Blue Mesa is yet another remarkable record from an awe-inspiringly consistent songwriter.
Over the course of four albums for the venerated Chicago label Bloodshot, Luke Winslow-King has moved from Tin Pan Alley traditionalist and acoustic troubadour to a full-fledged blues rocker. It’s been a gradual shift that’s seen the Michigan-born singer-songwriter move through traditional New Orleans-style folk and blues to jazz to straight-ahead blues to country-tinged rock. In this, Winslow-King is the epitome of Americana in the truest sense of the word, rather than that catchall term often lazily applied to vaguely folk-inspired country-leaning indie records. His work encompasses all of American music in its myriad forms and iterations, all delivered with a gently rasping croon and impeccable songwriting.
Blue Mesa continues Winslow-King’s win streak for Bloodshot with yet another solid album of subtly complex takes on Americana. “You Got Mine” comes charging out of the gates like a lost Allman Brothers track, complete with roiling B3 and plaintive guitar soloing. This directional shift continues on “Leghorn Women,” a rather straightforward Chicago-style electric blues.
Showing he’s still got some of that more traditionally-minded approach, the title track is a gentle country shuffle in a decidedly Roy Orbison mode (replete with a (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”-aping bass line) that finds Winslow-King crooning, pining and playing a gorgeous slide solo that carries the same emotional depth as his vocals. It’s yet another affecting song in a catalog increasingly full of them.
“Born to Roam” is Springsteen’s Spector-copping in miniature, a worthy addition to the overloaded canon of great American road songs. Like “Born to Run,” its chugging, propulsive groove and incessant keys give it a feeling at once of a bygone era and timeless in the best sense of the word. It’s one of a number of highpoints scattered throughout Blue Mesa.
“‘Cause I’m much better for knowing you/ When I found you I was lost and blue/ but your love came down just to see me through/ Now I don’t wanna go without your love,” he sings on “Better for Knowing You,” seemingly another allusion to his low period covered so well on I’m Glad Trouble Doesn’t Always Last following his 2015 divorce from former singing partner Esther Rose. Ostensibly a somebody-done-somebody-wrong song, it coasts along on its sing-song melody and an air of redemption and hope.
He returns to the Mississippi Delta for “Thought I Heard You,” the most traditionally-minded blues on the album, one which would not have sounded out of place on his early, pre-Bloodshot releases. Yet where those recordings tended to be more sparsely arranged, this pulls out all the stops with full band accompaniment and twin call-and-response guitar lines snaking throughout. It’s very much in keeping with what Winslow-King has long done best, but it ups the ante and pushes his sound into exciting new directions.
Ever the purveyor of quality over quantity, the 10-track album’s back half is just as strong – if not stronger (check out “After the Rain” for further proof) – than the front. “Break Down the Walls” is country-gospel-soul that, given a little more grit and swung just a bit more vocally, could easily have been a lost Southern soul classic along the lines of Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” or James Carr’s “Water on a Drowning Man.” It shows a deep-seeded appreciation for the history of American popular music that forgoes mere affectation and retro-revivalism in favor of looking directly to the source.
Blue Mesa is yet another remarkable record from an awe-inspiringly consistent songwriter. Blues, rock-and-roll, rockabilly, country, jazz, soul, gospel – it’s all here and all done with an authenticity that transcends pastiche and comes off as the real deal. This is Americana in the purest sense of the term – and God bless Luke Winslow-King for that.