TBT – “When a Guitar Plays the Blues” by Roy Buchanan
Editor’s Note: Yesterday would have been Roy Buchanan’s 76th birthday. This Throwback Thursday, originally published in January this year, looks at the 1985 Roy Buchanan classic, “When a Guitar Plays the Blues,” which relaunched his career.
Roy Buchanan was not a Chicago musician. He never won a Grammy Award. Although highly regarded by his peers, he never became a superstar. Yet, his tone, technique, and playing are still influencing guitarists today. Discovering and learning his music is as much a right of passage as learning the music of Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Page, and Danny Gatton.
While his first musical memories were of revival meetings he went to with his mother, he began his exploration of music playing steel guitar. Later, he switched to guitar, devoting his energies and abilities to that instrument. By the time he was 15, he found himself playing in Johnny Otis’s rhythm and blues revue. He first recorded with Dale Hawkins in 1958, later working as a sideman with many rock acts, including his cousin Ronnie Hawkins’ group, where he mentored a youngster named Robbie Robertson. Ronnie Hawkins’ group would go on to receive notice as The Band.
His talent, tone, and technique were mythic among musicians. And all the while, he was nonchalant about his talents, often quoted as saying, “I’m only a guitar player.” Buchanan’s career got a shot in the arm in 1971, when he came to national prominence after PBS aired the television documentary, Introducing Roy Buchanan. The show is sometimes mistakenly referred to as The Best Unknown Guitarist in the World.
All the press and attention garnered Buchanan more gig opportunities, and a record contract with Polydor, and later, Atlantic. By the mid 1980’s, his star was fading. In 1981 Buchanan had said he would never again record unless he had complete freedom to record his way.
In 1985, Buchanan went into the Alligator Records studio to record, having been granted the recording freedom he had sought for so long. When a Guitar Plays the Blues, released in July, 1985, was a milestone for him. Again, his career experienced a resurgence.
This album is absolutely brilliant. The 12 tracks, all written by Buchanan, clock in at just over 43 minutes. Recorded and mixed by Justin Niebank, the album was mastered by Tom Coyne, and produced by Roy Buchanan, along with Dick Shurman and Bruce Iglauer.
Buchanan’s playing is just so far ahead of his contemporaries, it’s almost a crime. The violin strains of “When a Guitar Plays the Blues” are other-worldly. “Chicago Smokeshop” sounds like Boston meets a young Steve Vai, yet it still pumps out plenty of funk, not to mention the speedy fretwork. “Mrs. Pressure” is slow, deliciously pastoral blues, recalling some of the great work of Ronnie Earl. “Short Fuse” again features some smart fretwork, and will remind some of Danny Gatton, with it’s sonic profile, and superb picking. “Country Boy” is screaming, driving guitar, over a nice steady beat.
This is a stunning album. Sonicly, it is a revelation. On a technical level, Buchanan rivals even the best playing that Johnny Winter served up over the years. His work influenced the likes of Jeff Beck, Danny Gatton, and Gary Moore. For those that have not yet discovered the magic that is Roy Buchanan, seek out his work. That my friends, is a journey that will reap many rewarding hours of learning, and listening pleasure.