JORMA KAUKONEN Blue Country Heart (Columbia)
It must be frustrating for Jorma Kaukonen to still be referred to as an ex-Jefferson Airplane guitarist 30 years after he left that band, but it remains the context in which most of us recognise his name. "Blue Country Heart" is, hardly surprisingly, nothing like the music of the Airplane, although still recognisably the work of the man who contributed the elaborate fingerpicking of, for example, "Embryonic Journey" to their repertoire.
This album is a bluegrass odyssey, and to somebody whose exposure to the genre is limited to the soundtrack of "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" it sounds mightily authentic. Here Kaukonen plays "songs which are the very roots of American music, back when country borrowed extensively from its across-the-railroad-tracks accomplice, the blues". He's backed by a small acoustic band that includes famed banjo player (banjoist?) Bla Flack, together tackling the songs of, amongst others, The Delmore Brothers, Henry Glover, Jimmie Davis and Jimmie Rodgers. These are songs about gambling, prohibition, poverty, the railroad, sex and death, pretty much the founding texts of post-war white American popular culture, on which just about everybody from Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley to The Grateful Dead built.
Familiarity must make the best track "Just Because", just because Elvis recorded it for Sun, I suppose. Although hardly as epochal as Presley's take, of course, this version is far more fluid, making the more famous rendition sound stiff and stilted in comparison, which maybe it is. Kaukonen's singing voice is surprisingly warm, tender and expressive, an age away from the cracked bellow and grunt of many of his sixtysomething contemporaries, and the slight sliding groan he adds to the end of phrases during "Tom Cat Blues" makes me chuckle every time I hear it.
This is the first album I've encountered to be recorded using Sony's Direct Stream Digital process. It's an encouraging development, sounding pretty good for a CD, with every twangle, creak and quiver appearing impressively vivid. Also, perhaps not coincidentally, it's also the first album I've encountered to wear the slogan "Also available in Super Audio Compact Disc", which, although not exactly sending me scurrying out to buy a SACD player, is a reassuring sign that the new format's remit extends further than the n-hundredth reissue of "Kind Of Blue". (Course, I bet this would sound marvellous on vinyl as well )