january 2009

Various Artists
Yanksville Records (released 2008)

Never a household name but revered by blues musicians and aficionados, James "Yank" Rachell was truly a rare breed of artist. A Tennessee native born in Brownsville in 1910, he began playing mandolin at age eight and while still in his teens was working dances with Sleepy John Estes, with whom he formed his first band, the Three J's Jug Band (the third J was pianist Jab Jones), and made his first recordings, for Victor in 1929 and 1930. After the J's broke up, Rachell went to work, literally, farming and for the L&N Railroad, and also managed to cut another 25 sides for the ARC label while on a stopover in New York. Next his path crossed that of another gifted Tennessee native, harmonica master John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, and the two eventually wound up in Chicago together, with Rachell sitting in on Sonny Boy's June 1938 Bluebird sessions. But that same year Rachell, now married and a father, took a full-time job and largely left music behind while he tended to his responsibilities as the head of his household. Following his wife's death in 1961 he found himself welcome on the college and coffee house circuit, rejoining Estes harmonica player Hammie Nixon in a trio that recorded for Delmark as Yank Rachell's Tennessee Jug Busters and becoming a sensation with young audiences rediscovering the blues masters of yore. Estes passed away in 1977, leaving Rachell to work solo thereafter, which he did. Based in Indianapolis in his later years, he became a regular attraction at the Slippery Noodle. Through the years those who crossed Rachell's path spared no words in praising his exemplary mandolin work nor did they pass up the opportunity to point out how different he was from many of the musicians of his time. "My impression was that Yank lived quite a different lifestyle than other like Sleepy John Estes," said Delmark founder Bob Koester. "Yank worked all sorts of jobs for his family. He was married with kids so he was more of a family guy. He was more of a day person than the others." John Sebastian, an early and vocal supporter of Rachell's music, has referred to him as "a conduit into rock and roll because his original style is so much the same rhythmic content as the electric guitar players who started rock and roll would be playing 30 years later," but was quick to note: "Yank was a family man. This was one of the reasons for his longevity. It was sheer love, that family approval. Whether he was 86 or not, he was always the pater familias." Todd R.T. Edwards observed, "The music thing came second because he was pretty committed to his family. His life lesson to me was to treat people right."

The same integrity with which Yank Rachell lived his life informed his music as well. To those who have studied Rachell's technique and approach, and tried to emulate it, or incorporate facets of it into their own style, what he wrought was a thing of beauty. To the casual fan, the soul permeating his performances washed over you in an invigorating rush. Artists who loved Rachell's music and gathered to pay tribute to it on this disc invest their performances with a wealth of heart and feeling, enough, surely, to make Rachell smile from the great beyond. Many of these artists knew him personally, some only knew him by his art, but all sing it like they mean it. You can hear the commitment in the dramatic solo vocal performance by Andra Faye, who counted Rachell among her mentors as a young artist emerging in the Indianapolis scene. On "My Baby's Gone" she turns in a virtuoso performance, not only scorching the lowdown blues tune but also accompanying herself with some tough blues mandolin runs and a thumping, ominous standup bass line. As comfortable in country as he was in blues, Rachell found his tunes being easily converted from one style to the other, as Tim O'Brien expertly demonstrates in kicking off the disc with a sprightly bluegrass rendering of "Texas Tony," spicing the arrangement with some fine, fleet-fingered mandolin picking of his own. Backed by a quintet of honking sax, B3, guitar, bass and drums, Karen Irwin turns "She Caught the Katy" into a stomping Southern soul testimony, further evidence of the adaptability of Rachell's music. For some deep Rachell blues, few do it better here than vocalist/guitarist Gordon Bonham and mandolinist Jim Richter on "Brownsville Blues," the former with his emotive, sandpapery vocals, the latter with a spectacular run of solos that strut along beside and curl all around the vocals like some spectral presence, every bit as voluble and emphatic as the singer. For gritty, downhome grind, few could top Rich DelGrosso's growling rendition of "Shotgun Blues," in an arrangement enriched by Ernie Scarbrough's feisty B3 and churchy piano as well as DelGrosso's tasty mandolin soloing in support of his hearty vocalizing. Sebastian, recorded live, stands out with a wonderful story about his first personal encounter, on the phone, with Rachell, and his first, epic recording session with the master in Indianapolis. With David Grisman on mandolin, Sebastian then breaks into a good-time, jug band-ish "Tappin' That Thing," giving Grisman wide berth along the way to add some frolicsome instrumental commentary of his own.

The Rachell family makes its mark here in other ways beyond Yank's music and spiritual presence. Sheena Rachell, Yank's granddaughter, is backed by a tight quintet playing slow, mournful blues behind her as she wrings chilling drama out of "Lake Michigan Blues" in a voice as forceful as it is pained, abetted at one point by Mike Butler-Schwab's eerie slide solo on electric five-string mandolin. The disc closes on a moving note, as Sheena joins Yank's daughters Mae Nell and Willia B. on a moving a cappella rendition of Yank's favorite gospel song, "Freedom," a minute and nine seconds' worth of respect and reverence for a life well lived and still meaningful to those who loved him.

Note: With the release of this album came news that Sheena Rachell has been diagnosed with a rare lung disease, Wegener's Granulomatosis. Net proceeds from the CD sales will be used to help offset her medical expenses.

Buy it at www.mandolindy.com/yank OR Buy it as an MP3 download from Amazon

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