Those of us still around and writing, or reading, as the 21st century comes within spitting distance, probably first encountered the classics of American country blues as presented by contemporary interpreters of our youth. Van Ronk. Led Zeppelin. Even, God help us, Van Halen. These versions haunt our minds, canonical, so that hearing "Matchbox Blues" or "He's in the Jailhouse Now" performed by their creators can be as disorienting as it is exciting; the copy and the original swirling confused in musical memory. John Jackson is, with few exceptions, not the auteur of the 25 songs on this Arhoolie anthology, but a mid-century interpreter, filtering blues, country, and old-timey songs through his Piedmont-style sensibility. These are his favorite songs, and his rich yet nasal and sometimes drawled vocals fit his relaxed guitar style, free with timing and the added measure, yielding pleasant and sometimes inspired interpretations of familiar songs.
Jackson is particularly effective on "I'll Step Aside," a bluegrass classic, which he performs as a slow, plaintive country ballad. This song also raises an interesting issue: Jackson's relationship to his own performance clearly differs from what is generally expected in 1999; he makes mistakes, assaying a vocal leap and clearly missing it, equivocating on a guitar solo. I enjoy such revelations of an artist's ongoing and risky dialog with his art, but can also imagine less sympathetic attitudes. Jackson's slide work convinces on "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" and "Kneel at the Cross," he surprises with claw-hammer banjo on "Cindy," and emerges as a Jimmy Rodgers soul mate in "TB Blues" and "Waiting for a Train," although we have to wait for "He's in the Jailhouse Now" for a yodel.
Many tracks on Country Blues & Ditties end suddenly, but the general sound quality is high, and there's plenty of it, 25 songs, over 70 minutes. - Jim Foley