Robert Belfour is a rare individual a country bluesman who grew up in the backwoods and taught himself the blues. His debut release What's Wrong With You is a powerful solo blues album that has garnered heaps of critical acclaim before it's even been released. (It comes out this month.)
While most contemporary country-blues artists are educated alchemists who combine different early-blues styles, Belfour is a throwback. His brand of country blues is characteristic of a particular place (the hill country of northern Mississippi) and a slower time. In other words, the man's the real deal.
Born in a rural plank house near Holly Springs, Mississippi, Belfour now resides in Memphis, where he's a semi-retired construction worker. Though Belfour's main influence is Howlin' Wolf, he sounds like a predecessor to hypnotic electric guitarists R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, bluesmen from the same part of Mississippi. In truth, Belfour was born in 1940, 14 years after Burnside and 10 years after Kimbrough.
Belfour's lyrics mine typical blues themes. Each of his songs deals with a troubled relationship. Usually the male narrator expresses torment because his woman has left him. The power of Belfour's music doesn't reside in the lyrics, however, but in the delivery. Belfour's soft voice is full of honest emotion. It truly communicates the depths of human suffering. Belfour's classic blues voice and modal guitar style make for a mesmerizing listen.
Belfour mostly plays alone on acoustic guitar (he manages to sound both accomplished and raw), though he's backed on two cuts by a restrained drummer. He also plays electric guitar on the album's final two tracks. The most powerful song here is "Done Got Old," a haunting tune about aging and loneliness that has the timeless feel of a classic blues song. Each of the nine tracks is an expressive blues lament that quietly grabs you.
Robert Belfour may be a throwback, but he's no has-been. His debut album reminds us of how passionate the country blues can be.