Daddy B. Nice’s CD Reviews March 2021

March 1, 2021

Crystal Thomas: Now Dig This! (Dialtone)

Four Stars **** Distinguished effort. Should please old fans and gain new.

Now Dig This by Crystal Thomas marks a first in my years chronicling southern soul music. Imagine….You go to the post office to check your box and instead of picking up a CD jewel case in a thin vanilla wrapper, you find a post-office key to a much bigger box with a much larger, strange-shaped package. Still puzzled, you take it home, only to discover it’s a 33 rpm vinyl record with cover art that looks like the blues records from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Then comes the big surprise. The recording artist on the cover is a contemporary southern soul star: Crystal Thomas!

As luck would have it, I had bought a used, multi-component, stereo system with a turntable a few years ago with the intention of listening to all the great albums from my youth packed away in boxes in my closets. “Vinyl’s coming back,” friends told me. To my chagrin, I soon discovered that the landmark vinyl albums I thought I possessed were lost, given away to friends or simply abandoned in various moves around the country and globe. What remained were inferior collections I’d picked up in “Just Arrived” bins of used record stores.

So the turntable was dust-covered (I even had trouble remembering how to unhook the needle), but when I did figure it out, the experience of
watching the needle rise from its base and move to the exact point above the spinning record, stop, and drop down into the vinyl groove was accompanied by pure exhilaration. Then the music started, and Crystal started singing the blues, and it was bliss.

Crystal Thomas is impressive throughout this all-blues set, her gift and technique on lavish display. She doesn’t dominate, but stays scripted, self-contained, part of a group effort, and yet my estimation of Crystal Thomas soared. She is an incredible blues singer. And it wasn’t lost on me that just after writing a new profile of Nellie “Tiger” Travis (the “top-rated female vocalist in contemporary southern soul”) and her two-track career as blues singer and southern soul star, Crystal Thomas should crop up as a potential, dual-career-path, heir apparent.

The excitement and novelty of the album brought a rush of thoughts, among them the divide between blues and southern soul, which has only grown wider since the days of Little Milton and Chick Willis, and the divide between white and black listeners, and between white and black artists, and how in the South it’s taken for granted that southern soul is an extension of the blues, but not in the North or in the cities of the South like Austin, Texas, where this album was recorded.

From the “white blues” perspective, blues is all about technique. It’s not what’s being played; it’s how it’s being played. Blues or southern soul from the black perspective is about inspiration. It’s about the song and the newness of the sound. For traditionalists, aka blues purists, new music is not the point. It’s the same old chords from one small phase of the history of the blues played over and over and over again like a religion—a liturgy.

As a former classically-trained bassist, I was awed by the bass performance on “Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me?”. The bass (Chuck Rainey) is almost the “lead” throughout the song. Think of that live, bass-driven rhythm section behind O.B. Buchana from Ecko Records. You think his career wouldn’t sky-rocket with a band such as this? And although I’m not well-versed enough in the traditional blues market to make judgments on the musicians or even the compositions on Now Dig This, I’m not too dumb to realize Lucky Peterson’s organ solo on “The Blues Ain’t Nothing But Some Pain” is something to die for.

But does this record’s appearance mean blues and southern soul really could merge—and from the blues side? The one thing both camps would agree upon is that they are two distinct audiences. Still, Now Dig This shows how the traditional blues guys are watching southern soul out of the corners of their eyes even as they deny its existence.

For example, the liner notes call this Crystal Thomas’s debut album. Technically, since its vinyl, that may be true, but it also effectively omits Thomas’s two already published southern soul (and very bluesy) albums. But for the blues purist to even acknowledge Thomas’s career in southern soul would be to accept the profane, even though the traditional blues they’re playing on Now Dig This was considered “profane” when it first came out.

In the South it’s different. When black southerners say “blues,” they may be talking about blues from the past, but more likely they’re talking about southern soul music: something they heard on the radio, something they danced to in the club—somebody like Pokey Bear—all of which they consider today’s blues.

Twenty-five to fifty years from now, “traditional-blues” guys like those behind this NOW DIG THIS! will be riffing on Sir Charles Jones and Pokey Bear the way these musicians are riffing on Janis Joplin’s “One Good Man,” Albert King’s “Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me” and Ashford and Simpson’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” and they will be doing it with the same reverence and love.

But make no mistake. There is more “blues” and “getting-stoned-ness” in a spoonful of Daddy B. Nice’s #1 “Breaking” southern soul single for March 2021—hiphoppers Joe Nice’s and Sean Dolby’s cover of Lynn White’s “Take Your Time,”– than in Crystal and her illustrious backing band’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” simply because the latter is so unconsciously and damnably respectful—or maybe “respectable”.

On the other hand, if this is the “Living Blues” purists saying, “This is what southern soul—and one of southern soul’s finest singers—sounds like with a “money” band backing her, I say, “Bring it on.” I say to both sides—“Let’s merge, let’s unite, let’s collaborate.” Who can forget what Tre’ Williams accomplished backed by The Revelations on “I Don’t Want To Know”?

Which brings up another interesting question. Are southern soul artists and fans even interested in the blues anymore? We’ve come a long way from Little Milton. You don’t hear as much blues along with the southern soul anymore. And southern soul’s drift towards hiphop and de-emphasis of gospel and blues is a disconcerting trend.

Which brings us to the final irony regarding this album extolling Crystal Thomas blues expertise. Marketing. Even with all the expensive talent and exquisite packaging behind NOW DIG THIS, the “real world” marketing that southern soul artists utilize daily is evidently unknown or unnecessary in the more “collegiate world” of traditional blues, meaning no YouTube. No reaching out to the audience. Too crass? It speaks to the gulf that still and maybe forever divides traditional blues as celebrated by Caucasions and the blues and southern soul as celebrated by African-Americans.

On a side note, this album was also released in a digital version on the P-Vine label in 2019 under the title It’s The Blues Funk!, a fact I only discovered by searching without any success for YouTube videos of the album’s songs for my reader’s edification. Here’s the only one I could find:

Listen to Crystal Thomas singing “The Blues Ain’t Nothing But Some Pain” on YouTube.

—Daddy B. Nice

Buy Crystal Thomas’ new NOW DIG THIS vinyl album at Antone’s Record Shop.

Buy Crystal Thomas’ new NOW DIG THIS! vinyl album at Discogs.

 



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