broken love into the tale of a broken city.
Ainslie is blues authority with a political bent, and his selection of cover songs reflects this. “Down In Mississippi,” written in the 1960s by J. B. Lenoir in response to Southern racial injustice, is given just the right balance of pain and rage.
He plays “Dust My Broom” (an obvious selection for Ainslie, the author of a Robert Johnson biography) on a vintage 1931 national. The a capella version of Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face” shares an edgy, unadorned sound with many of the album’s non-originals.
Including “It’s Gonna Rain,” Ainslie wrote four of the album’s 10 songs. The title track is a haunting denunciation of slavery, helped by Eugene Friesen’s moaning cello and Sam Broussard’s knife-edged guitar work. “If Anybody Asks You About Me” and “I Should Get Over This” are both laced with evocative African textures, sounding of the same vintage as “Another Man Done Gone,” a lovely, sad Vera Hall blues song that Ainslie learned from a John Avery Lomax field recording.
Ainslie recruited a top-pedigree lineup for “Thunder’s Mouth.” In addition to Friesen (Paul Winter Consort) and Broussard (Michael Martin Murphey, Jimmy Buffett), SNL Band veteran T-Bone Wolk played accordion, keyboards, guitars and percussion along with his regular bass guitar.
Wolk uses the latter to great effect on “Little Trip To Heaven,” a song that will delight anyone who’s impatient with Tom Waits’ gravelly singing style. Ainslie cleans it up nicely, revealing a romantic side of the curmudgeonly songwriter.
“Thunder’s Mouth” is a sturdy record, powerful both as homage and history. But most of all, it reveals a talented tunesmith shaping his unique vision to deep musical roots.
– Michael Witthaus, The Eagle Times, Claremont NH
Scott Ainslie –
Musical Scholar Releases Indispensable Blues Album
Scott Ainslie is a scholar, a historian, a teacher and a hell of a musician.
He is the author of “Robert Johnson/At The Crossroads” (1992), a book of transcriptions of the recordings of the Mississippi Blues legend with complete annotated lyrics, a brief history of the blues icon, and historical notes. He is also the teacher for “Robert Johnson’s Guitar Techniques” (1997), an instructional video that has become a must-have DVD for blues guitarists.
Ainslie’s new album, “Thunder’s Mouth,” is his fifth in 13 years and is bound to become as indispensable to blues guitarists’ music collections as his book is to their libraries. Ainslie enlists the talents of three other highly accomplished musicians to make the album. Eugene Friesen is the Grammy award-winning cellist with the Paul Winter Consort. Sam Broussard is a Louisiana guitarist who’s played with Michael Murphey, Malcolm Holcomb, Sonny Landreth, Michael Doucet and T-Mamou to name a few, and T-Bone Wolk is “that guy with the hat,” bassist extraordinaire for Hall & Oates as well as Elvis Costello, Carly Simon, and many others including the on-camera Saturday Night Live band from 1986-92.
Produced by Grammy award-winning engineer and producer Corin Nelsen, the album does an amazing job of building a bridge between traditional and contemporary blues.
Setting the tone right off the bat, “Down In Mississippi,” a classic J.B Lenoir tune, lays the groundwork. There is a darkness to the feel of the record, but a simultaneous joy in the technique of the performance and the songwriting.
Ainslie covers Robert Johnson on a stellar version of “Dust My Broom,” as well as a great arrangement of Tom Waits’ “Little Trip To Heaven” and Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face” and takes songwriting credit for four of the tunes including the album’s title track and closer.
“Thunder’s Mouth” takes its name from William Shakespeare and, according to the composer’s liner notes, was a song that “shadowed me like a half-wild stray for most of a year. Curled up by the fire now, it’s home.”
Much like me with this album.
– Wildman Steve, The Corner News, Auburn AL 2008
Scott Ainslie –
“Thunder’s Mouth,” Scott Ainslie (Cattail Music)
Singer-guitarist Scott Ainslie is a leading scholar of the Delta blues style that Robert Johnson helped pioneer. He’s also a collector of great songs and has deep respect for American roots music. All this makes for a potent performance on “Thunder’s Mouth.”
Ainslie’s understanding of and passion for the blues is evident from every string he plucks and every note that passes his lips. The opening cut, J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi,” comes off like a statement of purpose, with deft acoustic slide work and a husky vocal workout.
“Thunder’s Mouth” is a masterful mix of covers and four of his own songs. There are blues standbys in Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” and Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face,” the latter of which Ainslie bravely takes on a cappella, complete with random thumps and claps. A cover of Tom Waits’ “Little Trip to Heaven” makes the argument that America’s favorite deranged troubadour is also one of its finest songwriters. (Of course, some have long believed that anyway.) He also makes magic with “Oil in My Vessel,” a song learned from an old-time fiddle player.
The most poignant song on the disc “It’s Gonna Rain,” a lovelorn tale taking in place in New Orleans that Ainslie coincidentally wrote prior to Katrina. Its yearning lyrics and crystalline acoustic guitar work sound like they were written in reaction to the hurricane aftermath.
“Half-lit ‘neathe the cypress trees/Where the cottonwoods whisper/in the evening breeze/I know you’ve gone/I know we’ve changed” might be written about a woman, but also reflects a great city forever altered. This song is so beautiful that a modern country star could take it high on the charts.
For someone as versed in the traditional blues as Ainslie, his own songwriting takes on almost a contemporary folk feel at times. Still, when he sings with foreboding on “If Anybody Asks About Me,” it becomes obvious this man was born to play the blues.
Robert Johnson has always been a hip reference when guitarists are asked about influences. Often, it’s nothing more than lip-service. With “Thunder’s Mouth,” Ainslie has continued a career that one can imagine Johnson being proud of.
– Ray Hogan, The Stamford Advocate, Stamford CT
Scott Ainslie –
Thunder’s Mouth – Scott Ainslie
I’ve been a fan of Scott Ainslie for several years now so I thought that I knew what I was getting into by reviewing his latest work, Thunder’s Mouth. I put the disc into the player and in seconds took it back out to be sure this really was a Scott Ainslie CD. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what Ainslie was about but this new work is a definite departure from my previous exposure to this wonderful traditional musician. Admittedly, my second reaction was something akin to, “Oh, no! What has he done!” but I sat and I listened and re-listened to “Thunder’s Mouth” and recognized the genius Scott Ainslie has brought to this offering.
The team Ainslie assembled to make this happen includes a Grammy winning cellist, a Cajun guitar master, a powerhouse sideman, and a Grammy winning engineer. The individual cuts range from solo Ainslie and guitar to more dense soundscapes with dark undertones that evoke deep and blue emotions. There are ten tracks included; 4 originals, 5 blues covers and one Tom Waits tune.
That’s the bare bones description but the real story here is what I found in the re-listening. Once I got over myself and my expectations – once I took the time to listen to what Ainslie is trying to say to us – I heard one of the most wonderful efforts at building a bridge between the traditional and the contemporary that I have ever encountered. This is absolutely no small feat. To start with your feet hundreds of years ago and wind up with your head in the now has been a goal that many have failed in realizing.
The opening track, the one that first made my head spin is a cover of JB Lenoir’s Down In Mississippi. Ainslie’s vocal on this is remarkably subtle and relaxed. I don’t remember hearing it this good before. But the low-keyed and natural strength in his voice has a seductive quality that made this tune get stuck in my head for days. I’d wake in the morning hearing the painful refrain over and over.
He does it again on the second tune, a cover of Son House’s Grinnin’ In Your Face. There is probably no way that anyone could approach this song in the manner or style of Son House. Scott treats it with a relaxed and sincere delivery that allows him to claim it and make it his own.
People not familiar with Ainslie may not know that, along with being a stellar musician, he studies many aspects of African-American and African music and culture. It’s not an uncommon affliction among traditional musicians. Ainslie’s original song I Should Get Over This is based around some field recordings from west Africa. Beautifully structured and arranged it lightens the mood just a bit before he goes into Robert Johnson’s Dust My Broom.
This version of Dust My Broom is strong and, by earlier standards, would have stood much taller. It is the only tune in the collection that falls close to what I “expected” from Scott.
Earlier standards? Scott Ainslie has raised the standards of what to expect from him by several degrees. And, so, I wind up again saying, “Oh, no! What has he done!”
I’m not sure but I sure hope he keeps it up.
– Tampa Blue, Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Scott Ainslie –
Thunder’s Mouth, Scott Ainslie
Pure brilliance. This is an album that reaches back to my years in the folk clubs including the a capella version of Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face. There is an interesting blend of cover and original material. Among the covers are Tom Waits’s “Little Trip To Heaven” and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” Scott is a mighty fine slide guitar player and songwriter and has one of the most soulful voices heard any side of Vermont. He is ably supported by cellist, Eugene Friesen, guitarist, Sam Broussard and multi-instrumentalist, T-Bone Wolk. This is one of the best CDs you will hear thisyear and any year.
– Barry McCloud, Country Music Facts and News, Nashville TN
Scott Ainslie –
Thunder’s Mouth-Cattail #2008
LIKE JOHN HAMMOND JR., Rory Block, Eric Clapton and other more widely known blues artists, Scott Ainslie can’t shake the ghost of Robert Johnson. The Virginia-bred singer-songwriter and guitarist has written a book about the Delta legend, recorded his songs and even produced an instructional DVD that explores Johnson’s highly influential guitar technique.
Ainslie reconnects with his muse on the new CD “Thunder’s Mouth,” turning in an evocative solo performance of Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” But the track isn’t representative of the album’s rewards. Combining a soulful, robust voice with expressive guitar work, Ainslie covers a lot of ground on this crisply produced session. He may not have set out to connect the dots between, say, Son House (represented by “Grinnin’ in Your Face”) and Tom Waits (“Little Trip to Heaven”), but their tunes, along with those of J.B. Lenoir (“Down in Mississippi”) and Vera Hall (“Another Man Done Gone”), nevertheless create appealing links.
“Thunder’s Mouth” has other things going for it: Ainslie’s songwriting, for one. It has a distinctly contemporary edge, as the post-Katrina lament “It’s Gonna Rain” illustrates. Also a big plus is the support provided by cellist Eugene Friesen, guitarist Sam Broussard and bassist-keyboardist T-Bone Wolk, who add to the album’s color and scope.
– Mike Joyce, The Washington Post
Scott Ainslie –
Ainslie merges musicianship and meaning on new CD with a little help from some talented friends
From the first chord — struck like a call to worship — Scott Ainslie’s new CD, Thunder’s Mouth, pulls you forward in your seat and commands your attention.
In his first release since The Feral Crow in 2004, Ainslie manages both to return to his roots as a bluesman and to continue to push his art forward.
Ably abetted by a dream team of musicians — cellist Eugene Friesen, guitarist Sam Broussard and musical Renaissance man T-Bone Wolk — Ainslie has assembled 10 songs which walk some fine lines — between darkness and light, mud-caked grit and polished lyricism, tears of sorrow and tears of anger — and do so with great artistry.
Fans of Ainslie’s will see Thunder’s Mouth as a synthesis of his blues roots, the meaningful new directions he explored on The Feral Crow and recent collaborations with other musicians, most notably a concert in Brattleboro last December when he and Friesen joined forces for what turned out to be a singularly beautiful event.
Newcomers to Ainslie will appreciate Thunder’s Mouth for what it is — the work of a soulful, seasoned musician working with a full and ever-expanding palate of expressive tools. More simply put, Thunder’s Mouth is a well-crafted and engaging album that will appeal to you on many levels.
Although the blues are always present in Ainslie’s work, they were not emphasized in The Feral Crow. By contrast, Thunder’s Mouth opens with three songs brought up from the mud of the Mississippi Delta.
“This is a rootsy record, and this is the first record to follow The Feral Crow. The darkness territory of some of ‘Feral Crow’ is here. … It’s just 150 years old,” said Ainslie as we chatted about the new CD in his Brattleboro home.
Thus, the album opens with J.B. Lenoir’s Down in Mississippi, a straight-up blues with fine guitar work by Ainslie. Next up is an interesting cut, Grinnin’ In Your Face, a Son House tune that features only Ainslie’s voice and asymmetrical foot percussion — a pared down sound that delivers its message of resilience in the face of oppression with a preacher’s power. The third tune, Oil in my Vessel, stays in the blues pocket and features a slide guitar solo by Broussard that prompted Ainslie to exclaim seemingly involuntarily, “God bless Sam,” as we listened.
Thunder’s Mouth stays in blues territory throughout with Robert Johnson’s Dust My Broom and Another Man Done Gone, a chilling song which positively hisses with darkness.
Those blues songs are all well and good, certainly food for the soul, but what stands out on “Thunder’s Mouth” are the four Ainslie originals. Beautiful in their own right, those songs seem to have brought out the best in all the musicians — they’re the ones that span genres and offer the best hope for radio play and some well-deserved wider recognition for Ainslie.
Case in point, It’s Gonna Rain, a song of love and loss written in June 2005, which was transformed by Hurricane Katrina into an elegy for New Orleans, its imagery of falling water taking on new poignancy. This is, simply, a beautiful ballad set against a loping, sighing pulse. All the musicians shine — Friesen’s lovely, understated cello weaves gently around the sad lyrics; Broussard’s guitar supplies the raindrops; Wolk does a turn on the accordion which sets the whole thing simmering in an authentic Cajun roux. This is the song that you will play over and over again; it’s the one with, perhaps, the best hope of wider airplay.
But it’s not my favorite. I keep coming back to track 8, I Should Get Over This. Here, Ainslie ventures perhaps as far as he’s ever been from blues country, with a song that opens with a bouncy, upbeat pulse played on muted guitar. It sounds reggae-ish or Caribbean — not far off — but its roots are really with West African guitarists (which links it back to the blues). Whatever it is, the pulse and the tune are completely infectious — and in delightful contrast with the bittersweet nature of the lyrics. Friesen’s cello, by turns playful and funky and then thoughtful and lyrical, just adds to it all. I can’t get enough of it.
If Anybody Asks Me is more bluesy, but shares with I Should Get Over This its direct sonic link to Africa, notably due to Ainslie’s gourd banjo-playing.
The title track wraps up the CD and ventures into the darkest territory on it. With lyrics that reach across a century or two, from the falling tears of slaves to the falling twin towers, Thunder’s Mouth pulls no punches in its dramatic reach. Again, the musicians are in fine form, with Broussard’s expressive, plaintiff, wailing guitar a particularly effective addition.
The one incongruous song on the album is a tender tune from Tom Waits, Little Trip to Heaven. A favorite of Ainslie’s, it’s there because, as he put it, “every record needs something sweet.”
In addition to the musicians, credit must go to Grammy Award-winner Corin Nelson who mixed and mastered the CD at Imaginary Road Studios.
When the last, low cello note of the last song fades away, you’re left with a feeling you rarely get from listening to CDs these days. An artist has labored long and hard to make something to give us meaning to our days. It’s there in what the songs say, and it’s there in how the musicians say it.
“So much of this record is just about surviving … about making it through with some portion of your heart intact. We’ve all got scars. We’ve all got scar tissue on our hearts,” Ainslie said.
Thunder’s Mouth is what that sounds like.
– Jon Potter, The Brattleboro Reformer
Scott Ainslie –
Scott Ainslie: Thunder’s Mouth
Bluesman, historian, scholar, and guitar virtuoso and instructor Scott Ainslie is a one-man contradiction of the public stereotype of the folk singer-songwriter. His inspiration is not his own navel, but rather is a breathtaking palette of cultures and history. He also does not strum triad chords. Instead, he is the master of multiple genres and tunings, focusing not only on the blues but also on the blues’ African origins.
Thunder’s Mouth, Scott’s fifth album, is a magnificent collection of all of those influences. It combines classic blues and gospel (including a song from Robert Johnson, whose biography Scott wrote in 1992, and whose guitar technique Scott teaches in a 2005 Hal Leonard instructional video), four originals, note-perfect African rhythms, and a well-chosen Tom Waits cover. Scott’s 1931 National resonator guitar playing is supported by a top-notch group of musicians, including Eugene Friesen on cello, Sam Broussard on guitar, and T-Bone Wolk on every instrument that was not nailed down. The songs are also accompanied by lush liner notes and on-line commentary, explaining their origins and historical references.
Scott does not slavishly recreate the Piedmont and Delta blues on this album. He strips “Son” House’s “Grinnin’ in Your Face” down to an a capella romp, punctuated only by tapped percussion. The plaintive Vera Hall song, “Another Man Done Gone,” is played in C-minor turning, with well-placed riffs from a fuzzy electric lead guitar … certainly not the way John Lomax preserved it in 1939. The Robert Johnson song “Dust My Broom” is the subject of lengthy notes by Scott, exploring whether the song’s unexplained reference to Ethiopia might have been inspired by news accounts of Haile Selassi’s being driven out of his country in 1935.
The cornerstones of this album, however, are Scott’s original songs. Of these, “It’s Going to Rain” is the show-stopper: a haunted misty lament for New Orleans, filled with images of broken Mardi Gras beads and discarded beer bottles, that was written as a lost-love song but stands up completely as a paean to the post-hurricane city. “If Anybody Asks You About Me” is performed on a fretless banjo played in the style of a West African kora. “I Should Get Over This” reveals Scott’s mastery of joyful African guitar rhythms, which contrast intriguingly with the song’s heartbreaking lyrics.
Thunder’s Mouth is a rewarding and thought-inspiring album in which the artist shows his deep love of traditional blues music and its roots by reinterpreting it, digging into its history, and letting it infuse his own compositions.
– SS for Sing Out! Vol.52#3, 2008