The blues has always been an enigma. A music that expresses deeply personal emotions, it does so with a well-worn collection of repeated phrases, rhymes, and floating verses that are nothing short of community property. It is also a music of constriction, with a conservative set of stock progressions and riffs that make innovations to the genre extremely difficult. The resulting familiarity of all of this is what makes the blues what it is, personal yet general, individual yet communally held, a music that if it were any more blue collar it would be the deep blue sea itself. How on earth does one bring something fresh to this genre in the 21st century without tipping the whole cart over on its side? Bill Homans
, or Watermelon Slim, as he is known these days, seems to have found an answer by looking backward all the way to the field holler and looking over sideways to country music, rolling it all up into a smart synthesis that sounds fresh and sharp even though it is only a half-step removed from the sounds of Charley Patton
or Jimmie Rodgers. The Wheel Man
, Slim's second album for the Northern Blues imprint following 2006's magnificent Watermelon Slim & the Workers
, isn't as striking as the previous offering, mainly because it is cut from the same exact cloth, but it also isn't a fall off, either, and the two releases taken together make a seamless arc. A former truck driver who just happens to own several university degrees and is a member of MENSA, Slim is his own walking enigma, and he manages to tread the line amazingly between what is blue collar and what is blues academia again on this album, beginning with the lead and title track, a duet with Magic Slim
(do two Slims make for one Extra Large?) on the dilemma of making a sane life out of long-haul trucking, which itself becomes a blues metaphor for steering through life. "Sawmill Holler" is just that, a work holler that is both a cathartic release and a way to focus in on the tasks at hand. The harmonica and foot-stomp-driven "Jimmy Bell" is old-fashioned storytelling done without any fancy modern recording tricks. There are a pair of impressive blues covers here, too, an Okie rendition of Slim Harpo
's "Got Love If You Want It" and a solo acoustic take on Furry Lewis
' "Judge Harsh Blues." But it is Slim's Oklahoma twang that binds everything together, and it reminds that there was a time when the blues and country music drank side by side from the same river. Two of the best songs here, the wise, humorous, and carefully subtle "Drinking & Driving" and the raggedly stomping "Rattlesnake," could be all over country radio if the people who programmed that stuff really had a clue to what real country music is. Jimmie Rodgers (who never gets played on country radio -- even though without Rodgers the format might not even exist) was the singing brakeman who loved the blues, and Watermelon Slim, the singing truck driver who also loves the blues, seem cut from the same cultural remnants. Slim's smart enough to know it, too. Which is fine. He drives that truck well.