NASHVILLE, TN — Listening to Love & Life, the new album from Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen, is like taking an acid trip in a time machine. Day-glo guitars slither through stories about old bluesmen and coal miners. Tectonic plates of sound churn the past, present and future of great American music into a stylistic kaleidoscope. And a dizzy spray of vibrant slide six-string permeates the album’s performances, adding a fine sonic mist of unpredictable virtuosity to the mysteries in its 11 tunes, which ricochet between deep truths and bald-faced lies.
Drozdowski made the new album Love & Life in a tent down a dirt road in the woods on top of a mountain in the unincorporated hamlet of Pasquo, Tennessee. That’s just another example of this highly creative singer, songwriter, guitarist, bandleader and producer’s passion for thinking outside the box. And there are plenty more within the dynamic, evocative sixth album from Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen.
Love & Life will be released on the Dolly Sez Woof label on July 31. That same day Drozdowski, who is also an award-winning music journalist and educator, will publish the first in a series of e-books, Obsessions of a Music Geek, Vol. 1: Blues Guitar Giants.
Love & Life is evolutionary. For Drozdowski, the album celebrates the expansion of his internationally touring duo Scissormen — with stops at Bonnaroo and other major festivals under their belts — into a fiery, flexible trio also featuring bassist Sean Zywick and drummer Pete Pulkrabek. That core trio sound is made even bigger, with as many as seven of Drozdowski’s own guitar tracks layered on some cuts, while capturing his finest songwriting and studio performances. He’s also joined on the album by legendary soul singer Mighty Sam McClain and Grammy nominated organist Paul Brown. For great American music, it proves that traditional styles can be celebrated with authenticity while creating tunes that are contemporary, timeless and slammin’.
“I wanted every song on this album to tell a story and be deeply rooted in great American music,” Drozdowski relates. “I also wanted to apply more elaborate production techniques, like multi-tracking my guitars and treating them with multiple effects during and after recording, to create a broader, unpredictable sonic palette, and just plain get weird. That weird streak is what made the pillars of American music — Muddy Waters, Bill Monroe, Sam Phillips and others — original, authentic and evolutionary, and somewhere along the way the truth and beauty of honest weirdness got lost. I want to bring it back.”
Love & Life starts with “Beggin’ Jesus,” a riff-fueled yarn about temptation and the conflict between good and evil, with a wicked, sizzling, doubled slide guitar solo. A few songs later, “The River” unfolds as a ghost story. A swirling mist of guitars and Drozdowski’s soulful voice recreate the mystery and magic of the foggy, moonlit night along the banks of the Tallahatchie River in North Mississippi that inspired the song. It’s one of the album’s few tracks cut without overdubs, recorded live in one take.
Drozdowski pays tribute to two of his friends and mentors on the album. “Watermelon Kid” is an homage to the bluesman Watermelon Slim, and “R.L. Burnside (Sleight Return)” is a funky, psychedelic recollection of a night the juke joint blues patriarch came to visit – replete with a slinky groove and layers of backwards guitar. Drozdowski’s own family history as Pennsylvania coal miners fuels the grinding, visceral Mississippi hill country music inspired “Black Lung Fever,” citing an occupational affliction that claimed both of his immigrant grandfathers before he was born.
The romantic ode to the Bluff City “Let’s Go To Memphis” reflects the classic sound and spirit of Stax Records, with shimmering B-3 organ and four intricately woven guitar tracks. But the song’s star is the legendary soul singer Mighty Sam McClain, who first appeared on the R&B charts in 1966 and whose passionate command and emotional depth are practically unparalleled today. “Sam and me have been friends for more than 20 years,” says Drozdowski. “I’d hoped to someday write a song worthy of his voice, and now I’m thrilled and honored by his performance.”
“Our friendship has grown over the years to a very beautiful place in our lives,” McClain concurs. “When Ted asked me if I would do a song with him, Hell, I couldn’t wait. When he sent me ‘Let’s Go To Memphis,’ I liked the title right away, because it was so Ted. I’ve heard him talking about Memphis and Nashville for so long. So ‘Let’s Go to Memphis’ was a no brainer for me! I would have sung almost anything for a chance to do this with Ted. But ‘Let’s Go to Memphis’ is a great song, written by a great person.”
Fans of the stripped-down juke joint aesthetic that has governed the sound of Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen until now will dig “Can’t Be Satisfied,” a raw take on the Muddy Waters classic as a full-throttle duet for drums and diddley bow – in this case, an intensely electrified version of the home-made one-string instrument that gave Bo Diddley his name. There’s also a solo number, “Dreaming On the Road,” that features Drozdowski playing resonator guitar. But throughout the disc a multitude of effects-laden six-strings slip in and out of the mix like foxes in a henhouse, defining his own sonic terrain among musical innovators.
To Drozdowski, risk-taking is an essential part of being an artist. Since the 1980s his bands have always pushed toward new ground. As a primary force in the alternative-rock band Vision Thing, the textural music ensemble Bloodblister and the explosively guitar-intensive Devil Gods, his narrative songwriting and tireless sonic explorations won him a cult following.
That cult has grown considerably since he established Scissormen a decade ago, under the influence of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Jessie Mae Hemphill and other totems of Mississippi hill country blues. “R.L. in particular got me to play this music, which I initially resisted,” Drozdowski says. “But his encouragement helped me find my voice and my sound.
“After meeting and becoming friends with R.L., Junior and Jessie, who were making some of the most profound music I’d ever heard, yet living in obscurity and poverty, I devoted myself to bringing the music they and similar artists made to more people,” Drozdowski says. First, that was as a music journalist, and he received the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Journalism in 1998, in part as a result of that effort. Next, he became a visceral torchbearer with Scissormen, physically taking this deeply rooted music to a wider and more diverse audience with playful, high-energy performances built around his singing and incendiary slide guitar showmanship. Club crowds are as likely to find Drozdowski sitting in their laps, standing on tabletops and sliding with every object imaginable as they are to see him on stage. Another mentor, free jazz guitar granddaddy Sonny Sharrock, also had a major influence on Drozdowski’s slide playing.
Drozdowski has released five earlier recordings bearing the Scissormen name, including the 2012 collaboration with the award-winning music filmmaker Robert Mugge, BIG SHOES: Walking and Talking the Blues. The CD+DVD set was built around a Mugge documentary starring Drozdowski that premiered at the Denver Film Festival. He has also taken the band across the US and to Europe, playing up to 100 dates a year at everything from the major festivals Bonnaroo, Memphis in May and France’s Cognac Blues Passions to theaters to clubs to coffeehouses.
“Love & Life begins a new chapter for me, where I can connect all the dots of what excites me musically to realize my own vision of great American music as a vital, original and still evolving art form,” says Drozdowski. “But I couldn’t have begun to record it without help. I conceived of this album five years ago, but didn’t have the funds to go forward.” Enter Robert E. McClain, Jr., owner of the one-of-a-kind Omega Lab studio atop a mountain high above Nashville’s famed Loveless Café, and Whit Hubner, host of the Mando Blues Show, a program on Radio Free Nashville that’s recorded live at the tent — a ProTools based “green” studio with surround sound capability that draws less power than the average blow dryer.
“Rob and Whit, who are dear friends, invited me to make the album at Omega Lab,” say Drozdowski. But eventually costs intruded on the album’s progress, so Drozdowski turned to his fans, launching a successful Indiegogo campaign that raised nearly $14,000. “Knowing that more than 160 people from nine countries had my back when I needed them fills me with gratitude and makes me feel like I’m on the right path,” Drozdowski says. “And I intend to keep following it, wherever it takes me.”