Tennessee blues legend Sleepy John Estes (1904-1977) spent the early part of his career recording sides for the Victor, Bluebird and Decca labels. In his later years, Estes was recorded in Chicago by Delmark Records. On 80 Highway
, recorded in 1974, is a previously unreleased session from the Delmark vaults featuring Estes singing and playing guitar with his long-time collaborator Hammie Nixon singing and accompanying on harmonica.
There's an element of comfort heard in Estes' emotional vocalizing. His high-pitched inflections and relaxed phrasing is irresistible. Like any convincing blues man, Estes' sells his brand of empathy as though he were working on commission. Who couldn't buy-in to the regret and despair heard on "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead" and the title track? Sincerity and a lifetime of heartache pours out of every moan and plead on "Do Lord Remember Me." One of the more endearing tracks on the disc is "President Kennedy," where Estes expresses lament over the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Although subtle, and relegated to a background role, Estes' guitar playing is rhythmically strong. On tunes like "Mary Comes On Home" and "Brownsville Blues," both Estes originals, the guitarist stirs up a punchy pulse when singing and instinctively backs off with quiet chords during harmonica breaks.
Nixon, who like Estes grew up around Brownsville, Tennessee, outlines each track with colorful harmonica lines. Proving to be more than a mere sidekick, Nixon lends his growling, rough-around-the-edges voice to eight tracks. The seemingly spontaneous harmonizing between the two friends on "Holy Spirit," "When The Saints Go Marching In" and "Corrine, Corrine" is as down-home as it gets. A highlight of the disc is Nixon's expressive vocal lead on the suggestive "Potato Diggin' Man."
Estes and Nixon were the real deal. On 80 Highway is a gem of a recording that captures the essence of southern country blues.
Personnel: Sleepy John Estes: vocals, guitar; Hammie Nixon: vocals, harmonica, kazoo (4, 8).