june 2012

johnny rawls
Discoursing on the vagaries of love but also taking time to examine the state of the union

When Heart Meets Conscience…

By David McGee

johnny rawlsSOUL SURVIVOR
Johnny Rawls
Catfood Records

Over a thumping and pumping, Stax-style horn-infused beat at the beginning of his new album, robust-voiced Johnny Rawls proclaims himself “a soul survivor, the last of a breed.” The Columbia, Mississippi, native may not be exactly, precisely the last but with 2011's acclaimed Memphis Still Got Soul and this year’s followup, he’s at least the best of the last of a breed; a man in whom the spirit of his mentor, the late, great O.V. Wright, remains strong in Rawls’s distinctive approach. Working with virtually the same band he’s employed on his past three albums--including his writing partner/co-producer/bassist Bob Trenchard; a trio of horns; and the spirited distaff duo of Jessica and Jillian Ivey on background vocals--Rawls uses Soul Survivor to discourse on the vagaries of love, of course, but also to offer some pointed commentary on the state of the union in the spirit of Woody Gurhrie via the Rawls-Trenchard scalding co-write “Don’t Need a Gun to Steal”; even the percolating, deep grooving “Hand Me Downs” bemoans his plight of working two jobs and still being unable to make ends meet, furthering a life pattern of always having to settle for second best. Throughout, soul man/survivor Rawls demonstrates how powerful things happens when heart meets conscience.

With a timeless vibe fashioned from late ‘60s-early ‘70s Memphis-Muscle Shoals sources, Soul Survivor boasts a life affirming, gospel-tinged patina well suited to showcase Rawls’s emotionally resonant singing and infallible sense of drama. Witness the dirge-like “Eight Men, Four Women,” a mournful blues in which Rawls finds himself on trial before “the jury of love” and facing prison time “for loving somebody.” Rawls plays it straight-faced throughout--he even delivers an impassioned spoken plea to the jurors--as the Ivey gals coo behind him, only to reveal at the end that it was all a dream. Maybe so, but the following track, “King of Hearts,” stomps and pulsates as Rawls admits to being “a player” on intimate terms with the love ‘em and leave ‘em philosophy. Lest it sound like our Johnny is cold and calculating, the steady rolling “Long Way from Home” is a heartfelt anticipation of reuniting with the good gal awaiting his return from an unspecified journey.

Blues, soul and, to a lesser extent, bluegrass artists continue to speak most effectively to the temper of the times. To this end, Rawls and Trenchard take dead aim at the financial miscreants who played disastrous games with other peoples’ money and got away scot-free--“slap him on the wrist with some country club time,” Rawls sings with restrained outrage over a funky, grinding groove punctuated by bursts of horns and an ominous organ hum before the track ends with a rousing blast of horns, the aural evocation of Rawls’s populist anger at those who, as Woody Guthrie famously formulated decades ago, will “rob you with a fountain pen.” Further evidence this of the great heart informing the deeply soulful treatises Rawls offers in Soul Survivor, as manifestly satisfying an album as he has delivered in his estimable career.

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