New Blues Release Review: Billy Flynn’s Lonesome Highway

Wow! Long time no write. I need to make up for lost time, so let me start by reviewing a fairly new release called Lonesome HIghway by Billy Flynn, released on Delmark Records.

Billy Flynn is a Chicago blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter. He got his start at the young age of 14, after he was seen playing the guitar by Chicago blues legend Jimmy Dawkins. Dawkins befriended and mentored the young Flynn, and the latter joined Dawkin's band in the second half of the ‘70s. Since then, Flynn has gone on to become a guitarist’s guitarist, performing with countless blues artists over the years including Billy Boy Arnold, Big Bill Morganfield, Mad Dog Lester Davenport, and more. In fact, Flynn played guitar on Beyoncé Knowles’ cover of the Etta James classic, “At Last”, which not only won a Grammy award but also was performed at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in 2009. Harp legend Kim Wilson probably says it best in the CD’s liner notes: “Billy Flynn is one of the greatest blues guitarists alive and one of the greatest to ever live.”

To say that I was eagerly anticipating this release since it was announced by Delmark Records is an understatement. I have been a huge fan of Flynn’s session work with other artists, both in the studio and live. In fact, I first became aware of Flynn’s impressive work when I saw him perform with Billy Boy Arnold at the Chicago Blues Festival some years back. He provides both solid rhythm guitar and subtle yet effective lead guitar work in such settings. That being said, I wondered how Flynn would fare in a solo recording. Often, session musicians who are as versatile as Flynn might struggle to establish a unique identity of their own on their solo recordings. If you could play virtually any style of music, which one would you focus on with on your own album?  Or would you include a little bit of everything, at the risk of seeming like a jack of all trades but a master of none? Though Flynn has previously released independent solo recordings, the small bits that I had heard of them over the years were solid yet not particularly distinctive. Also, noticing the length of the album, I wondered if there would be any filler included among the album’s 17 tracks. 

Luckily, my concerns were all for naught. Flynn takes full command and shines on every single track on the CD, whether he is driving the song with his rhythm guitar work, moanin’ and groanin’ with the best of ‘em on slide guitar, or delivering stinging, slashing lead guitar lines. Though I would not categorize him as a flashy, “shred-tastic” guitarist, he can blow the house down with his understated yet deliciously satisfying guitar work. His vocals are not particularly distinctive, mind you, but he still can convey a lot of emotion with his singing. The album’s stock-in-trade is traditional Chicago blues, but true to his versatile abilities, Flynn also incorporates elements of old school rock ’n’ roll (a la the late great Chuck Berry) on the opener “Good Navigator”, funk/R&B on “The Lucky Kind” and “I Feel ‘Um”, and even ‘60s surf/instrumental music on the album’s lone cover, “The ‘In’ Crowd”. Similarly, his guitar playing evokes Albert King on “Sufferin’ With The Blues”, B.B. King on “Christmas Blues”, Earl Hooker on "Jackson Street", and Otis Rush on “The Lucky Kind”, among others, but always with his own unique twist or stamp. Although the album indeed has 17 tracks, after listening to it once through, I wanted more and started wondering when Flynn is going to make another great record like this one. Thankfully, he has given us quite a lot of great blues on this disc to tide us over until he (hopefully) makes another!

Highlights on this record for me include “The Lucky Kind”, which is an quasi-Latin-influenced, cowbell-driven blues reminiscent of Otis Rush’s classic ‘50s recordings for Cobra Records; “You Are My Lover”, which marries an uptempo classic Chicago blues sound with double-tracked vocals that are interestingly evocative of the Beach Boys; “I Feel ‘Um”, a moody minor-key funk-infused ballad that I am sure Isaac Hayes and Grover Washington Jr. would have been proud of; “Blues Express”, an instrumental that was the theme song for one of Flynn’s bands of the same name and has a horn section that captures the spirit of '60s cop show theme music; and “Sufferin’ With The Blues”, a slow blues that features Flynn channeling the spirit of the aforementioned Albert King. Really, all of the songs can be considered gems in their own ways — I honestly cannot think of any track on this CD that I did not enjoy!

In addition to his own guitar and voice, Flynn also provided some harmonica and percussion work throughout the CD. He is joined by vocalist and friend Deitra Farr on “Good Navigator” and “Hold On”. The rest of the band provides supple accompaniment, including Roosevelt Purifoy on keyboards, E.G. McDaniel on bass, Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums, Doug Corcoran on trumpet, Christopher Neal on tenor sax, and Dave Katzman, who provides rhythm guitar on “The Lucky Kind”. 

Though it is still a bit early to tell, Flynn’s Lonesome Highway is definitely a contender for the honour of Señor Blues Album of the Year for 2017. I recommend it highly and wholeheartedly. Thank you, Mr. Flynn, for the wonderful music!

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